15 June 2008

Some thoughts about movie violence

Some time ago, I posted something about the extremes to which certain kinds of sadistic violence are now being taken in some horror movies, in response to which Gracchi at Westminster Wisdom commented that violence can be essential to the purpose of a movie. I thought it might be worth taking the debate a little further, and the following exchange with Gracchi ensued.

Fabian: The problem I have with films such as Michael Haneke's (e.g. Funny Games) is not exactly violence in the usual sense of that word, but a kind of aggression by the author against the audience. I think you see something similar in much contemporary art and theatre - a desire to be in-yer-face, and to challenge the audience not to be offended, but without anything else very interesting being generated in the mind of the viewer. I found the following comment from MattM on your post interesting.

“I think that the way in which violence is portrayed is the key issue (for me at least). I have no problem with honest depictions: brutal, ugly, painful, etc. but find glamorised violence (as in most mainstream action movies) slightly disturbing - no scene with people being injured or killed should seem "cool". Violence hurts. Watching violence should hurt as well.”

In some ways I think the exact opposite of this. I think the violence in (e.g.) Bonnie & Clyde, where it's to some extent stylised, is much more tolerable than the violence in torture porn movies, where it's highly realistic. I find some Tarantino movies offensive, not because he glamorises violence, but because he realistically shows sadism and suffering, and presents it as amusing. I think 'realism' is an overrated quality in movies - in my opinion movies can't be, and to some extent shouldn't try to be, about reality.

Gracchi: I can see your point about the torture porn movies- I think they are repugnant and I had for a moment to think why I think they are repugnant. It is in part because of their nihilism- their lack of any purpose, this is violence for the sake of being violent often and that doesn't interest me and I suspect doesn't interest you. But in reality that isn't where we are debating, I think what you are getting at here is that sometimes reality can be too horrifying to represent. And I agree with you if your point is that there are some realities that some people- kids most importantly shouldn't see. But adults...

I'm not sure about this. I suppose the interesting film to analyse from this perspective is Downfall where you see any number of shocking violent images- and it is on films like Downfall, Casino and Goodfellas that I would rest my case. Downfall is a really interesting movie- from the point of view that if you want to understand what happened in 1945 in Berlin you can't really do without a hell of a lot of violence- and if you want to understand what happened you have to imagine a great deal of violence which got there. Strip out the violence and Downfall can't really say as much about the Nazi regime and the destruction that they caused as it did. As a historian, I always find the written word to be quite antiseptic- understanding that 2,000 people were killed at Drogheda doesn't mean anything, seeing it on a screen means a great deal more. Cinema enables us to capture barbarity.

I suppose there is the argument that language should not represent reality- and cinema after all is another form of language (a particularly emotive and effective form but still a form of language) and that we should represent the world by analogy. I suppose I have a single problem with that and it’s like my problem with the difference between the words “100 people died” and the camera showing you 100 people dying, between the concept of the Germans abandoning the wounded within hospitals and actually seeing those abandoned played by actors on a movie screen, it’s antiseptic. Analogy takes out the meaning, it drains the communication of its force and therefore it means that we don't understand it as completely as we should. We can never say grapple with the immensity of the horrors of war, but seeing them can make us understand for a millisecond something of why war is horrible.

In a sense I share Orwell's worries, we should not sanitise communication for fear of the lack of meaning that a sanitised communication has. In his essay on politics and the English language, Orwell I think got to something rather important- that words need to communicate and the success of communication lies in realism- as soon as you dilute that realism you do not lead us to understand, you lead us to misunderstand reality.

Fabian: ‘Realism’, in the sense of ‘correspondence with real experience’ is a rather elusive quality in movies. I think you know it when you see it, and it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how much is shown. Blair Witch Project is horror but a fairly ‘realistic’ movie, whereas Oliver Stone's JFK feels like fantasy even if all the facts represented in it are true. One important thing is that movies are shot from the point of view of an individual observer; they are therefore incapable of generating objectivity in the way a history book could. I think that realism in cinema isn’t about showing everything there is to be shown, and leaving things out isn’t necessarily suppression. The question is, would an observer in that position choose to investigate in detail e.g. the gore of an injury? Probably not, unless they’re depraved, so unless you have some worthy goal (e.g. to rub in how terrible Nazism was) the effect of doing so will be to make the viewer become a voyeur against their will.

I haven’t managed to sit through Downfall though I’ve tried, because it seems a rather boringly grim film, and doesn’t give me interesting perspectives on Nazism, but I suspect that the horror you refer to would probably not bother me that much. I find it much more disturbing when realistic suffering is inserted into movies that are essentially pure entertainment – Kill Bill, Hostel, even Pan’s Labyrinth.

I wouldn’t ever say* about anything that people (even children) “shouldn’t see it”. What I might say to individual film makers or artists is, “I question your motivation in showing this”, in the way that someone else might say “I think you should think twice before showing movies which portray Muslims as objectionable”. With regard to children, I am critical of the opposite ideology, the one which says it’s good for them to be exposed to ‘reality’ so we should encourage showing them the more unpleasant aspects, supposedly as preparation for real life.

If you want to have an effect on your audience – e.g. make them feel the horrors of Nazism – I don’t believe you need to get explicit. That is one of the wonders of the language of cinema, that devices often work better than literalness. Though perhaps you do need to get more explicit nowadays, and that is a problem with using that sort of realism – you re-educate the audience and change the standards, and then everyone has to talk in the same language, subtlety no longer works. But before the standards were shifted, it was possible to generate horror without gore, eroticism without showing the mechanics of sex, and so on. So I don’t agree that “analogy takes out the meaning”.

When you talk about “sanitising communication”, you seem to be assuming a starting point of explicit violence, and implying my position as being one of wanting to remove those elements. It seems to me a false dichotomy that one either has to approve of explicitness, or endorse censorship. I would express the issue the other way round: I see people like Eli Roth, Tarantino or Haneke as wanting to aggressify communication. I regard the insertion of explicitness, which has become a fashion that seems to affect all sorts of visual products, not just movies – TV soaps, contemporary art, museum exhibitions – as an expression of hostility towards the audience.
* * * * *

So-called 'realism' (in movies etc.) is a form of aggression against those members of the audience who find its presentations offensive. However, the aggression is 'legitimised' by reference to the fact that the sensibilities being offended can be regarded as bourgeois.

The point is not to make people more aware of reality, but to make them feel hopeless and degraded. A dejected person is more likely to surrender to the collective, and is therefore more useful to mediocracy.

(*) Some thoughts on the issue of censorship here.