Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) has often been considered a difficult and controversial text. Central to this is the depiction of gender, specifically concerning the role of Amy (played by Susan George) and the double rape that she undergoes, and the suggestion that the film is a parable of male dominance wherein the central character, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), ascends to being a ‘real’ man via a violent siege against marauding Cornish locals. The tag-line, featured on several posters for the film, suggested this very reading;
The knock at the door meant the birth of a man and the death of seven others
Given the predominant view of the film as a story of male birth, or re-birth, a consideration of the psycho-sexual imagery seems relevant particularly considering the proliferation of such imagery throughout the film. Images of emasculation, castration and phallic power are consistently invoked and develop the theme of birth referred to in the advertising. Creed (1993) offers a suitable model for considering these images and I will refer to her work, and Julia Kriteva’s concept of abjection, to explore the meanings of the psycho-sexual imagery of Straw Dogs. I propose that Straw Dogs gives us a drama of identity crisis tied to anxieties about castration and phallic power which culminates in David Sumner’s rejection of home and decision to enter into the symbolic order having previously retreated from it. In addition to Creed I will also refer to the writings of American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson in investigating the identity crisis which runs through the film. Before entering into the analysis proper it is worth outlining the validity of mapping Creed’s analysis onto Straw Dogs. Creed was writing about women in horror, whereas this film is more concerned with men. I am not claiming the character of Amy as an instance of the monstrous feminine, rather that the concepts that Creed deals with are applicable outside of films which deal centrally with the female monster. There is also some debate about the genre classification of Straw Dogs itself, whether it fits into the horror genre. Many of its contemporary reviewers typed it simply as a relocated western, though this surely has as much to do with the presence of Peckinpah as the film’s autuer as it does for any specific textual evidence. I would suggest that the film is a hybrid of several generic elements, including those of horror and bears comparison with another contemporary British set horror The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973); both concern the intrusion of an outsider into a closed community, and both make extensive use of sexual imagery. Whereas The Wicker Man deals with a conflict between Catholic and Pagan morality Straw Dogs is concerned with a breakdown in identity that precipitates a re-birth of the protagonist. In its use of a corrupt, parodic, family, the Heddens, Straw Dogs also invokes other horror films from the 1970s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Given the generic and thematic content of the film Creed seems a pertinent source for an analytical framework.
Castration & Emasculation
Castration and emasculation imagery runs through Straw Dogs from the earliest images of the film. It is immediately present in the gift given by Amy to David in the first moments, a large man-trap. As Creed points out “man-trap” is a phrase euphemistically used to refer to the vagina. The trap itself, with such jagged edges, invariably invokes the concept of the vagina-dentata. This image lurks throughout the film, opened up it takes a prominent place in the living room of the farm-house waiting to be closed in the siege where David makes use of it, enclosing it around an invader’s head (a clear image of castration). Beyond the image itself, the issue of ownership of the trap prompts questions about the relationship between David and Amy. It is given to David as a gift, one which he places in the home. We must for a moment consider what this means for the dynamic of their relationship. We may consider this an acquiescence on Amy’s part to David, offering him ownership of her genitalia. However the fact that it remains so threatening signifies her potential to castrate, one which remains until it is co-opted by David in the defence of the house. This immediately complicates the gender identity of David himself. The film consistently refers to David as a figure of impotence. Physically he is smaller than the local villagers. He is unable to drive an English car correctly (he cannot master the gear lever, another potentially phallic symbol). His sexual relationship with Amy is one of childishness and humour. Outside of the bedroom their relationship itself is one of tension. David is destructive, willful, and deeply narcissistic. When the local Vicar and his wife visit, David plays bagpipe music at full-volume (something he will repeat during the siege) and proceeds to alienate his guests, forcing them to leave. The reason for David to be in Cornwall is, ostensibly, to complete a mathematical work, however the dialogue suggests that he is running away, although it is not specific from what (an idea re-iterated in the film’s trailers). David’s behaviour is consistent with someone stuck in a preadult stage of development, a stage of weak identity. As Erikson outlines;
That many of our patients break down at an age which is properly considered more preadult than postadolescent is explained by the fact that often only an attempt to engage in intimate fellowship and competition or in sexual intimacy fully reveals the latent weakness of identity (1980, 134).
David’s manipulation of Amy, attempting to get her to engage with chess and other intellectual pursuits is also consistent with Erikson’s analysis of identity crisis;
For where an assured sense of identity is missing, even friendships and affairs become desperate attempts at delineating the fuzzy outlines of identity by mutual narcissistic mirroring (1980, 134).
A sudden collapse of all capacity mutuality threatens, and a desperate wish ensues to start all over again, with a (quasideliberate) regression to a stage of basic bewilderment and rage such as only the very small child knows (1980, 135).
David’s identity is weak because it is not fully formed, revealed by his inability to form proper relationships (sexual or not). He has not yet taken his place within the symbolic order, rather he has run away from it and taken refuge in the farm-house or as I suggest, the womb that it represents. Given this, Amy takes on the appearance of a mother rather than a partner (Amy is, significantly, the only maternal figure in the film). The threat of castration is consistent with castration anxiety felt by the child. During the final siege it is Amy, not David, who will wield a phallic shot-gun in defence of the home, saving David’s life. Here Amy transfers from being a castrating mother to a phallic woman, embodying twin emasculating threats. Further images of emasculation surround David and other male characters in the film. A key moment occurs during the duck hunt (arranged so that Venner can approach Amy). Here David must be leant a gun, he lacks one of his one. When he does eventually kill a duck he holds it in his hands and its limp neck reflects his impotent and emasculated nature. Despite the lack of mothers, the film has a surfeit of fathers, however they are often shown to be symbolically emasculated themselves. The Major, who acts as the village’s law-man and patriarch, possess a limp. Tom Hedden is a drunk. Niles’ father is incapable of controlling his own son. Perhaps the most significant father figure in the film is an absent one; Amy’s. Much is made of the fact that the farm house is from Amy’s family, or more especially her father. When asked by David which of the chairs in the house was her fathers, she replies, “Every chair is my Daddy’s chair”. It places into crisis the ownership of the house and the presence of this father is a further emasculating force for David.
Re-Birth into the Symbolic Order
The symbolization of the womb as house/room/cellar or any other enclosed space is central to the horror film (Creed 1998, 55).
Straw Dogs acts as an exploration of the meaning of the womb, as both a secure and insecure place. It is linked to the concept of unheimlich, where something is familiar and uncanny at the same time, and its ability to “disturb identity and order” (Creed 1998, 54). As Creed identifies, Freud cites the womb phantasy as an occurrence of the unheimlich, a nexus of the familiar and unfamiliar. The womb is a place we both remember but can never know;
He (Freud) allocates a central place to the subject’s former ‘home’, the womb. The uncanny is that place which is ‘known of old, and long familiar’, the place from which the individual has become alienated through repression (Creed 1998, 54).
There is further potential for the home to be seen as the womb particularly in its passageways and entrances. The siege, when David’s crisis is brought to a head, plays on this imagery particularly. Earlier in the film, when Amy is raped and in other scenes, the thresholds to the house are seen as fluid. The rat-catcher’s ability to enter the house and kill the cat is an active demonstration of this. Also the penetration of the house by various gazes, be it the workmen or Janice and Bobby Hedden, shows it to be consistently invaded. What should we make of this? The rape of Amy and the sense of invasion suggests an elision between Amy and the house – they are both penetrated in various ways, some invited, some not. David’s sudden defence of it seems curious then, as he has so markedly failed to do so before. However it is the existence of Niles in the house that redraws the relationships and pushes David further along his identity crisis path. From here he takes the role of the castrating woman from Amy (freeing her to become the phallic woman later in the scene). He defends the home/womb and the childlike Niles within via a series of dentata like acts. The defence is focussed on the doorways and windows of the house. Knives and glass are used. Boiling oil, an invocation of abject fluid, is thrown out. Feet, hands and heads of the invaders are attacked, stabbed and engulfed. The blood, wounds, and death throughout the siege clearly invokes the abject. The nature of the home/womb as the site of this blood suggests fears of the abject mother; David has unnaturally returned to the comfort and safety of the womb space, he has subsequently attempted to assume the mantle of the castrating mother. The revealing of Amy as the phallic woman pushes David out – finally he is capable of being reborn. His closing exchange with Niles about not knowing the way home represents his final break with maternal authority and his entry into the symbolic order as a fully formed individual. Witness the final images of David, face covered in blood, an image of rebirth. Straw Dogs is a drama of the symbolic order. David’s rejection of his place in the order, and the identity crisis it precipitates, prompts the confusion and chaos that surrounds him. It can only be resolved by the violent ejection from the womb space he has attempted to return to in an attempt to reclaim safety from the world and the burdens placed upon him. The collection of emasculating imagery, emasculated characters and symbolic events that occur are the back drop which forces David to confront his own position and accept his true identity outside of the womb, apart from the mother and at the head of the symbolic order.
Creed, Barbera (1993) The Monstrous Feminine. Abingdon: Routledge
Erikson, Erik H. (1980) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: WW Norton
This article was previously published on Bright Lights Film Journal.
Since original publication the excellent Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins) was released, embodying the opposite of Rand’s ideas. It has now made more money than Batman v Superman despite costing about $150 million less.
In 2016, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice staggered its way to over $800 million at the global box office. For many films this would have been a considerable success, but for one with such high expectations – that cost in excess of $250 million to produce and market, and was supposed to be the tent pole off which Warner Bros would hang its DC extended universe – it was a disappointment (especially when rival superhero bout Captain America: Civil War powered past the billion mark). Alongside the perceived failings of Suicide Squad, changes occurred at the top of Warners, with Geoff Johns becoming the new creative lead tasked with adding more levity to the DC universe. But I would argue that Batman v Superman’s shortcomings, and those of its 2013 prequel Man of Steel, have more to do with the philosophical beliefs of their director, Zack Snyder, than simply with tone.
Among the many negative reviews (the film currently has a score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes) and fan reactions, a noted theme developed: that the film, and the filmmakers, were clearly more interested in Batman than Superman (hence his first billing) and that Batman v Superman failed to capture the essence of the Superman character and mythology built up since his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Much of the negative reaction focused on the generally glum tone taken with a character who had previously been seen (particularly in the Christopher Reeve incarnation) as the embodiment of light and hope. Similar issues had been taken with Man of Steel, especially in the sequence where Superman, as Clark Kent, allowed his adopted father to die in a tornado. How could the filmmakers so misunderstand such an American icon?
In March 2016, while finishing work on Batman v Superman, Snyder stated in a profile in The Hollywood Reporter that:
I have been working on The Fountainhead. I’ve always felt like TheFountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something. Warner Bros. owns [Ayn Rand’s] script and I’ve just been working on that a little bit.
This quote reveals Snyder’s interest in Rand and Objectivism and points to a key reason why his version of Superman fails to live up to the character’s nearly 80 years of history. Indeed, Rand’s ideas have become increasingly popular since the 1980s and, if the Atlas Society is to be believed, well liked in Hollywood. And this makes sense, as on the surface Rand advocates a self-made hero, one who uses his talents for his own gain. For Rand, this “rational selfishness” is the key to improving society, and on the surface Superman might appear to be a reasonable simulacrum of the Randian Hero; strong muscular types, who are handsome, well-built, and possess an iron will. But if we delve into Superman’s conception, we can see that he really stands as Objectivism’s antithesis.
Superman’s Left-Wing Origins
Created in the 1930s by two young Jewish high school students, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman went through several iterations before they settled on the version that would catch fire with the public and start a superhero boom. These early stories may come as a surprise for those with only a casual knowledge of the Man of Steel’s history: he tackled gangsters, slum landlords, and profiteers rather than mad scientists or alien threats (as detailed by Les Daniels, 1998). Siegel and Shuster had taken their Superman ideal and put him to work as an often violent hero, not averse to killing the odd wife beater. As sales grew, the publisher asked Siegel “to cut out the guns and knives and cut back on social crusading” (Larry Tye, 2012), but the essence of Superman was set. Drawing inspiration from film star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (in his portrayals of Robin Hood and Zorro), Siegel and Shuster deigned that Superman would use his powers for the good of all, while his alter ego, journalist Clark Kent (an embodiment of the reality of the creators’ lives), struggled to get the story or the girl. As wish fulfilment Superman is revealing – rather than using his unlimited powers for self-gain, Siegel and Schuster wrote Superman as selfless, one who instinctively uses his powers for others. It’s something that 1978’s Superman (Richard Donner) was imbued with, developed in the character’s Kansas upbringing (a sort of “gee whiz” nostalgia for 1950s morals) and the screenplay’s treatment of the character as a Christ figure. In a message left for him to discover, Superman’s Kryptonian father Kal-El (Marlon Brando) intones,
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.
Biblical allusions aside (and there are many more in the film), the essence of Superman was captured; someone who does good, because it is good to do so. Rand’s conception of a hero, and indeed of good, is rather different.
In Atlas Shrugged, the philosopher character Ragnar Danneskjöld pronounces:
Robin Hood … He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I’m the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich – or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich.
Rand’s philosophy is based on the conception that being selfish is a moral good, and that the sole aim of life is to pursue happiness through “productive achievement” (quoted by Joseph Breslin). In this conception, a folk hero like Robin Hood is punishing those who produce, to feed “moochers” and “looters.” The looters are the government types who take from the productive to give to the unproductive moochers, and all are keeping great men back.So what of society’s poor and disadvantaged? Well, it’s their fault, and you owe them nothing, according to Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, the hero John Galt outlines this clearly,
Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None – except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality.
In Rand’s conception the poor and the needy are parasites, living off the talent and industry of others. As she explained:
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone (www.aynrand.org).
No wonder Superman looks so glum rescuing flood victims in Batman v Superman – they’re just moochers who should have worked harder to provide a better shelter for themselves.The Randian hero is one who concentrates on himself, pursues his goals for their own worth without thought or sense of society. In Rand’s view, happiness is achieved through selfishness, through taking care of the individual’s needs and not caving in to moralities that suggest that self-sacrifice and sharing can lead to happiness. In this conception of the universe Superman cannot be happy in his rescuing of the innocent, only in his time with Lois in which he displays and pursues his own desires. Happiness comes partly “by treating others as individuals, trading value for value” (www.aynrand.org) – thus relations with others are predicated on trade, on exchange. What have the helpless and needy got to give Superman? If Clark Kent had been adopted by Rand instead of Ma and Pa Kent, what would have stopped him from becoming a tyrannical overlord? Much of the reason for the continued popularity of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal was the commitment he gave to the character irrespective of whether he was saving Lois from falling to her death or rescuing a kitten for a little girl. For Rand the little girl is a moocher, Lane only worth rescuing if Superman sees in her his self-interest (as in, if he won’t get laid, she can hit the pavement). Applying an Objectivist view point to Superman results in the muddled character Batman v Superman presents.
Superman in Batman v Superman
The failings of Snyder’s Superman can be summed up in a conversation the character has with his Earth mother Martha Kent during Batman v Superman. In the exchange, Martha explains to Superman, “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” This is the world that nourishes him (literally, as the yellow sun generates his power) and provided loving parents, but this sequence suggests he doesn’t have to pay heed to that. In Man of Steel, the death of Jonathan Kent, during a tornado, illustrates this viewpoint. Rather than reveal his powers to the world, Clark lets him die, and the film suggests Jonathan is all right with that. Personal priorities triumph over another’s need. A key element of Batman v Superman is the re-creation of the popular “Death of Superman” storyline from the 1990s comics, but the differences between the film and the original are instructive. By removing the battle with Doomsday to outside Metropolis and making Doomsday a creation of Kryptonian DNA and technology, Snyder removes the social good of Superman’s sacrifice in the fight, but also the connection to the extended family generated over decades in the comic book. Rather than a sacrifice for the lives of others, his death becomes a moment of sacrifice for himself, a personal atonement rather than an act of social good. In the comic, his death is viewed by close friends, other heroes, and strangers. In the film, there is Lois Lane (his lover), Batman (who 10 minutes earlier was trying to kill him), and Wonder Woman (a stranger). The contrived pieta illustrates just how far Snyder misunderstands Superman by redrawing him along Rand’s selfish lines. This selfish self-sacrifice misses the essence of drama that exists in a character who can do almost everything. It is in the choice (of how, when, and who) to help that Superman’s character fascinates. This dramatic axis is underpinned by the character of Clark Kent, his humanity motivating Superman’s choices. There is no self-interested reason for Superman to retain the Clark Kent persona after he is revealed to the world (is it any wonder, then, that Clark Kent is such a small part of Batman v Superman and is killed off)? Superman is tethered to the world by his/Clark’s extended family, something Snyder was happy to partially dispense with in the killing of “Superman’s Pal” Jimmy Olsen, something the director described as “fun” (www.independent.co.uk).
Batman v Superman
Despite the overall negative tone of the critical reaction to Batman v Superman, some praise was given for Ben Affleck’s Batman. How can a film that misunderstands one hero get the other right? The secret may be in comic author Frank Miller’s liking for Rand (Miller authored The Dark Knight Returns on which Batman v Superman is partially based). The Atlas Society’s website quotes Miller,
I was drawn again and again to the ideas presented by Ayn Rand in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Eschewing the easy and much-used totalitarian menace made popular by George Orwell, Rand focused instead on issues of competence and incompetence, courage and cowardice, and took the fate of humanity out of the hands of a convenient “Big Brother” and placed it in the hands of individuals with individual strengths and individual choices made for good or evil. I gratefully and humbly acknowledge the creative debt.
Batman works well as a Randian hero – the rich individual, working out his personal neuroses by beating up the moochers and looters (interestingly he has no moochers in his own house – dependents Alfred, Robin, et al. have to work for their keep). In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a retired, older Bruce Wayne returns to being Batman not because he wants to help the city, rather because his personal obsession is inescapable. For Miller, Superman becomes a government stooge, his patriotism and commitment to good tethering him to the looting politicians.By basing much of Batman v Superman on Miller’s work, and with a fan of Rand at the helm, Superman gets a raw deal. Gone is the nobility of helping those who can’t help themselves. What is left is an image of Superman, but one that is hollow and missing its essence. This year a Justice League movie is being released (also directed by Snyder), with a Man of Steel sequel planned. Only ditching Rand’s quasi-philosophy can get Superman back on track and revive the character.
Bidinotto, Robert James. “Celebrity Rand Fans.” The Atlas Society. https://atlassociety.org/commentary/commentary-blog/4598-celebrity-rand-fans
Breslin, Joseph. “Ayn Rand: The Good, Bad & Obscene or Why Objectivism Is Flawed.” The Washington Times. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/31/ayn-rand-good-bad-obscene-or-why-objectivism-flawe/
Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History – The Life and Times of the Man of Steel.Chronicle Books, 1998.
Miller, Frank. The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics, 2006.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Penguin Classics, 2007.
Shepherd, Jack. “Batman v Superman Director Zack Snyder Explains Why He Killed Off Jimmy Olsen.” The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/batman-v-superman-zack-snyder-explains-why-he-killed-off-jimmy-olsen-a6954956.html
Siegel, Tatiana. “‘Batman v. Superman’: Married Creative Duo on That R-Rated DVD, Plans for DC Superhero Universe.” The Hollywood Reporter. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/batman-v-superman-married-creative-874799
Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. Random House New York, 2012.“Introduction to Objectivism.” https://www.aynrand.org/ideas/overview“Selfishness.” https://campus.aynrand.org/lexicon/selfishnesswww.boxofficemojo.com
This article was first published by Bright Lights Film Journal.
During Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House, more than a few commentators noticed some similarities to George Wallace, and especially Wallace’s 1968 campaign for the American Independent Party. His statement that “If I ever get to be president and one of those demonstrators lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car they ever lay down in front of” (Small, 1999). Feels like exactly the sort of thing that Trump might tweet early in the morning. We wait to see how Hollywood reacts through its films to the current situation; in the meantime we can revisit a surprise hit that aimed to explore many of the tensions that fed Wallace’s popularity.
Joe is a curious film – a low-budget exploitation flick made by a director of soft-core pornography (who would go on to Paper Tiger, Rocky, and The Karate Kid) that made close to $20 million and launched the careers of Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon (Powell & Garrett, 2009). It was a film that divided critics and audiences. Some people came out of theatres loving a character who had voiced their concerns about society (loving it enough that an LP of Joe’s speeches from the film was released). Others shouted threats at the screen: “We’re coming for you, Joe”; threats real enough for Peter Boyle to try to establish the difference between himself and his screen persona in several magazine interviews, and distancing himself from violent roles in the future (Durham, 1970). But what to make of this divisive film after 34 years? Does it still have the power to split an audience, or does time give us the distance to appreciate it anew?
Despite the title, we have to wait 20 minutes for Joe to appear. The film opens with Melissa (Sarandon) framed in a montage of hippie imagery. She drifts around town accompanied by a soft song. A pretty cliché, her life is exposed as a sham when we meet her drug-dealing boyfriend Frank, a typical late ’60s confusion of symbols (he calls himself The Lone Ranger and sells pills to young girls while professing to be an artist). They share a bath (but their feet never come clean), a bed, and a needle. When Melissa’s trip goes bad, Frank is elsewhere, leaving it to Melissa’s upper-middle-class parents (ad exec Bill Compton and WASP archetype Joan) to supervise her recovery. In a quest to recover some of Melissa’s clothes, Bill goes to her apartment and meets Frank. An exchange of views occurs, then Bill loses it, and, in a psychedelic blur, bashes Frank’s head against a wall. Gathering up the drugs (we’ll see them again) and his daughter’s clothes, Bill staggers to the American Bar & Grill where he meets Joe, a loud-mouth racist and homophobic hard-hat framed with a picture of Iwo Jima over his shoulder. When Bill accidentally confesses his crime, Joe sees an opportunity – not for blackmail but for hero worship. Excruciating class-comedy ensues as Joe tries to ingratiate himself into Bill’s life, having him round for Chinese take-out and serving peanuts in the tin. The film turns when Melissa, at home but not seen by her parents, hears of her father’s crime. She flees, and Bill, with Joe in tow, sets off into the Village to find her. These two men reveal their envy and desire for the hippie lifestyle, finding themselves in an orgy (pronounced with a hard “g” by Joe) in exchange for Frank’s drugs. They awake to find their wallets stolen and most of the hippies gone. After Joe slaps the location of a hippie commune out of one of the remaining girls, they set off and the film turns into a violent execution where Joe’s fantasies of blowing away the evils of society are made real. Bill faces the decision – join in and cover his crime, or stop Joe. He chooses the former and, as luck would have it, shoots and kills Melissa.
So far, so exploitation. The film shows enough “exposé” of hippie lifestyle, titillating nudity and violence to satisfy those who search for such things, but beneath the cheap veneer sits a more complex and interesting film that avoids simplistic moral conclusions, and ably dramatizes the ideological conflicts of the time. The film echoes the Puritan captivity narrative and westerns, like The Searchers, but concludes in a way that exposes the moralistic lies behind those archetypes. Ethan Edwards might relent at the end and hug his niece. Bill Compton shoots his daughter in the back. And no wonder – this film exposes everyone as a sham, white collar, blue collar, and hippie alike.
The hippies, despite all their counterculture slogans for peace and love, are happy to steal when it comes to getting high – besides, getting one back on the “squares” is entirely justified. Their confused depiction seems typical of the time; it recalls the Linny Raven character in Coogan’s Bluff, as if all the contradictions of the era (peace campaigns and campus riots) are rolled into one single stereotype. This confused depiction reflects the era and the older generation’s inability to understand the massive social changes occurring around them. It’s as if all social problems (no matter how contradictory) are projected onto the kids, those that oppose the values of the homes they were brought up in. The film’s original title, The Gap(dropped because of the rise of the eponymous fashion chain), reflects the film more accurately, identifying the distance between parents and children (tellingly Joe’s two boys never appear, always absent), upper and lower whites (united by their alienation, but divided by much else), and the shifts in society.
Bill Condon (played by journeyman TV actor Dennis Patrick) displays a nice line in self-loathing. An ad exec who knows how shallow his line of work and life really are. The murder of Frank leads him to Joe, and he gets a vicarious thrill out of his association with the anger and confusion the latter displays. Sure he thinks he’s better than Joe, but he loves the adulation he receives – after all, he’s done what Joe only dreams of.
What of Joe himself? Despite first appearing late on, Boyle dominates the film (even though he’s far too young to have been in WWII). He’s crass, racist, and sexist, but also patriotic, confused, and alienated. He spouts fake news (“42% of all Liberals are queer. That’s a fact. The Wallace people did a poll.”), blaming the liberals, the niggers, and the queers. The world around him is changing (blacks moving into his neighbourhood), and his unseen kids remain pointedly absent. His wife, Mary Lou (can you get any more down-home?), works to relentlessly appease him, but underneath he’s seething. His hideaway, the basement of his home, is bedecked with flags and guns – nostalgia for when he was killing “Japs,” for a time when he knew who the enemy were, and what to do about them. All those guns suggests how tenuous Joe’s masculinity really is, symbolically castrated by his own reliance on his beloved phallic symbols. It’s an excellent performance by Boyle, making Joe repellent but mesmeric.
For all their anger and masculine pride (in houses, wives, etc.), both Joe and Bill are shown to be a sham. Their adventure into the Village ends up with them both in a love-in, but consciously unmanned by the experience as they are rejected by the younger women (with Joe’s companion claiming “That must be a new record.”). They may hate the hippie lifestyle, but it’s a hatred born from envy – goddammit those kids are having a better time than they ever did.
Harking back to the captivity narrative, Melissa at first appears like a 20th-century Mary Rowlandson, a nice girl kidnapped by the feral outsiders. She is mistreated by her partner Frank, she’s a slave to him and the drugs, but when she curls up in bed she hugs her childhood doll, seeking solace in something safe and innocent. Unlike Rowlandson, Melissa isn’t reborn through her experiences; she rejects her parents’ life, realising how phony they are too. It’s a decision that costs her her life, after she pertinently questions her father, “Are you gonna kill me too?” Neither world works for her – each abandons her.
Far from offering a specific position, the ending leaves us with problems, not resolutions. Joe has finally indulged in his great desires, taking part in an orgy and executing the hippies. Bill caves in to Joe, unwilling to take a moral stand and responsibility for the murder of Frank (below). He could turn his gun on Joe and stop the slaughter, but instead he joins in to cover his own back. This one choice, the decision to protect himself rather than do the right thing, condemns Melissa. She dies, freeze-framed in the snow, having had a pitiless time. Abused by her boyfriend, controlled and lied to by her parents, and finally murdered by her father. The film’s titles play over a frame of Melissa lying in the snow and Bill standing in the porch of the commune. In the end, everybody, be they management or hard-hat, hippie or square, has failed.
In 1976, Taxi Driver was released, concerning a spiritual descendent of Joe, Travis Bickle. Boyle appears briefly as Wizard, an older taxi driver who attempts to counsel Bickle. Boyle’s performance is a clear counterpoint to Joe, with Wizard praising liberal values. His advice, of course, fails and the narrative is restaged, but this time the girl is rescued (whether she wants it or not). The captivity narrative returns, the confusion remains. Is Bickle a saviour? His costume confuses, a gunslinger with a mohawk. The good guys, the bad guys, all blend into one. At the Oscars that followed, Taxi Driver lost out to Rocky for best picture and best director. John G. Avildsen, having arrived with Joe, signalled another change in America with a more optimistic piece, in which it was very clear who we should root for.
Joe was clearly a film born out of its era, hitting the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment. Several months before it was released, the action of the film was prefigured by the real-life murder, on May 7, 1970, of hippie daughter by Detroit railroad worker Arville Garland. Garland had had enough of his daughter’s new lifestyle and friends, and went to her university and shot them. Although Norman Wexler’s screenplay for Joe had been completed before the crime, the parallels were obvious, not least for the trial judge who instructed the defence and the prosecution to watch the film, and screened the jury to make sure they had not (Thomas, 2014). Like the fictional Joe Curran, Garland had many supporters too, receiving letters and gifts while in jail.
Judged from a distance it’s clear to see how open the text is, feeding off the anxieties of different sections of society, allowing for different gazes to engage with the film differently. The contemporary reaction missed just how subversive the film is, taking neither side in the debate, but exposing the hollowness of both the older generation and the counterculture. In a time when the same old debates have resurfaced, Joe is well worth rediscovering.
Durham, Michael (1970). “Reluctant Hero of the Hardhats.” Life. October 16, 69-70.
Powell, Larry & Garrett, Tom (2009). The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Small, Melvin (1999). The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Thomas, Bill (2014). Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
On its release Pauline Kael described Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) as;
the first American film that is a fascist work of art[i]
and Richard Schickel called it “unrelenting evil”[ii]. A collection of thirteen British film critics went so far as to write a letter to The Times describing their disgust at the BBFC’s decision to release the film, citing the depiction of “double rape and multiple killings by a variety of hideous methods”[iii]. Several local councils in Britain took the step of banning the film[iv] and the VHS was caught up in the video nasty panic of the 1980s (withdrawn from home viewing in 1988 the film saw the light of day, uncut, on DVD in the UK in 2002)[v]. It was not only the depiction of the violence, both sexual and non-sexual, that produced such a reaction, but also the sense that the film was giving out a simplistic message about the nature of masculinity – that the film suggests that violence is essential to manhood and that the female character, Amy played by Susan George, is simply reduced to an object to be fought over by the men (she was also seen to embody the myth that all women want to be raped). Although these reactions are not without justification mostly the ambiguity of the film was missed, especially in relation to the representation and motivation of the central character David Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman). Hoffman’s character is so objectionable, remaining ignorant of his wife’s emotional state (and her rape), that the simplicity of the conclusion that the film, and thus the film-makers, approve of his actions is found wanting. Indeed Peckinpah’s use of a montage aesthetic to present the film violence, especially in the concentration on reaction shots further queries the meanings of the violent scenes. David’s final abandonment of Amy and the home he has fought to protect, coupled with his protection of Niles the mentally impaired murderer, further complicate a simplistic reading.
Beyond the discussion of violence and gender (which is taken up extensively by Stephen Prince in Savage Cinema) lies an intriguing inability to place Straw Dogs securely in any category. The general critical concentration of Straw Dogs as an auteur work has obfuscated its generic position. Indeed Straw Dogs is a film that defies simple genre categorisation and one wonders how much of the critical reaction was linked to this inability to securely define the film. The anxieties about violence are prevalent in much criticism of the time and would be used to critique Peckinpah both before and after 1971, however violence being such an essential part of the Western genre (especially the ritualised gun-fight) mitigates, to some extent, its use elsewhere in his films.
Beyond the violence debate Straw Dogs stands as an interesting nexus of several generic concerns present in popular American cinema during the late 1960s and early 70s. We can see this time as one of transition where many genres were being reconceived. The Western of course comes to mind, particularly in Peckinpah’s own films but also in others such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970). Film Noir would be re-evaluated in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), and Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1968) had already married the gangster film with a nouvelle vague aesthetic. Straw Dogs does stand as a revisionist Western, taking one of the classic Western scenarios, the protestant captivity narrative, displacing it to Cornwall and transferring it to the modern age but it also offers a deconstruction of the concept of the classic Western/American heroic ideal. David Sumner begins as the opposite of this, he is a man running from his troubles and unwilling to use violence as a solution to problems. Indeed David avoids conflict of any sort until the final scene where his intellectual pose is finally shorn and his inner capacity for violence is revealed. The supressed American male emerges. Reaction to Vietnam and the demographic and social shifts in America also run through David Sumner’s abandonment of America, and a strong questioning of America’s relationship with the rest of the world is evident. Although David is subjected to xenophobic taunting by the locals, so his inability to communicate to them as anything other than an American (such as pointedly ordering American cigarettes in the local pub) reflects his self-righteous attitude.
Beyond the Western there is a link to the British horror tradition, such as the pastoral horror of Witchfinder General (Mathew Hopkins, 1968), which would be followed by The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), where small communities are shown to be hiding a darker underside. It prefigures the rape-revenge cycle most obviously seen in I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). The film also fulfils many of the criteria evident in the American horror film of the time – the rural scenario in which city dwellers are forced to confront the wild and rabid locals. Examples such as Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) compare well. The Heddon family in Straw Dogs, motherless and with a suggestion of incestuousness in the daughter Janice, links to the corrupt families presented in these later films.
The breaking down of domestic relations by a traumatic event followed by a spiral into violence is repeated in Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972). The vigilante theme, running through the final siege, links to two other 1971 releases, The French Connection (William Friedkin) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel), but also later to Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). There is of course the question of “ultra-violence” which inevitably leads to comparisons with A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). The contradictions in the reactions between the use of violence in Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange were extensively noted in a Screen article by Charles Barr linking critical reaction to the filmmaking technique;
The final irony is that the same critics who were so sternly against violence in reviewing Straw Dogs are now found not only enjoying it (in its safely ‘distanced’ form) but intellectually endorsing it[vi]
[i] Kael, Pauline (1971) “Peckinpah’s Obsession”, Deeper into Movies: the Essential Collection from 1969 to 1972. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd
[ii] Schickel, Richard (1972) “Don’t Play it Again, Sam”, Life Magazine, February 11th, 1972
[iii] Cashin, F, et al (1971) “Film Censorship”, The Times, 17th December 1971
[iv] Barr, Charles (1972) “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics”, Screen, Summer 1972, Volume 3, Number 2
[vi] Barr, Charles (1972) “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics”, Screen, Summer 1972, Volume 3, Number 2
Click below for 4 free posters for your Film & Media Studies classroom:
One of them is a loner who gets thrown every dirty job in town. His solution: shoot his .44 Magnum and damn the consequences. The other is a blue-collar roughneck, a porkpie-hat wearing boot fetishist as likely to shoot a colleague as he is a bad-guy. Welcome to 1971. Welcome to the birth of the modern action hero. It wasn’t a smooth delivery. The critics reacted with catcalls of “fascist”. Roger Ebert wrote, “if anybody is writing a book on the rise of fascism in America, they ought to take a look at Dirty Harry”. Garrett Epps of The New York Times asked “Does Popeye Doyle Teach us to be Fascist?”, deciding no, but that The French Connection is a “celebration of authority, brutality and racism” (which sounds pretty fascist to me). Dirty Harry on the other hand “is a simply told story of the Nietzschean superman and his sado-masochistic pleasures”. Pauline Kael, never a fan of Eastwood, described Dirty Harry as a “right wing fantasy” and The French Connection as featuring “the latest model sadistic cop”. Vincent Canby, also in The New York Times, decried Dirty Harry with the criticism, “I doubt even the genius of Leni Riefenstahl could make it artistically acceptable”. Something about these films got up the nose of American critics. Perhaps this was only made worse by their popularity with audiences. But how did early 70s cinema come to embrace these men, and the McClanes, Riggs and Cobrettis to follow?
Looking back over the history of cinema two types of film dominated action before 1971; the western and the war film. It all changed, in the 1960s as the cops began to take over. They brought the action into the city, finding a new wilderness among the streets and the neon lights. Cities became the new frontier, dark, shadowy and fuelled by drugs. It reflected the changes in American society; the huge rises in crime, particularly mugging, had Americans scared to walk city streets. This was a different America and it needed different heroes. The French Connection and Dirty Harry redefined how America’s heroes would look and act, casting a shadow over action cinema for a generation to come. The story goes that 1960s cinema ended in counter-culture revolution. Led by Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1968) the audience found themselves on the side of the law-breakers, railing against society, whether it be the cops, the banks or the politicians. Take a closer look and another, parallel, story comes clear. The success of films like The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, alongside the earlier, harsher Bond films, showed that there was an audience for tough heroes. What was different about them was how they abandoned the codes of the past – these guys were selfish, in it for themselves, often only doing the right thing incidentally. These weren’t the classic heroes of the past, the sort that Joseph Campbell wrote about. They were anti-heroes, the dark shadows of heroism. Ever since WW2 heroes had been getting darker, as if the horror of human behaviour exposed in Europe and the Far East had leached out the possibility of anybody being truly good. Even John Wayne got in on the act in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). It’s difficult to imagine now because, by and large, today all movie heroes are anti-heroes. Go back to the 1940s and watch Errol Flynn or James Stewart and see men who do right because it’s right to do it. As American life got more complicated, with conflict at home and abroad, it became harder and harder to find purity in anyone’s motives. It would get worse before the 60s was out.
Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Huston in August 1966 and started shooting. He killed 14 and wounded 31 before the Police shot him. The shadow of the Zodiac killer settled over San Francisco in the late 1960s as he taunted Police with his letters. He was never found. And in 1969 Charles Manson’s ‘family’ broke into 10050 Cielo Drive murdering, among four others, Sharon Tate, pregnant actress and girlfriend of Roman Polanski: all three helped signal a change. Nobody was safe anymore, not even Hollywood stars. It was the final nail in the coffin of 60s optimism. All the leaders, Kennedy and King, were dead. The movie heroes of old didn’t cut it (just watch Wayne’s self-directed Green Berets (1968) or Brannigan (Douglas Hickcox, 1975) for evidence). America needed new symbols to help it feel safe at night. Cue Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, although in many ways The French Connection and Dirty Harry couldn’t be more different. The former was directed by a precocious young director from TV noted for several art-house style films, the latter made by one of Hollywood’s old hands, who could trace his career back to Hollywood at its peak in the 1930s and 40s. But what both William Friedkin and Don Siegel understood was that the time was ripe for a new, tougher, more cynical hero.
Friedkin had been circulating for several years in Hollywood and had been tipped as a hot director. He mastered his craft making documentaries on the streets of his home town Chicago, working areas other film-makers wouldn’t touch like the black South-Side. He was an abrasive young man, supremely talented, directing for TV in his early twenties. Siegel began at Warner’s back when the Studio System was in its heyday. He began in the Film Library Department, moving through the company to Editorial and Insert departments. Here he contributed to some classics like The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939). He worked with such greats as Michael Curtiz (director of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942)) and Howard Hughes, eventually graduating to directing at Hughes’ RKO. The movie he will always be remembered for, other than Dirty Harry, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1962), regularly cited as the best B-movie ever made. An efficient director, Siegel worked quickly and effectively. He shot what he needed, scouted his own locations and liked to collaborate. He was just the sort of director Clint Eastwood appreciated. By 1970 Friedkin’s career was stalling. He was making movies, dramas such as The Boys in the Band (1970), but his films weren’t making any money. That would all change after an encounter with Howard Hawks. “People don’t want stories about somebody’s problems or any of that psychological shit”, Hawks told him, “What they want is action stories. Every time I made a film like that, with a lotta good guys against bad guys, it had a lotta success, if that matters to you”. It mattered to him alright. His next film was The French Connection.
Siegel and Eastwood first met on Coogan’s Bluff (1968), an early attempt to translate Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western success to America. It worked, with Eastwood starring as an Arizona lawman relocated to New York to extradite a suspect. It featured some brutal action, including a great bar fight. Coogan’s single minded pursuit of hippy suspect Ringerman, and willingness to ignore regulations, served as a prototype for Harry. With Dirty Harry they were able to create a purer distillation of the action formula from Coogan, dumping the unnecessary love interest, turning the conflict between Harry and Scorpio into the focus. Watch Harry again and it might even seem that the sado-masochistic relationship between cop and killer is its own sort of twisted romance, camera flying away from the stadium to protect their privacy when they are finally alone. The producer of The French Connection, Philip D’Antioni, previously brought Bullitt (Peter Yates) to the screen in 1968. Inspired by real events, and the book by Robin Moore, The French Connection provided a chance to repeat the earlier success. For that purpose he demanded one thing from Friedkin, a car chase to beat the one in Bullitt. Both the chase and its filming are now legendary but are just one part of a film which constantly innovates and defies convention. Filming in a down and dirty documentary style, casting a character actor, Gene Hackman, in the lead, allowing cast to improvise (a cast which included real life “Popeye” Eddie Egan as Doyle’s boss), and taking cues from The French New Wave, The French Connection is like nothing else produced in Hollywood at the time. It’s also groundbreakingly violent. Just witness the car-crash victims; they’re nothing to do with the plot but Friedkin lets his camera linger over the mess of their bodies. Then think about that final shot. What other Hollywood film leaves the audience with such a bleak and unresolved ending, Doyle charging off into the darkness having shot one of his own colleagues?
You can see how real life events influenced Dirty Harry. Check out Scorpio and you can see the influence of Manson, the Zodiac killer and Whitman; Scorpio represented everything that was going wrong with America, and he could even have been a returning Vietnam veteran with his military boots and rifle proficiency. Those who read Callahan as an authoritarian figure taking on a hippy loner miss the point, though. Yes Scorpio is all that’s bad but Harry’s not much better. As the film plays out, a teasing parallel between Scorpio and Harry emerges, they’re both voyeurs, both loners, both killers. Their combat is a dance to the death across the streets of San Francisco. That late 60s anti-authoritarian streak runs through Callahan and Doyle and shows that these films have more in common with the Easy Riders of this world that you might think. Both are fierce individuals, outsiders who don’t fit in to society – but the difference is they’re there trying to make it work. Both films hinge on their heroes. They’re a strange pair, both loners paired with partners whose normalcy only highlights their extremes, both isolated by society. Friedkin pulls no punches in his depiction of Popeye as a slovenly, driven and violent man. Watch the scene where Frog One, Charnier, enjoys a three course meal while Popeye stands outside drinking stale coffee and eating greasy pizza. It’s a wonderful evocation of the thankless task that stands before the police; the street smart blue-collar worker living in a small apartment that resembles a prison cell versus the urbane French charmer with a house on the Riviera. Dirty Harry‘s opening shots, hovering over a memorial board to San Francisco police men points to the danger and thanklessness of the task. In some senses they’re the reincarnation of the Western hero dragged into the city, the lone gunman dealing with injustice. But in the city their actions provoke outraged responses, the cushion of myth having been removed. Just like Will Kane in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), who like Harry throws his badge away, they’re abandoned by the townsfolk and have to do what’s best on their own.
Initial reaction to both films was fierce, many critics highlighting the violence, but Dirty Harry was by far the most kicked about. Harry’s perceived racism was a particular bone of contention, despite the fact that he has friends and enemies of different races. Both Siegel and Eastwood have been on record defending the films from such accusations. In his autobiography, A Siegel Film, the director described his approach, “If I do a film about a murderer, it doesn’t mean that I condone murder. If I do a film about a hard-nosed cop, of course it doesn’t mean I condone all his actions. I find it very difficult to explain my reasons for making a film like Dirty Harry, other than I’m a firm believer in entertainment, hoping that every picture make will be a commercial success. Not once throughout Dirty Harry did Clint and I have a political discussion.” Similarly The French Connection found its critics, suggesting the film to be racist and authoritarian, but it also registered far more supporters. It was a huge box-office success ($30million plus in the US alone) and won five Oscars, including best director. Dirty Harry won no awards, but took over $28 million and cemented Eastwood’s star status. The impact of these two films still resonates through their sequels and imitators. As Eastwood proved in Gran Torino (2008) he has never really escaped the shadow of Callahan. The lone cop, the disregard for superiors, for red tape and rules, the brutality of the violence; these can all be seen in modern action movies. Check out the rivalry between John McClane and his slick European rival, Hans Gruber, in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988); it clearly echoes Doyle and Charnier. What is Riggs but Callahan pushed to his logical, suicidal extreme? How about that scene in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) with the jumper? Straight out of Dirty Harry. Come to think of it aren’t both Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995) and 12 Rounds (Renny Harlin, 2009) just two hour remakes of the phone chase in Dirty Harry? Look at any cop-thriller or action film from the 1980s or 90s and the influence of Doyle and Callahan is clear. Fascist Super Cops? No. Fascists aren’t free thinkers, they don’t possess the cynical edge of these men, the individuality. The critics saw the violence, but missed the point. The audience got it. And we’re still getting it today.
From its early days cinema has showcased violence.
Whether it was boxing matches or recreations of historical events violence has been infused into the very nature of the medium. If we believe the old story about the Lumière Brothers scaring their Paris audience the beginning of Cinema was a violent act in itself. With this presentation of violence came politics. Perhaps it was the accessibility of cinema that made it open to more political interference than literature or theatre (although these were also messed with), the fear that the plebs, who wouldn’t/couldn’t read or understand high culture, would be corrupted by this new form. Early on movies were being banned for their violence, but sometimes the reasons were as much politically motivated as out of a ‘duty’ to protect the masses; in the US one early boxing film was banned on racial grounds, as it showed a black boxer beating a white boxer, undermining the ‘inherent’ superiority of the white race.
The dominant discourse on violence today remains rooted in the spurious effects debate. Every so often a film is seen to be the cause of society’s ills, or it offers the potential to corrupt and degrade. A cursory glance at the history of Hollywood film offers a list of titles that have been suggested as, but never proven to be, the inspiration for real acts of violence. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Scream, Child’s Play 3, not to mention the litany of 1980s Video Nasties have been implicated. But this debate fundamentally lacks an understanding of the complicated ways in which the audience experiences film violence. In this article I’ll outline some of those ways, in the hope that we can move the debate a little further from the purview of the Daily Mail.
Before, During, After
The paratext are the texts that surround and inform any individual text. Generally speaking we don’t watch movies in a vacuum, particularly now as we’re constantly bombarded with trailers, posters, websites and even trailers for trailers. These elements, also known as the Narrative Image, inform and mediate our responses to cinema, including how we understand the violence. In short our experience and understanding of film violence occurs before (paratext), during (spectating) and after the film (in the ways we remake the film in our memories, how they compare to other texts, etc). Beyond these paratextual elements are the social and political contexts that inform the text and our responses. To give a brief example most film students are forced to watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925). But the context of watching this in the 21st Century, in Europe, can’t match the context of post-revolutionary Russia, or interwar Britain where the film was banned. Our approach to the film is framed by these paratextual elements of expectation where a genre, title or star, can confirm or subvert.
Generic and narrative expectations are another major part of this experience, elements which are, by and large, set by the narrative image. The Western is a genre that depends on violence – the narrative is organised around the final shoot-out, the showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It would be ridiculous to watch a mainstream Western then and be surprised by the violence in the final scenes. The emotional response to such a moment is therefore conditioned by expectation. Films that muddy the generic/narrative waters generate different responses. Take the violence in Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006). The film is framed as a fairytale of sorts, in which a small girl (evoking characters like Alice), explores a world of fantastic creatures. Then a man has his face bashed in with a bottle. Nothing in the narrative/genre has suggested this event, the impact is greater.
These elements of genre/narrative and paratext also condition the modality of the films. Modality is the level of reality that we ascribe to a message. For instance the News has a higher modality than Tom and Jerry; one presents itself as a true representation of reality, the other is a cartoon in which impossible events occur. Films generally exist somewhere between these two extremes. A film that employs documentary style camera work conveys a higher modality than one that involves impossible CGI shots. Similarly the advertising of a film can stress fantastic or realistic elements. Early coverage for The Blair Witch Project presented the film as true, that the footage had been recovered. For those early audiences the film had a high modality, creating a different response to later viewers who watched is as part of the normal horror genre.
Elements of Film Violence
If our approach to film violence is conditioned before we even sit in the cinema what then of the films themselves? One cannot hope to fully elucidate the complexities of this in a short essay, but I can outline a few significant elements.
Prince (1998) breaks film violence down into three elements; the referential act, the stylistic encoding and the stylistic amplitude. The referential act is the act of violence that the film depicts. Our understanding of this is complicated in itself. Has the audience experienced this act themselves, or seen it before in other films and media? Each act of violence in a film is seen in comparison to other films and the real world. Increasingly the violence we see bears no resemblance to our life experience – our referent becomes other films. The stylistic encoding is how the referential act is depicted in the film, the shots used, the sound, etc. Take for comparison the finales of High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971). In High Noon the hero, Will Kane, shoots the villain Frank Miller with a single bullet. It takes 5 seconds of screen time and is shown in a single shot from where Kane stands, leaving Miller in the background. When Harry shoots Scorpio over 8 single shots are shown, taking just over a minute of screen time. When Scorpio is hot we see, from multiple angles, him thrown backwards, blood spurting from his body; the same referential act, encoding in two very different styles.
The final aspect, the Stylistic Amplitude, covers ideas of graphicness and duration of the encoded act. In essence the more graphic the depiction the greater the duration. The more of the violence we see the more significant it is in the film’s running time. As a general trend in Hollywood cinema more time is given over to violence in movies.
Positioning the Audience
As a final issue we need to consider how the film positions its audience in relation to the characters that enact violence. There are two positions available, one subjective (we watch/follow/align with a character(s)), the other objective (we are not aligned with anyone, we watch separate from the action). This makes a big difference in how we relate to a film. The subjective camera, using shots like point of view, implied point of view and over shoulder, invite us to partake in the violence. Narrative techniques, such as narration, further encourage our identification with characters and violence (a good example of this is Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)). The objective camera keeps us at a distance, although we still align with a protagonist through convention, leaving our involvement as less participatory.
Moving the discussion about film violence away from the tabloid headlines and towards a technical understanding of cinema and its audience is essential if we’re ever to puzzle out how and why people watch violent films. If we can do that we may be able to finally kill off the histrionic exaggerations, with or without the use of a shotgun.
Prince, Stephen (1998) Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: University of Texas Press