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American Film Violence

Screening the Violent

Violence in American cinema became really violent when US society couldn’t hide it any more, with technology advancing in various areas and making it hard to conceal the facts of the real. Cinema had been around to take in the two World Wars, but these were neither televisual events, nor were filmmakers able to take advantage of special effects work that could make the violence look ‘authentic’. By the late sixties, bloody images of the war in Vietnam were all over people’s TV screens, and in colour. In cinema, meanwhile, filmmakers like Arthur Penn with Bonnie and Clyde, and Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch, were taking advantage of multiple camera angles with a zoom lens, slow motion and squibs: small sacks placed underneath the actor’s clothes that would be released when the character was shot. In classic Hollywood, someone was killed and they fell over. In New Hollywood, killings were rather more vivid as we can see in the concluding scene in Bonnie and Clyde.

Not that cinema before the late sixties was all sweetness and light; more that it looked to imply rather than state; to offer an implicit or symbolic approach to violence. We needn’t elevate one over the other, but rather see them as two different image structures serving their particular time, and see that recent cinema now has more options in how to present the violent. Stephen Prince usefully coined the term ‘substitutional poetics’ to describe scenes where a character would be hurt or killed without the film showing us the act itself. It could be that a door is closed and we hear a scream from behind it (implicit), or it could be a shot ringing out and a horse shuddering (symbolic). “This visual approach was based on the logic of a substitutional poetics, where unacceptable types of violence could be depicted not directly, but by various kinds of image substitution.” (Classical Film Violence)

One of the advantages of a historical approach to film is that we see that the representation of violence needn’t have a clear linearity: that the early years of cinema could show gruesomeness that wouldn’t have been allowed forty years later. James Kendrick in Film Violence notes that one of the “favoured subjects of early motion pictures was the recreation of violent historical events. Beheadings, in particular, were a popular subject for many years because of the sensational nature of the action and also because this subject allowed filmmakers to display their virtuosity with early special effects.” (Film Violence) The beheading in Edison’s The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1894) was an early example of stop motion, where the actor was then replaced by the dummy and the head removed, though it looked like it all took place as one continuous action.

In the early thirties, gangster films were both violent and popular, especially those made before the Hays Code of 1934: a self-censoring film body that adopted strict rules towards sex and violence on screen. Gangster films Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface captured the violent moment in which the films were made. Unlike the beheading in Edison’s film, which suggested distant historical document, the gangster films were showing what was happening on American streets. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre orchestrated by Capone shocked the public in 1929, and Dillinger’s death in 1934 likewise. The late twenties to the mid-thirties were the early years of the Depression, and the gangsters were finding ways to make money when many didn’t have any at all. Scarface etc. were films capturing the time and capturing the public imagination. The great and the good were not happy, and as Kendrick says, “Will Hays eventually declared a moratorium on the genre in 1935.”

Yet there were still many violent depictions on film: from Richard Widmark pushing an old woman in a wheelchair down some stairs in Kiss of Death, to Lee Marvin throwing a boiling coffee pot into the face of Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat .

But one didn’t sense that violence permeated American cinema until the late sixties, or rather that the conflicts which had been central to many American films whether the genre happened to be the western, the war film or the film noir, stopped short of showing exactly what these conflicts entailed. In cinema from around 1967 to 1980, in what was called the New Hollywood, the violent became very pronounced indeed. It is a point Carol Clover makes in an essay ‘Her Body Himself’, where she talks about Psycho. “Although Hitchcock is hardly the first director to prefer the oblique rendition of physical violence, he may, to judge from current examples, be one of the last.” (Screening Violence) Hitchcock allowed the editing to do the violent work in the film, leaving his leading actress semi-clothed and unmarked: no prosthetic effects were required.

But the times they were a changin’, and by 1980 Brian De Palma could show the naked flesh of Angie Dickinson’s body double soaping herself in the shower before later getting brutally murdered. Few would suggest that De Palma’s depiction was more horrific than Hitchcock’s (which remains shocking for the way he removes his leading lady from the film), and by 1980 many were perhaps quite jaded by the amount of violence viewers had seen on the screen in the intervening thirteen years. Whether it happened to be the massacres in Little Big Man, the Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter, or the shoot out at the end of Taxi Driver, violence had reached saturation point, no matter if Martin Scorsese desaturated the colours to play down the bloodbath.

Yet perhaps the problem in De Palma homaging a master was that while he had upped the brutality all right, Dressed to Kill, like many a De Palma film, felt coy in its combination of generic predictability and unequivocal blood-letting. It didn’t possess the sociological urgency, however troublesome, that we find in the devastation of an American community in The Deer Hunter, and the decaying urban environment in Taxi Driver. The Russian roulette sequences in the former might have caused various critics and political commentators problems, and the potential justification for vigilante behaviour could be extracted from the latter, but these were provocative works: The Deer Hunter offered a substitutional metaphor for Vietnam, a way of indicating the horror in a very dramatic, aesthetic manner. Taxi Driver muses over what might happen if someone with a cowboy mindset and a Vietnam past becomes unhinged on the streets of New York when robbed of credence. Many a liberal-minded viewer might understandably have a problem with the politics of these films, but it is hard to deny the originality involved. De Palma’s vision seems much more predictable; hence his approach to violence, while representationally explicit, is aesthetically quite weak, however brilliantly done.

Other films of the seventies like The Long Goodbye and Chinatown managed to generate shock too. The former shows a gangster slashing his girlfriend’s face open as a warning to the central character, detective Philip Marlowe. In Chinatown, JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) spends much of the film with a bandaged nose after a knife incident. The Long Goodbye is very good on the shock of violence; Chinatown on its consequences.

Violence has taken various turns since the end of New Hollywood. Special effects driven horror became pronounced at the end of the seventies and into the early eighties, with Tom Savini, Carlo Rambaldi, Rob Bottin and others doing astonishingly vivid work on Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing. In the nineties much of the violence seemed ironically determined, not only in the work of Quentin Tarantino, with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but also in films like 2 Days in the Valley and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. There were also numerous films showing that women could kick ass as readily as men, in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Out of Sight, for example. We could also notice a new level of intensity in the insert shot, with filmmakers depicting in some detail the nature of a violent act not through slow mo, but by moving in very close – as we see in anything from American History X to the more recent History of Violence and Drive. At the moment the viewer might be inclined to look away, the director decides to show us that little bit more.

A question worth asking when looking at violence in American film, films coming from a culture with a very high number of yearly homicides, and a right to bear arms written into its constitution, is what is the violence doing, what is it saying to us. Usually the best films that depict violent acts do so with a sociological conscience or an aesthetic intent beyond the readily entertaining. As Clover says: “for better or worse, the perfection of special effects has made it possible to show maiming and dismemberment in extraordinarily credible detail.” (Screening Violence) But to what end? Do we expect an ethos underpinning the action; or is entertainment deemed reason enough? We might wish that American filmmakers weren’t just screening violence, but screening viewers from its too easy representation, and finding a justifiable reason to show it on the screen.

©Tony McKibbin