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" A20).
    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" (Kemper 73).
    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 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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