I have been arguing a bit with a friend about various movies, many of which feature graphic scenes of violence and murder (Among the directors we have touched on are the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson and David) We have argued plenty, and in my estimation have yet to get anywhere. Then he boiled it down to a succinct, fundamental question: Is there a place for violence in the cinema? Here are some of my thoughts.
The short answer is no. Sex and violence are such easy button pushers that to show them at all is almost always to invite cliché. This is one of the primary reasons that the Frankfurt school and Benjamin in particular thought cinema was inherently pornographic. I would say that it has to do with the indexical reality (a term I first came across reading Bill Nichols book about the documentary) of the cinematic image. It is not inherently pornographic, but the psychological predisposition of most people makes it so. It is difficult to turn away from violent images. Since most directors know this their use of violence is intentionally exploitative. It is mere button pushing and not aesthetic experience. For whatever reason the intellectual inclinations of many thoughtful viewers is precisely to equate violence with substance and weight as if the director would not show us something so horrific unless what he was saying was very important and very deep. This too is exploitation. The Spielbergs, Coens, Aranovskys and P. T. Andersons of the world certainly know that when they make a violent movie it will be taken very seriously by the critical establishment.
When I watched Burn After Reading I was horrified by image of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) hacking away at the head of Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) at the end of the film. It is easily one of the worst things I have seen recently. It is the kind of thing one cannot unsee. I would describe it as poison to the imagination. I can recall the image right now when I close my eyes. My question is: What did I learn from this movie that warranted such an image? Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Ozu, Cassavetes, Akerman – they show me the world inside and out, and he does it without hatchets to the face, without feet sticking out of the wood chipper and without pools of blood creeping across hardwood floors.
That is the short answer, the somewhat shallow answer. The real answer is that I reject the question. I am not interested in defining the limits of cinema, as if there were abstract rules to which all works of art were subject. I am not interested in the rules. If I see a good movie that has violence in it, my interest is in the movie’s goodness, not in its violence. If I see a bad movie with violence, my problem is with its badness. One of the most crucial aspects of movie-making is how the director resolves the problem of indexical reality. Part of art is artifice, but filmmakers of both the kitsch variety and the Salon variety seem to want to dissolve the artifice.
Consider Los Muertos. It is about a man who has been in prison an undetermined/unrevealed amount of time for committing a double murder. The film begins with what turns out to be a dream sequence. The camera dollies through the jungle, lifting, falling and tilting through the trees, branches, grasses and undergrowth. All you hear are birds and bugs chirping and buzzing. The two murder victims are revealed in turn. They are presented not graphically, but abstractly, almost as a matter of narrative course. They lie face down, motionless, a bit of red liquid on their backs, but no severed limbs (though we are led to believe the protagonist has killed them with a machete) and no gore.
The remainder of the film follows a man from his prison release to a home in the jungle where he thinks he will find his daughter. The pace is languid and there is very little talking. I should mention that I watched this movie because I read that the director was influenced by Tarkovsky. Let me say that his pace is quite beyond anything Tarkovsky ever imagined. Most of the film is like the handcart ride in Stalker but with only one person. I am exaggerating just a little to indicate that one gets caught up in the pace of this movie. One forgets the character because one is so immersed in the rhythm.
Half of the film is the protagonists paddling a small boat down a river. At a certain point he drifts past a small goat standing on the shore. He paddles over to the animal, and, as matter-of-factly as you please, proceeds to slit its throat, drain it of its blood and gut it, all of which is shown in graphic detail. Let me impress upon you that this is utterly real. Real goat, really killed, really butchered by the main character. It is astonishing.
I want to say a couple things about this. First, this image does not haunt me. It was surprising, but t did not upset me like Malkovich did. Of course I am still thinking about it, but I am thinking about what it means. Film is probably inherently pornographic, but some images stick with you because they are evocative and pregnant, while other stick with you more like shit that you can’t get off your shoe. Malkovich with the hatchet in Burn After Reading is the shit on my shoe.
Anyway, the important thing to understand about the meaning of slaughter of the goat is that it is created narratively. Granted the slaughter of the goat is a dense image, in itself. It is real death and as such it explodes the artifice of the form, and the whole suspension of disbelief thing because here is an actor playing a character in a made up scenario, but he really just killed a living creature. But this movie is not The Slaughter of a Goat. It has a narrative trajectory, and that image is contextualized within that narrative to have a different meaning than it would have if it were a simple piece of raw footage. On a very basic level, this is how cinema functions as a narrative art. The slaughter of the goat means one thing. Put a different image before it, and it means something else. Put another image after it and it means a third thing, and so forth. The narrative is the meaning, not the shocking image. I am not talking about story-telling, or plot or Aristotelian dramatic structure. Narrative is like laying bricks, and these bricks are like levels or modes of perception.