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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October 27, 2009

Interview with Kenneth Branagh

I traveled to Belfast in late 2007 to interview Kenneth Branagh for InDublin about his mainstream directorial comeback Sleuth which was about to hit cinemas. Here then is the full transcript of Kenneth Branagh on Sleuth, Pinter, Caine and more…

Is it fair to say that the words ‘Screenplay by Harold Pinter’ were the main attraction of Sleuth?
It is absolutely fair to say that. I mean, it really arrested me. The call came through and they said ‘a new version of’ which is a better way of saying ‘remake’ cos I thought ‘oh dear no’, I know that original film very well and I’d seen the play not long before but then they said ‘Jude Law is producing it, Michael Caine is in it but the screenplay is by Harold Pinter’ and I’d always, always wanted to work with him. I couldn’t believe really that I hadn’t been in a Pinter play. I did my audition speeches for drama schools, the modern ones anyway, from Pinter plays, and, I don’t know, I’ve seen so many of the plays that somehow I felt I ought to have been. And also you know he’s such a modern classic, done so regularly, and I having spent some you know a lot of time, ahem, working with dead authors, I was very excited about the idea perhaps as I’d been led to believe he would be involved, that he had been very heavily involved with the development process and worked with Jude Law as producer on a number of drafts of the screenplay, that he would be in the room; and I knew that he was a very good actor and a very good director himself, it just seemed – that’s how it was incredibly attractive.
Your shooting style on Sleuth seems different. Your films have been characterised by a very mobile camera, following the actors around, creating a lot of energy on screen, whereas this film has a lot of fixed camera set-ups. Was that a response to Pinter’s style? Creating an apparent surface calm to focus people on the subtext which crackles?
Yeah, it was trying to find the style. It was much influenced by films that I like a lot, French cinema actually, recently seen films that I’ve liked a lot like Cache (Hidden), Thirteen, Lemming, those kinds of movies where the camera doesn’t move much, where the action unfolds in long takes, where the frame is very carefully constructed, so one of the things that I enjoyed doing was, for instance, when the two men come into the house for the first time and in this sort of little dance of conversational niceties that precedes the sort of meat of it, you get 10 minutes of this sort of dance and then Michael Caine sits down into what is the first close-up to say ‘I understand you’re fucking my wife’. That in the second shot, where we bring them into the house, that we’re looking at the level of a drinks table, we’re looking thru two glasses –   one is already poured with a whiskey: Caine’s character hasn’t asked Jude whether he wants one yet, he hasn’t asked him what it is, and he hasn’t chosen, and yet the idea of providing the provocation with the way the frame is set, suggesting to the audience from very early on that everything could mean something; the colour of the whiskey, the placement of the glass, the fact that he’s walking towards us the glass of a green bottle, that we don’t see their heads then, that their body language might be just as key – the way they hold the glass, all of that. I enjoyed trying to find a spare, and yet loaded, style cos that’s what I felt about his dialogue.


I think, because they give the award so late in a career, that this is the first time a Nobel Laureate has worked on a film since Bernard Shaw’s screenplay for Pygmalion. Was he an intimidating presence? Did he stand behind your shoulder muttering ‘I wrote three dots, he’s only giving me two’?
No, he wasn’t. I mean there was a bit of kerfufflage before we started that, where – I think maybe it was to do with Harold’s 75  th birthday, maybe that was it, a number of extremely important celebrations of his work, one of which involved a documentary for Channel 4 in which I think he rather bridled against the kind of popular myth of the orchestration of the pauses in his work, his ultra-precision and deliberation and insistence upon absolute adherence to his pre-planned structure, but I found him to be a very JOLLY collaborator, I found him I found him to be somebody who as he said explicitly on our first meeting ‘I like being part of a team’ and that seemed to be a typical remark of a writer, but also in his case, a man of the theatre – someone who started out as an actor and also a very fine director. So he’s very much in tune with the creative process. He, and Michael Caine, their ages seemed to drop once in the rehearsal room. They had that enthusiasm, I’ve seen it in other people, Robert Altman’s another example of somebody who   –  I worked with him when he was in his late 70s, when I saw him by the camera he seemed to be – 25, and so it was with these two. So Harold did not carry the aura of his…beatification.

So he was happy to let you be the one in charge of interpreting his ambiguities?
He left a lot of space. We did ask questions and he was happy to answer them, where he felt it was pertinent to do so. Sometimes. But, to give you an example of where, as it were the Pinter question mark, that I think is a very positive part of this entertainment, was there. I remember in rehearsals saying to him, ‘So, uh, Harold can I ask, it may seem banal, when Maggie rings up at the end of the movie, [during the very intense scene between the two men], she calls twice, I mean what is she saying?’ and he said ‘Well, who says it’s Maggie?’ ‘What? But I mean he’s talking to her!’ ‘We hear him talking. He appears to be talking to someone. It may appear to be Maggie. But he could easily have contrived for the call to have occurred. There may be no-one there. I don’t know is the answer. There It Is…’ I understood actually that once he said that actually, once we worried less about offering Jude some literal off-screen responses or scripted piece for Maggie it began to be quite interesting – about the way, particularly about the way in which in that third act, we were unsure as to whether Michael’s character was providing a provocative but phony suggestion that he was gay and wished to share his life with Milo, and whether Milo was responding in kind, appearing to indulge it, be surprised by it, and then sort of meet it halfway but in fact was involved in an even more super-subtle attempt to humiliate the other so for me, when he did choose to speak to add further ambiguity it was always interesting.

Michael Caine has said that he played his character as suffering from morbid jealousy. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah. We had to have, what you might call a sort of playing centre, some basic position that on the surface of it might simply be a jealous or revengeful husband. But when I discovered this condition, and numerous and specific examples of what in this very grotesque, intensified version of jealously were clearly true, .i.e. the specific notion that this condition would encourage someone to pursue the ultimate revenge, of trying to have an affair with the lover of the adulterous partner, a tremendously sort of twisted and destructive act, and sort of very calculating and unbalanced and unsettling, at least sort of rather surprising and unusual. It seemed to release Michael, it seemed to just – there was plenty to read about, medical experts to support, ‘oh no, this is’ – if you want to put it crudely it’s jealousy really at the max. It seemed to allow all sorts of things to happen, .i.e. for him to be ABSOLUTELY cool, calm and collected – because its manifestations often involved the ability to wear masks, you know sort of social and public masks that were incredibly convincing. So it allowed him to be even more naturalistic, even more throwaway, even more kind and gentle where he was supposed to be, even funnier where he was supposed to be, knowing that he could reach with an intensity that he gives full value to at the end of that first act where he says ‘I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with a hairdresser. A hairdresser that’s fucking my wife. My wife is mine – She Belongs To Me’, and he seems to then reveal that morbidly jealous side which practically shows him as a kind of caveman, and so that, it seemed to open us access to both superficial ways of playing things and also a sort of central feeling of an atavistic rather primitive individual.

It also moves it away from Olivier’s dangerous eccentric, that this film is not a playful gun game of plot twists it’s a full on Comedy of Menace. I mean I almost cheered when you started with a Pinter pause at the start when they first meet, because it indicates this is the real deal, this is full on Pinter – two men battling for control.
I remember the first time we previewed it and we got a laugh on that first moment of just, and it was a nervous laugh, at the end of it – is there a mistake? Did something just happen? It almost felt live. ‘I’m Milo Tindle’ long pause ‘Oh yes’. But much longer than that.

Michael Caine is having something of a late career resurgence with Children of Men, The Prestige, Batman Begins and this. Is he enjoying acting more than ever now?
He talks about a period about 10 years ago where he really said he was going to give up. He was going to give up and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore, he didn’t feel the parts were interesting enough. He was at, as it were he didn’t get the girl anymore so that part of him that as the leading man movie-star hadn’t quite morphed into the really fascinating career parts quite yet. Even though to some extent he’s always had a character career as well as his unusual but brilliant leading man career. So, he said for about two to three years, as he puts it, he ‘fucked about in the restaurant trade’. And then, I think it was Bob Rafelson with a picture with Nicholson was singular event- Days of Wine and Roses? Can’t quite remember, must be more than 10 years ago. Anyway he said that was something of a –   he enjoyed it so much he got back in the swing of it and I think he now only does exactly that which he fancies and he really did fancy this. And he had to work very hard for this, long takes, lots of dialogue to remember, great big leading man role and I think he seemed to be enjoying it hugely. And this was particularly one where his particular brand of experience means for particular moments –   and one that I would cite at the end of the first act where he fires the gun and looks at where Jude Law’s character is and we hold a close-up for, I know it to be literally 24 seconds, in profile – just him watching where he’s fired the gun which I think is a wonderful movie moment, its rather like the one you were alluding to at the beginning, it takes a long time – there’s no music – and it’s just Michael Caine reacting and I think it’s a riveting moment and very much sort of an example in a very, very subtle way of how a lifetime of experience can be channelled into something that is a piece of fine brushwork, that is wonderfully apt for that point in the picture.

To talk about your own acting career, the critics were ridiculously hostile to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I adored I thought it was a wonderful 30s musical interpretation of the piece. But it was slated and having killed off the directing career they pointed to the performances in Conspiracy and Shackleton and Rabbit-Proof Fence and said ‘See what we made him go do instead? Good for us critics!’ Do you think that they’re wrong, that it is possible to build up a good body of work as a director AND as an actor in other people’s films?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s impossible to make prescriptive rules to cover what is quite sort of an unusual career-path, not many people get a chance to do it or perhaps even choose to pursue it when the opportunities come up. To be honest I don’t fully understand  – I would have said that my experience of the moments in one’s career where one’s REALLY been dumped on across the board tend to be the ones that do turn around. So Frankenstein, it was as vitriolic but perhaps greater in volume because it was a bigger picture, the reaction to that – and yet since it started appearing on television or DVD or video I’ve never seen a bad review for it, I’ve only seen very, very positive things, certainly is the case with the Hamlet DVD that’s just come out. Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m hoping that will find its place at some point, I think it hasn’t quite had that sort of reassessment but I supposed I don’t understand it – people say to me occasionally ‘It’s about time you understood, don’t be too clever for your own good’ or something and I really don’t understand what that means – do they want me to be stupider, than your own good? Or, what I believe now, I absolutely of course understand with some work, everyone of course is entitled to their opinion and it may be very particular and it may not be very positive about a film, but I think it’s manifestly untrue to suggest in the cleverness argument that one is, the suggestion that one infers is that that kind of work – with its so called ‘cleverness’ – is an attempt to condescend or patronise or to advertise what somehow I am suggesting subtly is a superior intelligence, I would say that is manifestly untrue and in fact is the opposite in the sense that it is ABSOLUTELY assuming intelligence, pre-eminent intelligence, not an intelligence which requires some sort of academic track record, but simply intelligence, imagination, invention, curiosity, receptivity. Do I assume all of those things? Yes. Beyond that people like the film – they may or may not. But somehow the judgement that that kind of condescension might be at work, I simply disagree with it.
When can we expect to see The Magic Flute and As You Like It?
Magic Flute will be here in January, and will travel around, and As You Like It will be here also and doing the kind of – the truth is with both those pictures – not actually in both cases all the time but they’re tending to do, As You Like It in particular, two or three nights at an art-house cinema. Magic Flute will certainly open here in January, Belfast and Dublin, and play in various places for at least a week and I hope beyond that. The release for Magic Flute actually is pleasingly and surprisingly wide, I’ve been delighted to find out. [] Yeah, and I do recommend that they see it in a cinema because the sound mix is really great, usually these pictures being the specialist tings they are they end up being in rather good cinemas that really maximise the amount of trouble we took to try and, particularly in the case of Magic Flute, get a sort of real experience not just only of the music but the soundtrack and effects within the movie and that in itself is an unusual thing with an opera, you’ll not hear it very often in that way. Some friends I showed it to last week were commenting on what an unusual and pleasing things that was. So I hope it has a good long life in the cinema.

Just as a sort of parting shot question, do you have any plans to re-release Henry V in 2015 for the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt?
Well what an interesting idea. I had been hoping to try and twist somebody’s eyes about, twist somebody’s arm rather, about 2009 for just the 20th anniversary of when it was released here but you’ve now put another idea in my head so thank you for that. You’re welcome, thanks. [] Thanks ever so much, appreciate it

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