Violence, Then and Now (Notes and Referential Sources)

Vivian C. Sobchack, “The Violent Dance: A Personal Memoir of Death in the Movies,” in Screening Violence, ed. Stephen Prince (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000): 110-124.

“I still can’t watch the eyeball being slit in Un Chien Andalou. But, as with Straw Dogs and The French Connection, I could and did watch all the violence in Pulp Fiction. Nontheless, there’s been a qualitative changes as well as a quantitative one: while I watched those earlier violent films compulsively, with some real need to know what they showed me, I watch the excesses of the current ones casually, aware they won’t show me anything real that I don’t already know” (124).

Until the 1960s, “Death was acknowledged…but not inspected,” that is, death or violence used to be a matter of narrative to be explained rather than something to be shown or a matter of immediate (sensual) experience. This has something to do with the social, cultural climate in the U.S. “The longshot, the panoramic view, kept death far from us and that was real. The bullet holes were too small to see well; the sword wounds were always on the side facing away from the camera” (111). Not simply an effect of technological limits, the tendency was consistent with everyday experience in America: “Real violence happened far away, neatly in the straight columns of a newspaper, safely confined in the geometric box of a television set” (112).  In this sense, “those movies [up to the mid-1960s]…were indeed realistic” (112).

“Then, all of sudden, it seemed, in the mid-1960s, there was blood everywhere…Blood appeared in living color in more and more of our living rooms” (113), which is associated with intensifying anxieties and fears rooted in a sense of historical changes marked by assassinations of public figures such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Governor Wallace along with social unrest ensuing from The Nuclear Crisis, The Vietnam War, Human Rights movements, the Watergate scandal, and so on: “Death by violence became a possibility for all of us” (113). It is reflective of a new cultural atmosphere in the 1960s where “manners and niceness [avoiding the talk of violence and death and suppressing our curiosity about mortality] are too small a social device to cover up the fear and actuality of imminent violence” (117). Both in real life and in movies, “accident [random violence and meaningless death] becomes Fate” (118).

The question of stylized violence is an reaction to the novel condition: “If we are to die for no apparent reason…at least we will die with style, with recognition…style will give our senseless death some sort of significance and meaning” (118); “[S]creen violence in American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s was new and formally different from earlier ‘classical’ Hollywood representations of violence. This new interest in violence and its new formal treatment not only literally satisfied an intensified cultural desire for ‘close-up knowledge about the material fragility of bodies, but also–and more importantly–made increasingly senseless violence in the ‘civil’ sphere sensible and meaningful by stylizing and aestheticizing it, thus bringing intelligibility and order to both the individual and the social body’s increasingly random and chaotic destruction…long lingering gazes at carnage and ballets of slow motion that conferred on violence a benediction and the grace of a cinematic ‘caress'” (119).

What one can witness in cinema today is, above all, a sheer increase of screen violence in both quantity and degree. Yet, screen violence today is involved less with stylization or aestheticization than with careless and senseless violence, the one represented in a casual and nonchalant manner. In recent ‘splatter’ films such as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fictions, “bodies are more carelessly squandered than carefully stylized….[and] hyperbole [or excess] itself constitutes stylization” (121). This change echoes our increasingly technologized view of the body and flesh as with fantasies of maintenance and repair represented by the fitness center and cosmetic surgery. The devaluation of human body foregrounded in the excessive and nonchalant violence inflicted on it can be read as containing critical potential in that when stylization becomes a cliché, a non-sympathetic use of violence can be an instance of peeling off the cover of aestheticization and bringing the viewer closer to the reality: “the excessive violence…and devaluation of mere human flesh is both a recognition of the high-tech, powerful, and uncontrollable subjects we…have become through technology and an expression of the increasing frustration and rage at what seems a lack of agency and effectiveness as we have become increasingly controlled by and subject to technology” (123). When technological advance renders human flesh easily replaceable, we are in the world of the postmortem condition where there is a kind of meta-sensibility at work. There, human body becomes akin to a thing and bodily damage can no longer feel hurt; there is nothing to be sensed in chopped meats (124). 

Thane Rosenbaum, “Justice? Vengeance? You Need BothNew York Times, July 27, 2011.

Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen, “Cameron’s Broken Windows,” New York Times, August 10, 2011. (An analysis of the British riot in August, 2011; youth unemployment, economic austerity measures, the defunding of civil-society institutions and social-safety programs, widespread fears and angers, the rise of vigilantism, and a comparison between England and the US)

Karl French, ed. Screen Violence (Bloomsbury, 1997): an anthology of violence films.

Lindiwe Dovey, African Film and Literature: Adapting Violence to the Screen (New York: Columbia UP, 2009).

John Frasor, Violence in the Arts (Cambridge UP, 1976).

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