Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Violence and Film; Audience-Experience as a Factor in Our Reception of a Film

I had a disastrous experience during my Christmas break in San Diego where my family watched a film I chose: Lady Vengence, they reacted with a strong distaste for Chan-Wook's uncompromising and transgressive depiction of betrayal, vengeance, violence and redemption. I am now forever branded as a very strange intellectual type who likes films no one else will (actually they should have known better, since the last time they sent me out by myself to get a film for everyone to watch I came back with David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch). LV, I'll admit was very strange, and pushed the boundaries of our sensibilities, but there was a method to the madness. The film shocked me, but it set me off thinking on the themes mentioned above (much as his previous film Oldboy did). The next night I sat speechless while family members gathered to watch the insipid Fearless... here were the same people who the night before told me they hated all violent films, thrilling to this boring and affectless violent action flick.

This week my students are watching Park Chan-Wook's previous film Oldboy and so I am once again revisiting what I think about the representation of violence in film and the influence of audience-environments on our experiences of cinema.

In case you are wondering if my family convinced me that Lady Vengeance is a bad film or not... well I was at a local Asian DVD/video store and Mr. Lee was so happy that I liked Chan-Wook's films he sold me an inexpensively-priced extra copy of the DVD.

I believe that violence is a necessary part of many narratives because it is a part of reality. Violence is a part of being human and our interrelations--how can we ignore it?

At the same time I reject simplistic, cartoonish uses of violence where the hero is shot at a hundred times and perhaps receives a scratch while methodically dispatching every person they face. I think it is irresponsible to portray, or think of, violence as simply mindless entertainment, there are outbreaks of violence that when it happens it seems beyond our kin, or present understanding, but usually with time we are able to grasp the motivations or causes. Likewise in a work of art one can begin to grasp at the reason for the violence, make sense of a sort, even if one does not agree with the portrayal of the causes or motivations for the violence. (I feel the same way about the mindless-commercial usage of sex and sexuality in our culture.)

I seek intelligent reflection on the uses or outbreaks of violence--whether as a means to a goal, or as a frustrated reaction to events beyond our control, or as atool for oppression/resistance. Who is using the violence, as a means for what, and to whom, and why, and what are the goals of this violence? Ultimately violence in great works of art will cause you to respond (positively or negatively) and will cause you to exercise your own judgement and thought--it will initiate critical reflection upon the events of the story (and for me this is a defining moment in judging a narrative/film, or any other work of art).

The benefits of some narrative violence is that it makes it harder for audiences to ignore the motivations or beliefs of the characters (especially when we become implicated by our own violent impulses, becoming so wrapped up in the narrative we encourage the violence--do it, do it!!!--a good narrative can cause us to reflect on this impulse)--thus in the complex cinematic presentation we are faced with an intellectual quandry to the usage of the violence and the rationale for its usage. We cannot stand on the sidelines and retain our intellectual integrity. We have to take a stand, even if it is to condemn the movie, afterall, the artist did present us with a work that is intended to shock or affront. It is also hypocritical for the artist to complain when people condemn them for their work if their intent was to depict acts of violence in a graphic manner.

What is often missed in Hollywood films (as well as many foreign films--see the new run of Asian extreme films) is that violence is usually employed in the service of power (whether on an individual or systemic level). Our democracy is built on the ignorance of the daily usage of violence to keep some people/groups quiet/docile about their situation in life, this structural mask sometimes slips allowing a glimpse of the true face of that power--a very important glimpse. Thus, a necessary part of some violent narratives is our understanding of the roots of this power/control ...

People facing the threat or actual acts of violence also helps us to understand human potential, but it is not a case of human physicality or big weapons. In the narratives I am speaking of it is the plumbing of the human soul and the questioning of the mind/system (a person's perspective and a system's effect/control). Violence in cinema can help us to examine the operations of power in society? Passolini's brutal, disgusting and difficult Salo forever burned in my mind the operations of fascism (could you ever recommend this film to someone, it is a truly painful and wrenching film), or the ending of Greenway's beautiful Baby of Macon which horrified me more than any sophmoric slasher story could and to this day has left me pondering the meaning/causes of the film. This film was blocked from being exhibited in the U.S. When we showed it at Illinois State University, people were crying in the audience and afterwards we spilled into the streets and made our way to a pub, where we argued into the night about the meanings of the film. As with any difficult film, some were angry that we had shown the film and they had a reason to be angry. We listened patiently to their complaints, even if we believed, ultimately, that the film should be seen. Once again if you believe that a disturbing portrayal is important and should be seen, you should respect contrary, disturbed and angry reactions. This is what you expected the film to do and thus you should address its effects on those audiences. Do not dismiss them, engage in a dialogue that art demands of its audiences.

A problem with the usage of violence in film is that it has become an effect used to entertain and titillate, one of the most powerful and disturbing films of the last year was Michael Haneke's Cache (Hidden), which explores the aftereffects of repressed systemic and individual acts of aggression/violence. It is minimalist and subtle in its presentation of violence, but the impact is long-lasting, reverberating in my mind still a year later causing me to question the impact of individual and societal repression of violent acts. This film is much more powerful than all of Takashi Miike's countless blood-fests put together, why, because it forces us to reflect and the narrative demands audience involvement (if you see the film you will understand what I mean), rather than to simply jump and recoil, as in Miike's recent film Audition. Instances of violence can also bring us to focus on what gives life dignity and what is noble and ignoble in the human condition. A last thought, legitimated violence (sanctioned by the state, or other social forces) usually is a clear indicator of the boundaries of society, what is permitted, what is forbidden, and who controls these boundaries.

John Fraser states in "Violence in the Arts" (1974: 162):

"Far from being mindless, violence is usually the cutting edge of ideas and ideologies."


(A final reflection from my second viewing of the film City of God--I was discussing with my students how the place/time/audience we view a film with alters the way in which we experience it...)

This is the second time that I have seen City of God.

The first time I watched it was like a rollercoaster ride in which the story washed over me and left me somewhat breathless. This time was different, where before I watched it in the privacy of my home, this time I was in a dark theater with a larger screen. Although it is often claimed that the theater encourages the "voyeur's gaze" (Norman K. Denzin), I find that watching a movie at home is much more voyeuristic in that one can simply watch without thoughts of others impeding on your experience, on the other hand, a public theater involves one in a communal experience in which you interact with the narrative on the screen while experiencing the reactions of your fellow filmgoers. You may think why is someone laughing at this point, or watch as someone flees the theater, or wonder if anyone can see the tears streaming down your face as you recognize something of yourself in a cinematic moment. While the darkened theater does allow the viewer to easily slip into a dream-like state, it is a much more "restless" state than watching in the privacy of one's home.

This time I watched City of God with the knowledge of where the story would end and it forced me to deal more directly with my responses to the violent spectacle of the narrative. This is one of the reasons I value rewatching films in different contexts because it forces different perspectives (at least in me, I also feel very fortunate to be a teacher of film in that new generations of film students confront me with their experiences and responses, causing, nay forcing me, to revisit my own intepretations in light of their own responses and comments).

One example that has always replayed in my experience is the case of the grand cinematic spectacle of Schindler's List (1993). The first time I watched it was in its second week of release in a crowded megaplex theater. The theater was overcrowded, people were sitting in the aisles, and the stench of movie popcorn was overwhelming. It sickened me to watch this portrayal of the Holocaust with people munching on buckets of popcorn and slurping at their quarts of soda. Even though I was revolted by the spectacle of the gorging while starving people are represented on the screen, there was a moving point when I noticed an elderly couple sobbing and I wondered who they knew that had tragically been lost in the Holocaust. I left the theater disgusted, at humanity, at the gross displays of consumerism, and at myself for not knowing how to make things better.

The second time I watched Schindler's List it was during the special showing of the film on television free of commercial interruption (February 26, 1997). The network that was showing it, along with some petrol company (if memory serves me correctly), declared that this was a cultural artifact that demanded to be shown uninterrupted and that it should not be sullied with the dirtiness of commercial concerns (OK, those are my words, but that was the sentiment of the time, but this should also cause us to pause and think about commercials and commercial TV in general--I disconnected mine because I agreed that my cultural myths should be free of commercial propaganda). I was a master's student in the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). A wonderful, nurturing, small environment of scholars seeking to glimpse outside the fishbowl. We gathered at a professor's house to watch the event and analyze the film as well as the cultural moment. Again, food was abundant, but it was the food that is cooked with one's own hands, thoughtfully prepared, and shared communally. Somehow this did not disturb me in the way that the popcorn/candy/soda of the movie theater did. We sat in a circle aound the TV, lights on, and discussed all aspects of the film, the historical period and the significance of a large percentage of Americans tuning in that night to watch the film. The experience provided distance from the cinematic experience, yet at the same time enhanced my engagement with the film. It forced me to think about the (re)presentation of the historical facts, to compare the film with other films/histories presented by the audience and to revisit my first distasteful communal experience of the film.

The third time I watched Schindler's List was during another equally powerful historical moment that exposed some of the worst aspects of human cruelty. It was the following academic year after the commercial-free broadcast and I was teaching Introduction to Popular Culture courses for BGSU. During the early part of the semester a student group did a presentation on the film Schindler's List and claimed that it was unique document because it provided insight to a unique event in human history and that it let us understand this isolated example of evil. The Holocaust because of its increasing historical example as the ultimate "evil" of humanity had become, for these students, an isolated example that they could point to as a place humanity was once at, but never would return to again. I attemted to get my students to understand that this was not an isolated event and that there were many examples of similar collective acts of violent genocide throughout history and the present time. I was struggling to somehow break through their assumption that it could never happen again because we "know" better. I fell into a state of bewildered despair for the next couple of weeks as I struggled with how I could bring a new perspective to their understanding of Schindler's List and the Holocaust--to provide a context that would combat the sense of it being an isolated, special circumstance, caused by depraved monsters, rather than the self-interested actions of everyday humans. Then, as sometimes happens, events provided another opportunity for revisiting the film:

During the middle of the semester Dr. Lisa Wolford, a performance scholar, hosted an interactive performance piece "El Mexterminator", featuring Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, as part of an ongoing series on campus. I heard that the performance was going to address stereotyped and racist representations of Chicano/as and Latino/as. Sensing that this would provide a good opportunity to introduce my students to a different cultural sensibility and to open up the spatial environment of the sealed classroom I decided to bring my entire class to the performance.

This performance opened up a new world for me and the students. It forced us to examine our American history from the eyes/perspective of (an)other culture and irrevocably altered my understanding of education. A week later after this powerful performative event, the South African Truth and Reconciliation committee was holding public hearings and parts of their video broadcasts of amnesty confessions were aired on 60 Minutes. The Post-Apartheid government of South Africa had decided that a full public exposure of the crimes carried out under the Apartheid government would ensure that the world would never forget what had happened. 60 Minutes broadcast an episode that featured men discussing in detail the everyday tasks of disposing and hiding bodies, including the difficulties of completely incinerating a human body. My class watched these historical broadcasts and developed a new understanding of the problems of isolating the Holocaust, or any collective violence, as a unique event, that has never happened before, or will never happen again. My class asked to rewatch Schindler's List and I agreed with the understanding that we would all research the broader historical background of the event. The experience of watching students watch this film, actively taking notes, and later debating the history of the Holocaust, with a deeper awareness of its development and its future ramifications, was an amazing experience. It completely transformed my understanding of the film and the potential for teaching about the politics/aesthetics of the film.

So, why do I bring all of this up after watching City of God? Because in talking with colleagues/students that have seen this film it often seems that the rollercoaster ride of the quick editing and the violent spectacle of the fast-paced narrative keeps us from engaging with the reality of the people who live in dangerous environments like this, in Brazil, in other countries, and definitely in our own country. I think this is a good film, but something keeps nagging at me, perhaps there is more to the story, why the focus only on criminals, why are women just backdrops for the actions of violent men, is there more to the story--why does the main character Rocket seem so lifeless and undeveloped (it was his story? yet it became the tale of Little Ze)?

On the DVD edition of City of God there is an amazing documentary by Katia Lund (co-director with Fernando Meirelles of City of God) called News From a Personal War that examines the lives of the poor people who live in the favelas, including the working class striving to better themselves, and the police/politicians who view the place as a dumping ground for society's undesirables. Everyone interviewed in the documentary from the street level gangsters, to the workers, to militia-style policeman, to the wealthy politicians, are brutally honest about their motivations/intent in a way that we rarely see discussed in the U.S. For example this quote from a high-ranking police officer:

Hélio Luz: I'll say it myself. The police are corrupt. The institution was designed to be violent and corrupt. And the people think that's odd. Why do I say it was designed this way? Because it was created to protect the State and the elite. I practice law enforcement to protect and serve the status quo; no beating around the bush. It keeps the favela under control. How do you keep two million people under control; people who make R$112 a month, when they make any? How do you keep the underprivileged under control and calm?

interviewer: With repression?

Hélio Luz: Of course! How else would it be?

In the last week I have talked to four people who own a copy of the DVD in their home, yet they have never seen the documentary... perhaps this is what we should have shown last night? Once again, City of God is an amazing film, a favorite of mine, but this cannot stop us from asking questions about lessons-learned and lessons-hidden in the films we watch, most importantly we should question the films we enjoy the most.

by Michael Benton


Anonymous said...

"here were the same people who the night before told me they hated all violent films, thrilling to this boring and affectless violent action flick."

That is remarkable, indeed. *smile
Do you know of polish director Krystof Kieslowski's early series of films wherein he reflects upon the ten christian sins--each film being dedicated to one of those?
The one dedicated to 'you shall not kill' has a scene wherein one man beats another man to death is recontructed by realnaturalistic means--it's nearly 30 mins long. People have left the cinema in crouds for they just couldn't stand it.

Michael Benton said...

I've only watched the first two episodes of that series of films and that one was not one of them.

Here is the description of the Decalogue in case anyone is interested.

Michael Benton said...

Orange is a German student in History and Philosophy and she is researching websites/blogs--click on her name to see her blog.

Thanks for linking my journal issue on The Theories/Practices of Blogging and my Introductory essay.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it either. One of my profs has talked about it in a seminar on the genre of 'Autorenfilm' some yrs ago. The debate on media and violence was triggered anew in the context of "computergame violence" in Germany by the last amokrun in a german school that happened in Emsdetten a few weeks ago. This is why I stopped in at this entry of yours. Thinking of Cronenberg's Videodrome parts of the public debate on computergames are identical with parts of historical debates on films and violence.

Sry for not having introduced myself. I do ethnographic research in the anthropologic blogsphere for my M.A. thesis in Kulturwissenschaft on blogging and academic knowledge production. I'm still working on my research proposal (otherwise it would be online).

Anonymous said...

"Thanks for linking my journal issue"

It's a great source! Haven't though had time to read through the why we blog section fully yet.

Michael Benton said...


Are you closing the Sblog site and moving to the Interference one? Just checking so I know which to link up to...

Anonymous said...

thx for linking. The sblog page is closing. Links won't break but the one that will be updated is the interference.