Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Case for a Gentler Cinema

“Art imitates life, and life imitates art. I don’t think you have to choose between the two, and I think…I think we’re a violent people.” James Gillham says this to his co-host Matt Gamble about an hour into a recent episode (4.3 – “At the Movies”) of their podcast High & Low (Brow) in which they discuss, among other things, the role violence plays in contemporary media. It is a very wise statement, and it neatly sums up a few things that have been on my mind for some time now – especially recently, what with the increased discussion of gun control in the USA following such horrific incidents as the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my personal tastes in films and how they have changed over the years, but also about peculiar little things I’m taking greater stock of – like how, in the midst of the talks and debates about gun control, while the abovementioned incidents are still fresh in people’s memories, films like A Good Day to Die Hard, Olympus Has Fallen, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation keep filling the multiplexes.
Now, to be clear, this is not one of those pieces that places the blame for violent incidents on violent films. In the High & Low (Brow) episode, Matt is quite right when he explains that focusing exclusively on violent films and other entertainments does not help the situation at all and only takes critical attention away from the real key factors of the problem: gun accessibility and mental health. Getting help to those who need it and making it tougher for ill or dangerous individuals to get their hands on and keep weapons and ammunition are absolutely the most important areas to focus on. However, I can also see where James is coming from when he questions the proliferation of violent entertainment and its impact on consumers amidst such troubling times. As he indicates in the quote above and his additional comments in the discussion, it is worth considering just what kind of role violent media does play and reevaluating what the abundance and endorsement of so much violent entertainment really means nowadays.
For me, I think the matter boils down to two words: healthy intake. Instead of debating whether media violence should be labeled as cause or symptom of real violence, I think it is much more productive to think about how media violence affects us as both people (individuals) and a people (society). And personally, I don’t really think it’s all that healthy. Now sure, a great many of my favorite films contain and, in some cases, focus in great detail on screen violence, and, similarly, a great many of my favorite filmmakers have relied on violence to express their views on bigger themes in their work. More on that later, but for now, isn’t it a little funny just how much violence has been fixated upon and worshipped for so long in cinema – particularly North American cinema? Back in 2007, Tom Carson wrote an especially illuminating piece for GQ on this matter entitled “In Violence We Trust” which explores how the vast majority of American filmmakers have largely avoided mature takes on sex and romance out of fear, embarrassment, or disinterest while going the opposite route and devising ever more lavish, over the top, shock-inducing, and gravely serious portrayals of blood, gore, death, and destruction. He’s right on the money too – from Taxi Driver’s orange-tinted climactic shootout and Raging Bull’s geysers of blood to the messy massacres in such recent films as Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, violence and artistic merit have long been the closest of bedfellows when it has come to films permeating the pop culture current and becoming identified as exemplary specimens of cinematic craftsmanship.
In the past, I’ve been just as involved as anybody else in this area. Tarantino was one of the very first filmmakers whom I identified as an auteur, and Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill were among the first films I looked at from an artistic perspective, from a perspective besides the one that regards films as entertainments and nothing more. To this day I still enjoy Tarantino’s work, and have lapped up Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with just as much enthusiasm as I did for his earlier works. But I will admit: lately, I have been getting tired of Quentin. Part of it simply has to do with the annoying egoism and smugness he emanates (yes, he’s got talent as a filmmaker, but he’s the kind of guy who wants to be absolutely sure you know it, who wants to be sure you see that big, juicy Written and Directed by credit over his name at the end of his film, who wants you to be keeping track at home of how many films he has under his belt to date, etc.), but a part of it also has to do with how he continues to use screen violence to a fetishistic degree in his filmmaking, leaning on it like a crutch even when digging into such big historical subjects as World War II and the American slave trade (which, granted, are topics mired in violence). That, as well as certain other qualities of his work (specifically the countless references to and precious emulations of his favorite films and genres) at times make it somewhat difficult to take him and his work seriously. I do admire Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained for providing fresh insights into their respective topics (e.g. Basterds’ depiction of the cultural and linguistic diversity in WWII-era Europe; Django’s commendable, bravely confrontational exploration of the slave trade), but as they coast along and hit their B-movie beats, there are times when they simply can’t be taken all that seriously and are in fact pretty embarrassing to behold. This is because the films are strictly set in Quentinland, and thus are chiefly designed to offer up highly entertaining and visceral cinematic experiences via Tarantino’s now well-established tools of choice: flowery dialogue, flamboyant characters, impeccable fusions of music and imagery, and, of course, elaborate displays of violence. I perfectly understand that these traits are what Tarantino’s films are all about – they’re simply what defines his distinctive voice, making him the filmmaker I and many others know and love. And yet, I’m growing increasingly weary and agitated by both the public adoration that violent works like Django (which recently snagged two Oscars, including one for Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay) continue to attract and, especially, the nature of many filmmakers’ relationships with violence as a part of their storytelling vocabulary, which I’d argue is a little too over-dependent for comfort.
While people frequently seek out films for entertainment and escape, I have long felt that a main goal of cinema should be to chronicle and explore universal human experiences. After all, what better way to connect with an audience and provide further insight into the human condition than to pick apart the stuff of everyday life in all of its beauty and complexity? Through this lens, the abundance of violence in film becomes unspeakably perverse – exactly how essential is violence to illuminating the human condition if so few of us have actually encountered serious forms of it with our own eyes? For how long have we been tricked into thinking that murder is a useful tool for examining so-called universal truths – that murder is, in fact, one of those universal truths? On a few occasions, I have spoken with my close friend Chris MaGee about the use of violence in cinema and its relationship to real-life violence. The last time we had a discussion on the topic, we both agreed that the average North American will fortunately pass through his or her life without ever having to kill anybody. Shortly afterwards, Chris showed me a documentary on Youtube that featured Vietnam veterans talking about their experiences in the war – specifically, the extreme trauma they went through as a result of killing other human beings years ago. That documentary plainly illustrated the real effects of violence – the true nature of violence. To hear those veterans’ stories, then contemplate how Tarantino and other filmmakers use violence in their work is more than a little off-putting, to say the least – in some cases, it simply feels wrong. To see a detached, obsessive fanboy like Tarantino orchestrate his gleeful killing sprees set to pop or rap music behind the argument that “it’s only movie violence” feels wrong and irresponsible – again, not because having so much violence in a film will turn viewers into killers, but instead because it doesn’t afford any respect to those who have actually had to face murder and death in their own lives. That’s why you would never want to see Inglourious Basterds sitting next to a World War II veteran – a situation like that makes the insulting nature of the film clear as day. Chris has also convinced me how a man like Samuel Fuller is infinitely more entitled to make a film about war than Tarantino simply because of how much life the man has seen. Fuller lived a truly extraordinary life in which he not only served as an infantryman in World War II, but also worked as a crime reporter and novelist before making a name for himself in filmmaking. Fuller constantly drew from his own life when making his raw, honest films – he had a rich field of experience he could consult to inform the stories he told. Next to him, people like Tarantino who seemingly learned everything they know about the world just from watching movies are simply too detached from real life, and as a result come across as pitiful phonies.
I’m not saying that in order for a film to have any credibility or meaning to it, it has to be based on actual experiences lived by one or more of its key authors. However, after not only observing Tarantino and other filmmakers flush away human life onscreen in such a flippant manner, but also seeing how ubiquitous and commonplace such films have become, I think it would only be a good thing to see a) more work that is based on something thoughtful and genuine (like actual experiences) rather than detached, adolescent fantasy, b) violence handled in a more serious light more often in cinema, and c) more filmmakers do away with violence altogether in their storytelling. Regarding point b), I not only think of Tarantino (who has long been a favorite punching bag for arguments like the ones presented here), but also other filmmakers whose use of violence comes across as childish, grotesque, and stupid. Many have commented on the increasingly nihilistic worldview of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; I myself can’t help but think of the video game-like anonymity of the gun-wielding goons who threaten Inception’s team of dream hackers – yes, they’re only dream figments, but it’s still unsettling to see how casually they are first conjured, then eliminated throughout the film. Then there are the Robert Rodriguezes and Michael Bays of the world – true juveniles whose fascination with noisy, obnoxious destruction serves no constructive purpose and leaves no room for anything resembling a responsible or positive worldview. Sure, these directors are clearly invested in providing escapism, not contemplation, but is this really the kind of escapism people want? Are they really so eager to lose themselves in films that are so sorely lacking in conscience?
And really, that’s what it boils down to for me. I’m just so weary and tired of filmmaking that lacks a conscience, and utilizes death so thoughtlessly and frequently, positioning it as the ideal way to resolve conflict. Just to get away from the nastiness and cynicism that saturates so much of film culture, I have been taking more comfort in filmmakers who in fact don’t feel they need to rely on screen violence to tell interesting stories in interesting ways, and I feel so much better for it. They have meaningful things to say about the world that are grounded in easily relatable experiences and come across as so much more positive and compassionate than the majority of the messages I’d be likely to find in a heavily violent film. Along these lines, I’m specifically thinking of filmmakers like Jean Renoir, the humanist par excellence; Jacques Tati, the gentle clown of French cinema; and François Truffaut, whose relatively rare uses of violence in his films often, significantly, come across as rather clumsy – sometimes to great effect, as in Shoot the Piano Player; sometimes to poor effect, as in The Bride Wore Black. In any case, he is better remembered for sunnier, stronger films like Stolen Kisses, Day For Night, The Wild Child, and Small Change. More recent efforts from Asian cinema have created an interesting dichotomy: while Park Chan-wook has been lavished with praise for his prettily framed studies of violence and its harmful consequences right up to Stoker, others like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Hirokazu Kore-eda have been at work making some of the most peaceful and light-hearted films you could hope to find. If there is a cinematic father figure for these modern masters, it is surely Yasujiro Ozu, whose calm, orderly family dramas say so much without resorting to outlandish scenarios – indeed, they hardly ever leave the households, office buildings, bars, and train platforms of a bygone – yet still familiar – Tokyo. A number of his contemporaries in the Japanese film industry – Hiroshi Shimizu, Mikio Naruse – likewise remained quite content with the stuff of everyday life. As for Akira Kurosawa, while he is well known for creating some of the most striking scenes of violence in all of cinema, one need only think of films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, or Ran to understand that Kurosawa’s violence is nearly always in service to his critiques of mankind’s stupidity and savagery. Kurosawa did not use violence lightly, and made sure to put it to some constructive purpose in his films.
Kurosawa was another big gateway filmmaker for me, but these days I’m more likely to turn to Ozu. It’s not that I have lost sight of Kurosawa’s greatness, nor have I grown scared of or extra-sensitive to screen violence – hell, if anything, I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance level of all manner of movie gore. But that’s part of the point I’m making here – how did it reach that point where I and so many other viewers are unshaken by the carnage we see in so many films? How wide is the disconnect between the seemingly harmless, fantastical violence of the movies and the real thing? I’m not passing any judgments on anyone’s tastes, nor am I saying that I’m done with violent films forever. I’d just like to take a bit of a break and lessen my intake of violent cinema for a bit – and why not? The way I see it, having more playful, compassionate, and conscientious films in my viewing intake can only be a good thing.
Yet while this is a personal choice in the way I watch and think about film, it would be interesting to see more filmmakers follow this route as well – to see them challenge themselves by turning away from violence and murder and towards more relatable and commonplace subject matter for their stories. There is a delightful documentary tribute to Ozu called Talking with Ozu (available on the Criterion edition of Tokyo Story as well as on Youtube in separate parts) in which such filmmakers as Hou, Claire Denis, Wim Wenders, and Lindsay Anderson share their personal connections to the Japanese master. In it, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki offers up his words of gratitude and affection, at one point voicing his admiration for Ozu’s aversion to violence: “What I respect most is that Ozu never needed to use murder or violence to tell everything that’s essential about human life.” While he admits in his typically self-deprecating manner that he will never reach Ozu’s level, Kaurismäki can rest easy: a deeply conscientious filmmaker in his own right, he rarely resorts to violence, and only ever lets it play a small part in his nourishing humanist tales. 


But what about other filmmakers? Are there any who would be willing to take up the Ozu challenge and ease off of the bloodshed in their own films? Pedro Costa voices a similar wish at the end of a recent interview for’s Notebook in which he imagines a version of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo devoid of any violence: “Let’s avoid every single murder, killing, weapon. That’s the challenge.” It’s challenges in cinematic storytelling like that that I’d be very happy to see more of. After all, there’s something to be said for the filmmaker whose idea of an essential prop is a red teapot rather than a human skull.

Yasujiro Ozu's Equinox Flower

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained


Adam K said...

Lovely and worthwhile sentiments in our age of casual bloodshed.

But I think you understate the violence and threat of violence in Renoir, especially in LA CHIENNE, M. LANGE, THE HUMAN BEAST, and RULES OF THE GAME. No one's plumbed the depths of human depravity so incisively. Likewise, I wouldn't label the films of Hou, Weerasethakul, or Koreeda as "peaceful" ("still" may be a better word) or "light-hearted," except perhaps for RED BALLOON for Hou and I WISH for Koreeda. All of their other films are often pregnant with tension and, if not outright violent, then always potentially so. I think you say it best, re: Kurosawa, as violence with a "constructive purpose."

Again, wonderful writing all around.

James Gillham said...

What a thoughtful and well-written article, Marc. You managed to beautifully articulate some of what I was struggling with when I made those comments to Matt on our show.

While I haven't seen Django Unchained yet, I think Inglourious Basterds is an excellent example of the use of excessive violence sans conscience when compared to something like Hitchcock's Rope.

I'm going to have to brush up on my world cinema in order to keep up with the rest of your examples. :)

Great work!

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Many thanks for the feedback and kind words, Adam and James!

Adam - you make some very good points about those particular filmmakers, and in some respects I am very much in agreement. But here, I think it's worthwhile pointing out the types of violence being discussed - and while writing the piece, I was indeed keeping in mind emotional as well as physical violence, and my concern very much lies with the latter. Basically, in voicing my complaints I was keeping in mind a very broad, simple definition of screen violence - exploding squibs, gallons of fake blood, tons of onscreen deaths, etc. Broad and simple, but stuff that still appears in alarming frequency and with little moral concerns, which prompted me to write the piece in the first place. You make a very good point that emotional violence and tension that exists between characters is also extremely relevant - but that's a horse of a different color, in my eyes. I'll take more filmmakers like Kurosawa, who use physical violence wisely, or those who deal a lot with emotional violence, like Bergman, Kore-eda, or Hou, over the ones who are into splatter and all that.

When naming folks like Renoir, Hou, and Apichatpong, I was thinking a lot about the key impressions their works leave behind, and in my view, they are largely positive and compassionate. True, the films of Hou, Kore-eda, and Apichatpong aren't without their conflicts and more tense moments, and yet all three filmmakers can create comfortable scenes of communal interaction between their characters like no-one else. Here, I think of the family/friend dynamics in films like Still Walking, Café Lumière, Flight of the Red Balloon, and pretty much all of Apichatpong's features - remember those delightful outdoor meal scenes at the beginning of Tropical Malady?

You're very right when addressing the violence in Renoir's cinema - but to me, the most memorable bits of The Rules of the Game aren't when the threat of death is lingering, or when actual death strikes (though, as you say, they are absolutely very important in certain scenes), but the big party sequences and the dialogue-heavy scenes that show the comical and intriguing interactions between the characters. You hate a number of these people, but at the same time they carry a certain appeal that someone like Renoir can pull off. It's that kind of stuff - the appeal and sense of community - that I especially latch onto in Renoir.

Adam K said...

Excellent distinctions there, Marc. I think what you're saying may come down to presenting violence, whether physical or emotional, as only one element in a wide-ranging palette. Certainly with none of the filmmakers you mention would violence be the primary concern or overriding sentiment when looking back, a notion that might not be true for the makers of so-called "torture porn."

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Very true - after all, I certainly believe that someone like Tarantino, Scorsese, or Refn are definitely getting at deeper things than directors of torture porn, and I don't want my current issues with screen violence to get in the way of their talents and ideas as filmmakers.