1. INTRODUCTION: THE RECEPTION AND THE HISTORY OF THE VIOLENCE IN FILM HISTORY
A SMALL ACCOUNT OF THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE IN FILMS
For the first decades of cinema, it depended a great deal on literature and it was regarded as an extension to the theater. Thus the rules and ideas of violence in the first years of cinema was pretty much the same as in theater and literature. The main genres that showed violence were violence/ fantasy films of mostly monster adaptations from literature like; ‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’ (’Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’, F.W. Murnau, 1922) and ‘Frankenstein’ (J. Searle Dawley, 1910), or historical epics, like the famous ‘the Birth of a Nation’ (D.W. Griffith, 1914).
The violence in most of the films of the era consisted of fight or war scenes and though most of them reflected historical events or had a morally responsible way of displaying violence, banning and censuring systems occurred almost with the birth of cinema as an industry.
First, the censorship was given through the courts. In these trials, a new concept was highly discussed for motion pictures. The accused studios started to discuss the position of a film as an art object, thus they would be protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution’s Free Speech Protection. But in 1915, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Free Speech Protection did not extend to motion picture.
After 60’s, with the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system, the moral obligations of the previous code; United States Motion Picture Production Code (1930), such as; “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it…” and “Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life”, prohibiting murder scenes in detail, nudity and explicit murder scenes. This new code permitted artistically violent films as well as the increasing of exploitation films. As long as the films get a proper rating, the censorship in the film industry was greatly reduced.
2. RECEPTIONS OF VIOLENCE
VIOLENCE AS AN EXHIBITIONIST ENTERTAINMENT FORM
In the first years of cinema, when cinema was still considered very close to the theater, the cinema-going experience was a social ritual, pretty much like a theater. Miriam Hansen argues in ‘Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Permutations of the Public Sphere’ that until the arrival of synchronized sound, the movie going experience was still considered as a public sphere, admitting socializing and also audience reactions to the film. After the arriving of the Sound Era in Hollywood industry, the standard for the film audience started to be silent. But even after that, some film genres encourage the audience reaction, as the experimental screenings of B-Horror movies trying to create a shock in movie theaters like buzzers going off under the seats in ‘The Tingler’ (1959, Robb White), or the underground film scene of 50’s, like exploitation films in grindhouse theaters and phenomenal films like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (Jim Sharman, 1975) re-creating the public sphere aspect of the film theaters.
Tom Gunning establishes two kinds of cinema; ‘cinema of attractions’ and ‘narrative cinema’ . The narrative cinema is a voyeuristic cinema, creating an illusionary reality and absorbing the audience. The audience stays passive viewing this kind of films and the identification and voyeuristic principles on film theories like the Suture Theory apply in these films. Watching a different ‘reality’, and seeing what is normally forbidden creates a voyeuristic experience for the audience, in which they can realize their fantasies without the risk of getting caught and without feeling any guilt. These films have a strong and continuous narrative story to keep the audience absorbed into its reality.
‘The Cinema of Attractions’ on the contrary has a looser story-line, with “a series of disjointed and sometimes peculiar views” . According to Miriam Hansen, it creates a variety of spectacles and gets its root from vaudeville. This kind of films has an exhibitionist aspect, because they were mostly inspired by the stage productions and belonged to the pre-classical era of film-making –the Silent-Era-. Because they act as spectacles, the audience is not absorbed by them, but remains self-conscious and just enjoys a show. Although the cinema of attractions is connected to the Silent Era of film history, most conventional Hollywood films which use explicit obscene contents of violence and sexuality still fall under this category, alongside with the musicals. This mostly erases the problem of being realized as a movie which can be a bad-influence for the society and they don’t get banned or receive bad critics from the conservative society.
What happens to be a problem in films for obscenity for the critics and conservative groups is when a film’s violence can influence the audience to copy the act or corrupt the society and displays violence as a positive thing.
AESTHETICIZATION OF VIOLENCE
With this new point-of-view over violence, the question of aestheticization of violence was brought up when judging a film as obscene or not. An aesthetic form of violence is determined by critics when the scene is directed “with a discerned matter for artistic value”, or is “stylistically excessive”. Margaret Bruder discusses that these films which are aestheticizating the violence through the use of film technology and styles such as rapid cutting, different low and high angles and so on, does not implore some kind of ideological view over the violence. She even quotes Yvonne Tasker who calls these movies “Dumb Movies for Dumb People” . These movies are dumb, because they don’t have a creative, intelligent or intellectual plot, they are the new generation of what Tim Gunnings calls as a ‘cinema of attractions’.
The answer to why this new style in action films came in dominance, especially with the 70’s and 80’s, can be found in cultural theorists like Gilles Deleuze. With the globalization in the world, the cultural media became a world of unconnected images empty of connotations and intertextuality, without a central focal point to organize them and without a structure to hold them together, or how Deleuze identifies the rhizome: “an acentered, non-hierarchical, non-signifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states. Thus the new discussion in cinema about violent images constitutue several points: ‘Is it art/non-art, aesthetic/ non-aesthetic?’, ‘What is the context?’ and ‘What is the Effect?’.
ART FILM VS. EXPLOITATION
The criterias of a material having an artistic/aesthetic value or not are as mentions above. It is also important to mention here that though some critics may argue the uselessness of these films with ‘empty plots’ or ‘loose narratives’, other defend these films by them having an artistic style. For example, Xavier Morales argued in his review of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill, Vol. 1’ (Quentin Tarantino, 2003), he states that “...Tarantino… presents violence as a form of expressive art... [in which the]...violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have. Tarantino is able to transform an object of moral outrage into one of aesthetic beauty...” So, like the court orders of the beginning of 20th century, if a work has artistic value, it saves itself from being an exploitation-piece or being morally corrupt.
The morales behind the film help to answer the second question: the context. The most important aspect for the critics in determining the value of the film is the ideology behind it. A film with very gory and violent scenes may consider as non-corrupt, because the statement of the film is against violence. Thus, with the style and the narration, using violence can become a gun against violence. These kind of films have no problem with the censorship boards or rating systems, while other films having the same amount of violence or even less can be condemned as “amoral” pieces or exploitation films, because they don’t have a stand against violence they produce or represent. Another term for determining a film as ‘dangerous’ or ‘just entertainment’ is weak/strong violence. Devin Mc Kinney argues that a weak form of violence is “too articulate... in the limited sense of 'nice' cinematic effects too well contrived to have any other content”.
Another similar definition came from R. L. Rutsky and Justin Wyatt in terms of ‘serious pleasure’ and ‘fun’ . ‘Serious pleasure’ involves intertextual references and intellectual ability to analyze the scenes, while in the notion of ‘fun’, the mode of viewing for the audience is of ‘sliding-one’, that never stays long enough in one point for the audience to deplore a meaning or create an identification with a character. This is not something else then a parade of spectacles and therefore it doesn’t create a meaning or a permanent effect on the audience, regardless of their age, sexual, racial or social status.
The terms ‘serious pleasure’ and ‘fun’ applies to the third question: the effect. Mark Crispin Miller argues that the violence in the conventional Hollywood film is “too caricature-like” . Without a coherent plot and with the over-dominance of film stars and their personas, the action cinema promotes the ‘hero’ while depicting the narration-driven style and thus the film cannot present a real experience of emotions the characters in the scene experience. Hence without possible identification, there is no danger of the viewers to get a negative effect from the film. But there is also another approach to this aspect; most of the critics, especially the more conservative-ones, argue that because we cannot experience any real emotions through this kind of movies towards violence, they create “desensibility to brutality” Therefore, with time and repetitive viewings of such films, the audience becomes to be immune to the violence, at least to the violent image and its quotations, that augments the aggressivity in the society, because these films corrupt the moral views of the audience towards the violence. The sociologists and critics following this thesis think that, after seeing explicit representations of violence and gore in films, the society don’t react properly to the violence in real life. But there is also another possible effect that the violence in films can create. Usually the films with violence having a context and ideological or intellectual view in their style or narration can create a “cathartic or dissipating effect” . That kind of reaction falls into the category of using violence against violence; with the use of a very violent scene, the director can focus on the real effect that the kind of action creates over the victims, by creating an uncomfortable and irritating atmosphere and feeling for the audience. One of the most violent examples of this case is Irreversible (Irrevérsible, Gaspar Noé, 2002). Irreversible is definitely under the category of an ‘intellectual’ ‘aesthetic’ film, because of its montage depriving the continuousness of the narrative with reverse chronological order forces the audience to see a long and disturbing sequence of revenge and murder, before the cause of it, and to think more deeply about the consequences. On the contrary of creating “desensibility to brutality”, with an ideological agenda, the film forces the viewer to re-think about a very common convertional theme; vengeance, which may be regarded as justified if the chronological order were the normal order.
3. CONTROVERSY EXAMPLES OF VIOLENCE AND THE USE OF POINT-OF-VIEW SHOTS
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: ART OR EXPLOITATION?
Ironically, while conventinal action and horror films almost never face the accusation of being morally corrupt or exploitation films, aesthetic films create strong controversies in the film industry and in the critics’ circle. One of the fiercest debates about violence in cinema and the ways to present it was created after Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). The film was discussed after a lot of different point-of-views, and although it has some supporters, most of the critics and several conservative institutions attacked the film in the 70’s. What is also very interesting about the discussion over this film is that the critics argued about all of the three questions mentioned above.
The first and most important controversy in the film was its extreme use of violence. A lot of critics at that time thought that the use of violence in the film was not driven with any artistic purpose; hence it falls under the category of an exploitation film. Some critics like David Denby called the film a “grotesque extension of the youth movie” for its use of violence, rape, sex and nudity, and other critics like Kael noted that “it’s the purest exploitation”. Though some people may have been repelled by the level of violence, nudity and sex in this movie, the use of classical music and choreographed movements in violence scenes, the décor and the costumes clearly creates a style for the whole movie. Like some feminist critics suggested, it is a highly caricature-like world, and although the feminist critics stated that to suggest the characterization of women in the movie as a non-feminist-one, I think that it plays an important role to tune down the level of violence in the movie. The villain is very much alike of a comic-book villain with his make-up, clothes and with the use of queer style in décor and dresses, Kubrick did not only create a futuristic-utopian world like the synopsis in the back of the DVD suggests, but he also took it away from the realms of the real world. With a world highly caricaturist, although the statement of the film stays intact, the actions and the violence seem less disturbing.
There was also a second discussion driven by feminist critics regarding the portrayal of women in the film. It is true that in this world of caricature-like pop-art, the women are portrayed as “dolls” or “sexual toys” regardless of their age and status. The scene that repelled the feminist writers most was the scene of Cat Lady’s rape and murder scene. Critic Beverly Walker suggested that the Cat Lady in the original book is an elder woman living with antiques, whereas she was transformed by Kubrick to a younger woman who has phallic objects and sexual art in its home. Walker analyses this change in creating a sexual environment for the audience and put the woman in the position of “asking to be raped”. In this scene, the woman was transformed from her passive role of victim in the cinema and became a sexual-being; the subject of sexuality, instead of an object, and the murder of the woman as a subject brought Alex to prison and ceased his violent activities. I believe that this scene is a critic of a more specific tool of society; the film industry. Her murder with a giant phallus sculpture seems ridiculous and offensive of feminists at the era, but I believe that it’s an attack of some film theories; like the Freudian theory, which places woman, both spectacle and character, as a passive object in the search of its lost phallus.
The second problem arises from the undecided ideology of the film. It is clear for almost everyone that the film wants to critic the ideology behind the ‘Ludovico Technique’ that is behavioral psychology and that the film wants to promote free will. But some critics found the traits of fascism in the film, because Alex was in fact cured from his drive of extreme violence, which suggests that programming methods like ‘Ludovico Tehcnique’ works. Another ideological problem of the film is that it emphasizes on Alex’s lost of freedom and wants the audience to desire that Alex would become his-self and the method ceases to work. This, of course, means that the audience will want Alex to become violent again and will side with violence. The film puts the blame of the increasing violence in society on the society itself, but at the same time, it promotes violence, instead of condemning it, thus the film itself becomes a tool for violence. This is the moral dilemma which caused all the critics. Stanley Kubrick explains itself and defends the book and the film in a review with Bernard Winraub in New York Times; for Kubrick, the nature and humans are driven by their ids, sex and violence. “Alex symbolizes man in his natural state, the way he would be if society did not impose its 'civilizing' processes upon him.” For Kubrick, society is the mechanism that creates the “goodness” by the set of rules and Alex’s character represents a man without society’s impact; a natural man. In this way, it is true that Kubrick prefers the nature and therefore violence, but I think that what Kubrick really tried to underline here is the hypocrisy of the society and the morals which criticize people doing actions that are considered bad by the same rules, when the goodness is only something superficial created by themselves. Perhaps, it isn’t to defend violence, but to challenge the humanism into accepting the “bad” people and their action as well as people who are considered as good and healthy members of the society.
The last critic is about how Alex is portrayed in the film and how the audience is expected to sympathize with a villain. This, according to the critics, will cause the audience to experience what he experiences from violence; fun and fulfillment, therefore it would cause desensibility to brutality. Although it is true that the only center character of the movie is Alex and that Alex is a rather interesting and sympathetic character. According to film theory, especially the Suture Theory, which suggests that the identification of a character by the viewer is done through point-of-view shots, with the ‘Absent Place’ that the character looks, that is revealed as the next shot and since the audience also looks to this second shot, a link is created between the character and the audience. Therefore, the character with the most point-of-shots becomes the protagonist with whom the audience identifies. It is also through that, especially in a horror or thriller film, the audience can have more then one character to identify with, creating a shift of the viewer’s role from a victim to a murderer, but if we look at the film in this aspect, it is impossible to argue that Kubrick wanted the audience to identify with Alex, because there isn’t a single shot in the film, where the violent scenes, or most for the other scenes for that matter, is shot with Alex’s point-of-view shot. But, the more interesting thing that there isn’t any P.O.V. shots of the victims either; the violence scenes are always with a highly-dominating mise-en-scene, and the extreme use of violence, therefore Kubrick wants in this film that the audience only observes and as the best way of observing is done without feeling any emotions, he didn’t put any mechanism that allows the viewers to identify with any of the characters. Like Alex calls itself in the film, he is the ‘narrator’. I think there is also another important scene in the film to argue this point further; the scene where Alex is cured and he is on stage to show to the ‘violent’ authorities his progress. In this scene, there is literally a scene with theatrical lightning where Alex and an officer act the new Alex without his ability to do any harm. This is also a very caricature-like scene and with the lightning and the scene being a performance itself, it is highly self-conscious for the audience and with the portrayal of the event and the authority figures, it wants the viewer to observe the absurdity of the event and the real violence behind it; the possibility of the government to reshape a citizen. Many critics attacked only Kubrick, and not the writer, because of the influence of the ‘auteur’ critic and Kubrick’s alterations of the story, but it is essential here to see the difference between the style of the film (images- belonging to Kubrick) and the ideology (story- belonging to the author Anthony Burgess) and condemn the right person if there is anyone to condemn.
4. A MORAL APPROACH TO THE VIOLENCE: SELF-CENSORING THROUGH STYLE
A VIOLENT FILM WITHOUT IMAGES: ‘TESIS’
‘Tesis’ (Thesis, 1996) is a Spanish thriller film by Alejandro Amenàbar, focusing on ‘snuff films’, its fans and the violence in media. Dealing with a violent theme of ‘snuff films’; underground films of real violence, and belonging to a genre where representation of violence is highly-appreciated, Tesis does the opposite of what this positions suggest. It gives a self-reflexive point-of-view on the role of the media regarding violence and the voyeuristic desires of the viewers with a style not-questionable of its motives.
The film begins with the protagonist; Angela witnessing an accident in the subway; a man jumped on the rails while the train is passing and he is cut in two. The officers are saying “Don’t Look”, but although some people, extremely terrified and repulsed, covered their faces not to be tempted to look, most people try to get a sneak-peek. Angela also cannot resist to the temptation and tries to look, but an officer takes her away from the place. Here Amenàbar restrict the viewers into the point-of-view of Angela and because she couldn’t see the man, neither do we. This is the method of his self-censoring of violence which will be dominant through the rest of the movie. As the plot progresses, we learn that Angela is a media studies student and she works on a thesis on violence and snuff films in general. Her request from her thesis-counsel to check a few films in the library that she doesn’t have access results with the counsel having a heart-attack and his dead in the screening-room. Angela takes the video-tape and discovers that the footage is the real murder of a girl in her university who disappeared two years ago. The story continues like a regular thriller movie of her and a snuff-fan classmate Chema trying to solve the mystery of the footage and being themselves faced with the danger of getting killed.
Narration-wise, this is a perfectly conventional thriller, also with the use of labyrinth-like corridors of the university, psycho-killers and beautiful victims. But it also has a thesis on the human reactions to violence, the way media manipulates this voyeuristic desire and a very clear statement about popular cinema.
After this subway scene and Angela secretly getting the tape, she tries to watch it. But she isn’t brave enough, so she changes the contrast of the television and because we are again restricted to her knowledge –a classical thriller convention- and her point-of-view, we can only hear the sounds of a woman in torture. This approach of not showing the violence also continues with Chema watching the tape. She and Chema put the tape to the video together, but Angela again couldn’t watch and we can only see the footage when Chema found some similarity of the place with the university and paused the frame to show it to Angela. Here we can see the violence, but not the ‘action’, only a freeze-image of it. The use of a black TV screen is not the only use of this technique, in the final action scene, the lights of the university goes off, living us with a black screen again and only with the voices of Angela and Chema, followed by an attacker. Although this use of a black screen is always diegetic; the director never inserts a black screen without a motive from the narration, it has a self-conscious effect that the audience is viewing a film and not the reality, because it points out the director’s choice, therefore his views about the media.
When we consider the expectations of the audience who goes to the film expecting a thriller and the continual use of this form of censor, we can determine the viewers’ reactions to the film more deeply. Every time that the story creates a climax and the viewer is in need of a catharsis, Amenàbar deprives the audience from it. But, though the desire of a catharsis is not fulfilled, with a black screen and the screams of the victims, the viewers are left with their imaginations to fill the gaps. This is the way the film functions as self-conscious; it helps the audience to face with their voyeuristic needs to see violence.
The self-reflexive part of the film comes with the consistent resistance to show the violence. The film ends with a TV report of the incident that Chema watches in a hospital bed. After the account of the crime, the TV reporter tells that the channel got hold of the original tapes and although it contains extreme examples of violence, she tells that they believe to the freedom of information and therefore they are displaying the contents of the tape. And just after the words: “Here is some part from the tape”, the screen blacks out –this time non-diegetically- and the end credits begins. With this non-diegetic black screen at the end, instead of finally showing some content of the main event we follow from the beginning, Amenàbar states his view one more time and more openly for the ones who did not catch it so far. The media’s use of violent real material in TV news and other forms manipulates the viewers’ curiosity over it; their voyeuristic desires and make them want more, meaning that they would sub-consciously prefer having more violence in real life and see it on the news that having a safer environment but being depicted from the pleasure of it.
The film does not only criticize the media, but points out the sub-conscious desire of human beings for violence. Near the end of the film, another professor who is a part of this crime explains his point of view: “You gotta give what the audience wants” –the same speech he gave earlier to the students in being realistic, not idealistic about the film industry and giving the audience what they wants, not another ‘artsy’ piece.- According to the sub-conscious level of violence, Amenàbar uses the main location as a metaphor. University’s corridors which are underground, claustrophobic and labyrinth-like with an industrial style that most of the chasing scenes happen is a clear metaphor of the sub-conscious which runs away from the violence, but at the same time has a persistent curiosity of it.
But there is a big controversy in this message; the film is in fact a thriller film focusing on violence and conventional themes of chase, attack…etc with a very traditional style. Thus the critics who focus on the film’s message find it hypocrite since it has a violent narrative, and the-ones in the want of a good thriller movie are disappointed and feel attacked. A review in the internet site; ‘www.horrorview.com’ attacks the film on this aspect, mainly because the site is to review the very gore and violence thriller and horror films.
This is an interesting controversy, because it is very similar to the controversy created by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. It shows that no matter what approach a director takes to create a film with violence, but without using the conventions of the genre and its language, it is damned to fall under a controversy of morals and receive bad critics by the society.
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