Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Conflicted directors and complicit spectators: A bloodstained century of cinema

Violence—what is it good for? Define it, movie-wise, however you want—catharsis, spectacle, vicarious risk, sadistic voyeurism—but it all boils down to this: physical damage and torment inflicted on other human beings as entertainment. No wonder every decade or two the torchbearers resolve to save our children and ourselves from cowboy gunfights, horror comics, slasher movies, and first-person shooters. Could they have a point? Are we overprogrammed for blood sport and overacclimated to prairie justice?

The ancient Greeks and Elizabethans we're familiar with—writers, for the most part—might've thought so; for them, fictional violence was tragedy, toxifying the victim, the perp, and the entire social contract around them. The Old Testament aside, mass entertainment has spent millennia contemplating physical mayhem as a moral blight—a condition offset, perhaps, by shorter life expectancies and the lingering Western ardor for public executions. Cut to the Industrial Revolution, the Grand Guignol, and World War I—within a few decades, the moral baseline that had more or less held for eons had vanished, and we were back in the coliseum seats enjoying an adrenaline spike when the lion disemboweled another luckless plebe. Ever since, violence has been its own happy ending. Is this ethical disconnect the much legended difference between art and pulp, high and low? Maybe—but try to think of a contemporary American, noncomedic movie that does not posit righteous homicide or assault as a moral solution to its narrative equation.

Under its distanciated surface, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence forms a scathing X-ray of this intimate movie-viewer intercourse, from its axiomatic American stereotypes, biblical moralism, and visual cues (say, the cut to the cool-dog hero's eyes economically scanning his situation, informing us that an invisible line has just been crossed) to the inevitable, gore-thirsty orgasm of retribution. (Necessarily, the movie features the only unambiguous villains in Cronenberg's filmography.) Cronenberg even explicitly references Fritz Lang's seminal all-out vengeance porn The Big Heat (1953)—a pot of hot coffee is used as a bludgeon—in effect addressing the subsequent half- century of call-and-response bloodlust, a critique that effortlessly makes sausage pork out of this year's Sin City, Batman Begins, Four Brothers, Star Wars: Episode III, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, among a veritable ark of like-formulized pulp.

Cronenberg isn't the first to perform the autopsy from the squishy inside out, but he might just be the craftiest. In 1971, at the height of the violence-in-the-arts bellyache, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange both strove to analyze their own psychotic scat. Kubrick's intentions were more apparent, and at the same time weren't—wrestling with visual thrill-ride effectiveness that never cost Anthony Burgess any sleep, the on-the-rise mega-auteur had fashioned an outrageous ordeal that expressly wonders about fate, free will, and social impact and yet seems to be glorifying what it means to satirize. Was Kubrick thinking about how we react to violence, or was he just making his movie his way? Whatever the intent, Kubrick's high energy and mad inventiveness place us in the bleachers, drinking beer and waiting for a rumble, prepped for bedazzlement. It's a self-analyzing film, but it never addresses our bundled moviegoing wetware.

Straw Dogs is a subtler and more invasive probe, and so thanks in part to his history of frontier despair, Peckinpah stood accused of lynch party amorality. But press your nose closer to the glass, and the movie becomes an open inquiry into film-witness reflexes—how far can the bungee cord stretch between math nebbish Dustin Hoffman's acculturated personality and his basic instincts for survival and protection before it snaps? Is it as tensile as ours, or more, or less? How long would we wait? Once the apocalypse comes—dourly, methodically, unheroically—will our smug hunger for dead flesh be satisfied? Does Hoffman's climactic smile signal the director's approval for the vigilante bloodbath or the character's pitiable sense of achievement? It's not a smile we're meant to share—but did we?

We've all heard cant about such narrative machines operating with a progressive goal, to valve off the feral impulses of a too orderly society—a position that, without any reasonable knowledge of our real psychosocial states, usually translates to the theorist in question simply "getting off," in Pauline Kael's overused phrase, on the bite-the-bully ethics. Cronenberg cagily burlesques this idea, but not as grandly as Oliver Stone unintentionally did in Natural Born Killers (1994), which strove to objectify our consumerist relationship with manufactured violence and pontificate about its dreadfulness, and only succeeded in getting off so spectacularly you could smell the masturbatory calluses smoking from the back row. Michael Haneke's first four features, most notoriously Benny's Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997), are infinitely more incisive and yet just as preachy—rubbing our noses in exploitative violence while condemning us for watching. Cronenberg, to his credit, withholds judgment, and A History of Violence can be scanned as primary research on our unexamined lust for visual death fiction—a clock built in a glass housing, its gears in obvious motion.

 
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