I recently went to see Michael Winterbottom’s new movie The Killer Inside Me, which has been the subject of much controversy because of its graphic scenes of violence towards women. It’s based on the noir novel by Jim Thompson; and many have attacked it as being misogynistic and excessively violent. Others have defended it on artistic grounds, while conceding its violence makes it ‘troubling’. And there are some who have defended the film, on the grounds that it shows the brutal reality of domestic violence. Which means it’s a healthy corrective to all those Hollywood movies which routinely glorify violence.
I admire Winterbottom as a film-maker – his Twenty Four Hour Party People is a masterpiece – and I love noir in general, and the books of Jim Thompson in particular. To be honest though I found the film a bit of a yawn; BECAUSE IT WASN’T NEARLY VIOLENT ENOUGH.
I am in fact staggered at some of the reviewers who felt it was the most shocking thing they’d ever seen in the cinema. There’s a scene where Casey Affleck bashes up Jennifer Alba; and there’s a second assault scene; and that’s about it really. Compared to what you get in many thrillers and action movies and horror flicks, it’s very mild stuff.
What IS weird however about both ‘beating up women’ scenes is that the women don’t fight back – which makes the violence feel oddly detached, and not-credible; and hence makes it hard to care about the story and its characters.
I think there’s real merit in the argument that Winterbottom has created cliched female characters who don’t respond in the way that real people would. There’s a hint that Alba’s character in a masochist; but if so, that should be dramatised. She should BEG to be beaten, which would truly shock us; and I would strongly argue that there’s nothing inherently misogynistic about showing masochism in a woman. Because masochists DO exist. I was once the fly on a wall in a Metropolitan Police investigation into a group of masochists who did the most appalling things - one chap hammered a nail through his own penis – and no one can deny it’s a real psychological phenomenon. (What would be unacceptable, however, is to hint at the lie that ALL women like to be hurt – that gets you into the immoral/indefensible territory).
I think the real issue for me here is that Winterbottom is a cerebral arthouse director who hasn’t mastered the basic concept that violence in cinema is there to be ENJOYED. We love to be scared, appalled, terrified; we enjoy getting inside the head of evil serial killers; we relish being pursued by a psycho who has killed all our friends. That’s how violence works in genre cinema, and even in ‘serious’ cinema. The violence in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall gives energy and adrenalin to this brilliant study of the last days of Hitler. The violence in The Godfather – not your common or garden gangster flick but a true masterpiece about organised crime – is deliciously awful. Luca Brasi having a knife in the hand before being garrotted! James Caan being plugged full of holes!
The horrible cop getting his head shot apart by Michael Corleone!
These acts of violence function as essential elements of the overall pleasure that cinema offers. And it’s not just Hollywood movies which allow us to “enjoy’ violence. One of my favourite films of last year was the verite arthouse movie A Prophet by Jacques Audiard, an unflinching study of life in a French prison. Except it’s not really a ‘study’ or an ‘analysis’; it’s a movie, and a gripping one, with savourable sequences of ghastly violence that keep you glued to the seat. In particular, the murder committed in the first third of the film is one of the most compellingly enjoyable pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen; it doesn’t ‘glorify’ violence, but boy, it’s fun to watch.
What I’m saying is; let’s stop pretending. Of course violence, when it’s in fiction rather than in life, is fun. It’s part of the imaginative experience; imagination is our way of living other lives, and since we can do so without incurring actual injury, the more violent the better. It’s cathartic, it’s exhilarating, it can be beautiful; but the key point is; IF YOU’RE A SANE AND MORAL PERSON, WATCHING VIOLENT MOVIES DOESN’T MAKE YOU VIOLENT. Reality, fiction; fiction, reality: two different things.
And, as a writer of action SF, I have to concede that violence is my business. I write violence, I read violent books by other authors; I spend large parts of my day wondering whether a character should die by having his head blown up, or whether it would be more fun to have him eat a live snake and be consumed from the inside out.
Adam Roberts, in his masterly and very funny novel Yellow Blue Tibia, explains how the science fiction writer approaches the art of violence, as a group of Russian SF authors (including the first person narrator) plot a story of alien invasion:
‘Let’s have the aliens blow up some portion of the Ukraine, ‘ [said Frenkel], ‘That would be the best option.
How could we plan such monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in the light of what came later it is, of course, an important one….Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in that respect. A realist writer might break his character’s leg, or kill his fiancee; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day through his life. How can this not produce calluses on the those tenderest portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?
Adam is bang on here; science fiction writers, and their close allies, fantasy writers, are truly evil creatures. We are the people who cannot bear to write crime novels about serial killers because the body count is so darned low. We celebrate the intellectual and extrapolative essence of our genre whilst shamelessly wallowing in atrocity and horrific acts of barbarity, evisceration, beheading, and worse.
Here’s a sample of some of the stuff I’ve been reading recently:
Four men in combat armor had dropped from an upper level using personal lift packs. The polymerized chameleon armor labored to keep up with the shifting background but only succeeded in turning each man into a brilliant kaleidoscope of reflections. One moved inside the sweep arch of my mini-gun to neutralize me while the other three went for Johnny.
He came in with a pulse-blade, ghettho style. I let it chew at my armor, knowing it would get through to forearm flesh but using it to buy the second I needed. I got it. I killed the man with the rigid end of my gauntlet and swept the mini-gun fire into the other three worrying Johnny.
(from Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons)
There were heads and arms and legs and halves of bodies writhing and squirming and cursing under foot, and headless bodies dashing about the room colliding with friend and foe indiscriminately. If ever there was a shambles it was there in the great council chamber of the seven jeds of Morbus.
(from Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
I launched myself into the one I’d decided was Lyosha, tossing my cigarette into his face with my left hand as I pulled my gun with my right. He cursed in Russian, all consonants and fucking phlegm, waving his hands in front of his face and dancing back. As I crashed into him I brought my gun up and fired twice into his belly, falling down on top of him and rolling off to the side.
(from The Eternal Prison by Jeff Somers)
Hell, I read this stuff all the time, and what I write is often WORSE in terms of gruesome barbarity. (Red Claw got a great review from a site called Emotionally Fourteen, which then graded it 10 out of 10 for Number of Eviscerations- and I’m actually proud of this.) So does that mean I have calluses on the tenderest parts of my mind, the bits that are used to focus empathy, as Adam so beautifully if cruelly phrases it?
Well perhaps so. But on balance I feel that constantly wallowing in imaginative violence has made me not one whit more aggressive, or capable of violence. I remain as timid, fearful, and cowardly as I have always been. I would happily slay a Barsoomian plant man with my long sword; but I am not in the habit of mugging elderly ladies, or randomly shooting people in pubs.
This is why I get very wary when kind-minded commentators praise a film like The Killer Within Me because it shows the ‘reality’ of violence. It does nothing of the sort! It’s just a movie. Real violence is what happens in the real world, and I abhor it; and I don’t need films to tell me it’s undesirable. (That doesn’t mean fictional stories should be immoral; the art of writing violent fiction is being able to shock the audience with gory stuff without losing track of the real moral values we, the authors, believe in.)
But why, I am forced to ask, does violence in fiction appeal so strongly, to me and to so many of you? Why do we not daydream about peaceful characters, who broker peace and leave a trail of concord and amity behind them? Why do we prefer the Man with No Name, or Conan, who are more inclined to leave a trail of corpses behind them?
I guess the answer is obvious; we’re never more alive than when we are in fear of dying. And to experience that intensity of life while reading a book, or watching a film, and without any ACTUAL possibility of dying, is vicarious ecstasy.
So I will continue to read books and watch films that glorify and revel in violence; I will splash in blood and gore as my protagonist hews a path through his or her enemies with a broadsword, or a plasma gun; and I’ll continue to treat senseless murder as a staple element of my daily entertainment.
And let’s not forget, violence can be wonderfully beautiful – WHEN IT’S NOT REAL. Tarantino shows this in his magnificent Kill Bill, a glorification of violence in all its forms and traditions. So I’ll end with some images from that, one of my favourite violent movies ever.
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