On Cinema’s Violence

When I was interviewing for admissions at my college, I used to give a little passage to the prospective candidates to read from a Daniel Pennac novel, in which an adolescent sits glumly trying (and failing) to read his homework from a hefty tome and dearly wishing he could be watching a film instead. ‘What’s the difference between a film and a novel?’ I used to ask them, to which they would anxiously clasp onto the phrase in the Pennac passage that ‘tout est donné’, everything is set out for you in a film, you don’t have to think. They used to say this (and really, remarkably few came up with something different) with such tremendous relief and my heart would always sink. I took the candidates who managed to express the notion, no matter how inarticulately, that the way you use images, what you can do with them to convey an event, is very different to what you can do with words. That’s why we can watch James Bond walk away from incidents that would in reality kill him and be satisfied; sight lends such conviction, whereas recounting so often leaves us a prey to suspicion. You can see that at work in the way the Bond novels are almost pedestrian in comparison to the films, as the reader’s credibility refuses to be stretched. And because sight is such a powerful tool, the cinema exploits it ruthlessly, often to the detriment of a film’s plotline. That’s the thing about films, as those young students were telling me; everyone knows it’s such a relief not to think. Alas, the best films are the ones that combine a visual feast with good storytelling, but inevitably they are few and far between.

Which is probably why I do appreciate Alfred Hitchcock so much. I’m not a great film buff, far from it, but I do love Hitchcock and could watch films like Marnie and Vertigo and Suspicion over and over again. Yesterday evening I watched Strangers On A Train for the first time, the film that Hitchcock adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. The premise is most intriguing: two young men meet on a train, and over the course of the conversation find out that they are both encumbered by one individual who obstructs their life to such an extent that they would quite like to see them dead. They could not commit those murders themselves as suspicion would instantly fall upon them, the motive being so clear. But suppose they carried out each other’s murders? How would anyone trace the path back? A motiveless crime is that step nearer to being a perfect crime. In the movie, the situation is not as quite as mutual as this. The instigator of the conversation and the idea is an unstable young man named Bruno Anthony, and the stranger he meets is not unknown to him. He’s read up in the papers about the tennis player, Guy Haines, who is seeking a divorce from his unfaithful wife in order to marry the daughter of a Senator. Guy is the model of a moral, upright man, clean living, healthy, sane, a stark contrast to Bruno’s cunning depravity. But Bruno becomes his dark shadow, his negative alter ego, dogging his footsteps and pestering him with his plan, particularly when he finds out that Guy’s wife, a money-grabbing, loose-moralled, dog in the manger sort, is now refusing him his divorce. Bruno, suavely psychotic, stalks her and kills her. Now, can he oblige Guy to commit a murder in return?

All the while I was watching this, I was thinking, good old Hitchcock! Here’s a man who knows that the storyline provides the real undertow of the film, the current that sucks us in until we are lost in the film, rather than simply pinned to our seats by the speed and the vividness of the images. And then at the end, extraordinarily, Hitchcock loses it, and gives us a finale as overblown and excessive as any modern day Bond movie. I don’t think I’m giving away anything that matters, but I am going to talk a bit about the end, if you need a warning of that. Anyhow, the climax involves the two men, Bruno and Guy, in a fight to the death in the fairground where Guy’s wife was murdered. They are being followed by the police and, as they chase each other onto the merry-go-round, one policeman shoots somewhat randomly and kills the man at the controls. The merry-go-round accelerates wildly, women and children scream in terror, and the fight between the two protagonists increases in fury and intent. One image shows Guy, holding onto the legs of a carousel horse as if hanging out the side of an airplane, expelled by centrifugal force. By this point, my husband sitting beside me was howling with laughter. ‘Let go! Let go!’ he was urging. ‘You’re all of six inches off the ground!’ He is very disrespectful to movies, particularly ones with intellectual pretensions, if they fail to keep him in the correct emotional zone. I put it down to public school. Anyway, whilst all this is going on, an elderly fairground stallholder is crawling under the spinning platform to reach the central control panel with its levers. Finally he gets there, and yanks the lever upright to bring the merry-go-round to an abrupt and explosive halt, causing death or injury to any number of small children, one imagines, but inadvertently resolving the situation between Bruno and Guy. ‘How about that?’ my husband hooted. ‘All that fuss because one young woman is murdered, but the policeman shoots the fairground man dead and no one gives it a second thought, not to mention the loss of life on the carousel.’ And it’s true, if you move out of the gridlock in which the film seeks to hold your attention, it becomes an illogical, if all too familiar, sort of grand finale. Good bye considered storyline, hello special effects.

And yet, on reflection, I found this had a lot to say about guilt. This movie is fascinated by guilt, with Guy repeatedly frustrated by the way that being under suspicion makes him behave as if he were guilty. His association with Bruno, even though he resists it at every turn, contaminates him, triggers the pervasive sense we all possess of innate guilt (the same way a police car roaring up behind us on the motorway will make us wonder what we’ve done wrong). And we watch the film, waiting and waiting to see whether Bruno will corrupt him, whether Guy will crack under pressure. Hitchcock sets up all kinds of stunts in the film that look as if he might give in because of course, we expect him to. In fact, the film suggests that guilt is almost impossible to hold out against. It’s so difficult to maintain our purity in the face of pervasive, irresistible guilt, that innocence becomes an extremely costly asset. That’s the paradox of guilt the film embodies – in the end we’ll accept any kind of body count, in order to prove Guy’s innocence. We’ll readily accept killing off all sorts of people we don’t know, figures who are little more than film furniture, so that we can establish the absolute innocence, the rightness, of the one man we now know well. A quick glance back over the bloody pages of history will show that it has ever been thus.

But I also felt that the ending showed the story submitting to the force that is cinema. Image storytelling overtook thoughtful, word-based storytelling. It made me wonder whether cinema isn’t innately violent. Books can make us laugh and cry, but cinema wants to make us retch and scream. The jump cuts, the pixillation of modern filmmaking are all ways to do violence to our eyeballs, to assault us with a machine gun rattle of images. Film worries me as a medium. It seems so constrained in what it is interested in doing, in what it is capable of showing us to create interest and meaning. Books have all kinds of emotional landscapes they can inhabit, all sorts of experiments they can try out. I know I don’t go to the cinema because I get so tired of the same old visceral response happening to me again and again, but maybe my own view of filmmaking is too narrow because my experience has been so restricted? Usually, I only watch children’s movies, because more is permitted there in terms of fantasy, mystery, wonder, humour and delight than in adult fare. But I do make an exception for Hitchcock, and although Strangers On A Train may have a mad ending, it’s still a clever, subtle, questioning film that doesn’t consider the worst thing that can happen to you is to be made to think.

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25 thoughts on “On Cinema’s Violence

  1. Lilian, that is very much the question I ask myself. I wonder whether it is simply that I don’t watch enough films. I am all for the beautiful unfolding of art and can think of very few films that fit the bill – all too often my cinematic experience is of a violent assault on the senses. The lovely films I’ve seen are mostly adaptations of the classics – Howard’s End, A Room with A View, etc, although I also have a taste for Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway being my favourite for the way it plays with the notion of artistic creativity), and French films like Eric Rohmer’s, which are brilliant in that nothing happens, at all! and the unfolding of life on the screen is the entire point. I like that a lot, but it’s rare to find. Oh and the oldies, I like them too, when there weren’t special effects and the script along with the quality of the acting were all a director had at his disposal. I suppose I fear that cinema increasingly leaves such gentleness and artistry behind, in favour of more brutal effects.

  2. Try the very recent Happy-Go-Lucky, which takes the notion of happiness (and luckiness) and makes a stunningly lovely and touching film from it, without sentimentality, pretention, or brutality.

  3. I was visiting with friends over the weekend and they had just watched this very same movie! They said it was funny. Or maybe it was Lost in Austen that was funny and I am getting it confused. Anyway, what a bizarre moment to have you writing about this movie I have not seen and had not heard of until just a couple days ago!

    I am not a big movie watcher either but I do think films don’t have to be violent. I’ve seen some that I would count as works of art but they are admittedly few and far between.

  4. Emily – we need to swap! I cry at the sappy parts and my husband and son just at me like a bizarre (and embarrassing) specimen.

    Jenny – thank you for the great recommendation! It sounds exactly right for me and I’ll certainly be looking out for it.

    Stefanie – no! what a coincidence! They may well have found it funny – my husband would certainly agree. :) I don’t think there is a necessity to be violent, but I think that most cinematic tricks that are deemed ‘stunning’ or ‘impressive’ involve an assault on the viewing spectator. I think that’s what dates films so fast, because we become accustomed to their tricks and then need something bigger and better to be surprised all over again. There’s nothing as ropey as old-fashioned special effects!

  5. I’ve always been rather fascinated by this film, despite the incredibly bad acting and the excruciatingly overlong scenes of Guy playing tennis. And the thing that fascinates me about it is exactly what you identify here … the psychology of it; Bruno as Guy’s exteriorized shadow self. The carousel scene still freaks me out a little. :-)

    I highly recommend a little film called “Throw Momma from the Train” as a followup to this film. It’s a marvelous film for writers to watch, and also … well … just trust me on this one, ‘k?

    Your posts about your builders were so much like the horrors of my daily life in real estate that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about them, lest I never stop.

  6. Happy-Go-Lucky is a lovely film! I just saw it last week – although it’s quite sad, too. One of the characters is pretty heartbreaking, if you ask me, and not really a figure of fun at all. Part of Mike Leigh’s immense skill is getting the pathos of that character exactly right. Killer acting, too. Litlove, I’m intrigued and disturbed by your thoughts on cinema being an inherently violent medium. I love film but abhor violence, and can’t watch it in films unless it’s the James Bondian or Hitchcockian variety (which is nicely diluted, and in the latter often occurs off-camera). I do know what you mean, as there’s an awful lot of violent films out there doing the rounds, but gosh, there’s a whole wonderful world of brilliant cinema out there that suggests there’s a lot more to it than blood and guts.

  7. David – lol! I’m with you on that scene of the tennis match! ‘Throw Momma From The Train’is a film I’ve heard of but never seen – I will most certainly do something about that now. And you have my sympathy for the real estate…

    Doctordi – ah okay, thank you so much for this because you show me I haven’t explained what I mean well enough. I don’t want to limit violence to a show of blood and guts here. I’m trying to say (and not clearly enough) that the carousel scene is violent, even though you don’t see anyone’s head ripped off. And even something silly and frivolous like Mamma Mia (for all that they are interspersed with quiet moments) is packed with scenes of wild parties, dizzying arrays of images, in-your-face singing. It all makes your heart beat faster, raises your adrenaline levels. Do you see what I mean? Cinema is an assault on the senses. I know this because I’m sensitive to it, so I don’t go to the cinema because I don’t like the intensity of the experience. Perhaps I should have used the word ‘intensity’ instead. Still.

    But what I’d love to know, given that you don’t like straightforward violence and love cinema, is which films you’d recommend that are worth seeing (and have no unpleasant scenes where I would have to close my eyes). The last film I saw that I thought was brilliant and non-violent was ‘Good Night And Good Luck’ – I should have written about that. It was amazing.

  8. If you liked that (and I did too), you’ll probably like Frost/Nixon, which I just saw the other night. No, no, I do know what you mean, and I hesitated over ‘blood and guts’ myself because I knew you were referring to a broad definition of violence. And there are so many films that are just too much of everything – a real assault, as it were – so I do agree. I can cope with cartoon violence a lot better, by the way, although I still don’t like it. I guess my tolerance for it started with Tom and Jerry when I was a kid, so I just have greater acceptance of its detachment from reality. Movies I would recommend… hmmm… assuming I don’t have to stick to new releases…well, Cinema Paradiso OBVIOUSLY, Pan’s Labyrinth (although it’s dark, and there is *some* violence, it’s a really gorgeous movie), H-G-L we’ve already discussed, Juno’s hard not to like, The Lives of Others, Babette’s Feast, Storm Boy, Whale Rider… and I’m going to think of more. That’s just for starters.

  9. If you’re really a reader, a good book has as much imagery as a movie. I know what you mean about movie violence, though – I couldn’t stand Looney Tunes as a kid, or Roadrunner, or T&J because they were too noisy and mean. Vertigo is one of my favorite movies.

  10. Ahem. You intrigued me so much by the description of this movie that I didn’t want to read about the end and instead intend to rent the dvd this week and then come back to finish reading…

  11. I’m also a big Hitchcock fan, but have not seen Strangers on a Train.

    I like your question about film, as a medium, necessarily having something violent about it. I’m trying to consider whether this works for films which aren’t dealing with violence at all, or at least not explicitly. Comedies? (of course I tend to like dark comedies, not silly comedies, so there is implicit violence in that) I think all storytelling, whether word-based or visual, explores violence but you’re right that we experience it differently. In film, the imagery of that violence is imposed while in a novel, we’re the one doing a lot of the creating. So in that sense, film has two layers of “force” and I wonder if that is what makes it feel more like an agression.

  12. I love Hitchcock, too, though I’ve not seen this one. I wonder if the violence has something to do with culture (or am I being too simplistic)? I think American movies are especially violent (not sure if Strangers on a Train was one of his Hollywood movies), whereas foreign films always seem so much more artsy and about interior lives of the characters than Hollywood films seem to be. Then again I’ve not a good enough cross section to tell and don’t really know all that much about films in general. I did have to laugh at your husband’s comment. I’ll have to see if my library has it and watch it for that scene alone! :)

  13. Honeypiehorse – how nice to find another fan of Vertigo! I never took to those cartoons as a child, either. I didn’t want to watch the characters get squished, even if they got up again afterwards. I really prize the subtlety of books, so reading will always be my first love.

    Courtney – I feel completely honoured to think you are going to watch this movie! And I would love to know what you make of it, if you can get hold of a copy.

    Verbivore – what a brilliant comment! You are absolutely right. My husband has just reminded me that one of the films I hated most because I found it too ‘violent’ was Ghost, with Demi Moore. It was superficial but powerful emotional manipulation from one end to the other. It took the painful concept of grief and wrung the audience’s emotions with it. And I sat there unable to make it stop happening. I was still crying an hour or so after I got home, while my rational mind considered it the silliest film I’d ever seen.

    Danielle – I think you are perfectly correct that culture has masses to do with it. Although we might make Hollywood here a separate culture of its own, and a very powerful one. I find it, generally speaking, much easier to watch French films. Now, there are the occasional violent ones – both in terms of gore and emotions! – but on the whole, they tend to be more relaxed, more contemplative, more arty. I suppose they are more explicit in other ways (my husband used to sigh with relief if a film was an 18 certificate and showed a graphic sex scene pretty quickly – if one didn’t appear, he knew I’d be leaving as the certificate had then been given for violence!). But I also do feel that I haven’t seen so many films, and that I could have a skewed perspective here. I’d watch more, but I need people to screen them for me first to let me know whether they’re in the right zone for me – lol! And that was a really funny moment with my husband. I hadn’t thought of it, but the moment he said it, I saw just what he meant!

  14. I find special effects boring, at least in most cases, so action-type movies I try to stay away from. Without a good story or interesting characters, who cares? But maybe my taste for character-driven dramas aren’t the real heart of film or where film is heading. I’m not sure. Maybe the films I like take the best part of novels and translate it to the screen and aren’t really doing what film can do best? I’d like to mention some films I really love, but my mind has gone blank … sorry!

  15. I completely agree with you about Ghost – it was an emotional imposition. I suppose I understand what the director was trying to do by giving us a tangible experience of grief, but I think it’s very difficult to pull that off properly and Ghost was awkward in that sense. But I remember crying my way through that film as well – so on that level it certainly worked!

  16. Well, I never would have pegged you as a Hitchcock fan, for some reason, but after reading this, I can definitely see why. It’s funny. I recently came to the conclusion that I think the reason I cannot watch movies in the evening without having them show up in my dreams is because they are so image-based. I very, very rarely dream about any books I might read before going to bed the way I do films, and I decided that’s because the books are not visual and thus don’t lend themselves to the sorts of visual manipulations we find in movies and dreams. I was coming up with all kinds of new brain-dream-visual theories. I mean, we accept and believe our dreams even when the most absurd things are happening; don’t we? Then my brother-in-law shot my brilliant theories all to hell by telling me he’s more likely to dream about books he reads before going to bed than movies he watches. Oh well…

  17. If you hated Ghost, you might try Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is a bit the same concept but a totally different film emotionally. Brilliant, life-affirming, and profoundly satisfying rather than manipulative and icky. Oh, and by the way I agree with every single recommendation DoctorDi has given you, except Juno because I have Issues :)

  18. Hi, Litlove! Just had to comment: Hitchcock definitely is one of the few auteur directors – who really has a POV of narrative and imagery. Speaking of Strangers on a Train, think of all the double motifs in this film that carry you through: two sets of feet in the opening sequence, the double image of a “bassoon” with Hitchcock himself, doubles tennis – the list goes on and on through the murder, which is reflected in the woman’s glasses (also double image). It’s fascinating. As you say, you can watch his films over and over and still pick up nuances and imagery. Very satisfying indeed, in terms of making the viewer engaged on a different level. Nothing holds the candle to reading, though!

  19. Doctordi – you are such a star! You’ve just about set me up with a year’s viewing here! Bless you!

    Dorothy – when you say ‘my taste for character-driven dramas aren’t the real heart of film or where film is heading’, that’s exactly how I feel. If a critic in a newspaper hates a film, then I have a chance of liking it!

    Verbivore – ‘emotional imposition’ is a wonderful way of putting it! I feel reassured to think you cried AND disliked it too. And you have a much more charitable explanation which I will now adopt. I’d rather think of it as a failed effect than a blatant ploy!

    Emily – ahhh, I think it’s a question of what gets under the skin. A movie image will disturb me far more readily than a book image, and so I’m just like you – my dreams will often be hijacked by a movie rewrite. Some people find words more insidious than images, and I suppose they are suitably affected by them in dreams. So I really like your point.

    Jenny – now there’s a film I’ve often heard mentioned, but I’ve never seen it myself. I like Alan Rickman, so that’s reason enough to watch it! :)

    LK – hello, how nice to have you visit! I had not noticed all the doubles until you mentioned them, but now you detail them for me, I see exactly what you mean. How fascinating! Thank you for bringing that aspect of the film to my attention – I just love that kind of thing.

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