This week I’m not reviewing a movie. I’m basically writing an essay, which is a particularly disturbing departure from the norm because for the first time in seventeen years, I’m actually not a student, so writing an essay should be the last thing on my mind, but I’m passionate about this topic. As the title perhaps indicated, this week I am writing about the banality of violence in cinema. The question of violence is closely linked to that of the audience as voyeur. In much the same way that certain… ahem… parties will watch pornography to spy on the (artificial) sexual experiences of other (artificial) people, there’s an element of voyeurism to watchin’ dudes kill other dudes for the sake of watchin’ dudes kill other dudes. I’d be lying if I said was guiltless of this. Uh… of the latter thing… the dudes and the killing. Sometimes you just want to shut your brain off and watch some action. This is no way a jab at my colleague Drew Parton and his magnificent Mindless Action Mondays column, because that’s some intelligent and fun criticism right there. It’s difficult to get criticism that’s both.
No, what I really want to address in this article is not mindless action, but mindless violence, and the distinction is important. This is not a discussion of explosions and car crashes a la Fast and Furious 6, which is a borderline masterpiece; it’s a discussion of blood, pain, cruelty, and perverse heroism. I’m not going to say that this is a trend in blockbusters these days, because it’s always been somewhat present in film history, but blockbusters are a convenient target.
Let’s consider 300: Rise of an Empire. I’ll be upfront. I did not like this film. 300 is a “retelling” (a term I use generously) of the battle of Thermopylae. The heroic lead is a Greek general who commands his ragtag fleet against OVERWHELMING ODDS, a phrase I plan on employing a lot throughout this post. Well, crap. Much like in the first 300 film, the odds are about a thousand to one. Worried that it’d be unrealistic otherwise, the filmmakers find that the easiest solution to this problem is to have all of the protagonists kill about a thousand guys each. The audience can pick out the handsome hero in the carnage and follow him as he runs through the army, severing heads and other extremities, impaling some, gutting others, the blood gushing out in torrents, and our man all the while avoids even the slightest harm. Yikes. This should be shocking. He is massacring people. Right? Oh, actually, no, they all wear dark robes and masks, so they may as well be orcs. I guess that makes it okay. The act of disassociation is common and, frankly, a little lazy, but understandable. What’s not understandable is the fact that these sequences are still boring to watch. I feel nothing, not for the victims or the protagonist, or even for the situation. I don’t even feel entertained. Why not?
We’re entering into an analysis of the badass now. One impervious hero, who can handle everything and will win in the end, versus OVERWHELMING ODDS. This is a pretty common form of cinematic heroism, because audiences are obsessed with underdog stories, and even though America hasn’t had a crisis of power since about 1863, there’s nothing more satisfying to an American audience than the triumph of the little guy. It’s the American Dream, isn’t it? In a sense, yes it is. The somewhat antiquated promise of this country is that anyone can rise to the top if they work hard enough. We like this narrative arc, so we apply it to all genres. Think about a romantic comedy like, for example, Hitch (which I really enjoyed, by the way). It’s all about a sad-looking Kevin James being in love with someone who’s way out of his league. With the help of Will Smith, though, he just might stand a chance. American Dream. Another example of the American Dream: Equilibrium. Christian Bale lives in a society where all emotion has been snuffed out. Realizing how wrong this is, he decides to overthrow the oppressive powers and free the populace. That’s admirable. It’s also an incarnation of the American Dream. It’s also the movie with the highest onscreen body count, and holds the record for most individual onscreen kills by a single character. Bale kills about 180 people one-by-one. That’s… is that the American Dream? Succeeding against OVERWHELMING ODDS at any cost?
You can witness this unlikely triumph of the individual in countless films, especially Hollywood films. It’s not a bad thing. When you boil them down, this is the basic underlying plot of classics like The Searchers or even The Wizard of Oz. Of course, in those days, maybe partly due to censorship, I don’t know, filmmakers didn’t feel the need for excessive violence to illustrate heroic conquest. This sensibility was pretty much gone by the ‘80s, I think, which is why this funny little joke is so poignant: a child of the 80s begs for more violence, but his grandfather understands that killing the villain is not always the appropriate solution. It’s also a little disconcerting that this kid equates survival with victory.
Forgive me for sounding like an old codger, but back in the day, the hero didn’t need to mercilessly slaughter everyone. Think about John Wayne’s most stoically heroic role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That movie does not have a high body count, and the only deaths are those that are strictly necessary for the plot. Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West by accident. Even though the Witch tried to kill her countless time, Dorothy still feels guilty after the fact.
Of course, violence and body count are not the same thing. A movie can be horrendously violent with relatively few deaths. It’s a serious challenge to determine which of Fritz Lang’s films is his darkest, but his 1953 noir masterpiece The Big Heat is certainly among the top five. This is a classic revenge tale, centered on a detective (Glenn Ford) who goes on a rampage to find his wife’s murderer. He gives up his badge, his career, what’s left of his family; he breaks the law and it’s clear that whatever justice he’s trying to uphold is not based on any social rules. This is an incredibly grim and at times disturbing movie; it’s also very violent. Guess how many people our Detective Bannion kills on his rampage? Zero. Lang doesn’t call attention to this, you have to notice it. I watched it for a class and when I mentioned this to everyone they found it just as surprising as I did (that included my professor). Why did we all find it so shocking that Bannion didn’t murder anyone? Why was killing the expected norm?
We expect violence as the staple to any revenge tragedy. I mean, Shakespeare was all about that. Ever heard of Titus Andronicus? That play is way more violent than any of the movies I’ve mentioned so far. Titus is not really a badass, though. Shakespeare seldom dealt with badasses, because that didn’t really figure into the equation of “tragic hero” at the time. You know one contemporary filmmaker who clearly gets this notion and spends a lot of his time making violent revenge movies? It’s not Quentin Tarantino, it’s… Chan-wook Park. Yeah, you totally guessed it. Looks like we’re headed back to Oldboy yet again.
When describing Oldboy to people, I usually like to open with a brief synopsis: a man is kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured for fifteen years without explanation, and then is just as mysteriously released. Thirsting (inside joke, sorry) for vengeance and answers, he embarks upon a rampage to find the people who robbed him of the best years of his life. Everything goes downhill from there. That’s right, everything gets worse from a starting point of tortured for fifteen years straight. The ensuing mystery is highly disturbing and incredibly violent, but also has its charms. There are isolated instances of humor and moments that are uplifting, and yes, our protagonist does at one point veer off into badass territory. Observe:
This is a great scene for a number of reasons. Most audiences respond well to this part because our heavily victimized hero is punishing his enemies with a similar brutality that was shown to him. It’s about the powerless becoming the powerful, and we like that idea. At this point in the movie, we’ve also decided that we like this character not only because he’s been so woefully mistreated, but also because he’s a decent guy—or was one before his life became so violent. This also harkens back to my previous comments on OVERWHELMING ODDS. Our boy takes on a hallway of dudes using nothing but a hammer, and though he comes out a bit bruised and battered, he’s better off than his foes. In typical badass fashion, he also shirks off pain. He gets stabbed in the back with a knife, but when he’s done he just takes it out and keeps on walking.
The whole sequence stands out from the rest of the film. Here the violence is not only righteous (in a sense), but it’s also highly stylized and artistic. The characters move as if in some kind of horrifying dance, and of course Park’s camera placement evokes a stage. Is that why I’m speaking so positively of this when I’ve just spent a few hundred words deriding the same thing in other contexts? No, that’d be shallow. It works here because this extreme violence isn’t glorified for the audience’s pleasure. Park presents it that way at first, and certainly out of context it seems to be that way, but he’s really commenting on a certain portrayal of violence. The choreography and situation speak for themselves, and the camera angle reinforces the audience-as-voyeurs mentality I’ve been talking about. The sweet, cruel fact of the matter is that this fight scene accomplishes nothing for the hero’s investigation, and even though he appears to be a badass at this point, he can’t use that to save himself later on, and his anger and violence might conquer a physical challenge, but not a mental or emotional one. That’s what sets this scene apart from fun-to-watch but ultimately unfulfilling massacres like The Bride vs. The Crazy 88 in Kill Bill.
And then there’s Nicolas Winding Refn. If you need an example of extreme, occasionally excessive violence done right, you need look no further. Ultra-violence has its place. That place is in Danish movies and A Clockwork Orange. Refn’s violence is also strangely aesthetically pleasing. It’s sort of pretty. I mean, Only God Forgives, am I right? The reason he gets away with aesthetic violence where someone like Zach Snyder a la 300 and Watchmen doesn’t (or in my opinion Tarantino doesn’t) is because it always serves the theme of the movie. It’s excessive for the viewer, but not for the movie, whereas Tarantino frequently offers violence for its own sake, often at the expense of his characters and stories. Take, for example, the (in)famous bar scene from Inglourious Basterds. It’s nearly ten minutes of clever, on-point dialogue; it’s tense, it’s funny, and it’s smart. Then there’s a short gunfight and everyone dies. The sudden burst of violence not only renders the previous ten minutes relatively superfluous to the plot, but it also robs the audience of a number of really engaging characters.
Oldboy, Inglourious Basterds, and Only God Forgives are admittedly pretty far off-base from where I started: blockbusters. Hollywood movies and Art House movies operate by considerably different standards, of course. Visually and artistically, I don’t expect—or want—the former to be like the latter. So, when I say that the violence in, say, Man of Steel should be more like that in Drive, I’m not saying that people should explode whenever Superman touches them; that would be like District 9, and the violence in that movie was despicable. What I’m really saying is that, once again, Zach Snyder chose spectacle over content and killed a lot of people in the process, and not only did these deaths fail to serve the theme, but they actually undermined and contradicted it.
Man of Steel is a great example of a trend of violence resurfacing in Hollywood: indirect violence, or collateral damage. Even in movies I liked, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, action sequences are getting more and more destructive. Every action sequence of The Winter Soldier cost DC about as much as every Godzilla attack costs Tokyo. At least in Guardians it sort of makes sense, since the bad guy’s singular objective is to destroy as much as possible, but Man of Steel’s climax is a nemesis duel. Yeah, there’s some attempted global genocide in there, but the actual fight between Superman and Zod probably kills about the same amount of people. We’ve moved beyond OVERWHELMING ODDS and are looking at a one-on-one faceoff now. Let’s look at one of the best in cinematic history:
A classic, yes, but what makes it so good? Well, if you focus on the movements of the characters, you can see that Darth Vader is A) great at fighting, and B) not trying to kill Luke; you can also see that Luke is A) bad at fighting, and B) desperately trying to kill Vader. There’s no dialogue to indicate this, and no painfully obvious actions either, it’s just imbedded in their composure and movements. The careful observer will wonder why Vader’s toying with Luke so shamelessly. Gee, I wonder why Vader doesn’t want to kill Luke… Not only does this work as a subtle prelude to the big twist, but it also draws a rather nice comparison between Luke and Vader, if we consider the climactic duel between Obi-wan and Vader in A New Hope, wherein Obi-wan isn’t trying to kill Vader and Vader is trying really hard to kill Obi-wan. Oh snap, what was that Vader said? “Now I am the master.” Wow, so much character development in a single fight scene. Who knew violence could be such a wonderful tool to the filmmaker?
What I’m really getting at here is that violence should be used as a tool to facilitate the development of characters, plots, and themes. It can be as extreme or as tame as it needs to be, but if it’s only there for its own sake, there’s no need for it, and it gets boring, no matter how much there is, how well-choreographed, or how visually stunning. I’m sorry it took me nearly 2500 words to say that.