A History of Violence
Here are a few scenes that we'll call examples of the aesthetics of the majority. Let us first think of a scene from Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. Erin is a poor white woman who embroils herself in a court case concerning six hundred plaintiffs fighting against a huge corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric, a company responsible, it seems, for water contamination. But she is spunky, enthusiastic and possesses a good mind and a better memory. When a hotshot lawyer takes over the case, his assistant patronisingly tells Erin that there were holes in her research. Erin gets defensive, the woman explains that they need the addresses and telephone numbers of all the plaintiffs, and Erin says which numbers does she need. The lawyer's assistant suggests Erin can't possibly have all six hundred names and details in her head and Erin reiterates, what numbers does she need. Of course Erin manages to rattle off a handful to prove that she knows them all by heart, and the film has practised the aesthetics of the majority, or, in common parlance, the crowd-pleasing scene. Other similar moments that come to mind include one in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting where Will defends his buddy with key quotations and facts from the past, after an Ivy Leaguer dismisses Will's blue collar friend. Then there is Twist in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, swallowing a lot of humiliation from his father-in-law until one day he has had enough. It is Thanksgiving dinner in Twist's home and Twist insists his son should concentrate on the food his mother's taken three hours to make rather than watch the superbowl on TV, and goes over and switches off the set. The father-in-law goes and switches it back on and eventually Twist explodes, telling his 'son of a bitch' father-in-law to show some respect: it's his home, it's his son; he'll make the rules.
And here, finally, are another couple. First there is Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, with Hilary Swank's central character, a brilliant young, successful female boxer who, cruelly and maliciously beaten in her last fight, now lies paralysed in her hospital bed, and is belatedly visited by her avaricious, uncaring mother. She hopes that Swank will sign over papers to the house she's bought for her mum, before her daughter's possible death. The only reason she didn't want the house earlier was because of the way it would affect her welfare payments. But by the same token if something happens to her daughter, she doesn't want to lose the house. Now up until this point in the film Swank's mother shows herself to be neglectful, spiteful and downright stupid, but Swank hasn't seen it. Yet in this scene she turns on her mum with the full vigour of the powerful and righteous, and the audience has its affirmative moment. Secondly, there is David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, where the central character's apparently feeble son is being bullied at school, and in one scene fights back: impressively demolishing the bully.
Now while certainly all the scenes work within the context of the aesthetics of the majority, they don't quite all offer this crowd-pleasing pleasure in quite the same way. Soderbergh and Van Sant seem to offer their scenes like Indie filmmakers playing the Hollywood game, as if wanting simultaneously to comment on and utilise the conventions. Good Will Hunting functions in this sense like a savvy self-consciousness, where Van Sant adopts a number of familiar tropes. Instead of completely remaking classic Hollywood, la Psycho, and turning the latter into a curious exercise in post-modern mimicry, he cleverly plays with just handful of elements. As he insists in a Guardian interview, Good Will Huntingwas for him "like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace...so it was a challenge." Ang Lee, meanwhile seems like someone who's absorbed American cinematic conventions like an immigrant who knows how to conjugate all his verbs: as Olaf Muller said in Film Comment: "Lee's film is classical cinema of an increasingly rare kind." It's like a comment one makes on a foreigner's perfect English, a grammatically correct English almost no-one speaks anymore. Eastwood's use of the crowd-pleasing scene is almost the opposite, some narrative equivalent of plains speak, of an American no-nonsense idiom; a cinematic pragmatism that says it might not be subtle but it certainly works. But of the five filmmakers it is Cronenberg who appears to want to call the conventions into question, and it's Cronenberg's film that we'll focus upon.
First of all we can say, though, the films ostensibly share a majority aesthetics that apparently leaves little room for the character emotionally, physically, or verbally defeated in the given scene. It is the antithesis of Renoir's reflective, empathic notion that everybody has his reasons, because the defeated characters are never given reasons, merely absurd prejudices that the audience knows will be completely decimated. The problem resides for the viewer in having little or no interpretative or empathic freedom in the scene, even as, paradoxically, the scenes themselves are offered as filmically liberating moments. But it is as if the filmmakers have taken Renoir's everybody has their reasons, and said actually no: some people have their reasons, and others have prejudices that are completely untenable. Yet we could insist that against the film's wishes, there's a Kierkegaardian side, a return of the repressed, not so much to these characters, but in the questioning viewer who refuses to accept the aesthetics of the majority. One thinks here of Alastair Hannay's introduction to Kierkegaard's Either/Or when he talks about different approaches to the dialogue, to discussions that allow for competing points of views to be expressed. One way would be where "one part convinces the other by making him see how what he says 'stands to reason'. There, would, however, be no appeal to 'inwardness'". That is, from our crowd-pleasing point of view, no appeal to the inward nature that leaves certain characters offering no more than prejudices so that 'outwardness' can win. It is this outwardness, the appeal to reason, to normal and just behaviour, that the films demand, but this is where the freedom paradox arises. Freedom is shown in a moment of affirmation, but it is an 'objective' freedom of 'outwardness', superimposing itself on the possibilities of 'inwardness'.
The question we might now ask is do any of these scenes nevertheless find space not so much for inwardness, which we would find in a very different film (in the work of Eric Rohmer, for example, or, at the other extreme, and yet not inconsistently so, films such as Taxi Driver and Seul contre tous, all films that we'll touch upon later), but for a questioning of their outwardness, a questioning of the assumptions of outwardness? Of the five scenes mentioned perhaps only Cronenberg's film does so, because the moment of affirmation scene where we're pleased the bully receives a beating, nevertheless echoes through the film in a story that is all about the history of violence on the personal and impersonal level. It is as though this story of a happy family has to be revealed to be a story of a happy family (the first fifteen minutes feel improbably small-town comfortable), and the history is indeed of unhappiness, or rather the escape from histories of violence. As we later find out, the bullied boy's father, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), used to be somebody else altogether, a violent man from Philadelphia who remakes himself in small town America. However, when he takes out some thugs who come to rob his diner, he becomes a national hero with his face all over the TV news, and his new identity gets called into question as his old identity comes to the fore. The film focuses upon this idea of the US as a place where violence is a skeleton in the cupboard rather than just something worms that turn happen to do. For Cronenberg the affirmative moment is questioned. Perhaps less than we would wish - the almost cartoon-like, Stall's Tarantino-esque taking out of his brother and his brother's cohorts near the end of the film, seems curiously comic and too easy on the audience's conscience. But at least the outwardness is questioned - so much so that one writer, Graham Fuller in Sight and Sound, suggests that actually the film is an elaborate example of, if you like, inwardness. As he says, "Tom Stall is another author - that is, if we're prepared to accept he's not really Joey Cusack but a disappointed guy who, like Hollywood film-makers, stays sane by dreaming up outlandish fantasies about mistaken identities, kinetic sex, gangsters and vulnerable children."
We might finally find Fuller's reading reductive, if only because what is most interesting about the film isn't that it might be an example of a character's subjectivity, but the way of all the crowd-pleasing scenes mentioned it allows room for inwardness out of an exploration of outwardness. The film doesn't so much propose that we get inside Tom Stall's head, but that we stay very resolutely outside it; that we're forced to confront the aesthetics of the majority as a problem within the context of the viewing experience, and not just as a problem within Tom's mind. We're put into a Kierkergaardian position, certainly, but not as a consequence of inwardness, but instead through the problem of outwardness, through watching a crowd-pleasing film that asks us whether we really want to be part of the crowd, when central to the notion of the crowd in this instance is the history of violent behaviour.
For the key crowd-pleasing scenes in the film are of course the scenes of violence, including the moment where Tom takes out the thugs; the son beats up the bully, Tom demolishes the hoods who come from Philly and recognize him, and finally the demolishing of his brother and his brother's henchmen, whom he kills near the end of the film. All are aesthetics of the majority scenes, and yet how are we supposed to respond to them? Should we see them as wish-fulfillment examples of inwardness as Fuller proposes, or queasy examples of uncomfortable outwardness? It's not necessarily that one reading has to take precedence over the other, but which one takes us places: which one helps make sense of the film's title for a start?
So often crowd-pleasing scenes appeal to 'everybody' yet are usually at the expense of somebody, and Cronenberg's film is interested in the price to be paid on a socio-historical level for this type of ideological perspective. As he says in Film Comment, "there's an hallucinatory quality to so-called normal life, particularly in the U.S.", and also says "the social contract is cancelled", and the western contract replaces it, the "western myth of the homesteader with his gun, defending his family and piece of property against other men with guns." What Cronenberg illustrates well is the problem of colliding outwardness, an outwardness that has to come into conflict with another's outwardness, and this will usually lead to violence, humiliation, animosity. It is, if you like, a democracy of externality. It's the idea that in the US everybody can become the president, which is wonderfully democratic, but at the same time that everybody should want to become the president creates this desire to win, to be the best, in a fairly objective, yet potentially destructive, notion of the best.
And it is this collision of achieved outwardness that finally seems to interest Cronenberg; and it is a paradoxical problem, because to some degree Tom Stall achieves inwardness through sheer excavation. As we see Stall keeping himself to himself, yet making small talk to the locals, we sense a man who has a clear idea of who is by rejecting what he used to be. When compared to his brother, who of course has retained his identity throughout, Tom looks fulfilled, achieved, contained. His brother is almost an absurd example of the gangster equivalent of becoming president. He's reached the top of the gangster tree, and lives in a palatial abode, and works out of a study lined with books that serve less the metonymy of bookishness than suggests the signs of the poor boy made good. Some libraries indicate inwardness, the library as a reflection of an individual's brain; others outwardness: the avaricious desire to purchase antique first editions, rarely to be touched let alone read. William Hurt's character indicates very much the latter.
Now some crtics, like Fuller, and also Amy Taubin in Film Comment, have proposed Stall is in limbo land, evidenced by his name and even, Taubin claims "the letters themselves - "t" and the double "l" - suggest the bars of an institution." But maybe it's more useful to think not in terms of a state of limbo, but again of the difficulty of inwardness in a country that praises so many elements that lead to collision. If not all the affirmation scenes we've quoted are violent, they're all at the very least contestations, scenes where winning and losing matters, and where perspective, in the Nietzschean sense, isn't an option. This sense of perspective can avoid tension because not everybody is pursuing happiness in identical form, but pursuing their own perspective on life. As Gilles Deleuze says in The Logic of Sense, utilising Nietzsche, and also Leibniz. "From Leibniz, we had already learned that there are no points of view on things, but that things, beings, are themselves points of view." Deleuze goes on to say that whereas Leibniz's point of view nevertheless leads to a certain convergence, Nietzsche's leads to a profound difference, a real potential for different perspectives to work simultaneously. Thus Deleuze goes on to say, "it is not that the disjunction has become a simple conjunction...but the whole question, and rightly so, is to know under what conditions the disjunction is a veritable synthesis..." Thus this isn't about a logical synthesis, but a healthy divergence.
The question here is how can cinema absorb not a form of the logical synthesis that allows for the crowd-pleasing scene, where there is a right (person) and a wrong (person), but just different perspectives? This is where it might be useful to bring in Rohmer's work, and also Taxi Driver and Seul contre tous. Rohmer is a great filmmaker only vaguely, and yet importantly, connected to Renoir. In Rohmer everybody also has his reasons, and Rohmer follows them almost subterraneously, as characters conform to Rohmer's idea that he is not so interested in what characters do but what they think about when they're doing something. This means that a character may touch a knee without any of the other characters knowing what this knee touching signifies (as in Claire's Knee), or a young man can work out his feelings in relation to three women without having sex with any of them (A Summer's Tale). Know thyself would be Rohmer's claim, and know thyself chiefly through reflection not action.
At the other extreme we have the characters in Taxi Driver and Seul contre tous, characters whose thoughts lead to intense acts of violence, but they're presented to us as characters lacking credence, lacking the very credence, in fact, that many of the characters in the crowd-pleasing films achieve through removing the credence of other characters. Imagine remaking, say, Good Will Hunting from the point of view of the humiliated Ivy league loser, Million Dollar Baby from the angle of the mother, or Brokeback Mountainfrom the perspective of the father-in-law, and that will help explain the perspectivism on offer in Martin Scorsese and Gaspar Noe's films. They don't want the sympathetic position that's really just a variation on the logically correct, on rightness and its emotional equivalent, righteousness.
They instead work from the position of absurdity, amorality, subjectivity and, finally, the untenable in the Kantian sense, when Kant famously says, "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." How could we claim a character like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, who wants to assassinate a political candidate, and later slays a number of pimps, practices tenable behaviour, or ditto, the butcher in Seul contre tous, who beats his fiancee to an almost certain miscarriage and who fondles his own daughter? And yet this untenableness is in some ways less problematic, because it at least acknowledges its status as an aesthetics of the minority, of the behaviour of the few. The crowd-pleasing scene gives the impression of tenableness, but so often the scenes create tension that if universalized would of course be extremely untenable, and would create the sort of surreal tension Cronenberg takes to extremes to show up the apparent tenableness of the aesthetics of the majority for what it really is. Thus where Rohmer suggest a healthy inwardness, where everybody has his reasons and frequently other characters needn't know about the drive, so internalised does it happen to be, and Scorsese and Noe suggest an unhealthy inwardness, where the drive leads to extreme violence, Cronenberg explores the problem of the aesthetics of the majority as a problem of outwardness, a problem many other filmmakers ignore. Sure, they may utilise it in one film and then question it in another. Van Sant, for example, allows Elephant to play like an inversion of Good Will Hunting, where the casual utilisation of the superficial slight in Good Will Hunting can become central in the inexplicable 'revenge' of the later film.
But it is as if Cronenberg's film wants to incorporate the acceptance and the questioning within the one work. It wants to work the feel-good outwardness and the problematic outwardness in such a way that the culpability factor doesn't lie with a scapegoated individual often so central to the crowd-pleasing moment (the father-in-law in Brokeback Mountain; the mother in Million Dollar Baby), but echoes back to society. We might think here of the 'crowd-pleased' response to Tom Stall's slaying of the hoods who come into his diner and try to rob him at gunpoint. The story becomes big news and everybody wants a slice of the hero. At first Tom seems to be offering a typically heroic reticence, but later we will choose to read it differently; that of course Tom wants nothing to do with the media, for in its glare his real identity may be revealed. Which is exactly what happens, when a couple of Philadelphia gangsters arrive in the small town and force Tom to admit that he is actually Joey Cusack, and an apparent act of isolated violence becomes a violence begets violence scenario, the very scenario that Joey was caught in years before back in Philadelphia.
Earlier we invoked Graham Fuller's reading of the film, and he intriguingly bolsters it by suggesting that Cronenberg's work has, especially in recent years, shown an interest in metaphor. Now Fuller suggests that though Cronenberg talks about special effects being central to the metaphor, "Cronenberg has not always relied on special effects, but he began to interiorise his metaphors more consistently from the time of Dead Ringers..." For Cronenberg gynaecology became, in his own words in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, "such a beautiful metaphor for the mind/body split." But let us say just as many of Cronenberg films have worked with the notion of a split through virtuality and reality (Videodrome, The Naked Lunch, Existenz, Spider) and suggested the exploration of inwardness through use of metaphor, as Fuller proposes, just as readily Cronenberg has shown a continuing interest in outwardness and allegory: Shivers, Rabid, Crash and now A History of Violence. What are the key differences between metaphorical inwardness and allegorical outwardness?
In the former, as Cronenberg indicates, you have in many ways a literary problem transposed on film: the "movie of The Naked Lunch, which is very much about writing and new realities that are made through the creative process, should present me again with this problem of metaphor. This is something I struggle with all the time. The use of metaphor in literature is crucial, and there is no direct screen equivalent...What do you do when you want to deliver a concept that requires some kind of metaphor and you can't do it in the way it's done on paper." (Sight and Sound) But the latter, the allegorical, would seem to lend itself much more readily to cinema, for in the allegorical one can create abstractly an intensity equal to the reality. Let us propose for example that A History of Violence works as an allegory of the events surrounding September 11, evidenced when Cronenberg says, following on from his comments about the myth of the homesteader, "...When westerns are mentioned by the president as part of his foreign policy, when Osama Bin Laden is wanted 'Dead or Alive', you have to seriously think about the 'interbleeding' of genre, myth and real-politik."( Film Comment)
This isn't to say Cronenberg just tells an allegorical story in a superimpositional way, in a way that makes the allegorical absolute, as Hannah Arendt defines the allegorical in her introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations. Here she says "The allegory must be explained before it can become meaningful, a solution must be found to the riddle it presents, so that the often laborious interpretation of allegorical figures always unhappily reminds one of the solving of puzzles..." Metaphor, however, should "be understood in its original, non-allegorical sense of metapherein (to transfer). For a metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation..." Cronenberg wants to say something about an America where a certain mindset wraps its head around a terrorist obsession, if we take into account his comments above, and that he wants to find a form that will simultaneously shrink the enormity of the subject, and expand the specifics of an instinct to that subject.
In this sense an allegory can function with the same tentativeness as the metaphorical, as long as it remains within the realm of the probing instinct. If Cronenberg were to try to create an elaborate allegory that would tick off all the boxes of terroristic response, and then turn the town into a microcosm of America, then we would have something close to Arendt's definition of allegory, but Cronenberg's allegorical angle is closer to that of a suggestive conceit: with the director's hypothetical bent lending itself subsequently especially well to the sci-fi genre. Hence Shivers and Rabid pose the question of promiscuity meeting sexual disease, Videodrome, the problem of curiosity killing the cat in the age of advanced visual technology, and in Crash, car culture colliding with sexual desire. These are not allegories of anything, in the manner of Orwell's Animal Farm, but moves towards something in a highly sci-fi speculative mode.
Obviously The History of Violence doesn't possess this 'speculative faculty' (finally a more appropriate term for Cronenberg's sci-fi work, than science fiction) in quite the same way. But it still contains the speculative faculty in its attempt to grasp a cultural problematic. If Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome and Crash are speculative, The History of Violence is essentially reflective. It finds a way to reflect upon a problematic much bigger than the film's events, and what we need to do is try to explain the film's magnification of an idea, and its contraction of a social problem. This is why we think inwardness is not a useful way of making sense of the film, and why looking at outwardness proves much more fruitful. It is as if the film is asking how can outwardness work, how can one move towards outwardness without colliding with others? Tom Stall is very much a man who decides to keep 'himself to himself', a useful expression for a state that eschews both inwardness and outwardness. A man who keeps himself to himself is perhaps worthy of the name Stall; he's somebody who wouldn't quite be defined as introspective, but obviously has little interest in gregariousness either. Cronenberg goes out of his way in the early stages of the film to show Tom as a man who keeps to himself. He is always willing to say hi to the locals, but he has little interest in engaging in conversation, and he's obviously decided to make his wife, his two kids and his work in the diner that he owns the focus of his existence. What he is doing, it would seem, is not creating small town fantasies of heroic deeds, as Fuller indicates, but protecting himself from the dangers of gregarious behaviour that in the past has caused him so much trouble: it is why he has escaped from Philadelphia and started a new life.
Now we needn't be ingenious here and claim Stall's keeping himself to himself resembles the U.S.'s response to political events in the wake of Vietnam, and it is only when he is roused back into violence that he once again is forced into war-mongering. First of all this would suggest the cumbersome alllegorizing Arendt dismisses, and secondly - though critics like Robin Wood have seen a reactionary strain in Cronenberg - a right-wing thematic. Thirdly, it would ask us to forget the numerous belligerent situations the US has got itself into directly or indirectly since the war in the far East. No, instead what the film proposes is much more the whole problem of an aesthetics of the majority colliding with a history of violence. What Cronenberg provocatively, almost pacifistically proposes, is that finally there is little difference between the violence that takes out gangsters, and the violence that has Tom Stall at one moment smacking his own son, because both are part of the same virus. When Cronenberg uses the title, A History of Violence, it is viral andgenealogical, the latter a term often used to describe, say, the son of a wife-beating father who beats his own wife - that there is a history of violence in the family.
Generally an aesthetics of the majority differentiates from righteous behaviour and unrighteous behaviour, whether violent or otherwise. In the other instances mentioned above, all the scenes in Good Will Hunting etc. function similarly to scenes of violence, in the sense that they are all show-down scenes, except that the gun-fight in the bar scenario becomes sublimated into ego battles. But this is only partial sublimation, as we see the problem of human communication that creates categorical winners and losers is still very much in place. Whether someone has been physically or mentally humiliated doesn't always make a difference to how they feel in the long-term. Sticks and stones may break some bones but can names not equally hurt you? Cronenberg chooses to work with breaking bones rather than calling names, because he is interested in the virus of violence attached to the desire to come out on top. This is where the dubious but thematically relevant violent denouement comes in. Tom returns to Philadelphia to talk with his brother, and in the process is forced to take out his brother and the various henchmen. In a scene that worryingly combines anything from Tarantino, to John Woo, and the acrobatics of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhang Yimou's Hero, the film illustrates how the violence of necessity becomes, at least for the audience, the violence of relish. The constant reaction shots to the brother's sense of amazement as Tom/Joey goes about demolishing his henchmen, resembles our own responses to a Woo shoot-out.
Maybe, finally, this is Cronenberg having his cake and eating it. After all he's always been a pragmatically commercial filmmaker. Not exactly one who'll sell out to the nearest studio, but nevertheless a filmmaker aware of box-office returns. As his producer Ivan Reitman said about Rabid: "It would be really great for us if you like [porn star] Marilyn Chambers for this movie, because her name means something, we can afford her and she wants to do a straight movie. But if you think she's bad, we'll forget it." Cronenberg of course used her, but even if she was cast as much for her box-office potential as any talent she possessed, and that Cronenberg has always been aware of the commercial returns, this doesn't negate his thematic, his allegorical achievement here. He may utilise numerous scenes that pass for the crowd-pleasing (and consequently the commercially viable) but he also does so to work with ouwardness and the aesthetics of the majority. He manages to call it into question at a time when many Americans, once again taking into account Cronenberg's comments, and the simple existence of Bush as the president of the United States, want to take the virus of violence as an issue of righteousness, a mode of correctness that any God-Fearing, family loving man should respect. However in such a righteous approach the violence should never infect the culture; merely protect it. Such is the Bush administration's take on the violent.
And yet in Cronenberg's approach, and in his wonderful coda, an inversion of The Searchers, and almost a homage to The Deer Hunter, Cronenberg begs to differ. Where at the end of Ford's film we have Ethan Edwards accepting his violent nature and realising he's been too infected by the virus of violence to become part of the homestead; in Cronenberg's film Tom returns home and there is this awkward, curious stillness in the scene that seems to suggest the family will not so much forget as deny the intense violence that has impacted on their lives in recent weeks. It is unlikely to go away, and it may mean the family will never ever be able to confront aspects of themselves again, but so be it: it is the price of a happy ending, Cronenberg style. At the end of The Deer Hunter, De Niro's veteran, his paraplegic friend and fellow veteran, and their friends, sing God Bless America in a manner that indicates one's country is great no matter if it sends you off to fight in wars that are none of your business. Like in Cronenberg's film, there's an indeterminacy to the irony that makes us think of an ideological pragmatism and an ontological shallowness that nevertheless will allow them to get on with their lives. But that doesn't mean the film simply sides with the characters. Cronenberg here seems to suggest that Stall will once again return to keeping himself to himself, but this limbo land between inwardness and outwardness will also, perhaps exclude any real relationship with members of his own family, who are now aware of the violence within him, and also now part of them.
© Tony McKibbin