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Weak Violence

Distanciated and Derealised


In interviews, Quentin Tarantino has said that for him there really isn’t much of a difference between a scene of violence and say a dance number. They’re both images as spectacle, as opportunities for a pleasurable aesthetic experience, even if obviously for the characters involved there is a world of a difference between having a dance and being caught strapped to a chair and tortured – as in the dance number meets torture scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Here a cop sits tied to his seat while Michael Madsen’s thug dances to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ as he prepares to lop off the cop’s ear. For Devin McKinney this would be an example of what he calls ‘weak violence’. ‘Weak violence appears nearly everywhere”, he says, in an essay called ‘Violence: The Strong and the Weak,’ published in the book Screening Violence. He gives as examples Arnold Schwarzenegger films, Basic Instinct, James Bond outings, and one might even discern (though we might say much more debatably) its presence in the work of key auteur works, for example in Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We might think of the dead body in the boot of the car in GoodFellas, whilst Pesci and co go off for dinner just after killing the man. Then there is the absurdist scene in Mulholland Drive, when there is the mishap in the hotel, where an unassuming woman gets killed by a stray bullet that passes through one apartment to another. Do even Scorsese and Lynch remove meaning and import from what Vivian Sobchack has called our ‘mortal twitchings’? In another essay from Screening Violence, ‘The Violent Dance: A Personal Memoir of Death in the Movies’, she notes the degree to which a film gives aesthetic and ethical context to the violence shown and thus allows us a response that is mortally and morally complex.

Now of course there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to defining weak violence or the strong violence we can contrast it with in another essay. It could be argued that Scorsese and Lynch’s use of violence in these scenes, while not obviously demanding mortal twitching, nevertheless works differently from the Bondian outing or the Schwarzenegger pic. After all, what Nigel Andrews notices in an essay called ‘Muscle Wars’, in another book on Screen Violence, is that in films with Schwarzenegger, Stallone and other action men of the eighties central to the sort of weak violence McKinney proposes, “…is the relatively new fantasy that sheer brawn, with the minutest admixture of brain, is an appetizing, ticket selling way to show…that one can pulverize dozens or hundreds.” We need only think of Rambo: First Blood Part II, and the scenes where Rambo takes out numerous Vietcong, or a scene in Commando where Schwarzenegger determines to get his kidnapped daughter back.

This is weak violence at its most simplified, and so far removed from any notion of real life that when former SAS man Harry McCallion went to see Who Dares Wins, a film about the SAS’s successful raid on the siege at the Iranian Embassy, McCallion and fellow SAS members, he said, “sat in embarrassed silence.” (‘Movies, Me and Violence’, Screen Violence). They watched “as the actors portrayed attitudes and drills that had as much in common with the real SAS as chalk and cheese.”  Now this seems unequivocally weak violence, in the sense that the gap between the reality of the violent incident and the fantasy version is enormous.

We could argue that the gap is also very large in Tarantino’s films,  in Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But in Scorsese and Lynch’s films it is, if you like, self-consciously ‘weak’ – as if it wants to make us aware as viewers of the gap between the filmic world and the real world, and that the film plays problematically in the interstice. Some will claim this is also true of Tarantino’s work, which illustrates just how slippery the term happens to be. Yet Tarantino seems to revel in what Fredric Jameson once astutely called “the waning of affect”; the indifference one feels in the face of an art work emotionally. Cultural production “can no longer”, Jameson claims in the essay ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Culture’, “look directly out of its eyes at the real world for the referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental images of the world in its confining walls”

How successfully, or perhaps more importantly, how complexly the film works in this gap allows much room for viewer subjectivity, even for a bit of moral twitching. For some Tarantino’s films seem too smugly satisfied with removing violence from real life, and serving it up as cool entertainment. Scorsese and Lynch, on the other hand, seem to want to immerse us in a world that isn’t so much cool, as seductive, in the former instance, and indeterminate in the latter. In Scorsese’s film Pauline Kael suggested in an essay in Movie Love it is seductiveness where “the viewer is strung out on pure sensation.” It’s as if Scorsese wants in GoodFellas to remove our moral coordinates by sheer force of cinematic bravura, to take not always interesting or smart characters, but to film them in such a way that we can see how enchanting the gangster world can be. This might not quite be the strong violence of relative ‘real life’ found in, say, The Deer Hunter, or Pasolini’s Salo, but it is an authentic existence for characters that, coke-fuelled and high on adrenaline, have turned it into their real life. We’re asked to witness the pleasures available in this environment, and Scorsese films it in such a manner that we have to resist its appeal as he drags us into this world through fast, breathless voice-over, freeze-frames, jump cuts and lengthy virtuoso shots: most famously in the Copacabana club scene where Scorsese offers a weaving, one take steadicam through the back entrance of a restaurant.

Lynch, meanwhile, is very good at showing a world that is off-kilter, slightly askew, so that it isn’t especially that the violence is weak; more the film’s grasp of a ‘real world’ that is fragile. In Lynch there is certainly violence that has little to do with real life, but that is the very, and loosely surrealist, point. We might think of that very strange scene near the end of Blue Velvet, where the sequence feels like a moving yet freeze-framed shot as people don’t seem so much dead, as suddenly asked to stand still during a game of Statues.

Are these all examples of ‘weak’ violence, though? We can see why it’s a moot point, especially if we think of a film like Bonnie and Clyde, a key film in ushering ‘strong’ violence into the cinema, but that was itself taken on its release to be an example of exploitative, shallow shock film. Ronald Gold noted at the time, in a piece published in Screening Violence, that by attacking Bonnie and Clyde for its exploitative use of violent action, key sixties critic Bosley Crowther “hurt the cause of serious filmmaking in America by shooting down a work of art.” Some critics who initially saw it as just another film, quickly reassessed their perspective, including Newsweek critic Joseph Morgenstern who gave it a bad review one week, and re-viewed the film the next and acknowledged its importance.

However, no matter the degree of subjectivity involved in deciding what is weak, what is strong, it is worth keeping in mind Sobchack’s mortal twitchings, and also an idea that we’ll focus upon here in relation to editing and violence. What, we might ask, does the violence serve, and how is it being presented? Let’s go back to the aforementioned Tarantino, and this time a scene from Pulp Fiction: the scene where a young black man gets his head blown away after the gun pointing at him accidentally goes off. Throughout the sequence, after his demise, Tarantino wants to make clear not the problem of a lost life, but much more the problem of a messy car interior. As the film digresses and details the clean-up operation, the problem isn’t finally the lost life, but John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s loss of face – exemplified in one moment where the two stand there taking orders from clean-up maestro Harvey Keitel as they wear not their pristine black suits and white shirts, but borrowed T-shirts. What we perhaps have in this example of ‘weak violence’ is a process of derealisation, where if Tarantino showed the mess being wiped up, rather than just the conversation about what they should do about the mess, then the viewer would probably be so appalled that the film would lose its humour. It is the derealisation – the artificiality of the situation – that allows for the humour to be retained. But at what cost? The potential ‘mortal twitching’, the moral intelligence forced on the viewer through a relationship with our own mortality, Tarantino eschews.

Now this doesn’t make Tarantino a bad filmmaker, but if people have problems with his often brilliantly made films, it may partly reside in this approach to violence. We might now ask another question, and that is whether there is another way of showing weak violence, a way that isn’t derealising but is instead distanciated? Distanciated filmmakers, like derealising filmmakers, don’t want the violence to be taken seriously; they don’t want us to believe in the deaths they show, but their approach to undermining obvious suspension of disbelief, obvious approaches to involving themselves in the violence they offer, are distanciating rather than derealizsng. Jean-Luc Godard is a great director of distanciation, exemplified in his comment: “that isn’t blood, it is red”. Whether it happens to be his car crash scenes in Contempt and Weekend, or his shoot-outs in A bout de Souffle or Prenom Carmen, Godard constantly wants to problematize violence, to create an indifference not indicative of the waning of affect, but instead demanding a semiotic attentiveness. He wants to make us aware that we are watching a film, and asks for an intellectual engagement in the creative choices being made. Tarantino may well have named his company A Band Apart after Godard’s film of the same name, but the sensibility is very different. What Tarantino and other directors like, say, Tony Scott with True Romance, and John Herzfeld with Two Days in the Valley, offer is a derealised violence that allows the viewer to believe in the story, even believe in the characters, but not quite to believe in their connection to a real world. The film world is believable yet artificial and thus derealised. The cinematic space is a like a game, something one can take immensely seriously without ever believing in its relationship with a world beyond the game. We shall say more about this when we talk of strong violence, and a useful distinction that Kant and others make philosophically which will help us see that such filmmakers work within a clearly self-contained aesthetic universe.

Godard and other filmmakers, like Lars Von Trier, perhaps, with Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, and Manderlay, or the Italian filmmakers, the Taviani brothers, especially in The Nights of San Lorenzo, are more given to distanciation. What the filmmakers seem to want to do is suggest aspects of the ‘real world’ – Godard in his use of location, Von Trier in his examination of moral values, Taviani in both location and the events of WWII. But then they put their work in Brechtian inverted commas. They are interested in what Brecht called the “alienation effect”: “the verfremdungseffekt”, where, as Martin Esslin notes in his book on Brecht, A Choice of Evils, “the audience must be discouraged from losing its critical detachment by identification with one or more of the characters.” Godard’s sense of distance will come in the way his characters often speak not so much dialogue as solipsistic thought, and in the way Godard will work so he’s constantly interrupting the characters’ sense of verisimilitude with jump cuts, apparently arbitrary camera movements, and cutting out sound. This is evident in A Bout de Souffle, Vivre sa Vie and Bande à part respectively.  Von Trier will utilise the undiluted cliché, the pleonastic voice-over that will overly underscore the action, or use obvious digitised images or stagy sets in Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Manderlay. In the Tavianis the filmmakers will show violence, but show a character being killed only to have the character still talking after he’s been speared. Haneke’s Funny Games might be the most troublesome example: weakly violent in terms of distanciation devices, but decidedly strong in visceral impact. Direct to camera addresses and the rewinding of the film we’re watching alienate, but the violence is filmed, whether on screen or off, horrifically. “This is only red, but it should seem like blood”, Haneke might say, reversing Godard’s dictum.

So what we’ve tried to suggest here is first and foremost what weak violence is, and also how to differentiate between violence that is derealised from that which is distanciated. Some examples of the former are more obvious than others. Though we’ve used Tarantino as a key exemplar of derealised weak violence, his films are still generally both more ‘real’ and more ‘distanciated’ than the sort of action films Nigel Andrews and Harry McCallion talk about. In fact, Andrews amusingly differentiates between the Tarantinoesque weak violence and the Stallone/Schwarzenegger action film by saying “Before Pulp Fiction there was pump fiction –or fact. These hero-stars were built by themselves, for themselves, from themselves. ..Thus was born the hero as one man bio-mechanical army.” Out of this Pump Fiction came, if you like, pump-action heroes, the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones, van Dammes and Lundgrens, and also the mechanical taken to the level of the Robotic: T2, Robocop and Universal Soldier. This is obviously quite different from the derealised Tarantino take on weak violence, but perhaps Andrews is right to talk of a sort of genealogy. It’s as if the pump fiction led to pulp fiction, or rather the hyperbolically heroic, to the coolly heroic as they both share a waning of affect, yet without problematizing the image.

What seems unequivocal is that both pump and pulp fiction are examples of engaged weak violence, where Godard, Von Trier and others seem to want greater distance. Where still other filmmakers stand is open to debate: the filmmakers we invoked at the beginning of this piece, like Lynch and Scorsese. Stephen Prince, discussing ‘Graphic Violence in the Cinema’ in Screening Violence, says “viewers who whoop with approval at ultraviolence are often intuiting the filmmaker’s own aesthetic pleasure in creating such scenes. It is not simply that the design elicits the response.” “Rather” he believes, “the viewer grasps the filmmaker’s own relationship to the materials, the sensuous pleasures that a Penn, Peckinpah, Scorsese or Tarantino has derived from the audiovisual design of graphic violence…”

That may be the case, but we can still examine the types of violence on show, and see what ends they seem to be serving, no matter if filmmakers deploying violence enjoy the ingenuity of creating elaborate violent effects. There is no clear line between the derealised and the distanciated; just as there is no clear line between weak and strong violence. But, very loosely, we can note that the derealised directors want us to suspend disbelief but still be caught up in the story and the characters. The latter filmmakers make it harder for that identificatory relationship to develop. It is, again loosely, a cinema of thought over cool, reserved identification, and it brings to mind a remark Von Trier made in Sight & Sound when Breaking the Waves was released: that every shot, every image, should have a thought behind it. As a consequence each shot, each image, should, by the same token, allow us to extract a thought from it. With the derealised we often forget the nature of violence because we’re so focused on the film itself. In the distanciated, we’re much more aware of the very process of the filmmaker creating the images that then lend themselves to this notion of the ‘violent’. As Haneke once proposed in a Sight and Sound essay on Funny Games, “…the problem is not, How do I Show violence? Rather it is, How do I show viewers their own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?” Like Von Trier and Godard, for Haneke each image should have a thought behind it, and should possess what he calls “immanent self-reflection.” This is surely vital to distanciated violence and often curiously absent in its derealised manifestation.


©Tony McKibbin