Friday, May 12, 2017

Film Violence, Take the Manyeth but Probably Not the Last

I binge read blogs.  Most of the time I go months without visiting a “favorite” (see blogroll on the left); when I do visit, I’ll spend a week or so reading the posts I missed, at least the interesting ones.  The procedure of reading Victorian novels makes eminent sense to me; all things should be consumed over short periods of time, in heavy doses, in order to properly enjoy the characters, the themes, etc. …  This means that frequently when I want to respond to something, it’s already old, and has lost whatever piddling urgency it once possessed.  Lo! it is the price paid for sanity in the modern age.

Of course, this is just windup (you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it looks as extraneous as John Gant’s): a way of working around to saying that I was reading Unequally Yoked, and found a Quick Takes link to an article on film violence, focusing on Game of Thrones (some examples not for the faint of heart).  The article’s bottom line: violence in film can be a good thing from an artistic standpoint when it is revelatory of character.

It’s an interesting claim.  I don’t disagree.  Violence can be revelatory of character.  The way a boxer boxes tells you something about him—I’m thinking of the scene at the end of The Quiet Man when John Wayne and Victor McLaglen go at it hammer and tongs all over the Irish countryside.  And I don’t take offense at that particular scene, though I do cringe a little bit when the heavier blows land.  As you may be able to guess from that admission, I haven’t seen any of G.o.T.  Part of the reason is that (like Rosenberg’s second quoted reader?) I’m too sensitive to enjoy the series—that, and a lurking suspicion that the deadening of this sensitivity might not be an unmixed blessing.

But, setting that momentarily aside, as I read Rosenberg’s piece and contemplated her (nuanced) defense of (some) on-screen violence, a question popped up that’s been naggling me off and on since.  Granting that violence can be revelatory of character, is it the only way to reveal the relevant aspects of a character?  Is it even the best way?

I’ll pose another one.  If the answer to the query above is Yes, if the justification for cinematic violence is the need to express relevant character traits—then why do we need so many violent characters in film anyway?  Rosenberg quotes a reader offering what might serve for an answer, pointing to the actual violence of the Middle Ages and the temptation pretty the period up for the screen.  But why is this tendency to “prettify” viewed as a temptation, as a negative, as opposed to a perfectly legitimate aesthetic choice?

I can think of one reply to my not-altogether-innocent inquiries.  It is arguable that, much as sin enables the maturation of higher virtues in the real order, so too violence in the fictional order is needed to properly portray a certain kind of high heroism.  This is plausible—but then, are such portrayals effective?  True, watching minor characters burn before Nero in Quo Vadis (1951) strengthened my sense of the heroism of martyrdom.  But I very much doubt that seeing a more realistic burning would have helped.  I’ve never finished a (for me) too-clear depiction of heroic suffering thinking “Wow, I hope if push came to shove, I’d be like that.”  Instead, my thought (if you can call it that) would be best expressed as “Agggggghhhhh! please please please let me sleep with the nightlight on!”  I’m not sure that I’ve become any more heroic, or even more admiring of heroism in others, by experiencing that reaction.

Is this just me?

I think of The Passion of Joan of Arc.  I remember the actual martyrdom; but the film lays much more focus on Joan’s prior mental suffering—and rightly so—for that is what made her extraordinary.  Hamlet provides a secular parallel, in which the conscientious struggles of the characters (not just the hero) are far more interesting than the body pile at the end.  There are myriad film versions of the play; but I defy anyone to define the best Hamlet as the one with the most blood (*cough cough*, Mel Gibson, *cough cough*).

Actually, if you want to know, the best Hamlet (that I’ve seen so far)
is the one Benedict Cumberbach did about a year ago for, I think,
the RSC, that was simulcast to U.S. audiences. 
Now, if I could get my hands on a tape of that


  1. You say "violence", yet you describe "gore", whereas Gameofthr. threatens violence to its audience in more ways than merely butchering everyone's favourites... but we needn't look at that.

    I find myself rather of the Hitchcock school, that the Audience are perfectly capable of imagining anything sufficient to frighten them. As it happens, for Hitchcock himself who had not forgotten that Film is an offshoot of Theatre, this also meant that film sets need not be enbloodied so far as becoming an actual hazard (contrast Tarantino, who also has not forgotten that Film is Theatre, and who positively revels in "Kensington Gore", as it is sometimes called)... which, College English Professors have told me is part of why, e.g., Hamlet, is messiest in its very last scene: enthusiastic stage-designers have the least action-over-slippery to worry about in this arrangement (come to think of it, even Polonius being stabbed through a hanging rug is also a chance to avoid puddles)... but I digress.

    When it comes to characterization... it seems to me that shouting... in a disproportionate or irrational way... can be plenty Bad Character; as can misplaced quiet (consider Count Rugen and his Machine). Blunt Instruments are really more of a blunt instrument.

  2. Mm, yes, I should have thought about the (possibly relevant) distinction between blood-and-guts violence and violence which has more to do with smacking people upside the head.

    As for your college English professors' point on stage matters: I had never heard this before, but it makes perfect sense! I want to go flip through my Renaissance drama textbook now and look for similar examples of blood-hiding.

    As for your final point: I am trying to think about this briefly enough to comment, and failing. Look for a follow up post some time.