The Aesthetics of Destruction
What might be a notion of impact aesthetics in relation chiefly to American cinema, to a sort of closed impact aesthetics, as opposed to the often open impact aesthetic form often practised in European film? Loosely speaking, an American impact aesthetic film is one where central to the purpose of the movie is that it impacts upon us. Its purpose isn’t to have an especially strong narrative, subtle characterization, or even visual expressivity, à la the fifties Sirk, Minnelli or Ray films interested in symbolizing character crisis in colour exaggeration, or, at the other extreme, subduing the colours as in The Godfather movies. It seems chiefly about creating a visual intensity that will work the viewer’s nervous system in a semi-contractually agreed way. In other words, rather as with de-realized weak violence, a form of violence where we don’t take the body count too seriously – and with which it shares many similarities – the viewer will witness acts of great destruction, or view potentially immense pain, within the context of a contained film-going experience. The purpose of the film won’t generally be to give us an affect of shock that we would feel in an equivalent real-life situation, but instead to give us an experience closer to that of the fairground ride. For writers like Martin Barker and Kate Brooks, the “narrative is like a carrier-wave, similar to the role that rails play on a big dipper – necessary to carry you along, but in themselves not the point of the exercise.” Geoff King, who utilises the quote in New Hollywood Cinema (and who is usually credited with the term impact aesthetics), reckons however that critics have overstated the weak narratives in many blockbuster films. He insists that they “display carefully honed narrative structures designed not just unceremoniously to unload a series of great dollops of action-spectacle but to engage viewers”, and that they “increase the impact of the action and spectacle by locating it in relation to character and plot.” However while this may be true of the Bourne films and Casino Royale, is it apt to describe Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Godzilla and Armageddon? As Jurassic Park scriptwriter David Koepp says in Tom Shone’s book, Blockbuster, “whenever they started talking about their personal lives, you couldn’t care less”. He decided to throw out Michael Crichton’s characterization as he adapted the book to the screen. Then there is Slavoj Zizek’s comment about Titanic in The Fright of Real Tears. Noting that the film was being praised as a great example of classic narrative, he muses over whether it reflects actually narrative’s failure: “one way to read the film is that the iceberg strikes in order to save us from unavoidable narrative deadlock – imagine what a boring film Titanic would be if it just continued as a love story between Jack and Rose.” There is so often in such films a sense of third act fatigue, as though the special effects finale tries to put some excitement into the dramatically enervated.
What examples of impact aesthetic films can we give, whether interesting or otherwise? As well as the above, we can think of Speed, Face/Off, The Matrix, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Twister, Kingdom of Heaven, and perhaps The Passion of the Christ, Saving Private Ryan and Munich, no matter that the latter films aim at greater representational plausibility: apparently more concerned with story and character. Basically, though, the films’ raison d’etre lies in a mode of impact aesthetic tension.
Speed is in many ways an exemplary film of impact aesthetics. It cleverly predicates itself on the very title: that a bus carrying numerous passengers will blow up the moment it travels below fifty miles an hour. This is the film’s main and consistent thrill, but there is also that early scene in where the bomb goes off in spectacular fashion as people in a lift hurtle down the shaft, and another scene later where we see a bomb going off in the background of the shot as we notice a bus exploding. Critic David Thomson, writing on the film in Screen Violence, reckoned an impact aesthetic approach links up with “nagging bourgeois longings for wholeness and tidiness [and] inspire a demon of resentment that is itching to break out in riots of mayhem, the lovely innocent plenty of ruin.” But he goes on to admit that he feels guilty writing this “in an age that has seen Dresden, Hiroshima…Guildford and Oklahoma City.” However he then recalls the marvel of observing the editing suite – where you can reverse the images and tragedy returns to calm. There is generally this sense in a certain vein of impact aesthetics, American-style: finally there is nothing at stake – everything feels like it can return to normal.
Thus Speed’s early explosion of a bus undeniably contains an element of the tragic (innocent passengers die), but it is really only a precursor to the main action. The tragedy is a little like Thomson’s reversal in the editing suite; that, just as narratively the film’s purpose is often to return the viewer to a sense of equilibrium, the hero returns the world to a semblance of normality. Even the colleague’s death isn’t much of a shock – it is consistent with the second act demise often demanded of the buddy: from the best mate in Top Gun to the sidekick in Basic Instinct. When Top Gun producers Simpson and Bruckheimer reckoned the action film should create the “emotion of triumph”, according to James Kendrick in Film Violence, then part of this triumphalism in the action film lies in getting revenge on the baddy responsible for the friend’s demise. (In this sense clearly the noir of Basic Instinct is a rather different beast, no matter the buddy trope used: triumphalism is hardly so categorical.) In Speed Keanu Reeves’s job is to contain the impact aesthetic by making sure the bus doesn’t go below the required speed, and to make sure all the passengers on board are safe, and, of course, to avenge his mate.
There is a sense in this type of movie where the viewer gets to have their cake and eat it. We can enjoy the pleasures of impact without thinking too hard about the pain of its effects. Now what is interesting about a film like Speed, though, is that the triumph Simpson and Bruckheimer talk about is still secondary to the thrill of the spectacle: as if we’ve moved beyond even the hackneyed characterisation of a Simpson and Bruckheimer movie to an admiration not of the hero, and his triumphs, but the special effects, and their awesomeness. After the baddie here (Dennis Hopper) has been dispatched by decapitation, there is still one impact aesthetic moment left: the tube train Reeves is on will career along the rails and finally grind to its halt after hurtling through a wall and landing on the street. Consequently, perhaps, Speed is the impact aesthetic film at its most gratuitous, maybe especially evident in a scene where we see an empty bus career into an empty plane, with the explosion shot from numerous angles. There is no life at stake, but a big explosion to be pulled of. Even the concluding mayhem leaves people unharmed. One yuppie is a bit irate that his vehicle has been dented, but that is okay. Even when there are obviously numerous deaths (including a sacrificial one as Bruce Willis dies for the good of mankind in Armageddon), we can accept that half the world can be destroyed in the film but the planet can be saved. In the much more serious and high-minded Saving Private Ryan, there can be appalling scenes of brutality in the early stages of Spielberg’s film, but, by the end, Ryan will be able to return home to his mum. There is usually a sense that mayhem can be contained by a stronger optimism, but sometimes that the optimism is basically technological: the means by which filmmakers can pull off a scene. Finally even the strength of Spielberg’ film resides in the first section on the Normandy beach: as though all his originality went into the pyrotechnics, and he didn’t have any left for the subsequent characterisation.
This doesn’t mean that these impact aesthetic films, no matter the closed system and final moral conformity, are one-note. In fact, in terms of tempo, it’s useful to think of these two modes: the sudden explosion and the slow-burn possibility of the explosion. Here we might think of impact aesthetics of surprise, and impact aesthetics of expectation. In an impact aesthetics of surprise, a sudden action takes place that will throw us – gunfire, say, as soldiers arrive on shore in Saving Private Ryan, a bomb suddenly going off without the viewer’s forewarning in the background of the shot in Speed. But more frequently in impact aesthetics there are various forms of impact based on expectation. In this sense Spielberg’s recent Munich, in some ways a film that stretches the contractual aspect of impact aesthetics American style, is almost first and foremost an exemplary study in impact aesthetics technique as delayed tease. When Thomson said in a Sight and Sound article on the film that Spielberg was a little like a coroner who looks at the bruised, battered dead bodies, we can also add that Spielberg is in this instance a filmmaker that understands impact aesthetics as anticipation extremely well. As the ragbag team move from one assassination of Palestinians and Palestinian sympathizers to another in this tale of revenge in the wake of the Munich Olympics hostage killings, Spielberg is especially good at setting up the expectation of a major explosion, as the viewer waits to see the damage. He takes much further the anticipatory impact aesthetics of Speed where we are musing over little more than a low key ingenuity, as we wonder how the tube train will stop
There is a very fine, unequivocally manipulative scene in Munich where the central character Avner and his team plan to blow up a wealthy Parisian based Arab in his apartment. As all the variables are put in place, and the go-ahead has just been given, we, and a couple of the characters, realize that in fact his young daughter has not yet left for her dance class, and remains in the flat. The mission is momentarily cancelled, and then resumed after they believe she’s gone. This is a supremely skilful example of anticipatory tension that would do Hitchcock proud, as the viewer is tensely wondering whether the daughter, innocence personified, will be killed. That we don’t really care about the father’s death is another issue. Spielberg sets the scene up in such a manner that the father is irrelevant to the suspense; it’s the daughter’s life that is at stake for the viewer’s anticipatory vicariousness.
Thus though there is perhaps more ambiguity and less closure to the film than we’d expect from most American impact aesthetic movies, Spielberg’s still interested in a very high degree of emotionally manipulative suspense. For example if we found ourselves concerned equally for the father as for the daughter we would be outside Spielberg’s suspense techniques. That Spielberg wants to dictate very strongly our emotional response to the scene, means that we are clearly still in the area of closed impact aesthetics. He isn’t interested in ambiguity here: the father can die but not the daughter as we’re strongly identifying with the mission, but it must be seen to possess, by Avner and others, a moral purpose. Though we’re saying that Munich is much more complex than, say, Speed in its approach to impact aesthetic spectacle, it is still one-dimensional next to the strong violence we’ve invoked, or the open form we might think of in much European film: in works like Hidden, A ma Soeur! and The Piano Teacher, where the violence has an inexplicable dimension. Indeed, Spielberg’s method can have problematic ideological implications, with the film clearly invoking actual situations. As Thomson notes, though Spielberg gave no interviews when the film was released, as though to say I want the facts to speak for themselves, he reckons Spielberg “is far too expert a showman to be truly self-effacing.” But does this mean he shows his signature clearly enough, but hasn’t quite looked as closely as he might at the messy Palestinian/Israeli situation he dramatizes? Has he finally, and simply, added relative texture to impact aesthetic technique? The anticipatory element of impact aesthetics is brilliantly humanized, and in this sense antithetical to some of the other impact aesthetic films we have discussed, but still limited.
James Cameron is another director fascinated by a certain anticipatory quality to the impact aesthetic, but in Titanic in a less punctuated way than Spielberg. Here Cameron plays on the expectation of the inevitable: that the boat will disappear into the ocean, and we wait to see how impressively Cameron will sink the huge craft. This is also re-historicized impact aesthetics, where we return to major historical events and admire the ingenuity with which a filmmaker doesn’t so much recreate historical event, as dismantle it: we know that all the skill in recreation is really just so we can marvel later at the boat’s destruction. There has often been an aspect of this in Hollywood historicizing: Samson and Delilah and The Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, but no filmmaker before him has devoted so much time and energy to the sinking of a ship: to one impact aesthetic event to end all others.
Now some people will say of course that there is nothing especially new in all this: haven’t we just mentioned The Fall of the Roman Empire? We might think of all those opening Bond sequences with plenty of impact excitement, and the destructiveness central to many of the film’s denouements. Then there are all those seventies disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure. But just as David Bordwell, in The Way Hollywood Tells It, has very usefully referred to much contemporary cinema as not a break with the continuity system, from conventional narrative with its cause and effect storytelling, but an intensification of it, thus coining the term intensified continuity, so we might say that what Cameron, Spielberg and Speed director Jan De Bont are offering is intensified impact, and thus impact aesthetics. This can be achieved through better sound systems for example. As the great writer on sound, Michel Chion, says in Audio Vision: “Dolby multi-track sound [has been] increasingly prominent since the mid-seventies.” He adds, “…not until the arrival of Dolby sound did film receive a wide sound strip…only then could noises have a living corporeal identity…”
Many directors of impact aesthetics utilise the advances in sound extremely well as a crash seems to impact on us from the front, side and rear. There has also of course been huge advances in special effects technology, so that if you want to blow up the world in vivid detail, you don’t just make a miniature model and make it seem life size, you computer generate the effect you require, and thus it really does look like various American monuments are being blown to smithereens, as in Independence Day. Such advances can make narrative seem all very secondary, with sound and special effects no longer the bridesmaid but suddenly the bride. As Liam Neeson says, in an interview quoted in Blockbuster: “We are basically puppets”, he complained, “I don’t think I can live with the inauthenticity of the movies anymore.”
The centrality of effects brings to mind Devin McKinney’s comments on weak violence in an essay on Screening Violence, when he says of Basic Instinct, “the brutalities of the femme fatale are almost turned into production numbers.” In this sense often an impact aesthetic moment has some of the same “pleasures” of a musical number, which of course brings to mind a well-known Tarantino comment where he talks of there being little between violent scenes and musical interludes.
Perhaps one of the key differences between the sort of weak violence of much Hollywood film and the impact aesthetics of recent American cinema, though, resides in the viewer’s response. Weak violence frequently, though not always, suspends our disbelief comedically – there is often an ironic undertone that we find in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Two Days in the Valley, Bond films etc. In impact aesthetics our suspension of disbelief is closer to a certain type of shocked awe and incredulity. Though Armageddon clearly has moments of great humour (like Steve Buscemi’s character sitting on top of a nuclear warhead and offering the eighties slogan: no nukes), it is chiefly a film that wants us to be bowled over and then marvel at the cinematic destruction of the world’s major cities. If impact aesthetics works, we should first of all be shocked by the effect, and then amazed at the skill with which it’s been achieved: too much irony would undermine the awe effect. In Independence Day we can hardly believe that America’s great iconic monuments can so readily be snuffed out, and in Titanic we’re supposed to be astonished by the sinking of the ship: there may be more humour in the former film than the latter, but the awe-inspired response is paramount. Usually in weak violence the blasé attitude is more significant than the awed reaction. In impact aesthetics it is as if the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s two elements of the sublime are expected to come together: he mentions that the sublime requires the terrifying and the splendid, with the latter, in Titanic etc. usually the more prominent.
And yet we might think that in the wake of September 11 Hollywood would wonder if it could pull-off impact aesthetic cinema with quite the same confidence as before it: is there an inevitable gravitas now required from major destruction? And this lack of confidence would be for two reasons. The first is that surely after seeing the Twin Towers toppling and thousands dying, impact aesthetic destruction leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The second reason is that nothing on film has ever quite matched the sheer visual breathlessness, surprise and ingenuity of the two planes going into the Twin Towers. It was as if the suicide bombers had themselves watched numerous impact aesthetic films and wanted to top them all: to suggest not the invincibility of Hollywood and its technical prowess; more its powerlessness in the face of primitive but highly effective means.
Now this horribly ironic reversal shouldn’t be taken as a flippant comment; not at all. But central to terrorist or freedom fighter activity is the need to make an impact, to make a statement to the world, a world that seems to be ignoring a specific political plight. The suicide bombers out-impacted all the other impact aesthetic moments previously caught on film. And of course this one was for real.
Now shortly after September 11, the German composer Stockhausen famously and problematically suggested that the events of September 11 in New York represented the greatest work of art ever created. This of course met with much outrage, but from a certain perspective he was right, if we keep in mind the title of Robert Hughes’ description of art over the last hundred years: The Shock of the New. The purpose of much recent art hasn’t been to paint well or sculpt nicely, but to push constantly the frontiers of thought and image. There is little doubt that the Twin Towers tragedy did that. The fictional film attempts at showing America in a state of collapse now seem feeble next to the reality.
But where does this leave impact aesthetics cinema? We’ve suggested we can see its presence in a relatively serious-minded film like Munich, whatever its limitations, and also Syriania, where the film has a couple of impact aesthetic moments near the conclusion that definitely function differently from those on show in Independence Day, Armageddon etc. They’re not quite the open images one might think of when looking at a certain type of European cinema, but they are more than just closed off ones with no real hint of political consequence. Where James Cameron’s True Lies, for example, could completely caricature the Middle Eastern as a fanatic; now Syriana, and Munich, undeniably take the political movements of the Middle-East rather more seriously.
We might also see impact aesthetics appearing in the historical epic, but not as generalized destruction; more as specific body horror. In films like The Passion of the Christ and Kingdom of Heaven, for better or worse, much of the CGI goes into showing the damage heavy duty metal weaponry and torture devices can do the body. If Thomson can say of Spielberg that he’s like a coroner, there are scenes in Gibson’s Jesus film that suggest the filmmaker as a doctor looking to attend to welts and wounds. It is as if impact aesthetics cinema is starting to take seriously both the usually perceived antagonists, and also the damage violence does to the body. At the same time, however, one could note that Gibson’s film isn’t too far removed from what has been called “torture porn”: scenes where Gibson cuts to the objects soon to be administered on Jesus’s body, utilise the cutting techniques of horrible suspense that films like Saw, Hostel 1 and 2 and the superior Wolf Creek use also.
A third possibility in working with impact asethetics seriously lies in what we could call an aesthetics of impact, where the technological aspect is irrelevant next to the characterisational and narrative focus, where the film reverses Zizek’s earlier pessimistic comments about narrative, and finds a way of re-humanizing cinema, of giving back to film its emotional texture. This has little to do with film today, necessarily, for we can find examples of it throughout cinema history – including Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but it can function as a corrective to the dehumanizing of much impact aesthetic film. An aesthetics of impact strangely humanizes, so that the shock comes about through a character we wouldn’t expect being brutally murdered, as we find with the children in Leone’s and Carpenter’s film. But it can also be relevant to an adult character for whom the audience has built up a relationship, and where one expects a full character arc. In the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, for example, Maria Bello’s character looks like she is going to be given a full arc as a combative relationship develops with Ethan Hawke’s character, yet in the last act she is killed. We might also think of the way Kevin Spacey is casually dispatched in L.A. Confidential, and Woody Harrelson’s character in No Country for Old Men, where the arc seems too abruptly curtailed.
These, then, are just three possible avenues in which the American impact aesthetic film can go, if the sheer pleasure of destruction no longer seems so palatable: the politically contextual, the bodily vivid, the humanly shocking. However what we notice is that in each instance the form remains basically closed, with little of the ambiguity of meaning or radical enquiry more likely to be found in the open form usually seen in Europe and beyond.