Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, May 11, 2012


For me the baseline in my "spectacular violence" concept is whether or not the violent actions in a given work go beyond their bare functionality in the plot
The counterpart to "spectacular violence" was "functional violence," in which the kinesis of the violent actions in a given story never went beyond that "bare functionality."

Bare functionality has generally been the approach of fiction to violent spectacle since literary studies became dominated by the model of naturalistic prose fiction, whose paradigm has proven no less influential on later-blooming media such as cinema and comic books.  Even when Hemingway places the matador Romero in deadly peril in THE SUN ALSO RISES, or Faulkner sacrifices Joe Christmas in a parody of the Christian crucifixion in LIGHT IN AUGUST, the violence is there to illustrate the theme, not to assume its own importance in the story.

A lot of popular fiction, to be sure, follows this generally Aristotelian model as well.  In MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE, I contrasted three cinematic treatments of the pop-fiction detective Sherlock Holmes.  In the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, which I label a "drama" rather than an "adventure," what violence there is would have to be termed "functional," but it is of such a minor degree that I would label the violence "subcombative" in comparison with a drama of a combative type.  Some of the other Holmes dramatic narratives, such as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, would probably qualify as combative dramas

The other two Holmes films cited in MIGHT both have the invigorating tone of the adventure-mythos, but as I noted of the earlier film, 1939's ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES:

ADVENTURES presents a Holmes who fights and shoots like a pulp hero.To be sure, this Holmes is still much more restrained than the modern Robert Downey Jr. incarnation.
I should qualify that my comparison of Holmes to a "pulp hero" is made in comparison to the staid 1922 film I mentioned.  Though ADVENTURES does emphasize its violent elements in terms of a strong combat, it should be noted that the degree of violence never goes beyond its function in the plot.  In contrast, the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES does emphasize violent combat in scenarios that add little or nothing to the plot as such, and so qualify as "spectacular violence."

One such scene is Sherlock's boxing scene, which does nothing for the plot but does establish the typically cerebral hero as a serious badass:

There may be a few plot-threads connected to the later scene in which Holmes and Watson contend with a gigantic villain's-henchman, but it still seems essentially for the purpose of delighting the audience with spectacle.

I pursue this line of thought at length because I don't want my theory to imply a one-on-one correspondence between the combative mode and the spectacular treatment of violence.  The combative mode clearly can embrace both the functional level of 1939's ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and the spectacular level of 2009's SHERLOCK HOLMES.

However, having said that, I would say that in the modern mind, most people associate spectacular violence of any kind with the "genre" popularly called "action-adventure."  In Yvonne Tasker's introduction to her academic collection ACTION AND ADVENTURE CINEMA, she cites one Larry Gross as having coined the term "the Big Loud Action Movie," which essentially applies to anything with lots of things blowing up or people beating up other people (or monsters beating up monsters, superheroes/supervillains, etc.)  But as my insistence on applying the Fryean mythoi ought to make clear, I don't think violence alone, or even violent combat, qualifies a given work to be deemed "adventure." 

Indeed, in the first paragraph of Tasker's intro, she immediately associates two combative films which in my opinion belong to entirely different mythoi-- 1994's LAST ACTION HERO (a combative adventure), and 1998's GODZILLA (a combative drama). 

Why is it important to make such fine distinctions about modes of combative/subcombative narrative, or about levels of violence in those narratives.  The answer for me is contained in the Northrop Frye quote in the first part of FX:

One reason why we tend to think of literary symbolism solely in terms of meaning is that we have ordinarily no word for the moving body of imagery in a work of literature.
This tossed-off observation is one of many in which Frye expresses reservations about Aristotle's conservatism, his belief that the sole function of the poetic work is to illustrate a "meaning," a discursively rationalized theme.  Elsewhere in the ANATOMY Frye contrasts Aristotle's focus upon "catharsis" and Longinus' emphasis upon "ecstasis," which relates more to Frye's "moving body of imagery in a work of literature" rather than a discursive theme.  I might draw further comparisons toward some of the other dichotomies I've cited here, be it Langer's "discursive/presentational" or Gaster's "plerosis/kenosis."  But those are matters for other essays.  It's enough to state here that the mode of the combative is a necessary one for understanding how narrative violence is organized in different mythoi, and that it is not defined to either spectacular or functional levels of violence, though it's understandable as to why some critics tend to associate "adventure" and "spectacle" as intimately as they do.

No comments: