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Some movies just not for the squeamish

“127 Hours” may be suffering from the “Not For The Squeamish” syndrome, which afflicts certain motion pictures that contain a scene or scenes guaranteed to at least make you squirm.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

“127 Hours” has earned glowing reviews as well as six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for star James Franco. The film’s artistic merit has stirred little debate, but “127 Hours” may be suffering from the “Not For The Squeamish” syndrome, which afflicts certain motion pictures that contain scenes guaranteed to at least make you squirm.

The Danny Boyle-directed drama is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who falls into a crevice while on a hike, has his arm pinned by a large rock and eventually has to cut it off in order to survive.

The film has been in release for 15 weeks and grossed just over $16 million. By contrast, the poorly reviewed Adam Sandler comedy “Just Go With It” earned $30.5 million in its opening weekend. No limbs are cut off in the Sandler film, but it would seem that reviewers would gnaw one of their own off just to escape the movie.

It’s probably not fair to compare a low-budget, character-driven drama set in the outdoors with a high-concept mainstream comedy. Nor would it be accurate to conclude that one unpleasant scene is the sole reason mass audiences didn’t stampede to see “127 Hours.”

Yet that one scene might have kept Moira Macdonald from seeing it — and she’s a pro. Macdonald is a film critic for the Seattle Times and admitted, “Quite frankly, I didn’t want to see it.”

“It was hard to watch, I confess,” she continued. “I was looking down at my lap during that scene. There were early reports of people fainting when the film first came out.

“But it’s such a wonderful movie and it’s a 90-second moment in a movie that is otherwise a joy to watch. I’ve been trying to encourage people to see it, and if they have to look at their laps for 90 seconds, then that’s what they should do.”

Yet the possibility of sitting through a film with disturbing subject matter is sure to keep at least some movie buffs away.

Sally Nemeth of Los Angeles refused to see “Amores Perros,” by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. “Dogfights. Enough said,” she explained.

Tony Limone of Galloway, N.J., didn't stay away, but finds that disturbing scenes from two recent films stayed with him. “In ‘The Lovely Bones,’ the murder of a child and the devastation it leaves for the parents, sister and of course the victim, made me bawl my eyes out,” he said. “And ‘Marley and Me’ was so similar to my own experience of my buddy of 16 years that it brought back that memory. My son still won’t talk about that dog.”

Other films that have created high levels of unease include “United 93,” about the ill-fated Sept. 11 flight; “Sophie’s Choice,” in which Meryl Streep’s character has to decide which child to give up to the Nazis; “Scarface,” with its bloody chainsaw scene; and a host of horror films, including the “Saw” series.

Sometimes the squirm-inducing moment in question doesn’t receive the kind of notoriety that Franco’s arm-cutting has earned. Simple word of mouth traveling from fan to fan can create anxiety over a scene that ordinarily wouldn’t be considered tough to watch.

“I do remember deciding not to see ‘G.I. Jane’ after my friend told me about a fight scene,” recalled Robyn Bouvard, a movie-goer from St. Petersburg, Fla., who said that usually she’ll see just about anything.

“Demi Moore's character is forced to have a fist fight with one of the male Marines if she wants to be accepted as a Marine. Apparently she gets beaten pretty brutally and it's a long fight. Of course, she loses. I have seen plenty of violent scenes against women in movies before, so I'm not really sure why this turned me off so much.”

Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist who is a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware and the author of the book “Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior,” said there are those who are classified as “high-sensation seekers” who look to horror movies or films with strong sexual content to provide arousal. “Then there are low-sensation seekers who avoid such stimulation.”

What determines either a high- or low-sensation seeker, Zuckerman said, can involve biological and genetic factors. “Experience can also play a role,” he said. “People who have been exposed to overstimulating experiences, traumatic or unpleasant, at least for a time, are less likely to seek out stimuli associated with that traumatic experience. If you’ve been through a war, you might not be particularly attracted to war movies.”

Read transcript of Courtney Hazlett's Oscar chat

When a movie resonates, often the memories from it linger. That’s one reason why a lot of people avoid films with jarring scenes, said Jeff Greenberg, a professor of social psychology at the University of Arizona.

“Vivid visual images can be very memorable,” he said, “and many people don’t want such images permanently added to their recollections. I felt that way after watching the video ‘Faces of Death’ (the 1978 cult film that depicts various scenes of death and violent acts).”

Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times is another film critic whose job description demands that she sometimes sit through brutal moments. Yet she said she actually watched “Amores Perros” a second time recently while preparing to see Inarritu’s latest film, “Biutiful.”

“I would take Franco’s arm loss in a heartbeat over the gruesome dog fights of that film,” she said.

“But I have to say, the most unsettling and unwatchable of recent memory for me was the disappointing ‘Antichrist,’ from director Lars von Trier. He’s always been as tough on bodies as on souls, but in intellectually challenging ways. But the incredible violence of the fights between husband and wife, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, that included the nailing of a leg to a floor, topped by Gainsbourg’s self-circumcision, was literally beyond redemption for me.”

Most of the time, though, a film — if it is good otherwise — will endure, even if some audience members strain to do the same during distressful patches.

“In most cases,” said Macdonald, “I do find that it’s worth trying to overcome the initial feeling of not wanting to see a film.”

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