Slicing the baby in half

Screen Violence

November 1, 1996

An anthology of essays by intellectuals, writers, movie makers, and reviewers on violence in movies, Screen Violence is more than anything a referendum on film violence: who likes it, who does not, and which scenes of blood and gore are the rave faves among the cognoscenti. Marketed by its publisher as a clash of "diverse" famous people - Martin Amis! Camille Paglia! Mary Whitehouse! and macho super-star antagonists John Grisham and Oliver Stone! - Screen Violence produces little heat and less light.

The low intellectual level of the book - its lack of fundamental questions about the nature of cinema as a medium, the role of money in determining content and distribution, the internal power structure in the making of a film, the bleeding edges between movies and television (increasingly commonplace because of video, satellite and cable technology), the role of gender in how one perceives film violence, the differences between seeing and thinking (aka reading), the role of aesthetics in framing violence - trivialises film and film violence. It also reminds one (Jacobin or ordinary bourgeois) that intellectuals rarely seem able to do more than publicly masturbate, excited by their own self-regarding abstractions.

Karl French, the editor, sets the tone, or a tone: "In the safety of your seat, you silently nod and agree vicariously to live this life of exhilaration, sudden, random brutality, drugs and sordidness." I don't know what the rest of us do - those who are not safe in our seats or who have experienced "sudden, random brutality, drugs and sordidness". The assumption of a secure, removed voyeur as consumer - frankly white, male, and preternaturally middle class - predominates in these essays. As Paglia modestly confesses, "I'm looking at things often perhaps from the viewpoint of the male." Often perhaps. Poppy Z. Brite advocates "the ultimate value of seeking the poetry of violence". Nicci Gerard, more schizophrenic than ambivalent, worries about violent film images infesting her children's dreams but finds opposition to movie violence both puritanical and utopian, each of which is bad, both of which are epitomised by Catharine A. MacKinnon, "slim and trim and pedantic", and me, "fat and despairing, with a sloppy noisy style": she sure is hard to please. In Screen Violence, even the white women are white men.

The one question this book's lazy intellectuals want to address is whether or not screen violence is likely to make us more violent because we will imitate it or less violent because we will experience catharsis, a rumour since the Greeks, an orgasmic interior release of tension that harmlessly sates the drive towards violence, presumed to be universal.

Or, as Amis frames the question: "Does screen violence provide a window or a mirror? Is it an effect or a cause, an encouragement, a facilitation?" Slicing the baby in half, this liberal Solomon says, "Fairly representatively, I think, I happen to like screen violence while steadily deploring its real-life counterpart." This platitudinous morality is eloquent compared to French's categorical assertion that "one can hardly overstate the importance, the sheer fun of screen violence".

The proviolence essays seem to be filled with nostalgic, often rapturous remembrances of bloody, deadly scenes in bloody, deadly movies. Psycho, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Bonnie and Clyde, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange (which Anthony Burgess once told me he deeply regretted writing), Seven, and Blue Velvet top the mainstream hit list, so to speak. Poor Stone is not only everyone's favourite hero or villain for Natural Born Killers: he has the distinction, according to French, of making in JFK the "only mainstream Hollywood snuff movie, featuring in the Zapruder footage a real, famous exploding head". Our editor can hardly contain himself, which may be why the book is littered with misspellings and printer's errors.

The kinkier authors salivate over Night of the Living Dead, I Spit on Your Grave, Blood Orgy of the She Devils (pace Fay Weldon), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (made by those lovely guys who brought us Deep Throat), Flesh for Frankenstein, The Toolbox Murders, the point being that there is no bilge putrid enough not to have a literate admirer who can publish an essay. The precarious social position of gangsta rap, which features both sexual and secular violence, may be due to the fact that white intellectuals are too segregated to consume it.

John Waters, whose films include Female Trouble and Serial Mom, is, as usual, sui generis in an autobiographical essay called "Why I love violence". Its charm is that it is only about him, not us.

Pauline Kael concludes an essay focused on Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry oeuvre with an idea as opposed to a vote: "It's the emotionlessness of so many violent movies I'm becoming anxious about . . . if I can trust my instincts at all, there's something deeply wrong about anyone's taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotions represents." Of course, Kael's essay was first published in 1974, when even intellectuals did not object to thinking about right and wrong as well as right and left.

The classic, often literalist antiviolence position is articulated most notably by social campaigner Mary Whitehouse, US movie critic Michael Medved, and the fine commercial novelist John Grisham, who is also a lawyer. Whitehouse makes the mimetic argument: acts of violence in films are imitated in real life; a diet of television violence increases aggression in children. Both points are factually true, the first attested to by a series of murders, rapes, and assaults spanning three decades, the second by social-science research, which is unequivocal in finding a relationship between consumption of violent TV and aggression in kids. The proviolence folks just say it ain't so, and outside the domain of this book simply call Whitehouse names, sort of proving her point.

Medved widens the antiviolence argument by deconstructing Hollywood's lame defences of the violence it produces. If advertising influences some people to buy, how can the big deal, the movie, have no effect on anyone? Amis's mirror question is answered, not deeply but well: "Authoritative statistics compiled by the Screen Actors Guild show that 70.9 per cent of all roles in feature films - and 69.6 per cent of all TV roles - go to men." QED.

Especially lucid are Medved's arguments against the proposition that we, the audience, want the violent stuff and can always turn it off if we do not. He redefines the question of media violence "as an environmental issue" in an effort to make "huge entertainment conglomerates" accountable for the way they pollute "the cultural atmosphere we all breathe", which he likens to air and water. How media corporate parasitism has come to be of absolutely no interest to the political left is a question that must be asked, especially since a large percentage of extraordinarily violent US-made films are never released in the US but are exported to the Third World. It is called cultural imperialism. It is done to make money. What's art got to do with it?

Grisham tells the story of one murder and one attempted murder (resulting in quadraplegia for the victim) perpetrated by imitators of Stone's Natural Born Killers. His lucid anger comes from the fact that the victim, Bill Savage, was someone he knew and respected. Grisham breaks ranks with the First-Amendment absolutism fashionable in Soviet-style US writers' groups (one opinion, and only one, for all) by arguing that "a case can be made that there exists a direct causal link between Natural Born Killers and the death of Bill Savage. Viewed another way, the question should be: would (the murderer) have shot innocent people but for the movie?" This is an accurate rendering of one meaning of causality.

Grisham advocates a civil suit against Stone, his production company, maybe the screenwriter and studio, "then the party will be over". On a similar theory, MacKinnon and I have argued for, and drafted a statutory cause of action to make possible civil suits against the pornography industry, which uses sexualised violence to target women for actual assault, rape and murder.

In a Panorama documentary on a 17-year-old boy who allegedly killed two members of his own family after watching Natural Born Killers ten times, Stone (as cited by Whitehouse) claimed that "film is a powerful medium, film is a drug, film is a potential hallucinogen - it goes into your eye, it goes into your brain, it stimulates and it's a dangerous thing - it can be a very subversive thing". In the US context, the key word is subversive, because it suggests the presence of unpopular political ideas that must be constitutionally protected. In Screen Violence, Stone denounces Grisham's litigiousness: "Has your father been brutalised? Sue Oedipus and call Hamlet as a witness." He claims that he - Stone - is being scapegoated. He suggests that the murders are more likely to have been caused by television violence. In his coup de grace, he accuses Grisham of hypocrisy: "How many thousands of murders have been committed under the influence of alcohol? Yet Grisham does not call for breweries and distilleries to be shut down by lawsuits." As a lawyer Grisham probably knows, as Stone appears not to, that in the US there are dram-shop laws establishing liability for bartenders who serve liquor to someone who then, drunk, kills while driving. And a court of law, by the way, like a movie, is a forum for speech.

My own view is that Stone tried to create an aesthetic dynamic for Natural Born Killers that would expose rather than reify violence but failed, partly because of his contempt for the very issues raised by Whitehouse, Medved and Grisham. The artist can do anything, says Stone, his hands somehow washed clean of money, money, money. Paglia is even more dogmatic: "No one has any right to be preaching any code to any artist . . . The moment you start getting people preaching, you start to get the beginning of censorship." Such a low-rent syllogism: preaching (speaking) equals censorship. Actually what you get is John Donne and Sojourner Truth.

The best essays in the book are by men who have survived "sudden, random brutality, drugs and sordidness". Novelist Will Self discusses narrative strategies in violent movies, and he describes the powerlessness that many of us feel (especially, I think, those who have experienced brutality) in watching violent films that try to make us complicitous. Recalling news footage of a man blowing out his brains at a press conference, Self concludes that "we moderns now feel ourselves all to be passive victims of such snuff contexts, mediated by the media. This tracks back all the way to Vietnam, the so-called 'first television war'." I believe this role of film in fetishising literally unspeakable violence goes back to the Nazis, who liked to photograph sadistic medical experiments and mobile killing squads shooting thousands of men, women, children, who then keeled over into already-dug, trenchlike mass graves. Self's essay is honourable and interesting.

Also no stranger to random brutality or sordidness, Harry McCallion was a special forces antiterrorist in both Northern Ireland and South Africa. He dislikes the sanitised violence of the Alan Ladd-John Wayne era, because "it quickly became apparent to me that the movies, which I had taken as an example of how people and life should be, were horribly wrong. The weak were never protected, but preyed upon and exploited . . ." But The Wild Bunch (produced in 1969, seen by McCallion in 1975) showed violence in a way that intersected with his own violent life: "Frustrated at not being able to get to grips with the IRA in Ulster, I had been thinking about going to Africa, to fight in a real war. The Wild Bunch only fuelled that desire." It was not until Death Wish II, however, that he saw film violence "that mirrored some of my own experience". He concludes that film violence influenced him - "but no more so than poverty, deprivation and violence in my childhood and early manhood". That puts film violence right up there.

Roderick Anscombe worked in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane and was assaulted twice. The first assault he likened to the shower scene in Psycho, because the violence was swift and unexpected. The second he calls "the Peckinpah experience", exemplified by The Wild Bunch: time is slowed as the perpetrator torments the victim. Now that he is at Harvard he characterises this Peckinpah violence as "endlessly entertaining"; but having been assaulted in this way, he is interested in Peckinpah-like violence as an analogue of real-life serial rapists and killers. He wants "killing of better quality" - films that show the truth about "evil". I would say that Hollywood is the wrong place to look. I would refer him to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, where the Nazi photographs and films, many transferred to videotape, are on display. Like the footage of John F. Kennedy's exploding head, the violence is reel and real. But it is contextualised such that voyeurism is impossible and empathy and intellectual humility necessary. The Nazi home movies might offer insight about the relationship of film to sadism and predation. There is one. Certainly the museum offers a way of scrutinising these phenomena that is not cheap, facile, or debased. Of course, it is not "sheer fun" or "endlessly entertaining" either.

Andrea Dworkin is the author of Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Intercourse, and the novels Mercy and Ice and Fire.

Screen Violence

Editor - Karl French
ISBN - 0 7475 2549 8
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £9.99
Pages - 248

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