Download as PDF Download PDF

Cinema and Extremity

The Strength of an Image


A cinema producer reckoned, before WWI, “This isn’t a business, it is a dissipation”, a comment quoted in Baxter Phillips’ book The Unseen Cinema. But for Martin Amis, in an essay in Screen Violence where he looked forward to Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch (69), “in the cinema, if not elsewhere, violence started getting violent in 1966”. Vivian Sobchack, in Screening Violence, wrote of films including The French Connection (71), The Godfather (71) and Straw Dogs (71), and noted “there has always been violence and death in the cinema. But the cinematic phenomenon in the films of our decade [the seventies] which is new and significant is the caressing of violence, the loving treatment of it by the camera.” However, she still believed the films “made increasingly senseless violence in the “civil” sphere sensible and meaningful”. In a more recent afterward she reckoned, “today, most American films have more interest in the presence of violence than its meaning.” She name checks Reservoir Dogs (91), Pulp Fiction (94) and Payback (98).

One offers the above to say that cinema has always been potentially violent and depraved, depending who you ask. But at the same time we needn’t lapse into a perceptual relativism, where all images of killing, sex, rape and torture are equivalent. Let us take for example three acts of violence against women. The first occurs in Public Enemy (31), where James Cagney pushes a grapefruit into a woman’s face, the second in The Big Heat (53), with Lee Marvin throwing coffee on Gloria Grahame’s visage, and the third in The Long Goodbye (73), with the gangster ripping open his lover’s face with a coke bottle as the sentiment – a gangster’s anger and irritation – takes ever more extreme form.

By the same reckoning we can take the shower scene, with the famous example in Psycho (1960) of a woman being slashed to death chiefly manifested in the editing rather than in the body being slashed itself. By the time of the slasher film in the late seventies and early eighties, the cutting is more in the body than in film form, with slackening censorship making the physical carve up all the more explicit in Friday the 13th (80) and Dressed to Kill (80). Just as the presentation of violence in the gangster films became ever more extreme, so likewise were the images in horror.

A further example of this slackening of censorship, or perhaps more appropriately a greater invocation of the complex or the exploitative, lies in the skinny dip. In Extase (32) Hedy Lamarr (then Keisler) swimming naked in a lake was an innocuous example of woman at one with nature, but a similar scene in Walkabout (70) pushed the prelapsarian innocence into the burgeoning and the sexual, as Agutter is the sixteen year old girl sexualized by Roeg’s cross-cutting symbolism. By the early eighties, a young woman taking a dip usually indicated an oncoming demise: it became as popular a trope in the horror movie as the shower scene; a portent of horrible things to come.

These are of course decidedly selective moments in the history of sex and violence in film, and there are plenty examples where filmmakers have been more explicit in the past than in the present. For instance some of the lingering shower scenes so popular in late seventies/ early eighties cinemas might now seem to fly in the face of a certain perceptual political correctness. Students watching De Palma’s Carrie (76) can’t believe how undilutedly voyeuristic the opening shower scene in this more or less mainstream film happens to be, suggesting a contemporary filmmaker would either retreat from the lingering over naked bodies, or at least make clear the viewpoint is a character’s rather than the film’s.

Indeed, when looking at numerous erotic films from the seventies, from Emmanuelle (74) to The Streetwalker (75), from Requiem for a Vampire (71) to Justine (68), what is noticeable today is less the films’ explicitness than their innocence in a twofold manner. First, in relation to their inexplicitness. The daring seems contained by coyness: that the body is revealed but not quite exposed, where in pornography it often seems the other way round. Secondly in relation to sexual politics, they perhaps appear more perverted than explicit, showing the perspective as if the camera is a Peeping Tom happy with a glimpse of flesh rather than with the act itself. Many makers of erotic films of the seventies rued the slackening of censorship laws as if aware that the pornographic would replace the erotic, and indeed some of the erotic filmmakers, like Jean (Requiem for a Vampire) Rollin and Jess (Justine) Franco were pushed into the unequivocally adult market – and even received much of the blame for the shift from one to the other. One critic, according to the book Immoral Tales, claimed Rollin was responsible for the entire wave of French porno in the mid-to-late seventies, saying that it was his “half a dozen turds a year” that was destroying the indigenous French film industry. It may have been fairer to blame France’s weakening censorship laws under Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency, as noted by Roy Armes in French Cinema.

Sometimes, though, we may notice that earlier films are more provocative and troublesome than those of today. Last Tango in Paris (72), Ai No Corrida (76), Salo (76) and La Grande Bouffe (74) were all key works by major filmmakers more interested in problematizing representation than simply pushing it into extremes. While Last Tango became famous for its sodomizing scene with the aid of butter, Ai No Corrida for its ending where the woman hacks off the man’s testicles, Salo for the eating of excrement, and La Grande bouffe for overeating more generally – as four wealthy men decide to eat themselves to death – it wasn’t the explicitness of the material that proved so troubling, more the questions the films asked. After all in Salo the faecal matter was clearly not real, where years before John Waters explicitly showed Divine eating dog waste in Pink Flamingos (72), while anal sex could be seen in any number of seventies porn films.

This raises the most important question of this drive-by account of cinema and extremity. While it is generally true that films have become ever more explicit in their imagery, only certain films have created problems around the imagery they happen to show the viewer. The simultaneous development of technology and the apparent loosening of censorship can make it look as though explicitness is the manifest destiny of the film image. But what matters most isn’t some objective notion of image revelation, but more the phenomenology of affect, of feeling. When we look back to the thirty nine video nasties of the seventies and early eighties, so named after being banned by the BBFC in the mid-eighties and thus earning the nasty label, many of them look risible today. Lucio Fuci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (79) plays up the gore within a weak story line, but the horror dissolves in the face of modest affective impact. The special effects in films like, Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (80) or Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (80) and others are retrospectively more interesting as a phase in cinema make-up effects. This was the moment where the make-up artist was king, with Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Dick Smith and other celebrities often interviewed not as yet another bit player in the world of film, but as figures boosted to starring roles. What remains of the most effective nasty films, with critics often mentioning Last House on the Left (72), I Spit on Your Grave (78) and Driller Killer (78), will be the residual rather than the actualized terror. This is even true of a horror film like The Exorcist, and a family frightener like Jaws. The shocking moment where Linda Blair’s head turns 360 degrees and where she spews out green bile has been much parodied, while Bruce the shark can’t compete with John Williams’ score and Verna Fields’ editing for impact.

Are we doing no more than saying that the implicit is more significant than the explicit? Not at all – what matters is the capacity to surround the explicit with a sense of inquiry that doesn’t assume the images presented to the viewer are revelatory in and of themselves. In many of the video nasties, what proves so comic retrospectively is the manner in which the gore is presented to us as the raison d’etre of the work. The horrible moments in Salo, when an eye is gauged out, when someone gets scalped, are working within the same special effects limitations as Fulci, Lenzi and other Italian horror filmmakers of the seventies, but contain within them a sense that what is shown is secondary to the implications involved in the showing: in the filmmakers’ position as filmmaker, the viewer’s position as voyeur. When Tony Parsons notes in his essay on Screen Violence that in A Clockwork Orange (71) there is only one onscreen death, he adds, “There are countless films more violent than A Clockwork Orange. But there is not one that even comes close to matching the inflammatory power.”

However we might care to disagree with Parsons not especially over his opinion, more his word choice. Scenes of violence can be shown to create a chill factor rather than an inflammatory dimension. Frequently film violence is memorable because of the combination of hot-heads and cold camera positioning. Kubrick knows this well, and whether it is the rape in A Clockwork Orange, the lift-flooded with blood in The Shining (80), or the brutalizing of recruits in Full Metal Jacket (87), the director works the aloof perspective to problematize the violence he shows. When in A Clockwork Orange Alex’s head is dunked in cold water to the point of drowning, Kubrick offers it in two medium long shots: a cold climate aesthetic keeping the violence at one remove. Is this not true of numerous great filmmakers, however, from Pasolini in Salo to Haneke in Funny Games (97) and Hidden (05), from Lynch in Blue Velvet (86) and Lost Highway (97) to Scorsese in Taxi Driver (76) and even the semi-inflammatory GoodFellas (90)? Take for example the scene in Funny Games where there is a slaughter off-screen and the camera holds on the television, splattered with blood as a grand prix race continues on the TV.

In other words,  good filmmakers know that showing violence is on numerous levels problematic. Censorship here is irrevelant next to sensibility: the many variables that go into showing violent acts on screen. First of all it is, in life, an exceptional act: how many more scenes of violence have we seen on screen than in our own day to day existence? Secondly it is an implicative act; when one sees an act of violence in life how would we respond? Heroically, sensibly or with cowardice? Thirdly, it is a representation, so how best to capture that action cinematically? Not only in terms of offering it as an action sequence, but offering it also as a moral perspective. Fourthly, cinema is technological, and so its effects are constantly being enhanced in time. This is frequently the filmmakers’ luxury and curse, as we noted above. An effect that can seem incredibly realistic today, looks sadly, technologically, of its moment a few years later. Yet if the filmmakers pursue the extreme to get at something, the representation seems irrelevant next to the power of inquiry. As David Lynch once said, “Any time there’s a little bit of power, somebody might think it is sick or disgusting. You have to believe things so much that you make them honest. I’m not trying to manipulate an audience.” In Raging Bull (80), Scorsese offers the immediacy Kubrick eschews, in using lots of close ups in the ring with Jake La Motta; but then creates distance in the use of black and white which helped get at the theme of the film: not La Motta’s boxer as hero, but as a man who, in Scorsese’s words, “used everybody to punish himself”.

If violence in cinema is constantly an ethical and aesthetic issue; what about sex? Numerous filmmakers of the mid-to-late sixties showed sex as a tussle. Baxter Phillips in Unseen Cinema notes the scene where Hemmings and a couple of young models roll around in Blow-Up (66), and follows the image through in If…(68) and Women in Love (69). We might say Zabriskie Point (70) is its summation and its inversion: a desert love-in with numerous couples tumbling down sand dunes, directed, like Blow-Up, by Michelangelo Antonioni. Sex is of course, and thankfully, rather less exceptional than violence in life, though more exceptional in cinema, especially American film. To generalize; American cinema does violence; European films sex. Is this partly why Dutch director Paul Verhoeven did well with Robocop (87), Total Recall (90) and Starship Troopers (97), in the States, but Showgirls (95) flopped? There have been moments in American film where sex sells, from the sex comedies of the early eighties that followed the Canadian Porky’s (81), to the sex thrillers of the early nineties, including The Last Seduction (93), Body of Evidence (92), Jade (95), and indeed Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (92). In the former, though, it was allied to comedy; the latter to violence. Is this because American cinema is a public medium and European cinema more private – and that watching violence is, however horrific, not quite voyeuristic? Another too loose generalization perhaps, especially if we think of numerous late/sixties early seventies films of adultery and impotence, in the States, from Loving (70) to Carnal Knowledge (71), and all those seventies Roger Corman films where sex scenes were obligatory: in films like Boxcar Bertha (72) and Caged Heat (74), where the producer insisted, no matter how gratuitous, sex was required: it sold at the box-office. And wasn’t sex central to the Paul Morrisey films directed for Andy Warhol, Flesh (68), Trash (70) and Heat (71)?

But putting aside pornography, which is certainly international, European cinema seems to have been much more interested in sex as a problematic than American film. Many major European directors have made films where sex has been absolutely vital to their content. Here are a handful of names and titles: Nicolas Roeg with Performance (70), The Man who Fell to Earth (76) and Bad Timing (80), Bernardo Bertolucci with The Conformist (70), Last Tango in Paris and 1900 (76), Pedro Almodovar, with Matador (86) and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (89) , Bunuel with Belle de Jour (67) and That Obscure Object of Desire (77), and Godard with Slow Motion (80) and Passion (82). A lengthy sequence in Slow Motion captures the mechanization of sex with all the absurdity Chaplin showed many years before in relation to Fordist production. Matador opens with a man masturbating to violent horror. Bad Timing offers scenes of border-line necrophilia as the psychoanalytic doctor has sex with his unconscious ex-lover. Are these all distinctly European? Compare Roeg’s scene to the horribly dark comedy of Todd Solondz in Happiness, where the father drugs the son’s best friend hoping to have his wicked way with him. True, Almodovar shares similarities with Solondz in dark deeds given perversely comedic possibilities (like the rapes in both Matador and Kika), but would we not be more inclined to say that Solondz’s sensibility is European rather than Almodovar’s is American?

Even in the avant-garde, European cinema has been more interested in the body and the sexual than American experimental film. Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1: The Movement Image astutely notes that many American films in the experimental scene were “concerned with attaining a pure perception, as it is in things or in matter, to the point to which molecular interactions extend”, and noticed its presence in works by amongst others Stan Brakhage and (the Canadian) Michael Snow. This is of course not extremity in relation to violence, but to the issue of extreme perception: that American cinema is interested in extreme violence and cognitive extremity. However there were also numerous American filmmakers from the same period (loosely the sixties and seventies) closer to the European tradition of how to be rather than what to see, who were less interested in pushing perspective than pushing ethics: including Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke and of course Warhol, whose concerns seemed much more with the body, and consistent with European filmmakers, from Philippe Garrel to Chantal Akerman, from Stephen Dwoskin to the Austrian transgressive school, exemplified by Otto Muehl, Valie Export and Kurt Kren.

If it is true numerous American filmmakers in Deleuze’s take were interested in the psychotropic; many Europeans seemed more interested in the psychodynamic and the abject, the situational and the behavioural, and the American directors so interested possessed, in this sense, a European sensibility. Dwoskin’s Outside In (81) was an autobiographical account with Dwoskin, disabled with polio, making sense of his emotional and sexual life. Muehl’s ‘actions’ included menstruation, excretion, urination and the public killing of animals as the works explore what a human is capable of, works that bordered on the situationally illegal, with these often filmed ‘materialaktionens’ involving, as Amos Vogel notes in Film as a Subversive Art, “police prosecution, scandals and near riots in various countries.” Muehl probably remains at the further end of extreme art as ethical exploration, but what we’ve tried to propose in this summarizing account of cinema and extremity is that there are many ways in which to generate extreme images, and much depends on the context in which they happen to be placed.

One might think in conclusion of a moment in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (76), where a little girl who’s just bought an ice-cream is shot dead. It isn’t the extreme image in itself that makes this moment so shocking, but the context: the arbitrary nature of a girl buying an ice cream and who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is only so far a filmmaker can go into the extreme depiction of images (and maybe Muehl and others took it that point socially), but there are infinite ways in which the viewer can be shocked, traumatized and confused. There are always new boundaries waiting to be pushed.


©Tony McKibbin