If weak violence suggest that we shouldn't take violence too seriously, strong violence asks to be taken very seriously indeed. But what is strong violence, and where do we find it? According to Devin McKinney, strong violence takes place in films like The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, The French Connection and in fact many of the pictures that were defined as "New Hollywood" - that filmmaking movement written about so scurrilously by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and whose directors were amongst others Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, De Palma, Peckinpah, Altman and Rafelson. Specific examples of strong violence would of course include the violent opening street battle in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, with the townsfolk horrified bystanders to the shoot-out that takes place, and it would also include the graphic shoot-out near the end of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, when Travis Bickle slays the pimps and saves a twelve year prostitute under the pimps' control.
We could also include under strong violence films that have utilised graphic documentary images, films like Persona, by Ingmar Bergman, where we see a monk self-immolating, and also Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, where we witness footage of shot African rebels. And subsequently, of course, we would also include documentaries themselves, where violent footage is shown. One cannot readily forget the killing of a terrified Vietnamese teenager shown in Peter Davis's Hearts and Minds, footage horribly iconographized in a single, still photo where we see the young man's final moments as the gun is going off. Davis's film gives us the moment in close-up, with the cameraman humanly implicated in the deed. In View from a Grain Sand, there is a sense of shocked, impotence as the camera captures in long shot a Burka-wearing woman in a stadium in Afghanistan getting shot in the head. The Battle of Chile shows street fighting in Santiago in the early seventies after Allende's fall and Pinochet's coup. The cameraman pays for his professionalism with his life: a bullet travels in the direction of the camera, and the footage ends as the cameraman falls.
These are all what we could call examples of strong violence, though of course there is a large difference between violent fact and violent fiction. But what fictional strong violence wants to offer is the violence within a plausible social context, and to hint at its meaning beyond the frame. Thus such violence wouldn't be first and foremost a moral issue, where the priority would be to show a good guy winning and a bad guy dying, with the moral coordinates taking priority over sociological or epistemological elements. No, in fictional strong violence (and that will be chiefly our area of focus) the morality is usually foregone - even to the degree that the films are taken to be immoral or amoral works - and the milieu tends to be much more the focus of our attention: everything is more detailed and more specific, and violence would be one of the elements that we find being witnessed in a more 'real' way. Hence when audiences came out of The Wild Bunch, they thought the violence was more real than anything they had seen on screen before. But as James Kendrick notes in Film Violence, to achieve such realism required more artifice than ever: it was "shot with as many as six Panavision, Mitchell and Arriflex cameras that were all running at different speeds with different wide angle, telephoto and zoom lenses."
But that didn't mean artifice in itself interested the directors (no matter their fascination with the form and technology of mayhem as critics like Stephen Prince noted in Screening Violence). Often the "New Hollywood" filmmakers would work ostensibly within genre boundaries and then burst those boundaries with an amoral vividness of detail. If Andre Bazin could say in What is Cinema? Vol .2, that "epic style [in the western] derives its real meaning only from the morality which underlies and justifies it. It is the morality of a world in which social good and evil, in their simplicity and necessity, exist like two primary and basic elements", Peckinpah, by this reckoning, would say he wanted to turn the western inside out. Instead of the emphasis on the moral aspect, the priority becomes the intensity of detail, and violence was often central to that emphasis. We might think here of the opening moments in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with the graphically blown away hens, or the massacres in Soldier Blue and Little Big Man that seemed as readily to evoke the horrors that were taking place in Vietnam at the same time as bring to mind the conventional western.
This wasn't so much the filmmakers allegorizing the genre, as putting into the western the sort of messy violence that would have been the norm in skirmishes between the white man and the native American Indian, acts of violence not very different, finally, than those between the white man and the Vietcong in Asia. As Pauline Kael half-ruefully, half-sardonically noted in her essay collection, Deeper into Movies, "when you notice that Jack Crabb's lovely Indian bride [in Little Big Man] looks Vietnamese you start waiting uneasily for more slaughter."
Filmmakers in other genres were also pushing the specifics and upping the violence. Roman Polanski, as director and antagonist, slit open Jack Nicholson's character's nose in Chinatown, a graphic action that also had repercussions: for much of the film thereafter Nicholson walked around with his nose plastered up, as we see the real dangers a private eye would be up against when he messes in people's business. The star's face is of course central to a film's appeal, and so the film is a twofold assault on audience expectation. On the one hand Nicholson is the star whose face is half covered, and on the other the violence no longer settles for what Stephen Prince perceptively calls in Classical Film Violence, "substitutional poetics". This is where the violence in more censorious times would take place off-screen, or where an object, say, would stand in for the violence meted out. Polanski could have settled for showing a car dented as a warning; not the nose being sliced in vivid detail. One might also think of the terrible scene from Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Here the nouveau riche hood proves his power by ruining a beautiful young woman's face as a warning to the hero, who doesn't even know the woman. Here noir really earns its dark nomenclature as Altman, like Polanski, but even more so, offers the opposite of substitutional poetics.
This specificity of detail maybe lies at the heart of strong violence if we suggested that its absence is central to much violence that we might describe as weak, and here we might usefully invoke Kant's differentiation between two types of judgement in relation to knowledge: the analytic and the synthetic. An analytic argument would be basically where the argument is self-evidently claimed in the statement. For example if someone said that if all cats are black and Tibby is a cat, then it is analytically evident that Tibby is a black cat. The synthetic statement though refers to the world beyond the parameters of the statement: an argument that alludes to the world rather than self-contained logic. Thus the analytic offers self-contained statements; while the latter require empirical evidence. Leibniz, a philosopher preceding Kant, helpfully put it in a succinct manner: "truths of reason" from "truths of fact". Now we don't want to get lost in the subtlety of such philosophical arguments. All we want to offer is a useful way of trying to understand firstly the difference between fictional violence and real, documentary violence, and, secondly, how strong violence tries to acknowledge this debt to the real world. This is basically what McKinney means when he attacks weak violence by saying, "it's too rationalized, too articulate - either in limited sense of "nice" cinematic effects too well contrived to have any other content, or because the outrages are stapled, memo like, to external signifiers that bury their very peculiar meanings." "Either way," he adds, "violence is used only as a device: something a crowd pays for when it goes in, but not when it comes out."
Thus where Pulp Fiction works chiefly because of its lack of detail (with Tarantino often airbrushing the violence with irony), The Wild Bunch, for example, wants to examine a violent society, in 1914, caught between imminent civilization, even urbanization, and the outlaw element that still makes the country unsafe. The early sequence, where the outlaw gang is ambushed, and numerous townsfolk killed, isn't just a scene of audience pleasing thrills, but a key aspect of socio-historical commentary. Isn't it inevitable that in a culture caught between the law of the gun and the law of society, innocent bystanders will be slaughtered? Taxi Driver is obviously a more contemporary work of socio-specifics, a film very much of its mid-seventies era, shot on the streets of New York and with such a clear sense of time and place that it feels like a time capsule film of seventies Manhattan. As Scorsese says, in Scorsese on Scorsese, "the whole film was very much based on my impressions of having grown up in New York," adding "we shot the film during a very hot summer and there's an atmosphere at night that's like a seeping kind of virus." The film doesn't only want to tell a story, it wants the "truth of facts" to seep into the material.
But where is the alibi, the justification, for the violent scenes in the film, some might say: the scene halfway through where Bickle shoots a thief dead and the shopkeeper then beats the body with a metal bar, and the penultimate shoot-out scene quoted above. Others might claim it lies in violence coming home to roost. After all, though Bickle's back story is kept vague, he seems to be a returning Vietnam vet, alienated and lonely, who may very well have mastered the codes of violent conduct in Vietnam, but can't quite seem to master the lingo, the social norms and blas attitude required for seventies urban living. Early in the film the taxi boss mentions the word moonlighting and Bickle doesn't know what it means; later Bickle gets a date with the lovely, bourgeois Betsy, and takes her to a porn theatre. His most natural mode of communication appears to be that of violence, hence making sense of the training routine he puts himself through as he prepares for the sorts of acts he may well have perpetrated in Vietnam, but this time are aimed at the streets of New York. As with Peckinpah's film, Scorsese problematically and troublesomely brings together the primitive and the urban, and watches the chaos that results.
This isn't to say either film is the last word in realism. Many found Peckinpah's slow-mo and multiple montage shots too affected, and Scorsese's vision of New York too jaundiced and subjective: as Scorsese acknowledged, the film was story-boarded, and he wanted a dream-like quality to the movie. Other films from New Hollywood that would seem to claim a new respect for realism were seen as laughably lacking in "truth of fact". A film like The Deer Hunter, by Michael Cimino, for example, caused people a lot of problems because though it vividly depicted the sense of devastation befalling a small Pennsylvanian mining town as some of its inhabitants went off to fight in Vietnam, it also included scenes of Russian roulette that the film created for dramatic effect, leading to accusations of fantasised racism. Jonathan Rosenbaum in Movies as Politics reckoned the film was "ultra-sadistic rather than ultra realistic." John Pilger in Heroes was incensed: "the producers had spent $14m of EMI's money packaging the war for Hollywood as a movie which would reincarnate the triumphant Batman-jawed Caucasian warrior...and present a suffering people as sub-human Oriental barbarians and idiots." Pilger of course exaggerates his case to make a polemical point, but we should remember that we're always talking of relative realism even in moments of strong violence. Few would argue however that the Russian roulette scenes could pass for the weakly violent: there is no sense of mockery, absurdity, derealisation or distanciation in such scenes, despite the racist sub, or not so sub-text.
Thus whatever criticisms have been levelled at The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, we're still talking about a very different film world than that of the subdued, morally emphasized violence often found in classic Hollywood, and the less morally assured yet nevertheless still 'factually untrue' aggression in Bond, Stallone outings and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Perhaps we could talk then of partial realism, or the semi-synthetic, within the context of strong violence. Sure, the realism has limitations, but that is chiefly because of the filmmakers' concentration on certain aspects of the milieu and the leading characters' perceptions over that of others. Thus Taxi Driver is seen very much from Bickle's point of view, seeing New York in a tunnel-visioned manner; and the same is certainly the case in Chinatown, with scriptwriter Robert Towne saying he wanted all the scenes to be viewed from his detective J.J. Gittes' perspective. Even Peckinpah was interested in this askew realism. As Stephen Prince says in Screening Violence, "Peckinpah manipulates sound during the slow-motion shots by amplifying sound effects. The cries of the baby and mother and the howling wind are selectively amplified..."
From this aesthetically partial realism, however, the world is nevertheless 'real': it is as interested in sociological fact as narrative reason. Examples that come to mind include the two briefly mentioned scenes from Taxi Driver. The first is when Bickle shoots the thief in the shop, but it's not so much the shooting that is awful, as the beating the shopkeeper administers to the dead body. Scorsese captures well in this moment the sheer fear and frustration of a New York shopkeeper at the end of his tether and the sense of a city hurtling towards communication breakdown. That it's also a young black man who's being beaten with the bar makes it even more of an issue: there lies ethnic tension as well as communication failure. What we find is a certain moral ambivalence, not just amorality at work. Scorsese isn't interested in showing the shopkeeper as good and the black villainous, with Bickle saving the shopkeeper's life. Instead the act of violence is played out against a sociological backdrop of some complexity. How are we to respond to a situation where the three characters are all in their own way desperate and confused? The viewer isn't placed in a cool but suspect position, as we sometimes find in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but a position where we might sympathize with the shopkeeper up to a point, worry about Bickle's over-reaction, and feel that another young black life has been lost in a country with a famously high mortality rate for blacks. In the second scene, where Bickle slays the pimps, we might be horrified by the violence, but Bickle is saving a twelve year old girl from prostitution, and yet he is also clearly mentally unhinged. Strong violence often leaves us with this need to make sense of moral complexities, in what Vivian Sobchack would call mortal twitching.
The important aspects of strong violence lie chiefly then in the vividness of the milieu presented, no matter the subjectivity or partiality of the perspective, and the morally complex position the viewer finds him or herself in. One feels engaged in a socio-ethical problem, not a narrative game. Strong violence does not assume that all can be resolved by an internal logic that the film plays out, as though the narrative is analytic in the Kantian sense: in other words that all the answers are basically contained within the premises. Where often weak violence feels like a syllogism - that the narrative is complete unto itself, and need pay little attention to the empirical evidence outside its own statement - strong violence wants 'life' to bleed into the work. Strong violence also neither de-realizes, nor distanciates, and thus perhaps protects itself from the devilment of the former, where violence is removed from its context, and the aesthetic formalism of the latter, which would damage its socio-specific credibility.
It also tends to utilise genre without slavishly following the tropes to the detriment of milieu. We frequently find in seventies films, like Altman's western, McCabe and Mrs Miller, his film noir The Long Goodbye, and Friedkin's The French Connection, a rejection of the genre convention for an interest in the specifics. In McCabe, Altman shows the muddy ingloriousness of the frontier spirit; in The Long Goodbye the focus is on the incidental over the sub-textual, and in The French Connection, the film's interest in urban frustration always takes precedence over the thriller expectations - never more so than in the film's deflated conclusion where Popeye Doyle fails to get his man. It is as if what is central to the strong violence McKinney mentions is how it takes generic elements and offers them within a vivid milieu. Then when an event takes place within the film - like the ambush at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, a key, bleak shooting at the end of Chinatown - it is horrifying in part because we sense the variables at work rather than the genre conventions to which it adheres. In weak violence this isn't the case, so there is the very funny scene in Austin Powers, where the film parodies the weakly violent: a Bondian style henchman is killed and somebody has to phone the henchman's wife and tell her he's been eaten by some bass eating sharks.
There are still a couple of points to make here before concluding. One is that though we've focused almost exclusively on American cinema of the seventies, of course strong violence has appeared at other times and in other places. Pier Paolo Pasolini's adaptation of Sade's Salo was made in Italy in the mid-seventies, and remains a numbing experience: numbing in the manner in which it neither quite implicates nor removes the viewer from the sadistic acts it shows. Pasolini's account of Facism at the end of WWII, as various youngsters are brought to a castle to be raped, tortured and killed, isn't even morally ambivalent. It simply follows through on a certain nihilistic logic. Pasolini said that he conceived the film as a rite, as a ritual, as though echoing Gilles Deleuze's comment, in his book on Masochism published in 1967, that for Sade "the transition from lower nature to primary nature implies no suspense or system of aesthetics, but an attempt to establish a mechanism of perpetual motion." This isn't cinema as a game, but a ritualistic exercise played out within the film as Pasolini updates Sade to the Nazi period. The viewer looks on, implicated not as viewers but indeterminate voyeurs, watching the unremitting inevitability of lives being removed.
Examples of strong violence in more recent films would be some of Abel Ferrara's work, like The Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game. In the former, Harvey Kietel plays the eponymous character, hooked on booze and drugs and caught in an immoral world that includes one scene where a nun's raped by two boys. In the latter the film within a film scenario gets so emotionally complicated that in one scene where James Russo's character rapes Madonna's, we're not exactly sure whether we're in the film within the film, or just within the film, and yet for all the film's self-reflexivity, we're still responding powerfully to a rape scene: it doesn't quite distanciate. We can also mention Scorsese's Casino, most especially the appalling head in the vice sequence, and there is also strong violence in contemporary European films that are rather less known: Short, Sharp Shock and Head On by Fatih Akin, and The Pusher films by Nicolas Winding Refn.
And of course not all seventies films worked with strong violence, and others, if they did so, often utilised it quite ambivalently. Where after all do we place the Singin' in the Rain sequence in A Clockwork Orange: surely in some way a precursor to Tarantino's combo of the peppy and the gut-churning in Reservoir Dogs' ear removal scene? Yet Kubrick's aloof approach is surely not quite the same as Tarantino's implicative sadism. The latter too readily brings to mind a comment Paul Virilio makes in Art and Fear. Quoting Gabriel Ringlet saying "to humanize oneself is to universalize oneself from within", Virilio wonders how much contemporary life and, subsequently art, is doing the opposite: "dehumanising us from without by shattering our ethic and aesthetic bearings, our very perception of our surroundings." We should always ask how in consequence the work puts us back together again; whether one feels it is an engagement with the world, or an overly sadistic and lazy retreat from it. Documentary violence in this sense can be like the moral conscience of violent fiction: an awareness of the horrifying atrocities actually out there. This is how it functions in direct form in both Persona and The Passenger, but it is often allusively present in films of strong fictional violence also. We may pay to watch it when we go into the cinema, but we leave aware that it also takes place outside the cinema too.
© Tony McKibbin