Aestheticizing Violence, or How To Do Things with Style
Margaret Ervin Bruder
Film Studies, Indiana University,
Bloomington IN, USA
Less than fifteen minutes into John Woo's film
Hard Target, Jean Claude Van Damme's character takes on seven men
who are in the process of attacking the female lead. In less than a minute's
worth of the film, he kicks two men in the face, he trips a fellow and
then uses that man's foot to kick someone else, he breaks a beer bottle
over a guy's head and then shoves him forehead first into an iron hitching
post, he ducks a kick landing his attacker flat on his back on the pavement,
he punches a fellow in the stomach and then sends him flying through a
plate glass window, and, to finish things off, he breaks a man's arm over
his shoulder before shoving him to the ground. Though this section of film
might be considered excessive merely in terms of the quantity of action,
the "real" violence of the sequence comes from the even more aggressive
use of editing and cinematography. This mere minute of film is composed
of forty-nine shots during which we as spectators are violently pushed
and shoved around the space of the action by the constant repositioning
of the camera. Like the attackers, we are thrust down by extreme low angles,
hurdled forward by fast tracking, slapped up against bodies through low
angled closeups emphasized by slow motion and further exaggerated by overlapping
editing. Few of the awkward framings and re-framings remain on screen for
more than a second or two. It is little wonder, then, that by the time
we leave the theater, we are both exhilarated and exhausted.
Were we inclined towards an essentialization of
the cinematic apparatus, we might advance this section of film, in fact
the whole of Hard Target and the other films like it, to illustrate
Michel Mourlet's point that "cinema is the art most attuned to violence"
(233) or to underline Rick Trader Witcombe's assertion that part of the
reason for the special affinity between violence and film might lie in
what he calls the "brutality of the camera eye" (11). Perhaps because of
his experience of the visceral pleasures of violent films, Philip French
also seems desirous of attaching a form of violence to the nature of the
apparatus. He writes,
... it can be maintained that the flickering passage of twenty-four
frames per second through the projector, the vertiginous movement of the
camera, the continuous shifting of view point, the rapid change of image
in both size and character, the very idea of montage, make films--irrespective
of their subjects--a violent experience for the audience. (68)
Yet to avoid the problematic involved in asserting any ontology of the
film image, it might be safer to simply acknowledge that film violence,
as a number of film critics ranging from David Thomson to Linda Williams
have noted, has its own special form of beauty. In that violent images
encourage us to take pleasure in the spectacular representation of other
people's pain, our fascination with them may be difficult to justify. However,
if recent movie attendance serves as evidence, it seems that we do manage
in one way or another to get around our moral qualms, not just in the United
States, in that "most violent of Western societies," but in the rest of
the world as well (Hammerman 79). As film producer Larry Gordon acknowledges,
one of the chief reasons for the industry's attraction to "the action genre"
is that violence "travels well..." (Auletta 45-46).
Despite the commercial appeal of film violence,
very few critics have found comfortable ways of discussing it. Historically
critics tend to fall into two categories on the subject. Those critics
who see film violence as style, as superficial and exploitative, argue
that it leads us to a "desensitivity to brutality" and thereby increases
aggressivity. Those who view it as content, as theme, claim it serves a
"cathartic or dissipating effect..., providing acceptable outlets for anti-social
impulses" (Atkins 4). Devin McKinney's theory separating weak from strong
violence based in this style/content polemic is only one extreme example
of this tendency to vilify a more formal type of violence while celebrating
a thematically or narratively oriented kind. Weak violence is "too articulate...
in the limited sense of 'nice' cinematic effects too well contrived to
have any other content" (19). Strong violence, on the other hand, "communicates
the sense that a person who in one moment is fully alive has been reduced
to God's garbage" (17). In films like Neil Jordon’s The Crying Game,
Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait
of a Serial Killer, McKinney locates what he calls strong violence,
or those "nightmares worth having" (17). Weak or "hollow„ violence "informs
not only the products of the Schwarzenegger school..., but also Peter Greenaway’s
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, parts of [Martin Scorsese’s]
Goodfellas..." and all of Luc Besson’s "french Blockbuster
La Femme Nikita" (19).
If it is to merit social justification, then, violence
must apparently replicate what R. L. Rutsky and Justin Wyatt, in their
article "Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure and the Notion of Fun,"
refer to as "serious pleasures" or "the pleasures of rational critique"(3);
it must, to paraphrase McKinney, be deep enough so that "empathies are...
engaged, commitments are...brought to bear, ambivalences are... acknowledged"
(21). Such pleasure stands in a kind of contrast to another form, one Rutsky
and Wyatt discuss in terms of "non-serious pleasure" or "fun" which "cannot
be figured in terms of depth" and which encourages a mode of viewing that
"slides over the surface of a text like a passing glance, never staying
fixed for long, never 'anchoring' itself in the depths of meaning, character
identification or imagistic fascination" (11). A film violence which lends
itself to such a mode of viewing is seductive in the same way that Friedrich
Nietzsche found the "decadent" art of Wagner's Operas to be, calling us
towards "style" or "effect" and away from "truth." Our discomfort with
the attractiveness of style, particularly that aspect of it which can lead
us to forget content, is one basis for our anxiety in accepting violence
on "purely" aesthetic grounds. Yet as Nietzsche also notes, such an attention
to surfaces is not without its own rewards. In the fourth preface
to The Gay Science, we are indeed encouraged "to stop courageously
at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in
tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance" (38).
In this paper it is my desire to attempt to break
up this dichotomy of strong (deep) and weak (surface) violence by suggesting
that what would be for McKinney the very weakest form--the aestheticized
violence found in a number of recent commercial films--ultimately does
make sense, though perhaps of a kind which defies conventional constructions
of truth as "depth." In a similar fashion, I hope to investigate and blur
the boundaries traditionally erected between the "visual pleasure" and
"political" cinema as constructed by seventies film critics like Laura
Mulvey and Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni. By remaining within the possibilities
these theorists and their followers have granted in relation to both the
significance of violence and of style in films--that certain manifestations
of film violence should be condemned as gratuitous while others are socially
meaningful, or that certain stylistic approaches are complicitous while
others are progressive--we are forced to reduce such cinematic thrills
to mere guilty pleasure.1 However, if Linda
Williams is correct in her assertion that "genres thrive...on the persistence
of the problems they address" (12), the recent increase in the stylization
of violence in the mainstream cinema must have something to say about the
culture consuming and producing it, and it is my intention to locate some
avenues through which we might engage that discussion.
Embedded within both the political and the popular
culture's tendency towards an aestheticization of violence is a mobilization
of the image which Arjun Appadurai connects specifically to post-industrial
culture. He notes; "people, machinery, money, images, and ideas now follow
increasingly non- isomorphic paths:...the sheer speed, scale and volume
of each of these flows is now so great that the disjuctures have become
central to the politics of the global culture„ (11). Appadurai's reading
of global economic culture is consistent with Jim Collins’ assessment of
certain trends in the New Hollywood film, exemplified by some filmmakers
attempts "to incorporate the array that now forms the 'imaginative landscape'
of contemporary cultural life" (144). This attention to the image, and
to the way it connects up with other images, has much in common with Gilles
Deleuze and Felix Guattari's description of the rhizome as "an acentered,
nonheirarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an
organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation
of states" (21). What this rhizomatic cultural context puts at stake, both
in the case of violent film and of political attempts to address violent
crime, is not violence itself or even the representation of violence, but
rather our traditional modes of producing, interpreting, and employing
images in our attempts to make sense of our world(s).
In order to investigate the implications of this
changed cultural environment, I am conducting a relatively arbitrary experiment.
By looking at three representative films; John Woo’s Hard Target,
George Cosmatos’ Tombstone, and Tony Scott’s True Romance
(all of which were released in 1993, the year when a boom in aestheticized
violence became critically notable2), in
the context of the discourse surrounding President Clinton's crime bill
(also „released„ in that year), I hope to be able to view the superficiality
of these films' violence as speaking of and through paradigm shifts becoming
apparent not only in Hollywood but beyond it as well. At the end of this
paper, I will look more closely at another film from the same year, Mario
van Peebles Posse, to illustrate how reading through its violent
style allows alternative interpretive possibilities which may be an increasingly
relevant strategy for understanding our changing cultural context.
Aestheticized violence is not merely the excessive
use of violence in a film. While a movie like Die Harder may scatter
more corpses than any of the ones I am considering, while it may be narratively
excessive in cramming as much violent action as 90 to 100 minutes of screen
time can bear, it does not fall into the category of aestheticized violence
because it is not stylistically excessive in a significant and sustained
way. To greater or lesser extents and in very different manners, Hard Target,
True Romance, and Tombstone all present their violent
action so as to call attention to the cinematic apparatus. Hard Target,
as we have already seen, exploits quick and awkward editing. True Romance's
Tony Scott uses an astonishing abundance of canted framings and seems particularly
interested in the shock cut. In Tombstone, director George Cosmatos
consistently employs slow motion, frequently in order to underline the
impact of physical blows and the spurting of blood. At particular moments
throughout all three of these films, standard realist modes of editing
and cinematography are violated in order to spectacularize the action being
played out on the screen. This formal reflexivity, this calling attention
to the possibilities available only to the cinematic mechanism, is often
combined with an unmotivated degree of intertextuality. Though these films
are unremarkable in their participation in what Collins refers to the "hyperconsciousness"
of the New Hollywood cinema, were it not for the degree of cinematic literacy
which such films both recognize and mobilize, the formal reflexivity required
for an aestheticization of violence would most likely go unnoticed. Ultimately
a cinematic pleasure found primarily in the violation of the invisible
style requires an audience well-versed enough to participate, not only
in "character adventure," but also in "a film's own adventures as it delves
into the array, into the accumulated layers of popular culture„ (137).
This does not mean, however, that I am arguing that
the cinema of aestheticized violence is some kind of moral equivalent of
an art cinema which employs referentiality and reflexivity in "political"
ways. Hard Target, True Romance, and Tombstone are
not films involved in any attempt at a Godardian or Brechtian form of alienation,
and their attention to style as "style" and narrative as "narrative" does
not position them as serious critical reflections of the film medium. Though
Yvonne Tasker is also interested in allowing such films to speak, she makes
a significant point when she refers to the action picture genre as "Dumb
Movies for Dumb People" (5-6). Afterall, all of the films I am discussing
are of the type condemned by Mark Crispin Miller for being cartoon-like,
where the visceral enjoyment of spectacles and stars usurps the more "intellectual,"
critical pleasures of narrative and character development. It is just such
a tendency that Richard Schickel bemoans when he blames television for
having "reduced the audiences' expectations of coherence in the development
of a plot, as well as its capacity to deal with the more subtle layerings
of a more sophisticated kind of storytelling" (6). Taken quite literally
(or "literarily"), then, these films are "dumb"-- they have no interest
in plumbing the depths of profundity, they are not invested in moral or
ethical discussions of violence in a violent society, they revel instead
in a logic of "astonishment" noted by Tom Gunning in his "cinema of attractions."
In contrast to films like Scorsese's Taxi Driver or Peckinpah's
Wild Bunch, which may be read as questioning filmic uses of violence
and the nature of heroism, these are films interested in surfaces, in "display
rather than the temporal unfolding essential to narrative" (Gunning 10).
Within this logic, Tombstone's already fairly empty plot can be
derailed in favor of an approximately twenty-minute-long montage of riding,
shooting and fighting, and the plot to which we return doesn’t necessarily
have to have much in common with the one we abandoned. Ultimately, films
employing stylized violence revel in guns, gore and explosions, exploiting
mise-en-scene not so much to provide narrative environment as to create
the appearance of a "movie" atmosphere against which specifically cinematic
spectacle can unfold.3
The appeal of the spectacular in these films is
apparent not only in the prevalence of big name stars, but also in the
employment of established generic categories. With the exception of Hard
Target, whose real star may be for some audiences not so much actor
Van Damme as director John Woo, all involve multi-star casts. Indeed, we
might think of Tombstone and True Romance as being excessive
in their deployment of star images; each film's cast list reads like a
who's who of actors generally associated with specific film forms and concerns.
Tombstone, for example, splits our attention between the likes of
Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Val Kilmer, Billy Zane, Dana Delaney and even
Jason Priestley, all of whom have, at some point in their careers, been
associated with coming of age dramas. True Romance, on the other
hand, invokes the connection between Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken,
Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer (again), and Christian Slater as quirky thriller
heroes and heavies. This mobilization of star images already has something
to do with genre, and these films underscore such intertextual connections
by participating quite blatantly in the most generic of generic forms:
Tombstone is very obviously a western, True Romance has all
the elements of the road movie, and Hard Target falls into what
Tasker names the "muscular movie" category, a typical form of the action
genre. Ultimately, though, they are all more interested in mimicking genre
than following through with generic conventions. Though Tombstone,
for example, has all the looks and gestures of the western, traditional
issues, such as the encroachment of civilization on the wilderness, are
never considered from any point of view other than for style's sake.
Whereas stars and genres have traditionally been
employed as a form of shorthand, serving, as Andrew Britton notes, as both
"embodiments" and "mediators" of certain kinds of contradictions (202),
their appearance in current films seems aimed towards less "constructive"
ends. One of the most interesting aspects of these films is the way in
which they put themselves into cultural play through a process of dispersal,
a centrifugal force created in part by references to genre and star image,
but also to other films and media products. Hard Target,
for example, includes references both to Woo's own Hong Kong films (in
the narratively unmotivated slow motion shots of birds), and to his beloved
Sergio Leone's films (through the name of the villain, Van Cleef). This
process of dispersal reflects the changed and changing relationship we
have to popular cultural images and texts. In his article, "The New Hollywood,"
Thomas Schatz notes how increasing access to cultural production through
the development of ancillary markets such as cable and pay-TV, video rental,
sound track and product tie-ins has altered not only our experiences of
the Hollywood image, but also how that image is produced. As he explains
it, "...the vertical integration of the classical Hollywood, which ensured
a closed industrial system and coherent narrative, has given way to 'horizontal
integration' of the new Hollywood's tightly diversified media conglomerates,
which favors texts strategically 'open' to multiple readings and multimedia
reiteration" (34). In particular the VCR and the ever increasing access
it provides both to current titles and classics, makes the consumer of
cinematic images, in Timothy Corrigan's words, into a "tourist" who enters
the alien city of the film text and makes it personally meaningful by taking
parts home with him as if they were snapshots or souvenirs (81-82). Like
Gary Oldman's ethnically hybrid character, Drexl, in True Romance, we can
gather together a cacophony of sampled cultures and construct them as an
identity. In addition, the capacity for manipulation, and thereby, fetishization
of the video image dramatically changes the nature of our reception of
texts. As a result, spectator action becomes "radical bricolage, the play
with and reassembly of signifiers from strikingly different cultures and
contexts" (Corrigan 83). This is particularly significant in films which
exploit the kind of violence I am discussing, since the spectacular moments
almost beg to be rewound and reviewed.
This proliferation of images, along with our ability
to manipulate and decontextualize them, serves as both the result and the
basis for Collins' hyperconscious media. He suggests that "[t]he omnipresence
of what Umberto Eco has called the 'already said,' now represented and
recirculated as the still-being-said, is not just a matter of an ever-accumulating
number of texts ready to be accessed, but also involves a transformation
of the cultural terrain that contemporary genre films must somehow make
sense of, or map" (132-133). In contrast to the ephemeral film experience
of the Classical era, where the film arrived at the theater, played for
a few days, and then disappeared into studio archives, the image abundance
of the present provides for a participatory method of viewing resulting
both from the overwhelming plenitude and the ordinariness of those images.
As Rutsky and Wyatt note in discussing "fun" texts, "... the images, often
drawn from popular culture, do not generally carry the auratic force of
the radically other; they are not mysterious, but obvious. Indeed, fun
seems to result not so much from the images themselves but from a playful
recombination that has little respect for either the seriousness of rationality
or the fascination of the other" (14).
To a large extent, then, the individual film plots
are not really that important. Narrative serves rather as a space for generating
the various signs which are put into circulation or which are already in
circulation and merely picked up and carried forward. One of the many pleasures
we experience watching Hard Target, for example, is precisely rhizomatic
in that it mobilizes our intertextual recognition of conventions from other
Woo films and connects up with films, like True Romance, which include
imitations of or homages to Woo. Like the rhizome, any individual cinematic
moment can function as a cultural sign which "can be connected to anything
other, and must be" (Deleuze and Guattari 7). Involved as Hard Target,
True Romance and Tombstone are with textual, generic and
star signs, the stylized violence they contain ultimately serves as just
another interruption in the narrative drive. We might go so far as to say
that these films recognize what matinee fans have always known, that narratives
often only support other, more interesting aspects of Hollywood film--stars
and spectacles--which can constantly be used and recycled to serve individual
desires. In this they mirror Deleuze and Guattari's "semiotic chain" which
" is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic,
but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive: there is no language
in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects,
patois, slangs, and specialized languages" (7).
As I have tried to indicate in looking particularly
at films which employ stylized violence, one of the common concerns of
the New Hollywood film is its own surface, its own method of representation
as opposed to the classical cinema's more narrative driven concerns. Such
an interest in the representation, rather than the "thing itself," is particularly
intriguing in the light of President Clinton's declaration of a "War on
Crime" in a historical moment when many studies seemed to be indicating
a pattern of decline in the incidence of violent crime. In 1993 FBI statistics
revealed a decrease for the second year in a row in all forms of violent
crimes except rape. As George James reported; "After seemingly inexorable
increases in crime year after year going back to the early days of the
Eisenhower Administration, the 1992 figures mark the second consecutive
year of decline" (A1). Against this background, President Clinton announced
his intention, first, to support the bill being introduced by Senate Democrats
which called for more police, more prisons, gun control, and expansion
of the crimes to which the death penalty would apply, and second, to stand
by his campaign position to be "tough on crime" (Jehl, "Clinton Undertakes"
In much the same way as the stylized violence
of films like Hard Target, Tombstone and True Romance
is an excessive cinematic response, Clinton's response to crime statistics
might also have been considered in some ways excessively stylized. According
to its critics, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was primarily
concerned more with the surfaces, more with creating spectacle, than with
actually doing anything about crime. Or, as Barry Krisberg, president of
the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco, so ironically
stated: the "short-sighted policy of incarceration and tough law enforcement
against street [drug] addicts...makes the world safe for politicians..."(Kemper
73). Even the moderately conservative U.S. News and World Report
responded ambivalently to the bill, largely based in the reporter's assertion
of its vacuity: "...real progress in solving the nation's crime problem
will not come from catchy campaign promises" (Gest 52). This attention
to surface, to superficial responses to real problems, might lead us to
associate with the crime bill a kind of "ad" construction similar to that
of the blockbuster, attempting to provide something for everyone, while
positioning the "product" within a mode of the "Least Objectionable" Legislation.
We might see in the bill what Corrigan refers to in his discussion of New
Hollywood genre as the inflation of the issue, the application of "the
psychologically or technologically grandiose and sensational" (more policemen,
more prisons, more criminals frying in electric chairs), as well as a reduction
in terms of "moral or historical complexity" (considerations of the causes
of crime rooted in historically substandard living conditions in the inner
city, for example) (21). Indeed, given Elliot Currie's description from
The Nation, connecting the crime bill to the conglomerate-serving blockbuster
does not seem so far off base. With all those Senators' hands and interests
in the pie, and with so much emphasis on crime as a politically profitable
issue, it is little wonder that its thousand pages, divided into fifty
one different sections was "an odd, slapdash mixture of the pretty good,
the useless but probably harmless and the truly dreadful" (118).
That a reduction in crime was met with increased
efforts to stand tough against it, both in the arena of legislation and
media regulation, itself suggests a logical disjuncture. This was apparently
a bill with no historical memory--one which was so decontextualized that
it seemed intent on solving problems caused in part by the "War on Drugs"
of the 1980s, not only with the same tools, but also with the same rhetoric.
Currie complained, "...the worst feature of the bill is not the silly,
purely symbolic posturing that extends the federal death penalty to fifty-two
crimes. It is the stunning imbalance between punishment and prevention.
It's as if the bill's framers had learn nothing from the prison explosion
of the past twenty-years..." (118). To some extent, both the bill
and media response to it were dependent on intertextual references to other
presidents' positions on the same issue. In this it mirrors the hyperconscious
film's mobilization of popular cultural signifiers towards a new end seen
both in the rhetorical substitution of "crime" for "drugs," and in Barry
Krisberg's appropriation of a recycled political idiom, calling the bill
"voodoo criminology" in response (118). In this appropriation and exploitation
of other, perhaps disconnected signifiers taken up to suit the needs of
the moment or the individual, we can notice both a fetishization past discourses
and a willingness to disconnect and reconnect current connotations. This
logic of the signifier, for example, appears in the statement of an ex-cop,
who commented that the bill was like "treating AIDS by building new hospices"
In some final analysis, however, it may be
that such attention to the images rather than the 'truth' may now be the
government's real (and legitimate) activity. Ultimately, this use
of style to serve as a kind of meaning may be precisely one form of contemporary
social problem solving. In the November 14, 1993 edition of The New York
Times, Douglas Jehl wrote, "Crime is an issue that historically has held
more appeal to conservatives, and the Administration's new emphasis on
it may be intended, in part, as a foil to concerns that the attention to
health care and other traditionally liberal programs reflects and outlook
that is skewed to the left" ("Clinton Delivers" 1:1). If we are to accept
this reading of Clinton's attention to crime, we must also see it as a
method of actually dealing with issues, and precisely issues of crime,
but in an indirect or perhaps rhizomatic manner. If his circuitous route
could be seen as an avenue towards dealing with contiguous issues like
unemployment, lack of health care and educational opportunities, then it
may be that the crime bill turned out to be at least a stylistically efficient
method of dealing with crime. After all, the continuing decrease in violent
crime in the years since can only be read as a continuing indication of
success. Placing this political issue within the language of the discussion
on film, we might say go so far as to say that the crime bill served as
a spectacle, a vertical moment in the image progression which arrested
and disrupted (as perhaps the concern over violence in the media has been
doing in the past few years), focusing attention on itself and pulling
our attention away from the progress of less consensus-driven issues.
I have tried to illustrate, in what might
appear to be a slightly exaggerated fashion, how the degree of disassociation
of the crime bill from the conditions it was supposedly addressing and
the media's response to that incongruity might indicate that the style
in which violence has been addressed in Washington could in many ways be
linked to the style of violence in certain films. The fact of the matter
is that the President and Congress are not the only ones concerned with
issues of violent crime; indeed, their political response results from
voter pressure. Americans, it seems, had in 1993 and continue to have currently
a sense that even if crime statistics indicate a pattern of decline, their
experience does not. Part of the problem rests in a change in the nature
of the society--crime seems, on the one hand, to have become more mobile,
crossing over into neighborhood which never had to consider it before,
and, on the other hand, it seems to have become more random.4
Previous assumptions of safety because of one's location or behavior are
less tenable. In some fashion, both the drama the crime bill and of the
film employing aestheticized violence may be connected with this shift
from the middle, from a centered and rationalized view of ourselves and
our cultural environment which allows for the construction of boundaries
and certainties to a dislodged, decentered and rhizomatic image where traditional
methods of mastery no longer apply.
In his reading of changes in the global cultural
economy, Arjun Appadurai comes to the conclusion that this shift is being
experienced, not only in neighborhoods across American, but in the larger
global "community" as well. He suggests that we should "begin to think
of the configuration of cultural forms in today's world as fundamentally
fractal, that is, as possessing no Euclidean boundaries, structures, or
regularities." Instead of bemoaning the loss of sense in the blurring of
the boundaries upon which we have relied, we might "move into something
like a human version of the theory that some scientists are calling 'chaos
theory.' That is, we will need to ask how these complex, overlapping, fractal
shapes constitute not a simple, stable (even if large-scale) system, but
to ask what its dynamics are..." (20). Again Collins' assessment of the
state of film studies as a discipline seems to mirror Appadurai's evaluation
of the more global situation. Collins states:
Contemporary film criticism has been utterly unable to come to terms
with these very profound changes in the nature of entertainment because
this hyperconscious eclecticism is measured against Nineteenth-Century
notions of classical narrative and realist representation....What is left
out...is the possibility that the nature of entertainment, narrative, art,
identification may be undergoing significant reformulation due to widespread
changes in the nature of information, distribution, access, and manipulability.
That this simply doesn't exist as an option reveals the tenacity with which
social critics from Allen Bloom to Jean-Louis Baudrillard still cling to
notions of art, epistemology and signification that were developed, at
the very latest, in the Nineteenth Century. (140)
That a different dynamic is a work at least within the New
Hollywood film seems fairly clear; however, to take that dynamic out of
the theater and place it into a political and social realm seems quite
another matter. Yet, perhaps it is the contiguity of these spheres that
makes critics like Schickel and Miller so nervous and hence so vehemently
apocalyptic in their attacks against what should be deemed, particularly
from their frame of reference, rather "silly" films.
If we remain open to the idea that in not addressing
issues directly we might be engaging them circuitously, each according
to our own routes bound up in webs of meaning which can never be fully
contained or fully mastered, we might arrive at the conclusion that what
the New Hollywood film and the crime bill have to tell us is that all cultural
realms now connect up to each other in rhizomatically (dis)organized patterns.
If Thomas Schatz's argument, in Hollywood Genres, that genre films
are methods of cultural problem solving can be applied to even these "hybrid"
genre films, then as "male" genres of social order, they should be addressing
some issue of contested cultural space (35). Because of the stylistic exaggeration
of these films, the spaces they create cannot be read in the terms generally
adopted for the discussion of classical movie genres. By this I mean that
the American West, as it is depicted in Tombstone, for example,
is not contested in the way that that of Stagecoach, Red River,
or even Liberty Valance was. In this recent film, we are simply
not concerned with the metaphor of the closing of the frontier or our nostalgia
at the overtaking of wilderness by civilization, but rather, this film,
like Hard Target and True Romance, seems more concerned with
how such cultural ideas have come to form a stockpiles of images which,
when assembled, form our cultural identity. Via this rhizomatic logic,
these films do engage a contested space, but they do so in a kind of language
of metonymy, like that which Rutsky and Wyatt regard as a "discourse of
fun" based not in metaphoric substitutions or rational hierarchicizing
relationships between signs and meanings, but in "the playfulness of mass
culture, in its leveling montage of images, words, and ideas, in its non-rational
associations, puns, and figures" (17). In much the same way that Rutsky
and Wyatt believe that "fun" might revitalize film studies, the "exuberant"
violence of certain films has the potential not to so much to disturb the
spectator's morals as to dislocate the cultural and cinematic metanarratives
he has invoked to explain himself and his world(s).
But how does aestheticized violence function
in particular films and what is it that these texts’ "adventures„ through
the popular cultural array have to tell us about ourselves and our moment
in history. Towards the end of illustrating the possibilities afforded
by reading through style, I will examine a film which, at least in the
outset, seems pointedly didactic in performing an "ethnographically" nostalgic
rewriting of a film genre. Mario Van Peebles's film Posse, which
like the other films being studied here was released in 1993, was conceived
ostensibly as a film with a "serious" social purpose, a rewriting of the
Western with an eye towards reinserting the African-American cowboy in
our representation of settling the country. The film invests much time
and energy towards precisely this revision, even constructing a frame which
underlines the film's "authenticity" by establishing an interview-like
situation, with young African-American men being instructed in the contributions
of the black cowboy by an eye-witness. And even in the process of its attempt
at demythologization, Posse at least begins by respecting and reproducing
the most important conventions of the genre, invoking as it does a fairly
traditional revenge plot which is altered only in that it is played out
across racial lines.
At the very end of the film, however, during
the typical climatic shoot out between the good guys and the bad, the film
takes an unexpected turn. Already involved in an intertextual play both
by virtue of the intention to revise and through the use of an incredibly
recognizable group of actors in cameo roles, the film suddenly, and illogically
derails its narrative and thematic progression by "indulging" in an orgy
of aestheticized excess. With the camera rocking back and forth, with slow
motion and overlapping editing calling attention to the mechanism, in short,
in the employment of all of those elements which spectacularize violent
action so well, the narrative grinds to a halt and gives over to sheer
vertical moment of highly stylized violence. This disjunction is accompanied
by a number of incoherently connected allusions to various media events:
the two most obvious being mimicking of the end of Peckinpah's The Wild
Bunch and the reference to the Rodney King beating (a character played
by comedian Nipsey Russell cowers in the crossfire whining plaintively
"Can't we all just get along?"). In the highly aestheticized moment of
what would otherwise form a typical western ending, these two references
place style in dialogue both with previous filmic representations of violence
and contemporary social issues concerning violence specifically in the
African-American community. What emerges from the artful mayhem, it seems
to me, is not so much a deconstruction of the myth of the (white) Westerner's
controlled and reforming use of violence, but rather a violent dislocation
of such images and the values they imply from their central cultural position.
Though Posse's use of violence would
not be considered "strong" by McKinney's standards, since in asking the
viewer to connect up disparate cultural references it denies the kind of
identification required, it does perform a significant function in terms
of the final impression of the film. In this particular case, the stylization
of violence activates a disruption that disperses textual elements in an
extremely hyperconscious manner. What we end with here is a representation
of the black cowboys of Posse being equated not so much with historical
cowboys, but instead being made as real, as authentic, as the film cowboys
from Peckinpah's or anyone else's Western. Ultimately, the aestheticized
violence performs a rupturing of our metaphoric faith that film can re-present
truth; therefore, instead of serving as revision, instead of allowing us
to substitute a flawed version for a better, truer one, Posse addresses
the exclusion of the African-American cowboy from history by tossing a
new group of movie images into circulation so that they may be reiterated
and, in the process, redirect and be redirected by subsequent image constructions.
In contrast to more traditional narrative rewritings, this 'revision' by
style serves what Deleuze and Guattari might view as the "point of theory"
which is "to oppose the finality of deep structures, and to elicit and
amplify the forces of potential change" (quoted in Shaviro 23).
In this moment in Posse we see the
power of style to collapse distinctions of strong and weak forms of violence
while simultaneously questioning assumptions of a definitive split between
notions of cinematic pleasure and political import in movies. It is not
my intention here to present these films as being "progressive" in the
sense of proposing an oppositional vision to that of the "dominant culture."
Nor am I interested in reading subversion into their moments of excess.
What Hard Target, True Romance, Tombstone, and Posse
engage could perhaps be better described, if we remain locked in such distinctions,
as a conservative function in their attempt to help us become reconciled
with a shift in cultural paradigms by placing it in very recognizable terms.
This is to say, contrary to all traditional wisdom, that in its very dispersal
of such hierarchized and rationalized models of reading and thinking about
film texts in particular and mass culture more generally, style serves
as a kind of content for these films.
By taking such a position, I may be revealing
myself as a purveyor of decadence, at least according to a letter to the
editor of The New York Times written by Greg Mottola. Criticizing
a favorable review of True Romance, he writes, "when the depiction
of violence serves no moral ideal it becomes a meaningless, decadent form
of entertainment" (2:4). If Nietzsche's description in The Case of Wagner
holds true, that decadent art is that in which the part "gains life at
the expense of the whole--the whole is no longer a whole" (170), then he
would be correct. For it is ultimately only when we free the part, the
image, the surface, the style from nostalgic dependence on contained, "serious"
(meta)narratives that we may gain potential access to other "lines of flight,"
alternative modes of dealing with cultural and global concerns. In such
a "nonserious" realm, in the space where the "fun" of popular films can
serve as "the limit of seriousness, the space where seriousness begins
to make fun of itself" (Rutsky and Wyatt 16), we find the possibility of
considering the potentials for the new relations being formed between ourselves,
our cultures, and our images. Whether for better or for worse, Appadurai's
observations seem to be indicating that a change is upon us, and rather
than throwing up our hands at the "decadent" conditions of the present,
we might take a lesson from the violence of our "dumb" movies and learn
to do things with style.
1For more detailed critiques of these
theoretical tendencies see Rutsky and Wyatt (4-6) and Shaviro (9-20).
2Christopher Sharrett discusses a "Violent
New Wave" which is not only "hyperviolent" but also self-reflexively "immers[ed]
in media culture, rather than a concern for authentic moral, social and
philosophical ideas" (79).
3In her review of True Romance for the
New York Times, James notes the importance of its "candy-colored"
surfaces in the creation of the film's B film feel. To that we might add
the significance of the parchment colored surface of Tombstone which
besides the opening clips from The Great Train Robbery serves as
the main indication of its westernness. The orange-blue eighties noir coloring
of Hard Target functions in a similar fashion, giving us a filmic
feel more than a dramatic one.
4For a variety of expressions of this
view, see Gest (esp. 49), Maran, Derber, Kemper and Currie.
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