Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Violence and contemporary cinema

- Anoop Raj K (M.A. Economics, II Year)

'Sight and Sound' (from British Film Institute) magazine's April 2009 editorial (by Nick James) attacked many contemporary masters of cinema - Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Gasper Noe - for intense, realistic and at times exaggerated, invariably disturbing depiction of violence in their recent films. The violence depicted on screen included scalping heads, genital mutilation, graphic scenes of abortion, and 'matter-to-fact depiction of sodomy, rape and murder'. Cannes Film Festival is one event that captures the flow of world cinema, and the editorial piece was a comment on Cannes '09 as well- where the latest films of these directors competed for Palm d'Or, the greatest honour at Cannes. 

Why do these directors put the audience through this ordeal? Violence on screen- is it merely a shock tactic effectively employed or is it meant to convey something else? Another piece written by J. Hoberman, on a lesser known director's film — Brillante Mendoza's 'Kinatay' (which won the Best Director prize was filled with horror and gore) suggested that the director might want to put the audience in the victim's shoes: to convey how brutal violence could actually be. Michael Haneke, one of Europe's major filmmakers, made a film recently named 'Funny Games', and the audience were made to endure a film on two psychotic youngsters torturing and murdering a French middle class family. 

Interestingly, a lot of studies on contemporary cinema argue that many of these films capture the psyche of individuals and societies under the threat of war, terrorism, or even racial tension, even though these films do not make any such direct claims or references. An article on Hollywood during the 'George Bush years' (came on BFI's website) suggests that Gotham city in 'Dark Knight' should be  taken as a city under the reign of terror, thereby representing an American metropolis after 9/11. 

A reading of such viewpoints suggests that violence on screen could be a response to the actual violence happening in the real world- be it war, terrorism or organized crime, and kind of depicts  the horrors that might be unimaginable to many, but exists in reality. 

To add here, most movements in cinema emerged as a response to political and cultural events - noir cinema during WWII, Neo-realism in Europe after the war,  Nouvelle Vague in France and New Hollywood in US in the 1960's. This new trend in cinema might as well be the beginning of such a response.

1 comment:

om said...

The article makes interesting reading especially for me, because to be frank I have hardly seen any films this year but hope to catch up before the year ends. Anoop as usual has remained true to the cause of avid film lovers by not only watching films but also reflecting upon the larger shifts and debates within the cinematic world.

Though I haven't read the pieces in 'Sound and Sight', what I understand form the post is that the editor of the magazine seems disturbed by the level of violence depicted in today's cinema. I remain convinced by Anoop's reading of the trend that art- and i beleive real art- takes its direct inspiration from the world arond and like it or not today we are living in a violent world. But i would like to exted the arguement a little and put forward why certain critics find such violence disturbing even feel uncomfortable by their depiction on the screen.

Critics in their comfortable liberal world refuse to accept that the modern world has been disciplined into abhorring violence. This discipling they forget has resuted through a process which has been many times more violent than what has been depicted by the 'deviant' film makers. Tarantino has even gone on record to say that he in a way seeks through his work to retrieve the violence that has been pushed into a subterranean world.

The fact that modernity's civilisng project has made violence the privilege of a few is very much missed by critics who seek to castigate artists trying to foray in to the subterranean. This also has echoes in the contemporary world where peoples movement like in Lalgarh has been repressed using severe violence by using the pretext that the methods of these movements are violent!

We have been made to think of violence as anathema to modern society. But the hypocrisy behind this cannot be overstated. I am sorry i have been over polemical in my piece but we should be careful when works of art are dubbed to be violent because those who seek to categorise them as such are uncomfortable with the fact that they too have been part of a project which by de-legitimising the violence of the masses have made it the privilege of a few.