The lights go down. A low, rumbling bass slightly shakes the seats as the occupants draw in a tight, anticipatory breath. The first thing to break the tension is a thin beam of light across the center of the screen. It is accompanied by a low, rat-at-tat rhythm that could be rain on a tin roof- if it weren't for the high-pitched shriek in the background.

Is that yelling? Shouting? The shriek morphs into a scream of mechanical menace. It's a bomb, and it's followed by an explosion linked to the picture exploding into life. The audience sees all-out war. Guts are flying, blood is streaming, and viewers are shielding their eyes or lapping it up. Perhaps most important is that moviegoers are spending money to terrify and depress themselves.

For years violence was as much a way to sell movie tickets as sex. A violent picture wasn't about the art; it was about the human appeal of seeing blood. Replace the Roman coliseum with "Rambo." It's more humane, and you get a closer seat to all the gore.

Of course, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Take "The Godfather," "Scarface," and "Jaws." All of them are timeless classics, and all of them are violent. But in many of these classics it's more about what you don't see than what you do. The story leads to the violence, not the other way around. A sweeping shot of Sonny Corleone falling out of his car at the tollbooth, his car door riddled with bullets, was worth more than a close-up of his chest gushing blood.

But the trend is changing. The violence is framing the story. Take "No Country for Old Men" where the bloody murder spree drives the plot. Get close for the gore, make people squirm, and give them a beautiful intimacy with death. Gore is no longer a way to just sell tickets; it's a way to achieve artistic meaning and poignancy.

Take a look at this year's academy awards race: "American Gangster," "No Country For Old Men," "Sweeny Todd," and "There Will Be Blood," are just a few of the bloody frontrunners. In many of these films, especially the latter three, the violence propels the action. Last year, it was "The Departed" and the previous year "Crash." All of these movies are harsh, and some of them are downright blood baths.

That isn't to say they aren't actually good, but the greatest amount of care and consideration now appears to be going into pictures where the main character gets his insides spilled out. Or, at the very least, these are the films drawing the most attention. To say the Academy Awards is the end-all and be-all in well-made films would be an overstatement at the least, but it is a pretty good gauge of who's the hot girl at the dance.

Why are filmmakers and moviegoers seeking out violence? The obvious answer is war. Our country is at war so we must be hungry for some good gut-wrenching drama because that is what we relate to. Well, maybe. But during WWII Americans were hungry for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps looking for an escape?

Maybe it's because this war hasn't really been tough on the majority of Middle Americans (taking nothing away from the lives it has ruined, but I wonder how keen war widows are to run out and see "There Will Be Blood"). In contrast, WWII and the draft left the country heaving. Maybe it is because that was a war backed by moral righteousness, whereas this one is backed by fear and politics. At any rate, our grandparents liked their musicals campy and uplifting, and we like ours with Captain Jack Sparrow slitting throats and eating people.

Maybe it has nothing to do with war at all. Moviegoers need for violence could fall upon the age of information. We're desensitized. We have to go further and further to reach our basic human emotions of outrage and despair. Purging those emotions, after all, is what drama is all about. It requires more bloodshed now than ever before.

Perhaps, however, drama is just easier to make than lighter subjects. When looking at the history of the Academy Awards, it can be argued that more often they give the Oscar to the "Ben-Hurs" instead of the "Annie Halls." Comedies occasionally get the gold statue. In the past 10 years, "Best Picture" winners were "Titanic," "Shakespeare In Love," "American Beauty," "Gladiator," "A Beautiful Mind," "Chicago," "The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of The King," "Million Dollar Baby," "Crash," and "The Departed."

However, in 2003 "Lost in Translation" was heavily nominated but came up short to "Lord of the Rings" and "Mystic River" in nearly all categories. Last year "Little Miss Sunshine," arguably the best picture of the last 10 years, was all but forgotten in the winner's circle. Make a person think by shooting the main character in the head, that's easy. Make a person think by making them laugh, that's the real trick. More and more, "Annie Halls" are losing to "Annie Get Your Guns."

Don't believe that drama is easier to do and garners more praise while comedians let it all hang out and get left behind. Tell me why Halle Berry has an Oscar while Jim Carrey has 10 Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. This is one place where the Golden Globes gets it right: separate the two because comedians just can't compete - or rather, they aren't given a fair shot.

Maybe this year we shouldn't be putting such a heavy emphasis on midwest murder sprees and homicidal barbers with a song in their heart, but rather on the lost art of laughter. Keep an eye on "Juno," a true-to-life comedy strengthened by its writing and performances. You may love it, but don't expect it to win big at any of the big press conferences - I mean, award shows. It may win your heart, but if it doesn't end in disaster then it doesn't end in Oscar gold.

Reference - The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences database

Story by James Fagan contributing writer