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Wednesday, August 5, 2009


"The scenes I have in mind are ones of violence, specifically ones of preposterous violence. By 'preposterous' I mean so exaggerated that most of the audience know full well that what they are watching is make-believe."-- James B. Twitchell, PREPOSTEROUS VIOLENCE (1989), p. 3.

Roughly twenty years have passed, and to my knowledge no one's forged a better overarching analysis of the element of violence in pop culture than Twitchell. I don't advocate his thesis as a whole, which focuses on pop culture as pedagogical training somewhat after the fashion of Bruno Bettelheim, but the book puts forth a number of telling insights, one of which is his above-cited concept of "preposterous violence." I won't be using his term here, in part to distance my theories from Twitchell's, and in part because one of the problems with his theory as expressed in PV is that he doesn't formulate a term for the opposite of his "exaggerated" form of violence.

I said in an earlier essay that I would address the differing "intensities" of violence in fiction, by which I meant what I called "clean violence" vs. "dirty violence." These are NOT meant to be covalent with my versions of Twitchell's preposterous violence and its unnamed opposite. I refer to the "intensities" of clean and dirty because they are determined purely by how intensely the work does or does not present scenes of violence. As I see it preposterious violence and its opposite are not determined by intensity of effect but by narrative function.

In that earlier essay I used STAR WARS as an example of "clean" violence while ALIEN served for "dirty violence." Clearly the distinction doesn't arise from any quantification of violent acts, since there are many, many more scenes of violence in SW than in ALIEN, and many of those scenes culminate in someone's death. ALIEN's violence involves only the title critter and a half dozen humans vying with one another.

But ALIEN, though less violent in terms of numbers, is "dirtier" than STAR WARS because of the former's determination to show the visceral side of violence in all its oozing, bleeding, gushing and chest-bursting glory. The violent acts in STAR WARS are "clean" because the film declines to show Storm Troopers with their chest cavities blown open, or with their blood gushing out onto the hangar deck, and so on. Indeed, scuttlebutt asserts that the only reason Lucas had Obi-wan cut off some alien felon's arm in the Cantina Scene was to avoid having the film given the kiss-of-death "G" rating.

Now, in my view both SW and ALIEN, despite the intensity or lack of same with which they depict violence, are alike in the way both use violence as a narrative tool. I don't know if James Twitchell would find that both of them qualify as "preposterous violence" (neither gets much attention in PV), but I consider that both qualify as "spectactular violence," which I re-define as "that violence whose depiction is more the point of the story than the ostensible plot." Spectacular violence is the violence of the spectacle: it's meant to be looked at.

In contrast to this, I offer the term "functional violence." Twitchell doesn't put a name to this category of violence in PV but he clearly describes its distinction from its more exaggerated relation on page 188:

"The three film-genres which the Museum of Modern Art chose as being the most violence-prone [in 1969] were the Western, the detective, and the juvenile-gone-delinquent... But if you really examine the films chosen to typify violence in America in the early postwar decades, your immediate reaction is that they seem tame by modern standards... Violence is almost always a means to an end..."

Twitchell goes on to compare a list of these tame postwar films, including classics like LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE BIG HEAT, against both the films that rose in the late 60s and early 70s (WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS) and in later periods (NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST, DAWN OF THE DEAD). [Side-note: he mistakenly implies that 1963's BLOOD FEAST belongs in this third list.) Twitchell stresses the greater "intensity of violence" in the later films.

Yet some viewers might find the scalding of Gloria Grahame's face in THE BIG HEAT as viscerally horrifying as anything in STRAW DOGS. Because of this sort of viewer ambivalence I choose to determine the "intensity" of the violence in a work purely on the "clean/dirty" dichotomy. Does blood flow, do arms get broken, are heads blown off? If not, they're "clean;" if so, they're "dirty," using "dirty" in the sense that Mary Douglas defined dirt as "matter in the wrong place."

For me the defining distinction is that films like THE BIG HEAT generally use their violence, no matter how visceral, in a "functional" way: as "a means to an end." In such a work a given violent act may be spectacular but it does not detract from the plot.

More in Part 2.

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