Exploring the Nature and Causes of Violence in Film

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Far from being mindless, violence is usually the cutting edge of ideas and ideologies.
John Fraser in Violence in the Arts (1974: 162)

I believe that violence is a necessary part of many narratives because it is a part of reality. Violence is a part of the human experience. How can we ignore it? At the same time I reject simplistic, cartoonish uses of violence where the hero is shot at a hundred times and perhaps receives a scratch while methodically dispatching every person they face. I think it is irresponsible to repeatedly portray, or think of, violence as simply mindless entertainment.

It is important that we have intelligent, complex explorations of individual and collective violence. There are outbreaks of violence that when it happens, it seems beyond our kin, or present understanding, but usually with time we are able to grasp the motivations or causes. Likewise, in a work of “art” one can begin to grasp at the reason for the violence, make sense of a sort, even if one does not agree with the portrayal of the causes or motivations for the violence (I feel the same way about the mindless-commercial simplification of the messy, complicated aspects of sex and sexuality in culture).

I seek intelligent reflection on the uses or outbreaks of violence – whether as a means to a goal, or as a frustrated reaction to events beyond our control, or as a tool for oppression/resistance. Who is using the violence? As a means for what? Who are the victims? Why are they chosen? What are the goals of this violence?

Ultimately violence in great films will cause you to think about the action beyond the visceral sensations (positively or negatively) and will cause you to exercise your own judgment and thought. A complex representation of violence will initiate critical reflection upon the events of the story and for me this is a defining moment in judging a film, or any other work of art.

The benefits of some narrative violence is that it makes it harder for audiences to ignore the motivations or beliefs of the characters; especially when we become implicated by our own violent impulses, becoming so wrapped up in the narrative we encourage the violence—Do it! Do it! A challenging narrative can cause us to reflect on this impulse to turn to violent solutions, thus in complex cinematic narratives we are faced with an intellectual quandary in regard to the usage of the violence and the rationale for its usage. A powerful film will not allow us to stand on the sidelines and retain our intellectual integrity. We have to take a stand, even if it is to condemn the movie, after all, the artist did present us with a work that is intended to shock or affront. It is also hypocritical for the artist to complain when people condemn them for their work if their intent was to depict acts of violence in a graphic manner.

What is often missed in Hollywood films (as well as many foreign films, e.g. Asian Extreme genre ) is that historically violence is usually employed in the service of power (whether on an individual or systemic level). Our democracy is built on the ignorance of the daily usage of violence to keep some people/groups quiet/docile about their social reality. This structural mask sometimes slips allowing a glimpse of the true face of that power. Thus, a necessary part of some violent narratives is our understanding of the roots of this societal power/control.

People facing the threat of actual acts of violence also help us to understand human potential, but it is not a case of human physicality or big weapons. In the cinematic narratives I am speaking of it is the plumbing of the human soul and the questioning of the mind/system (a person’s perspective and/or a system’s effect/control). Violence in cinema can help us to examine the operations of power in society. Passolini’s brutal, disgusting and difficult Salo, or a 120 Days of Sodom (Italy, 1975) traumatically, for this viewer, explored the victim’s complicity as well as the oppressor’s degradations in a fascist society. It is a truly painful and wrenching film, but I do not regret having watched it.

The ending of Peter Greenway’s aesthetically beautiful Baby of Macon (UK, 1994) horrified me more than any sophomoric slasher story ever could and to this day has left me pondering the meaning of the film. This film was blocked from being exhibited in the U.S. When we showed it at Illinois State University, people were crying in the audience and afterwards we spilled into the streets and made our way to a pub, where we argued into the night about the meanings of the film. As with any difficult film, some were angry that we had shown the film and they had a reason to be angry. We listened patiently to their complaints, even if we believed, ultimately, that the film should be seen.

Once again if you believe that a disturbing portrayal is important and should be seen, you should respect contrary, disturbed and angry reactions. This is what you expected the film to do and thus you should address its effects on those audiences. Do not dismiss them, engage in a dialogue that art demands of its audiences. Do not become complicit in the further mystification of experience. Face their fear/confusion and in the process, your own.

A problem with the usage of violence in film is that it has become an effect used to simply entertain and titillate, one of the most powerful and disturbing films of the last few years was Michael Haneke’s Cache (France/Austria, 2005) which explores the after effects of repressed systemic and individual acts of aggression/violence. It is minimalist and subtle in its presentation of violence, but the impact is long-lasting, reverberating in my mind still, causing me to question the impact of individual and societal repression of violent histories. It forces us to reflect on our own societal repression of historical violence and our individual role in this repression. Instances of violence can also cause us to focus on what gives life dignity and what is noble and ignoble in the human condition.

A last thought, legitimated violence–sanctioned by the state, or other social forces–usually is a clear indicator of the boundaries of society, what is permitted, what is forbidden, and who controls these boundaries. Always reflect on what those boundaries are, who they benefit and who suffers, and how they are masked/legitimated as normal.

Michael Dean Benton
Peace & Conflict Studies/International Film Studies
Humanities Department
Bluegrass Community and Technical College

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