Talking Movies

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

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