Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cinema Violence

Noël Burch wrote,

"[A]ll really censurable images, whether erotic, repugnant, violent, or truly subversive (as opposed to images that ambarrass a party or a regime, though not society as a whole, and therefore inconvenience a government but do not traumatize its constituents: shots of the slums at Nanterre as opposed to shots of a fraudulent election) are, despite other possible differences, forms of aggression. ... Le Sang des bêtes is certainly not a film for children, but neither is Last Year at Marienbad." (Theory of Film Practice, p. 124)

Films, images retain the power to disrupt our complacency. We just have to keep recognizing how to burrow under our skin the right way. Cruelty can be rationalized, and once it is, its effects are won over as a commodity--one can undergo it willingly (cf. the end of Brian De Palma's brilliant "Be Black Baby" sequence in Hi, Mom!). This is what has happened to the horror film as a genre, very early on even, so that critics who want to argue for horror as 'subversive' must do so on the level of thematic content & interpretation at least as much as on the level of form or simply the pure realization of bloody, terrifying content ... probably more so. (Romero makes thrilling, subtle parables--superb films--but he doesn't assault our eyes and bodies. Fulci? Maaaaaybe.)

Ridley Scott started out as a worthy filmmaker--his first three features are really notable works, though I don't know that he's shot a single good frame since Blade Runner. (No, I haven't bothered to see everything.) I recall the strobe climax of Alien to be interesting precisely because it went out of the ordinary for special effects or mere "atmospherics" to weave in some literal, optical, graphic extremity. (There's also some strobe violence in the first Blade film, right? I have that sitting around somewhere, maybe I should take a look.) These sorts of images, semi-intelligible happenings, get back into the potential of psychic violence that films in the horror vein, grand guignol films, dark oneiric fantasies, can project. (They're what Buñuel thinks about in the moment before he slices the eye in Un Chien andalou, perhaps.) In my imagination, this is what certain recent films I still haven't seen, only heard of, only wish I had a(nother) chance to see, take to the extremes: João César Monteiro's Snow White, the films of Philippe Grandrieux ...

Flicker films remain one of the supreme forms of violent, aggressive cinema. Of course, when I see one of these films, I've come to the theater knowing what I'm in for, looking forward to it. Maybe I myself am even commodifying the experience, certainly I'm well-prepared and whetted for Sharits' neon frames or Kubelka's monstrous-sounding black-and-white Arnulf Rainer for the carefully controlled rushes that these films bring me. Regardless of what it does to me, however, and how I might nullify the violence, rationlize it, and experience it as aesthetic rapture, I see and hear the discomfort these films can still bring to others (which is so rare or tame in horror cinema). And cruelty, the subjection of an audience to discomfort or worse for some purpose, remains mostly a frontier for the whole medium. Is it a frontier worth exploring (and by exploring, destroying)?

There's a specter haunting this discussion, of course:





















He doesn't look very happy about it, though ...

13 comments:

Paul Martin said...

After seeing David Lynch's Lost Highway - which irrevocably affected my appreciation for cinema - I hired out everything I could find by him.

Previously I had an aversion to gratuitous sex and violence (the horrible 8mm starring Nicolas Cage comes to mind). But with films like Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and others, I realised that violence can be artfully depicted.

Darren said...

That photo of Artaud is heartbreaking, isn't it? Especially when you recall how stunning he is in Dreyer's Passion. Yesterday I watched My Life to Live for the first time in six or seven years, and this time I was more moved by Artaud's face than by Falconetti's or Anna Karina's -- so much so that opening your site just now and seeing that terrifying image of his sunken, crazed face was downright uncanny.

Matt said...

Did you get a chance to look at my review of a recent Melbourne production of Le Jet de sang, Zach? It seems broadly relevant:

http://www.esotericrabbit.com/blog/?p=452

Mubarak Ali said...

Grandrieux's films are very relevant subjects for this discussion, esp. in the way they relate to Artaud's definitions. I still need to see Sombre once more (I only saw it for the first time last week), but for the time being here's a great little article on Grandrieux's cinema of cruelty and violence/visual sensations: "This contradictory pull, between desire, pleasure and terror, emerges strongly in Grandrieux’s film-making: whilst his images expose the horror of the undifferentiated and nonsensical, and the violence and abject it triggers, in their form his films celebrate the sensuous dynamics of chaos. The creative energy of the film-making, and of the films themselves, thus off-sets the destructive pull that threatens to annihilate the human figures who inhabit his worlds."

(The linked site may require a free registration.)

jmac said...

I think that this discussion brings up interesting questions regarding the nature of violence in cinema . . . It never occurred to me that the film, Arnulf Rainer, could be described as violent. Is this agony or ecstasy? Tony Conrad described The Flicker as being for people who simply wanted to experience a new phenomenon. When I see flicker films, I experience euphoria! I think that you can probably guess my response to blatantly violent imagery, but I just want to show how subjectively the experience of this imagery is. And Arnulf Rainer? Is this film violent or is it passionate?

Thanks for reminding me about Artaud! He's on my list.

jmac said...

P.S. I just noticed that you already addressed the subjectivity of seeing a film like Arnulf Rainer! I guess I am interested in the intent of such a film. I've noticed that perspectives that are labeled as aggressive, can really be the most innocent, the most direct way of approaching things, or just something new, perceived as threatening. I wonder if Peter Kubelka was laughing to himself or merely mesmerized by his own film?

Filipe Furtado said...

Fulci? Definitely.

Both Arnulf Rainer and Snow White are good calls for this discussion. I'm actually afraid of watch my DVD of Snow White because my original reaction to it is very much tied to the collective reaction of the whole audience, somehow it doesn't feel right to see it in a private screening.

Zach Campbell said...

Paul--yes indeed, Lynch is a good talking point for this sort of thing. However, I would reiterate that I'm not only talking about depictions of violence here, but rather images that can be violent themselves. They don't necessarily have to have any kind of violence in them: like flicker films, which have been known (or at least rumored) to cause seizures in photosensitive epileptics.

Darren, I'm due for another viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The last time I saw it, Artaud was just a name to me, if that.

Matt, yes I read the review (now I wish I could see the production)!

Thanks for the link Mubarak; man I wish I hadn't missed La Vie nouvelle when it showed here a few years ago. At the time everybody I heard from seemed not to like it so I thought, "Huh, maybe Grandrieux's just a flash in the pan who will disappear." Stupid, stupid, stupid ...

Jmac--is a film like Arnulf Rainer violent or passionate? Both, I say! It runs along one part of cinema's limits: a sublime achievement, and I mean 'sublime' in the aesthetic/philosophical sense, not just as a synonym for "totally way cool." Rainer is not too long a film, but something like Epileptic Seizure Comparison (caveat: never watched Conrad's) proved to be a truly, truly demanding work which tested the audience. Cruel because it loves, maybe? Maybe.

Filipe, any recommendations for Fulci? I've seen The Beyond which I understand is supposed to be one of his best. Possibly one or two more but I'd have to look back through my film logs to be sure. What are your favorites?

Matt said...

"However, I would reiterate that I'm not only talking about depictions of violence here, but rather images that can be violent themselves."

And, I would imagine, sounds as well. In fact, to some extent one might go as far as to say that it's easier to attack the ear with violence than the eye, or at least easier to hurt it (and then it becomes a matter of what we mean when we say 'violence'; whether it's an injurious action or merely an exertion of force).

Zach Campbell said...

Sounds--yes, of course, I was wrong not to mention this whole dimension of cinema here, and there's a lot of cruelty to be performed. In fact it's sometime's performed inadvertantly, what with multiplexes cranking the system up to 11 ...

Filipe Furtado said...

A few Fulci reccomendations: Don't Torture a Duckling, Zombie, The Beyond, New York Ripper, Manhattan Baby and A Cat in the Brain.

Winstrol said...

Violence in cinema must be strictly forbidden because it has a great impact on the society

Jenifer said...

Very useful material, thank you for the article.