Friday, 23 December 2011

Violence In Films

This was my final essay for Contemporary World Film this semester. I hope you enjoy it.

Question 8: Is it possible for a filmmaker to explore the causes of violence without condoning violent acts? Discuss in relation to Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now and at least one other film of your choice.

We see violence in movies all the time. In Hollywood it is often shown for entertainment: car crashes, chase scenes, martial arts battles. But is it possible to portray violence in a way that does not condone it, that shows us the horror and makes us realise that violence is not entertaining in reality?

When extreme violence was first introduced to films it was sometimes “celebrated... as breakthroughs or as appropriate to the moment.” (Slocum 2000, p.659) Now such violence in films has become normalised, and rarely has the same impact that it did back then. It has become “cartoon violence”, unrealistic and exaggerated. (Slocum 2000 p.662) It has “lost depth and any meaning accrued through traditional relations to the real world.” (Slocum 2000, pp.671-672) Now it is up to film makers to find a way to un-normalise violence and make it shocking again.

The movies Paradise Now, American History X, Reservoir Dogs and Dancer In The Dark all demonstrate that violence begets violence, and that there is a reason behind this violence, other than mere entertainment. Paradise Now deals with two men who are chosen to be suicide bombers, but instead of showing us the death and aftermath, we see them living lives, questioning their acts, and we never see the explosion. It also deals with the concept of the cycles of violence and the innocent who suffer, as does American History X.

Most violent films follow narrative conventions: “... typically white... well motivated male protagonists who move toward the resolution of public conflicts”, ending with a “heterosexual coupling.” (Slocum 2000 p.663) Trauma films subvert this outline by not following these conventions, and “when depictions of violence fall outside, run counter to or exceed those normative frameworks, the acts mount cultural challenges.” (Slocum 2000, p.664) Films Like Paradise Now also show us a different viewpoint, allowing us a glimpse into a different culture, and a different narrative, where violence does not solve problems, and there is no happy ending.

While containing a large amount of violence, American History X makes violence painful to watch, and also shows how violence leads to violence, ending with the death of the main character's little brother, as a kind of moral lesson. Reservoir Dogs, while it has been criticised for the camera's 'turning away' during the ear cutting scene has a character who is shot in the stomach slowly bleeding to death throughout the film. (Mars-Jones, 1993) Finally, Dancer in The Dark ends with an unflinching camera shot of the woman crying and collapsing on the scaffold, before finally being hanged, that often makes viewers so uncomfortable they wish she would hurry up and die.

Violence in cinema does not just reflect violence in society, but shows “consistent links between “violence” on-screen and contemporary cultural contests over the import of notions like heroism and good society.” (Slocum 2000 pp. 662-663) This is especially true in the case of Paradise Now, which confronts the views of suicide bombers, director Hany Abu-Assad says that the predominant views of suicide bombers are either as heroes or murderers and he wants to challenge that view. (Gertz 2008)

The article, 'The Dog it was that died: The Dostoevskian of Reservoir Dogs' (Mars-Jones, 1993) discusses the temptation in cinema to make the act of violence the centrepiece, not the experience of the victim or victimiser. As in Kaplan and Wang's discussion of Trauma cinema, those that exploit violence for the voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer do not convey a true sense of the trauma.

Mars-Jones says of Reservoirs Dogs that Violence in the film is often arbitrary, but the suffering it causes is treated as if it had meaning.” (Mars-Jones 1993) In the films I am discussing, there is a focus on the effects of violence: past violence on the present, present violence on the future. Paradise Now references Said's father being shot as a collaborator, and the occupying Israeli force making Khaled's father choose which one of his legs they would break. Violence like this has scarred the lives of these young men, and possibly led to their own acts of violence.

According to Kaplan and Wang, (2009) facing the trauma by making the viewer a witness is important, involving the viewer with identification. The trauma also cannot be so off-putting that it forces the viewer to turn the movie off or walk out. In Paradise Now we see the pain and disassociation for the Palestinian people due to the Israeli occupation. They seem to have no group identity other than that of a displaced poverty stricken people who face death daily. Death is one of the things that forms their identity. While discussion of deaths of friends in Israeli bombings, (the suicide bombing in the film is a retaliation for these deaths) is also frankly discussed, we do not see any deaths. Instead we are forced to confront the realities of life in Palestine, and the lack of hope the people see. We are given a chance to identify with these people and realise at least some of their motivations. We don't just see mindless violence.

Slocum states that films can either 'effect social change … or further the social control of predominant ideologies.' (Slocum 2000 p. 649) Paradise Now is a film that seeks to effect a change of attitude by revealing more about the lives of Palestinian people, creating an understanding of the constant terror and historical and current trauma they live under, and with frank discussion of the fact that the media often neglects this side, showing the Israelis as the victims. By showing a point of view the audience may not have seen before, Paradise Now is clearly a film that seeks to effect social change. American History X also does this, by trying to analyse what is behind the protagonist's conversion to neo-nazi ideals and his rehabilitation, this film seeks understanding of the violence it portrays and tries to seek a solution to this modern day violence and hate.

In American History X we are offered some explanations for why the main character becomes a neo-nazi, although not enough to make us feel his actions are justified. However, it is when he turns around and realises what his actions have caused, and the death of his brother that drive home the reality of the cycle of violence he has been a part of and helped to perpetuate. In Paradise Now, Suha questions the retalition bombing, saying that it just adds to the cycle of violence, and that perhaps they should be the ones to stop, even if this did not make the Israelis stop bombing them.

An example of Cawelti's 'inverting of oppositions between criminal and society' (Slocum 2000 p.665) can be seen in Paradise Now, where, the night before the intended bombing the men spend time with their families, eating and playing or fighting with siblings. This shows they are real people with normal lives, not just monsters. Films like this allow us to see another side to the people we would usually regard as murders, and creating an understanding is one of the first steps towards changing predominant views often portrayed in the media and films.

When violence has become so commonplace in films, it can be challenged by making it grotesque and painful to the audience, or by making not the violence, but its impact the main focus. In Reservoir Dogs, when we first see Mr. Orange, he has already been shot, and is lying in the back seat of a car screaming that he is going to die. However, he does not die, he remains alive and in pain throughout the rest of the movie. He spends most of this time lying on the floor of a warehouse building, still concious and in excruciating pain. Tarantino refuses to just kill him and spare the viewer the pain. While it is possible to enjoy some violent acts with a voyeuristic pleasure, slow, agonising deaths rarely have this allure. Most of the time, the viewer becomes uncomfortable, longing for the injured person to die. And this is often the intent of the film maker, to show that violence is not always quick and clean but slow, dirty and painful.

In Dancer in The Dark, a film that often seems to depart from reality with its musical sequences, the violence at the end is perhaps even more shocking. In a prolonged scene that has you squirming in your seat, the protagnist is at the scaffold, collapses, unable to stand, is strapped to a board so that she can be hung, and, while everyone watches in horror, is eventually killed, just as she finally finds the voice to try and sing her last song. The camera then shows her hanging there, not hiding the horror of the act. There is no pity for the viewer. This is, however, one of those films where people often cannot handle the trauma, and walk out.

In contrast, the endings of Paradise Now and American History X are less visceral. In Paradise Now, we see Said in the East Bank, getting ready to finally carry out his deadly task, but then the film cuts off. There is hesitancy in his face, but he has chosen to go through with the bombing. In American History X, the young boy is shot and dies quickly, leaving us with his brother's grief, and then a voice over from the kid reading the end of his essay, with a hopeful note, although there is no hope for him now.

With all these films, ending with a sad ending seems an important part of maintaining the trauma. Kaplan and Wang posited that in a film that depicts trauma, but then provides a happy ending, the point is often lost, the viewer does not get the full impact of the trauma. Because everything has been solved, they feel everything is alright and they need not address the issue at hand. If Paradise Now had ended with Said realising the futility of his actions, going home, back to his job, and pursuing a romance with Suha, this would have not only removed a sense of the need for change, but also weakened the storyline, making it less believable. Instead, with Suha clutching Said’s picture as he goes to his death, and to kill others, we are left with a haunting sense of what might have been.

In an interview for Sight and Sound, Tim Roth (Mr. Orange from Reservoir Dogs) talks about violence in movies, “People get upset about Reservoir Dogs because Quentin shows you that violence has consequences. People have been lulled into advertising violence instead - nicely shot, beautifully lit.” (Taubin 1992) He reminds us that violence either needs to be shocking or humanised to actually make an impression on today's audience. We are so used to seeing violence. The box office hits are usually big budget action movies where people enjoy watching action stars have long pointless chases and martial arts fights. Films like Paradise Now that really deal with the consequences and human face of violence often do not attract the same audiences, and are considered too controversial by some. It seems that in a society that thrives on violence, we are still unable to face up to the consequences and realities. It is films that challenge, not condone violence that show us another way to face up to this.

In a world where violence in films and the media has become normalised, there are still some films that challenge violence by depicting it in a way that does not condone it. Instead they show some of its causes and effects, challenging the viewer to change their opinions and consider their own role in it. By using the role of a witness to involve the viewer in this trauma cinema, these films show a different violence than we are used to, real and uncommercialised, They help us gain an awareness of the reality of violence in our modern world. While films like Paradise Now, American History X, Reservoir Dogs and Dancer In The Dark may not be as commercially popular as the big budget action films, they open up a discourse of the social issues they explore, and this makes them far more valuable.


Georgakas, D. &Saltz, B. 2005, 'This Is a Film You Should See Twice: An
Interview with Hany Abu-Assad', Cineaste v 31 no1, Winter 2005, pp 16-19

Gertz, N. & Khleifi, G. 2008, 'Introduction' in Gertz and Khleifi, Palestinian
Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory, Edinburgh: Edingburgh University
Press, 2008, pp 1-10.

Hoyng, P. 2011, 'Ambiguities of Violence in Beethoven's Ninth
through the Eyes of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange' The German Quarterly 84.2 (Spring 2011) 159

Kaplan, E, Wang B. 2009, 'Trauma and Cinema: Cross Cultural Explorations', Hong Kong University Press.

Mars-Jones, A. 1993, 'The dog it was that died: The Dostoevskian violence of Reservoir Dogs', The Independent,

Maslin, J. 1998 'American History X (1998) FILM REVIEW; The Darkest Chambers of a Nation's Soul', The New York Times,

Rich, R. 2006, 'Bomb Culture', Sight Sound, v 16 n4, April 2006, pp 28-30.

Slocum, J. 2000, 'Film Violence and the Instituionalization of the Cinema', SOCIAL RESEARCH Vol. 67, No. 3 (Fall 2000)

Taubin, A. 1992, 'Tim Roth talks about acting and why Tarantino's Reservoir dogs upsets people', Sight & Sound, ns2 (December 1992) p. 4.

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