Saturday, January 18, 2014

You guys always bring me the very best violence

Imagine a world. A world without violence. Now, imagine that world in the multiplex. Movies where nobody gets hurt...

Hell, I don't wanna imagine that. I like violence. Not the real stuff. And certainly not directed at me. Violence of the make-believe variety. On the sinny, O my brothers. The red, red krovvy on the silver screen in all its glory, like. Righty-right.

Drama is about conflict. People fight each other with words, fists, knives, swords, guns, whatever they’ve got. Bloody drama is real. Bloodless drama is bland.

Blood is a color in the filmmaker’s paintbox. I don’t want to take it away. Violence in movies isn’t bad. It's reporting. This just in! Humans hurt each other. It's what we do on this planet. It's a war between good and evil. We're all in it whether we like it or not. This fight is obvious in crime movies and war movies, though clearly not confined to these genres. We vicariously throw ourselves into that fight, and identify with characters who don’t always win. (This includes the good, the bad and the ugly.) We feel it when the Operative stabs Mr. Universe in Serenity. We feel it when a mother unintentionally cuts her son’s throat at the end of Grifters. We wince when the Sheriff is whipped to death in High Plains Drifter. So it goes.

There’s a right way to use the bloody color. And a wrong way. Wrong doesn't equal graphic. Some violence should be graphic. When someone gets stabbed, shot or pistol-whipped, ugliness is honesty. I don’t want clean deaths.  An honest filmmaker shows the actual consequences. Like that pressure wave killing the bomb-handler at the start of The Hurt Locker. Or the petty thugs beating Billy Batts to an unrecognizable pulp in Goodfellas to the tune of Donovan's "Down Below the Ocean." It ain't pretty. But it's true.

OK. So what's the right way to put violence on the screen? Is it graphic? isn't the test. Is it tasteful? isn't the test. The real test is the empathy test. Are you feeling for the characters, digging on their suffering, or just plain cold?

The empathy test implies certain rules ...
 Rule #1. Don’t make cruelty fun. That’s not saying, “Don’t show cruelty on film.” That’s saying, “Cruelty should never be entertainment.” Which is what makes movies like Saw, Texas Chainsaw 4D, etc. so repugnant. (And arty crap by Lars Van Triers and his ilk.)
Rule #2: Every death should matter. Don’t throw characters away like garbage.
Rule #3: Show the consequences of violence.
Every rule has exceptions. (A Clockwork Orange is an ultraviolent joyride because that’s what it’s like in a sociopath’s head. Alex doesn’t empathize with his victims, yes?) 
That’s a critical judgment, natch. Mine.

But it strikes me how much weaker some great movies would be with the violence scrubbed out. That scene in Cape Fear where Max Caddy drowns the cop and says, "Shhh, shhh" like he's putting a child to sleep. The eye-gouging scene in Blade Runner. Babe's stabbing in Marathon Man.

The brutality shows us the stakes. The war we're in is no abstraction. I don't want the casualties to be off-screen.

I'm talking about cinematic artists of course. Kubrick, Frears, Whedon -- and Quentin Tarantino, damnit. I don't want to take the bloody color out of their paintboxes. If the Uwe Bolls and John Lussenhops of the world get to paint with that color, that's the price.

Despite what you may have been told, nobody ever killed somebody because they saw a bad movie.

1 comment:

Thefirstkitten said...

"Despite what you may have been told, nobody ever killed somebody because they saw a bad movie."

But we sure do feel like it when the movie is bad enough.