FILM: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
"Hannibal" raises issue of film violence
, February 24, 2001
The decision of Australia's Office of Film Classification to give the grotesquely violent film, Hannibal, an MA rating - meaning that even those aged 15 can see it if accompanied by an adult - raises again the issue of how film violence ultimately is reflected in crime.
Belatedly, the Attorney-General, Darryl Williams, himself a civil libertarian, has decided to have the rating reviewed - although by the time he acted, it was already in theatres around the country.
Hannibal is a sequel to the horror movie, Silence of the Lambs, and describes how the psychotic mass murderer, Dr Hannibal Lecter, who ingeniously escaped at the end of Silence of the Lambs, is tracked down to Tuscany in Italy, where he is living incognito as a teacher and bon vivant.
Unlike the earlier film where he is portrayed as the personification of evil, in Hannibal, Lecter is portrayed as a sensitive and cultured man of letters, living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world - but with an eccentric addiction to human flesh. On the other hand, his pursuers, being vicious and venal, get their just desserts.
What has attracted most media attention is the sickening final scene in which Lecter serves up for dinner the brain of one of his living victims. One reviewer, who nonetheless recommended the film, said:
"I must warn all of you that the final scene of this movie is so utterly shocking and disturbing, that many of us were nauseated. I have never seen anything this gruesome in recent memory."
There can be no doubt that the media controversy over the film has been responsible for its massive box office success, where it reportedly earned over $80 million in its first week for its maker, MGM.
As in so many other things, the Film Classification Office's decision to permit Hannibal to be seen in Australia follows a similar classification in the United States.
What the classification ignores is the accumulated evidence of the link between ultra-violence in films, on TV and in books, and crime. This has been documented by the American media commentator, Michael Medved, in the United States, and by the world-renowned US criminologist, Robert Ressler, who found that the emergence of serial killers - sadists who repeatedly kill for pleasure - is closely linked with the appearance of sadistic pornography.
A particularly striking example of this in Australia was the mass murder perpetrated by Wade Frankum in Strathfield, Sydney, about nine years ago. Frankum stabbed a 15 year old girl, then shot seven people at random before killing himself. His final words were a line taken from a well-thumbed book police discovered on his bedside table, American Psycho, a novel describing, in nauseating detail, graphic horror.
Robert Ressler, asked to comment on American Psycho, described it as "unbelievably violent", and without any redeeming features. He added, "A book like that serves no purpose except to incite abnormal thinking and abnormal tastes in human beings."
In the light of a spate of serial murders linked to books and films, even some libertarians have had second thoughts. Some years ago, Dr. Benjamin Spock said, "For decades, I was an uncompromising civil libertarian and scorned the hypocrisy involved in the enformcement of obscenity laws.
"But recent trrends in movies, literature and art toward what I think of as shock obscenity, and the courts' acceptance of it, have made me change my position ... particularly in view of other brutalising trends."
Needless to say, the Film Classification Office brushed off criticism of its decision regarding Hannibal.Absurd proposition
One of America's leading social commentators, Irving Kristol, observed, "If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play, or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial and that, consequently, all education is morally irrelevant" - clearly an absurd proposition.
We can anticipate that somewhere, the release of Hannibal will be followed by copy-cat killings, perpetrated by some psychiatrically-disturbed individual who has seen the film, leaving tormented relatives and broken families in his wake.
Once this limit of depravity has been breached, other films will now seek to go a step further, and so on.
But those responsible for Hannibal's production will pocket their gains, and the Office of Film Classification will no doubt continue to deny what is now perfectly obvious to anyone who has eyes to see, and a mind to think.