A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form

December 17, 2009

The prominence of murder and violence in cinema is a well-researched and substantially described area of film studies. However, even though the many publications on the topic – mostly focusing on sociological and narrative aspects – cover a broad range of material, Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form offers a surprisingly fresh, focused and necessary contribution to the discourse.

This freshness comes from her evident commitment to close visual analysis as a point of access to more general, theoretical assertions rather than, as is often the case, the other way round. She provides an impressive amount of readings and interpretations of particular scenes and sometimes singular shots. While subtly acknowledging the subjective nature of such an approach, she nonetheless seems to consider that the films themselves best illustrate the connection between cinema and murder.

Oeler argues that “murder scenes excite because a human subject, even when only implied, and distorted, by the forms and media of narrative representation, is compelling, and not quite graspable. This special quality of subjectivity, cast into relief by the threat of annihilation, gives the murder scene its unique potential to forge a link between form and reference”.

It is precisely this union between the formal and referential aspects of cinema as a medium, and the murder scene as a particular and peculiar event in a (cinematic and non-cinematic) narrative, that underpins the book’s main hypothesis.

In the book’s first part, Oeler looks at the more formal aspects of murder scenes, focusing primarily on Soviet montage, but also discussing the films of Jean Renoir and the writings of André Bazin. The second part considers murder in the context of genre, especially the western and the crime film (mostly American), and the concepts of mimesis and stylisation. Here, murder and violence are examined not only through film, but also film writing and reviewing. Oeler pays particular attention to the work of Manny Farber and James Agee; the inclusion of the latter allows her to extend the argument, alas rather briefly, to war movies.

Her writing on Soviet montage is particularly compelling. Again, the topic has been explored by many theoreticians, but, through her close reading of particular sequences and a focus on murder scenes, Oeler offers new insight. Her consideration of the close-up is particularly interesting: she writes that “film theorists such as Hugo Münsterberg, Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin declared editing to be a distinguishing feature of the cinema; and for them, a central device of this process was the cut to the close-up”. She seems to share this view and argues for the significance of the close-up in an informed reading of Pudovkin’s The Heir to Genghis Khan (1928) and Eisenstein’s unfinished Que Viva México! (1932).

Oeler claims that “film criticism has historically placed Soviet montage in opposition to continuity editing, but like the shot breakdowns and arrangements, hypothetical and actual… the narrative syntax and stylisation of paradigmatic Hollywood genres revolve around the murder scene”. The second part of A Grammar of Murder on the whole succeeds in supporting this argument. However, one occasionally wonders whether the link (or indeed the lack of a link) with the first part should be expressed more clearly or explicitly. Perhaps a more detailed engagement with the discourse about the artificial nature of the perceived differences between montage and continuity editing would make this transition more justified.

Two things that stand out in particular in the second section are the close readings of Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The discussion of the first provides Oeler with a very important opportunity to consider the murder scenes’ significance, not only as a part of the narrative, but as an almost non-diegetic device. She writes: “This early arbitrariness about the identities of murder and victim attests to the purely formal purpose of the murder scene: there must be a murder to structure the plot, but who does it, who suffers it, when it occurs, and how it is done… the scriptwriters treat as secondary concerns”. This healthy scepticism, coupled with a very methodical approach to her material, are evident throughout the book and are its greatest asset.

A Grammar of Murder is a useful, original, but not faultless text. It lacks a comprehensive conclusion that would bring the rich and heterogeneous material and findings together. Despite this, Oeler’s work is thorough, meticulously researched and elegantly expressed.

A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form

By Karla Oeler
University of Chicago Press
304pp, £55.00 and £20.50
ISBN 9780226617947 and 7954
Published 24 November 2009

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