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.

Works Cited

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.

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Works Cited

Prince, Stephen (1998) Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: University of Texas Press

It has occurred to me that within the confines of the Superhero sub-genre that so dominates modern Hollywood output that there is a single relationship that underpins the Superheroes’ actions and their relationships to order and society. This relationship is between the Superhero and his father. Several recent releases reiterate this relationship, but it has its most clear articulation in Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) the film that set a structural template for the Superhero film. Thinking of fathers inevitably leads to Freud, Jung, et al and I’m going to use this post to suggest some ideas about the relationship between the Superhero and his father. The psychoanalytic ideas I shall refer to are those of the Symbolic Order and the Father Complex to highlight an essential structural element of this style of film. By investigating this we will see how the structure of the Super-Hero film hinges on the resolution of the subject/father relationship.

The relationship between the Superhero and his Father is a dominant theme in all the major Super-Hero releases from the past 30 years. For the purposes of this paper I will refer to Superman, X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), Spiderman (Sam Raimi, 2002), Daredevil (Mark Stephen Johnson, 2003), Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011) and Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011). Each of these films articulates a father/son relationship that must be resolved for the hero to achieve their aims – a clear instance of the father complex (where the subject is formed/dependent on the father).  In several of these films the father figure is not a relation but another who assumes the patriarchal relation, such as Uncle Ben in Spiderman or Professor Xavier in X-Men, however it is their role as the representative of symbolic order, as a force which imposes law and regulates desire that is important. Often it is the removal of the father by a violent act that operates as the catalyst for the plot in these films (i.e. there is no Batman without the death of Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas).

The Traumatic Father

An initial trauma concerning the father can be seen across many of these films. The attempts to cope with the traumas, and the subsequent resolutions, are what drive the films forward. In Superman this is as dual trauma as two fathers are present; both die prematurely and the conflict of the central character’s choice between the two, forms much of the dramatic axis. Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El has been passed from one father to another and so moves between two opposing Names of the Father/Symbolic Orders. The two father figures in Superman are opposed; there is the god-like natural father Jor-El who initially exists in relation to Kal-El as the perfect Real Father- his relationship existing in Kal-El’s pre-linguistic state.  However through the use of audio recordings and teaching he becomes the representative of one type of Symbolic Father, imposing language and order onto the young child as he travels to earth. However Jor-El is subsequently displaced by the adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent. Kent is presented as distinctly human, preaching home-spun wisdom rather than the universal forms that Jor-El communicates.  At this point Jor-El moves into being representative of the Imaginary Father, a fantasy projection of the imaginary ideal on which Clarke models his Superman persona, represented by the command of Jor-El that;

The father becomes the son, and the son becomes the father.

In Superman’s decision to reject the rules of Jor-El and to change time to save Lois Lane from death we see a rejection of one, non-interventionist symbolic order (and the imaginary father), to another that approves of compassion – the acceptance of an alternative symbolic order. The human has triumphed over the divine, Jonathan has defeated Jor-El (this is especially so in the special edition which contains a scene explicitly dramatizing this conflict).

This acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father is a key element of these films. The reconciliation of the Superhero to their fathers signals an acceptance of the symbolic father and the rules and morality associated with them. In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne initially rejects the rules of the Symbolic Father in his quest for vengeance. His father, a doctor and philanthropist, was defined by his compassion. At this point in the narrative Bruce Wayne attempts to shoot his parents’ murderer, Joe Chill, but is thwarted by another assassin.  This failure prompts a movement to China where Wayne takes up with a surrogate father Henri Ducard who teaches Wayne the physical skills required to complete his quest for vengeance. However it is Wayne’s rejection of Ducard’s invocation to kill and eventual acceptance of his Father’s principles that leads to him ascending into heroic status and becoming Batman. Similar to Superman, who dramatizes his conflict in his dual persona, a tension arises between the Batman and Wayne characters. Ironically it is the Batman figure who takes the place of Wayne’s father as a caretaker of Gotham, whereas Bruce Wayne becomes a mask.

Similarly problematic schisms with father figures occur in both The Green Hornet and Green Lantern. In The Green Hornet Britt Reed initially rejects the rules of his father, behaving in irresponsible and childish ways. His ascendancy to hero status comes at the realisation of his father’s true worth at which point he endeavours to uphold the journalistic ideas his father held dear. In Green Lantern Hal Jordan is crippled by fear, an anxiety picked up by watching his own father die in a plane crash. It is only by realising that the image of his father that he holds is an imaginary ideal that he can fully take his place in the Symbolic Order. By rejecting the Imaginary Father of his own ego-construct and embracing the lessons imparted by the Symbolic father, Jordan is able to conquer his own fear and save the planet from the fear entity Parallax.

The Surrogate Father

Spiderman & X-Men both use surrogate father figure to depict this resistance of entry into the symbolic order.  For Peter Parker Uncle Ben occupies the place of the father. It is Parker’s rejection of his uncle’s teaching that leads to the uncle’s death. Only by embracing his Uncle’s axiom that;

With great power comes great responsibility,

can Parker take his place in the social order. In X-Men Charles Xavier presents a different father figure in that he remains constant throughout the film, with no traumatic separation. However it is Wolverine’s/Logan’s rejection of the Symbolic Order that brings him two Xavier’s School. By taking his place there, and accepting Xavier as the Symbolic Father, Wolverine is able to learn about himself. In X-Men 2 a conflict between an opposing father, General Stryker, is created in which Wolverine/Logan is given a choice. By choosing Xavier, and rejecting his creation at the hands of Stryker, a relationship similar to the Jor-El/Jonathan Kent dynamic is revealed.

The Failing Father

In Daredevil a dissonance about the relationship between the Imaginary Father and the actual father underpins the motivation of the central character.  Matt Murdock believes his father to be a hard-working ex-boxer. When he discovers that he is actually a hired thug for a local mobster he runs away – a trauma that leads directly to his loss of sight. Full of grief Murdock senior cleans up his act, but this just leads to the traumatic event (his death at the hands of The Kingpin) that creates Daredevil. Murdock achieves resolution by defeating The Kingpin and resolving himself to be the type of man his father should have been.

Final Thoughts

I have written this to give a broad overview of the father issues present in the genre with a limited number of examples. However father complexes are clearly visible in Thor (Kenneth Brannagh, 2011) between Thor and Odin, and Loki and Odin; Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) between Superman and Jason; Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) between Wayne & his father but also, in a twisted echo, between Batman and the Joker; Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) between The Penguin and his father; and Kick Ass (Mathew Vaughn, 2010) this time with a daughter – Hit-Girl and Big-Daddy). One wonders whether a female oriented Super-Hero film, Wonder Woman maybe, would replicate this dramatic axis, or replace it with a mother anxiety instead?

I’m a Columbo fan. It’s a great way to while away a quiet afternoon watching the excellent, and sadly departed, Peter Falk trick another unsuspecting big shot into thinking he’s an idiot, when all the while he’s working the whole thing out. It’s structurally entertaining, shifting the drama to a battle of wits, by revealing the murderer’s identity in the first third, rather than following the traditional structure laid down by Agatha Christie, et al. It also contains some wonderful cameos, with each episode throwing us another Hollywood name who is either on their uppers, or just enjoyed the fun of the role.

What occurred to me the other day was the realization that it wasn’t just the show’s structure that made it different – it was its politics. Here is a mainstream American show that espouses a Marxist viewpoint (bear with me). Each episode of Columbo begins with a member of high society (the bourgeoisie) committing what they think is the perfect murder. The motive is invariably for financial gain, for the acquisition of capital. In walks Columbo, a classic member of the proletariat. He dresses badly, has a terrible car, and seems oblivious to the codes of behavior of ‘high society’. But through application of thought alone, and using his shabby status to expose the prejudices of the bourgeoisie (how could such a scruffy man possibly represent a threat?) he exposes the hollow, money grabbing elite for what they are. The show flips the assumptions of Capitalist society, that worth only comes through acquisition of capital, and shows how capitalist desire leads to an abandonment of moral principals. Columbo is above all a moral figure, loyal to his job, his wife and his dog. Set against this are the money grabbers, willing to kill anyone who comes in the way of their advancement.

PS. It’s also an example of the Daoist idea of the virtue of the small. Read the Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff for more of this.

The November Man is overall a silly film, a later entry into the Liam Neeson/Taken inspired Geri-Action series. This time Pierce Brosnan dusts off his suits and gets to play a retired spy dragged out of retirement, etc. Nothing special, but a reasonably well put together film (despite Brosnan’s rather alarming action-gurn). What is of note, and what really got my back up, was the insistence, in such a throw-away film, to depict a rape against the main female character (played by Olga Kurylenko, another Bond alumnus who plays a very similar character in Quantum of Solace). I don’t actually mind the fact that her character is raped – it makes sense – but what got to me was the insistence on seeing it – in POV. Not much  mind, but enough. And it got me thinking. Why isn’t it enough for us to know she was raped? Why then later does this character have to suffer a flash back that leaves her useless and unable to avenge herself (you know – so the guys can do the killing)? Why does her whole character have to be defined this way?

Now The November Man is throw away, I doubt we’ll care about it in 5 minutes. But we will care about the preponderance of women being raped in film, and the consistent use of rape as the way to torture, threaten, and emotionally scare women. Once again women’s sexual “virtue” becomes a dominant aspect of their character. How they react, how they’re scarred, how they recover becomes part of the continuing moral grading of women based on sexual morality (and how men have to come in and deal with it). The woman is inevitably passed from one man (bad) to another (good) – although both are violent and murder others. But hey I guess that’s just how men express love, and hate, and maybe hunger. By shooting people.

Does any of this matter and what does it have to do with refrigerators?  Women in Refrigerators is a website set up in 1999 to catalogue the various atrocities that happen to female characters in comics, started after a Green Lantern found his dead girlfriend in the aforesaid white good. And it’s an extensive list in which women are transformed from people to motivating factors, and of course the worse their death/rape/mutilation the greater the cathartic violence the hero gets to enact. This at a time when Hollywood is becoming more and more male-centered (check out this Variety report).  Maybe we need a Hollywood Women in Refrigerators? I think, however, that it would be so extensive so as to break the internet.

As long as we keep seeing women in terms of sexual virtue, in which their whole lives are defined by a sexual trauma that can only be redeemed by a “good” man we’re going to keep having wider social issues concerning real relations between men and women. As men we need to start objecting when women are reduced to this. And we need to start recognizing how it also de-humanizes us – in which we are reduced to vengeance machines carrying massive anxiety about sex and sexuality. Frankly it’s not very grown up.

In 1974 Laura Mulvey published her ideas on the male gaze, suggesting that Classical Hollywood reduces women to passive objects simultaneously desired and hated by a ‘male’ camera. Although Mulvey’s ideas are not perfect, and are deeply rooted in Oedipal silliness, her idea got traction because she was on to something  important that overall women are being used for plot motivation, from which male characters act out the male audience’s anxieties. Indeed, these days, women barely feature in Hollywood films (only 30% of speaking characters). Lots has been said about the harm this does to women. And quite right. But we should also consider the harm it does to men, in limiting our ideas about women. They become problems, not people. And if that’s all we see it becomes real. Picking on one representation is neither here nor there and The November Man doesn’t matter. But women, and men, do.

The Usual Suspects is an excellent film, correctly celebrated for its non-linear structure and unreliable narrator. But it’s also a fascinating look at male anxiety in the way the characters are consistently calling into question each others’ sexuality and masculinity. As the Suspects themselves jockey to out-man each other Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze looks on showing the virtue of thought and ambiguity amid the cock-fights. It’s an anxiety that seems increasingly pervasive in male-culture, finding angry expression in communities such as Red Pill or in humorous social comment in #masculinitysofragile?. It’s with great prescience that Chris McQuarrie’s script for The Usual Suspects explores this.

Throughout the film the threat of loss of masculinity is ever present, with the possibility of passivity (especially in the sense of sexual penetration) seen as the greatest fear. Not so much death for McManus, Hockney, Fenster and Keaton but buggery as the ultimate humiliation. Their strength is seen in terms of this, their unwillingness to “bend over for anybody” in Kint’s terms. They tease and threaten each other with penetration (Fenster to Hockney “Hey lover boy, you wanna piece?”, McManus to Hockney “You wanna dance with a man for a change?”) When Keaton is arrested he’s told he’s not a business man, “From now on, you’re in the gettin’-fucked-by-us business.” Bending over, being fucked is the greatest threat. Is it any wonder these men grip their guns so tightly throughout the film? This constant reassurance of their masculinity, the acceptable cinematic phallus helps define, and protect them.

Except that it doesn’t. They are all undone by the most passive one of them all. One who talks rather than acts, who hurts and plans. Is it any coincidence that Verbal states that “I’ll probably shit blood tonight” having been punched by Keaton, revealing his own penetrability (unsurprisingly anal). Agent Kujan tries to dominate him mentally and physically, but its his own status as a “cripple” and a “gimp” (which means both disabled and a sexual submissive) that give him an advantage. It’s beyond these men, and their physical anxiety, to understand that they can be controlled by talk, not physicality, that passivity can be controlling.

Fundamentally this is the fear of the feminine (passive, talking, penetrated) that has taken root in our culture since the Victorian era – it’s created a binary opposition where attitudes and qualities accrue on either side and slippage isn’t possible. It’s beyond anyone in the film to see that Verbal Kint could move across boundaries, have qualities from either groups. It’s a division especially riven into US culture from the Western in which masculinity is held superior for its silence, action and ruggedness, with women connected to the home and hearth but also the emasculating forces of civilization.

Oddly it reminds of the classical split between Rome and Greece, and the USA is often compared to Rome. The Greeks had Odysseus praised for his wiles and planning, his cunning and speech. For the Romans he became Ulysses a treacherous man, whose deceit was an un-Roman quality. It may not be un-linked that the Greeks were more interested in sex between men. We don’t know whether Alexander the Great was a top, but it’s clear in the Illiad that Achilles was a bottom.

Classical diversions aside The Usual Suspects suggests the current growing anxiety in some men about their gender – that any quality that aligns them with women/homosexuality is to be driven away. Ironically, this leads to their downfall. Turns out their masculinity is fragile, rather like a Kobayashi mug.

It has been with a depressing familiarity that Hollywood has got itself in a mess this Oscar season about the lack of racial diversity in its nominees. Not only is this the second year without any non-white nominees for the key awards, it smacks of the same attitudes present since Hattie McDaniel accepted her Oscar in a Whites Only hotel for a film that painted slavery as not that bad and a nice backdrop to the problems of wealthy white people. Meanwhile the argument about equal pay for women goes on, spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence, and the startling lack of  female directors is still to be noted (it’s worth listening to this excellent interview with Lexi Alexender on the topic) while male directors with a history of failures keep getting work.

All this came together in my mind while watching the execrable Pixels directed by journeyman Chris Columbus who has had some success (most notably with the first two, most boring, Harry Potters, Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire) and some sizable flops (the $100 million Bicentennial Man being the most offensive). That Columbus gets a budget of $88 million for this dross when directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Mary Harron have barely made any films in the past 10 years shows how much the gender problem lingers throughout the Hollywood system. God knows how much Adam Sandler got for his lazy performance, but I’ve no doubt he probably made double the money that Michelle Monaghan received. Worse still this film puts a capable actress through the indignity of playing an horrific male-fantasy of rebound MILF; the sort of woman who goes for men who basically harass her when she’s in a fragile emotional state. Watch as Sandler, playing a TV repair guy, literally says “Wow” as she enters and then proceeds to explain that he’s shocked that any man would leave her because she’s so hot! Instead of, like a real person, phoning his boss and getting him sacked, she tolerates this eventually deciding that the schlub has potential. The rest of the film is lazy as hell, and continues to demean women throughout, seeing them exclusively as the reward for male effort – including one character having a threesome arranged for him by the President because he helped save the world. In a kids movie. It’s also an incredibly white film, with non-white characters limited to support (in fact the only two significant non-whites, both male, need to be rescued by our white heroes in the film’s tepid denouement). The only engaging character in the film is Q*bert, an animated sidekick – and even he is transformed into a sexy-hot-female-warrior so one hero can live his weird cyber-sex fantasies. Did I mention it’s, y’know, for kids?

Generally considered as a flop Pixels managed to drag in $244 million globally, meaning it probably covered it’s costs. But it stands as an excellent expression of all that’s wrong with Hollywood – a story conceived around a cool idea, but one that no-one thought through; misogyny from the get go (the cast has two characters called Cyber Chick #1, and Cyber Chick #2); lack of diversity; and a horrible view of its audience.

Yes the Oscars are an affront. Yes the pay-gap is wrong. But the problem will not be solved by a few awards, or a few pay rises. Until it hits the execs who put this tripe together, who treat their audience as a bunch of idiots with the emotional intelligence of zero, nothing changes. Please stop spending your money on this stuff – seek out the work of female directors, make an effort to watch films made by, and for, diverse people. Otherwise there’s another 100 years of this.

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