Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Unequal Violence

Last night I revisited Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and  2, more or less in one sitting. That is close to four hours of viewing pleasure, with very liberal helpings of martial arts scenes that have graphic outcomes. The films, as one entity, even merit a listing on Time Magazine's Top 10 Ridiculously Violent Movies, although the list failed to mention that the films are also heavily laced with Tarantino's idiosyncratic dialogue - a highlight of all of his movies. Volume 2 is so filled with long scenes of talking that I doubt it is universally loved by action fans. Granted, it was a cyber list, so each entry was given a mere paragraph of description, but while Time was able to point to the genres that inspired Kill Bill; kung-fu, '70s exploitation and spaghetti westerns, again it neglected to point out Tarantino's melding of influences into a singular vision, which easily rises above his muses in terms of sophistication. Although, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone put him at least on par with Tarantino as a grand stager of exhibitionism.

Am I a lover of violence? The short answer would be no. If not, why did I put myself through films which are so violent as to turn up on a list honoring this quality, for a second time? The simple answer to that would be I'd read the list and remembered that a friend leaving the country had bequeathed to me a small cache of DVDs, amongst them being the ones in question. I'd also recently revisited The Matrix Trilogy and in those films had mostly admired the production design and the highly elaborate, science-fictionalized scenes of kung-fu. Everything else that lies in The Matrix is the subject for another blog post. The kung-fu  in both The Matrix and Kill Bill movies was choreographed by Chinese master Woo-ping Yuen, and yesterday being a public holiday, I also had time to sit down to his directorial effort from '93 - Iron Monkey, which is also filled with scenes of stylized martial arts. So it would seem that despite my brief disclaimer at the beginning of this paragraph, all evidence points to my having had something of a blood lust to satisfy during the last week or so. At no time did I recoil in horror when watching on screen characters get beaten to a bloody pulp. Kill Bill especially provided such treats as a woman getting her eyeball ripped out of its socket during one of its numerous, blood soaked, fighting contests. In fact I have to say that I enjoyed all of these films, and I would add that it's my contention that Kill Bill will become a bona fide classic when it is old enough to deserve such cachet.

But now I would like to go back in time a few years - I'm fairly certain it was 2004. The title on the tongues of many a cineaste was Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, also on the abovementioned Time list. This was violence of a completely different nature. That most attractive and talented Italian star Monica Belluci starred with her husband Vincent Cassel in a rape/revenge where the rape scene was reported to be unprecedentedly graphic and seven minutes in length. As if that weren't enough to get them flocking to the cinema in droves, everything happened backwards, so that you got the revenge before the rape. It just so happened that shortly after I'd been reading all about Irreversible and discussing it with a friend, Paraic (who, it has to be said, was a little keener on watching it than I was), I had to go to the Indonesian embassy in Singapore to get my work permit. Now if ever such a title were to make it to Jakarta's cinemas, the copious nudity would be truncated, thus rendering a trip to see it a pointless exercise. However, to my surprise, the Singaporean censor had seemed to have relaxed its puritanical mindset recently, and Irreversible was playing. Indeed, my friend Paul living in Singapore had been to see it and he 'recommended' going to watch it, providing ample warning of its brutality. As did all the signs up next to its posters at the cinema. As did even the man working the box office. I have to say, I was apprehensive about setting foot in the theatre at this stage, and it is likely that my 2010 self would just walk away and seek out reruns of The Cosby Show on television to watch instead. The main reason for going, I think, was that my 2004 self had a burning urge to compete with Paraic for cinematic experiences, and it would clearly be something to talk about when I got back to Java. I knew he wanted to see the movie, but would have close to zero chance of ever seeing it in a cinema.

So I watched the film.

Not only was it chronologically backwards, not only did it contain the most horrific episodes I have ever seen before or since, but it also made extensive, and possibly unique, use of 'queasy-cam'. I am highly susceptible to motion sickness, and the latter device has induced great waves of nausea within me during the viewing of far more innocuous titles. As if all of this weren't enough, Mr Noé's soundtrack choices made use of noises set at 28Hz (almost inaudible) with the express intention of making people feel sick. It was and continues to be the only time I have had to turn away during a trip to the cinema, because I couldn't stomach what was happening on screen. In short, the film was severely damaging to both my senses and sensibilities. For the rest of the day, I wandered around Orchard Road before going back to my hotel, waiting for Paul to finish work, feeling quite ill and disenchanted with it all, only thankful for the small blessing that Bill Cosby did indeed pop up on my hotel room's television, making life seem less harsh for approximately 20 minutes. When Paul was finally ready for a beer, we discussed the 97 minutes of soul wrenching I had endured earlier in the day.

Neither then nor now have I been able reach a definitive verdict as to Irreversible's place in the annals of cinema, and I have no desire for reevaluation. But it must be deemed to have achieved a certain measure of success, as it has done what any serious attempt at art should be able to do; it made people talk about it. Even now, six years later, its intentions as cinema still swirl around in my mind:


Reversing the series of events and letting us see the brutal act of revenge before witnessing the brutality it is avenging made both events seem equally unpalatable. The notion that 'he got what he deserved' never entered my mind.

Graphic to the extreme 

Meant that the violence truly was violence, utterly abhorrent, and therefore could not exist as entertainment. So is it art by default ?

Which brings me back to where we came in, with the other kind of violence in films that is both highly entertaining, and has also been lauded as art by respected authorities. The likes of Kill Bill, and possibly Tarantino's entire oeuvre should most definitely be kept from the eyes of young children, while adults such as myself  should be allowed to make our own informed choices, then label them as art if we see fit. But I do mean informed. My first viewing of Kill Bill Volume 1 was in a cinema in the company of a pregnant woman - who I don't think has ever forgiven me for the experience, and if we had been given better information about the explicitness it contained, she might have bowed out before buying her ticket. Just because fantasy violence is less disturbing (to some) than realistic violence, why shouldn't it come with the same kinds of spoken and written warnings that a film such as Irreversible did?

In the documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America and its capricious attitude toward censorship This Film is Not Yet Rated, the highly acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky (π, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) is memorable when he is interviewed and puts forward the theory that cartoonish violence is the kind to which access should be restricted whereas realistic violence should have fewer barriers in place to prevent its dispersion. I couldn't help but agree with him, up to a point.

I try my best to wait for my six year-old son to be out of our flat before I sit down to watch something that I know will have extended/explicit scenes of violence, and I don't see much difference between endless rounds of machine gun fire and empty-handed combat. My belief is that unrealistic violence as seen by a six year-old could contribute to an understanding that inflicted pain is inconsequential. But then to allow scenes of brutality to enter the flatscreen which I myself have trouble witnessing while he is around? While there is a certain logic to educating about violence by showing its consequences, there could also be such a thing as too much reality, too soon.

I have so far not been able to bring myself to put on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom nor Lars von Trier's Antichrist, despite having huge admiration for these director's other works (most of those that I've seen are things of beauty, and all have been devoid of gore), and fully believing that their intention with the aforementioned titles was not to create infamous video nasties, despite many a renters probable desire to see something shocking.

Which is the real problem. The culprits are not the movies themselves, but rather the people who watch them. Pasolini was a fringe character; a homosexual Marxist in a time and place where these traits were most unacceptable, murdered in what was probably a sexual encounter with a stranger gone awry. During his shortened life he created some deeply introspective pieces of Italian cinema, including his direction of a superbly endearing Anna Magnani as the titular prostitute of Mamma Roma, and what is regarded by many as the superlative Christ biopic - The Gospel According to Matthew. Both of these titles are as arthouse as can be - and not the revisionist exploitation kind. Yet the film that Pasolini has been remembered the most for is the one that I can't seem to sum up the courage to slip into my DVD player: Salò. I find it difficult to believe that all the people who seek out this title do it because they're interested in the plight of Italian peasants under fascist rule - and it is well publicized that this is what Pasolini found the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom analogous to. Instead, there is little doubt in my mind that the reason Salò is a relatively easy disc to buy at Jakarta's bootleg markets, next to clearly less nobly minded flights of horror fancy, is because of what it has in common with these other shockers, and not for what it doesn't.

Obviously we cannot regulate taste, and even if we could, we shouldn't. Therefore, we must regulate the media itself. Here I'm brought back to what Mr Aronofsky had to say on the subject. Why is it that cartoon violence is so easily accessible to our children? I don't mean the slapstick of Tom & Jerry, which is so far removed from any kind of reality that I find it highly unlikely to have any kind of damaging effect. But there are other more lifelike cartoons out there, aimed at primary school-aged children, where characters shoot guns at each other and engage in hand-to-hand combat. There are also plenty of feature films with stories obviously directed at small children, yet containing similar scenes of fantastical action.

There aren't easy answers to such questions, and I certainly don't have a point by point plan which I could offer to the people in charge. However, whenever I watch any kind of action on screen, I remind myself that pain exists, and that a violent death is one of my chief fears in life. I do believe that some of the titles I have mentioned above only serve to reinforce such values, though they are strictly not for young children. While the vast majority of Joe public may well be interested in perverse pleasure at the outset, I believe that same majority will glean a small amount of indelible revulsion to physical cruelty after watching it expertly and realistically rendered, then followed - or preceded - by its aftermath.

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