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Violent Duds

Commentary by Torey Lightcap

Try as we might, it is difficult to redeem the violence in cinema—to make it into something ultimately useful. It’s been done a handful of times by folks like Quentin Tarantino and Takeshi Kitano and Paul Thomas Anderson, and before them by people with names like Coppola and Spielberg and Scorsese, and before them by people with names like Hitchcock and Ford and Welles. But in the main we find these days that people don’t understand what it takes to present violence on film in ways that actually make us think or turn us to the good, and we’re left with the continuation of a grossly disturbing trend.

By suggesting that violence may lead to moments of redemption, I don’t mean that acts of violence themselves are inherently good. It’s hard to imagine where that would be true unless in the extreme. (This, I would guess, is where director Bryan Singer will try to take us if Valkyrie, concerning the plot to kill Hitler, is ever released.) Mostly, I mean to suggest that violence on film is supposed to serve the story as it moves forward — that it is an impermanent means to an end.

As for the handful of times cinema’s done this well, we might look, say, to the final scene of  Pulp Fiction, when a couple of dressed-down hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) are in a stare-down at a diner with Pumpkin, a young smash-and-grab robber played by Tim Roth. Jackson’s character Jules has been rethinking his life this particular day and enjoying plenty of epiphanies, and now he needs someone he can use to try out his newfound philosophy. He tells Pumpkin that he, Jules, has spent his life being what the prophet Ezekiel called “the tyranny of evil men,” but now he’s trying to change his perspective and become a shepherd to the weak. This, he acknowledges, is the hardest thing.

As Jules is a hitman trying to get breakfast, and as Pumpkin is busily trying to knock over the diner when he encounters Jules, their conversation takes place with several guns drawn and targets located. We need the threat of Ezekiel’s “great vengeance and furious anger” to heighten the tension, spur us beyond mere gunplay, and involve us in the suspense of a lifetime criminal’s brief confession.

In other words, you can use cinematic violence, or at the very least the threat of violence, to make a story work and turn people’s hearts.

Meanwhile, the pedestrian violence of today takes so many forms on celluloid. There is mere comic violence where, for example, the dumb guy is usually one of the first to die in a slasher flick (a huge pet peeve), and this is meant to create gentle chuckles. (“Oh, Steve, why did you have to go stand in front of that darkened window?”) There is artistic violence: moments made to look beautiful by slowing them down or casting nice light upon them, granting them their own aesthetic. Neo can dance with Matrix-brand bullets, for example, or you can gaze upon the artistic direction of Sin City or The Cell for the intentionally disquieting things they are. There is also grand-scale violence: the unleashing of evil superpowers upon the planet; the destruction of whole cities by whipped-up weather systems.

Perhaps some of these might have a place if they can ever appeal to the stories they’re supposedly serving. But largely what I see today is the existence of violence for its own sake, and worse still, the existence of sadism as a legitimate brand or genre. Saw… Hostel… Funny Games… The Others … Wolf Creek.

The typical approach is to hope that such things will go away on their own. But they aren’t going to —at least not if they continue to make money. In such a darkly troubling age of the current cinema, where violence is wielded so fetishistically, concern seems warranted by those whose faith holds to the narrative that God creates things so that they can live and serve both one another and their Creator.

Copyright  © 2008 Torey Lightcap