The cripplingly small-minded art of verisimilitude becomes crippled by its own technology
Are Human Beings Real, or Do They Only Act That Way?
When we contemplate all the sinister, spirit-truncheoning effects of American commercialism, the one we most likely overlook is its subordination of all artistic impulses to a commodifiable denominator of realism – the “believable” – that can be marketed to a demos socially conditioned to accept realist aesthetics as Truth. What is realistic is what is “true,” and what rings true is only what is familiar – all the better to keep the generic generic, the strange strange, the foreign foreign, and the national nationalistic. Corporate filmmaking ensnares the masses in a ritualized, Durkheimian trance – they believe they worship the insightful reality of film, but in fact their senses are pointed inward, praising only their ability to perceive received ideas and reach a social consensus about the realities they receive.
Just as religion censors whatever challenges doctrinal teaching, “realism” becomes little more than a series of censorship guidelines disallowing unconventionality or divergence from the cinematic rituals that currently define the perception of the real. As institutionalized censorship defines real experience by what it disallows, we assume the unseeable must be more real that our own perceptions, holding secret truths known only to higher powers. In this case, the higher powers are film censors, whether philistine Senators or the timorous, arbitrary ethicists of the MPAA, valiantly guarding us from ourselves. While once only seeking to censor the biological realities of blood and anatomy, the MPAA now defines reality – the seeable – by stamping with an iron fist anything that might offend a populace whose constituents are so alienated from one another that they cannot predict what catalysts will instigate violence among themselves, or, in a sense, spell society’s own destruction. First, understand that Twister (1996) officially earned a PG-13 for “intense depiction of very bad weather.”1 The weather, the very embodiment of Nature, is what our eyes must not see! One wonders what censorial certificate the act of gobbling a lamb chop – or stepping on a twig – would garner in real life.2 Of course, defining seeable reality in terms of censorship was not the invention of Protestant capitalism: the “socialist realism” of the Stalinists was “realistic” only insofar as it reflected the simplicity and uncluttered tonality emblematic of earthy peasantry, and the Maoist melodiousness of Yin Cheng-zong’s laborious Yellow River Concerto is simply a cobbling of folk romanticisms the transparency of whose tunes defines the quality of their unabstract “reality.” As in capitalism, familiarity is equated with populism, which in turn is folded into realism – if realism must be populist, then the inverse must also be true.
It is hard to chat up a colloquial citizen about films without the discussion eventually reverting to realism. Even horror films about intergalactic oysters must be credibly performed and fertilized with characterological psychology lest they risk derision, and science fiction will mouth its technobabble to impress upon us that it is a theoretical “science” explicable in objective, if generic, language. The seasoned critic is guiltier, demanding from a pedestal of jaundiced newsprint that filmic characters must prove their connectedness with reality through “moving performances,” while we so futilely attempt to move each other in reality, unabetted by lurid dollies, stiflingly pathetic close-ups, and the major chord pathos of a factory-sealed soundtrack (the only tools American directors have for generating emotion). Such are the hypocrisies of the film critic’s puppy-dog humanism! Critics think audiences, comfortably reclining in the corruption of the cinema seat, need actors to safely mourn and rationalize for them, as if their catharses accumulated mathematically instead of diminishing upon each return. But I am exhausted by these bawling close-ups (abolish them!), sickened by small-minded craftsmanship, and repelled by a hollow professionalism reveling in its capacity to express only the known, never the abstract – only by renouncing this professionalism, the capital engine that immoderately rewards semitalented actors for mimicking our own underprivileged lives, can the grim regime of realism-for-realism’s-sake be shattered.
Attempting to be democratically understandable to all, the commerciality of realism instead punishes all expressions that cannot be instantly grasped. Still beholden to, on the one hand, the phallically driving narrative of D. W. Griffith and, on the other, the droopy laconicism of Hemingway, this is particularly American realism, deathlessly braying its profoundest thesis: “Life goes on.” Indeed, the American “indie” film is little more than Hemingwayan, monosyllabic naturalism wedded to the pouting race-class-gender identity politics of a generation naively believing the cinema is a golden-hearted whore and not her brutish pimp. Indian cinema, we know, openly acknowledges its formulaic fantasies, not only with its musical conventions but with a ritualistic embracement of genre that makes no pretense at originality, matching the shadowy illusions of celluloid with the fantasies of its subject matter – the Durkhiemian ritual, though mercilessly and unremittingly mass-psychotic, is here celebrated, exposed, and cleansed of deceit. But the materiality of our American myths – the capitalist gangster, the Manifest Destiny cowboy, etc. – demand a concomitant aesthetic of materialistic realism to envelop them. In America, fairy tales are for children: acknowledged irrationalism is for youth. Contrarily, our reification of unacknowledged irrationalism mandates the production of “adult fairy tales” to reinforce the mating and copulation fantasies of the bourgeoisie, i.e. single women should pay to view Julia Roberts seizing a wealthy husband. Thus, the naturalistic presentation of folk myth and fantasy prevalent in African films such as Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s Guimba, the Tyrant (1995) seems so refreshing to Westerners, not because they want to recolonize the postcolonial (yawn), but because they need simple, blessed relief from the Western lies that confuse reality with realism, and make in bookstores the categories “philosophy” and “religion” curious neighbors instead of bitter rivals.
To overthrow the dictatorship of realism, we must expunge the overregulated binaries that position it against fantasy, and admit that realism is itself the fantasy par excellence. As we antiessentialists discard the specificity thesis that after the days of Lumiere and Mêlées argued the cinema’s predestined or “natural” affinity with either the real or unreal, the naturalistic or the fractured, we too throw off the sympathetic yet obsolete argument of the Realists who, in a critical gesture of 1930s antifascism, championed democratic realism against the encroaching dangers of Munchausenian imagination. But as a lowest common denominator attempt to counter centuries of faith and metaphysical irrationalism, supposedly empiric, pseudo-positivistic realism has ironically emerged as the most institutionalized faith of all. Further, the mode that should represent egalitarian understanding in its content refutes it in its form: while attempting to portray a democratically understandable content, the medium itself antidemocratically punishes (i.e., frequent refusal to produce and/or distribute) antirealist modes and styles of representation – recall the well-documented production troubles of Brazil (1985) or Being John Malkovich (1999).3 Some may find the aesthetic of heightened realism more invigorating, erotic, frightening, and altogether more sensational than our realities, but this intense sensationalism is a quantitative measure expressed only through impossibly synaesthetic adjectives, and cavalier adjectival quantities, even if one champions subjective experience, do not evince the quality of truth.
Method acting, a paradoxical attempt at greater realism through greater imagination, is realism’s symptom, not its remedy. Realistic acting, in which both actor and audience are self-consciousness of the actor’s attempt to be unselfconscious, is the hallmark of television – consider the slyly deployed yet slightly overtelegraphed facial nuances, voice inflections, eyelid flickers, and temple-veinings that characterized Barry Levinson’s cop drama Homicide. When performed less skillfully, these gestures are also the hallmarks of Aryan-blonde news anchors and Presidents who recite stage-directed scripts – whether Clinton or Reagan was the superior actor depends on whether one values “natural” talent (the real) over formal training (the realistic). The most egregious culprit is the soap opera actor, whose facial telegraphs are so embarrassingly, nauseatingly, and unnaturally broad that we must conclude they are a sign of acute neurosis, perhaps a reflection of the neurotic claustrophobia from which their housewife demographic suffers. There can be no more transparent a sign of the U.S. myth of capitalism pulling itself over the eyes of a hypnotized public than the tagline for a recent greed-and-torsos soap opera: “Their story is your story.” Such a tagline could only be necessary when “their story” is so unlike our story that only purely irrational disbelief can associate the hyperbole of soap operas with the forever dwindling economic reality of the soap opera’s lower-class demographic. We must be assured that their story is ours – that they are we – because it would never have occurred to us otherwise.
The actor’s conscious attempt at unselfconsciousness stands for “realism”: the more apparently “natural” the facial twitters, the more realistic they are. Aesthetically, unselfconsciousness has often apotheosized eros – the effortless pubescent grace of the Athenian youth ignited the pederastic swoon of seemingly all Greek thought. In American popular art, however, nearly all unselfconsciousness is coded as realism: everything can be justified or criticized on the grounds of the actors’ believability alone. “For film … what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else,” says Walter Benjamin.4 Robbed of the stage actor’s living “aura,” the film actor’s body, removed from the interactivity of a live audience, “loses its corporeality… [and] is deprived of reality”5 – thus, realist aesthetics madly compensate for the mutual alienation between actor and audience. This is the double nature of performance – aware of the actor’s craft, we nevertheless desire nothing more than the actor to overcome mundane craftsmanship and become lost in his own spirit, transcending character and achieving the apex of human art, of humanity, and of himself. But ever conscious of the actor’s attempt to be real, and never really capable of a cathartic or Aristotelian loss of self, we find only the spare meaning contained in the actor’s telegraphs – the pauses and covert brackets that assist the audience in following collocations of words. After years of inculcation, we not only recognize these formal cues of realism but tacitly admit they invest the content with realism as well. In real life, the stutters in our speech are usually uncontrollable – unless we’re actively rehearsing our words – and we care more about content than the pauses that help others understand it, unless we are practiced actors. And even if we, children of behaviorism, are all actors in life, organic yet artistic media in and of ourselves, we are mostly poorly trained and in great need of improvement – we fool each other efficiently, but are unpracticed at sincerity. A play or film acted with “true realism” would be partially indecipherable and unreadable, since we do not always make conscious attempts to be heard or understood. The indecipherability of the overlapping dialogue in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is an exemplary attempt at “genuine mimesis,” arguably more so than the improvisations of Cassavetes, whose realism is a spontaneity that shares with Antonin Artaud an attempt to substitute a mode of performance for genre. Though the attempt to overcome genre is laudable, the effect of self-satisfied improvisation on the viewer is too often a bored appreciation, an acknowledgement that uneventful cum antinarrativistic chatter is noble in intent but dull in content – thus, Paul Morrissey must desperately ballast the frames of Trash (1970) with the ample diversions of Joe Dallesandro’s pendulous dong when the trivial amusements of the improvised dialogue are not weighty enough to anchor the film.
The Inability to Mimic Death Is the Inability to Live Life
For all the worship of realism – that is, of artifice – there stands one thing beyond the actor’s ability, one motion that can never convince us of its realism regardless of its sincerity: the gesture of death, which even film technology cannot perfect. Because the death gesture does not involve language, save for the Shakespearean “I am slain,” we can only cue death’s outward appearances; even if we could experience death and then be resurrected to perform it, we could not technically improve upon the surfaces of the Method. On the live stage, the death gesture had capitalized on the theater’s very inability to create realism, and thus the gesture, and the medium itself, confesses its deficiency through necessary stylization and expressionism. From hair-rending Victorian heart-clutching, to outlandishly contrived Jacobean bloodthirst, to the ritualized postures of Kabuki, stage death gestures are grandiose, archetypal, and generically standardized events whose very unrealism defines their dramatic effect. Art inhabits its playful place – removed from life – by being unable to realize dying and thus living, two words signifying the same process of decay. The difference between life and art may hinge on life’s death gesture usually being convincing and art’s always unconvincing – if your friend is crushed by a freight train and expires right before you, you are unlikely to say that his death was unconvincing, though you might silently imagine how film might have fruitlessly tried to perfect it.
In the beginning of cinema, death technology was so primitive that it was actually a retrogression from other, more well-established media. The absurdly slipshod decapitation of Alfred Clark’s Mary, Queen of Scots in 1895 could not have been more convincing than the ingenious limbs of the Parisian Grand Guignol, or the severed-onstage finger in Webster’s The White Devil centuries earlier in the Jacobean theater. Mary’s decapitation – accomplished with a blatant dummy – might have shocked for the medium’s sheer novelty, but even in its own day the effect’s execution must also have been risible, for this spliced beheading lacks the dexterous legerdemain with which it would have been rendered onstage. Mary’s guillotining, achieved with the “stop-the-camera” editing Mêlies would soon use to manufacture fantasy, and not “realistic” violence, was in fact a popular, pandering trick effect used not only in disreputable curios but twice in Griffith’s over-reputable Intolerance (1916), long before Coppola gentrified bloodshed. Despite the advances made in special effects technology, the intimate molestation of dummies would decades later become the hallmark of the modern, Fulciesque gore film, whose fanatics sentimentally revel in the queasy yet comfortable fakery of the wholly controllable, rendable doll, just as the insecure necrophiliac toys with his helpless lover.
The continued use of the replaceable, maltreatable ragdoll in scenes of violence throughout the silent era – such as the penniless child steamrollered by the heartless aristocrat’s carriage in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921) – was a tacit admission that the medium was only as realistic as the current state of its technological art. Yet this ragdoll flimsiness also haunts and disturbs; like the creakingly fabricated Flash Gordon automaton, the doll’s blatant evidence of inadequacy, farcical yet unnerving, reminds us of our own, all-too-human frailty at any given moment. Similarly, the tortured puppets of Jan Svankmajer disturb because we are forever unsure what are their thresholds of pain – thresholds pushed to grotesque limits in Svankmajer’s Punch and Judy (1966) – and we imagine our own untested, untortured limitations displaced to the puppets’ endlessly punishable dead wood. Yet the opposite extreme, a surfeit of technology, disturbs equally. The wholly computer-animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) was hailed as a watershed in something or other, but its digitized characters, hardly Frankensteinian because they never knew life to begin with, become spectral waxworks whose technology mockingly mimics not life, but only the lively facial grimaces that conventionally, or realistically, cue it. From hell, Plato smiles – shall we smile back?
We discover the litmus test of realism’s lack in the “snuff film,” a subgenre of realism predicated on the idea that if a real person’s death can be achieved on screen, then verite has achieved its ultimatum and the cinema its greatest potential. The once-impossible death gesture finally seeks uncompromised authenticity not through the teary humanism realism covets but through a sophomoric stroke of anti-humanism in extremis, where bodily violence and pain verify the limits of realism, just as they also, contrarily, humanistically test the limits of a postmodern cultural relativism trying to overcome the biological tyrannies of the body. That the first such film, Roberta Findlay’s X-rated Snuff (1976), spliced a phony verité murder scene into an unrelated Argentine crime film and promoted it as real only proved realism’s hypocritical machinations. In Snuff, the cinema’s unsteady truth is reproduced by cues of realism audiences had already been conditioned to expect: the wobbly handheld camera whose dismissal of the tripod and exaggerated bounces are absurdly equated with the realism of “natural,” motile vision, and a seamless, mise en scene presentation of blood unaided and unobscured by guileful montage. Because we laugh at the transparent suture of Mary Queen of Scots‘s beheading, we should be shocked when the death gesture is accomplished without the benefit of a montage-based system which unconsciously deludes us but of which we in our wiser moments are suspicious – the formal technology shocks, not the violence in itself. Snuff‘s notorious promotional campaign, which mobilized hired “protestors” to draw attention to the film by picketing its immorality, turned the entire film into a “realistically” staged event designed to outrage a bourgeois society unprepared to admit the logical outcome of its own doctrine of realism. Realism becomes outlawed by the realists.
At the opposite end, realism becomes prestigious in the minimalist garb of the generic film-festival art film (yes, a genre!). The traditional montage-versus mise-en-scene argument is turned on its head: it is no longer the psychological suture of cuts that constructs realism but their minimalist absence, for we now pride ourselves on our suspiciousness of technological excess, even as rampant MTV-ism fetishizes the very notion of editing’s control over time and, by extension, the psychotic cult of timeless youth upon which MTV is constructed. When “artfulness” is designated by the absence of cuts – the overcrafted, self-impressed ponderousness of a Hou Hsiao-hsien – it is as if minimalism’s negation of liveliness equals the negation of life and, through some mistaken logic of binary oppositions, the creation of art. Film, a composite medium suffering still from an inferiority complex, needed to inherit the historically exalted place of painted, static art by mimicking it under the pretext of realism. Warhol exposed this foolishness before it was even invented in Sleep (1963), whose lack of content never pretends to be a high-art substitution for content. Warhol regresses technology to a point of reproduction so primal that it blurs the line between production and reproduction, as if the reproduction of the film were just as original and authentic as the action being filmed. We can think, too, of the bridge since constructed between William Heise’s archaic silent The Kiss (1896) and Warhol’s Kiss(1963), which hardly advances technologically upon the static reproductions of Heise’s bolted camera. In Warhol, the event is not the work itself, but how the audience interacts with the work’s boredom or uneventfulness in a society so predisposed to rationalizing its own decadence in terms of “art” that meaning is no longer textual or even interpretive but is constructed among elements6 that include self-important uneventfulness as a false category of bourgeois value.7
We only need to see that Film Comment critics declared the preposterously, self-importantly static Beau Travail (1999) one of the best films of its year to see that uneventful stasis – in the guise of the Buddhistic serenity that we seek only in pretentious films, and are incapable of achieving in reality8 – has been falsely equated with artfulness, as if the stony symmetry of the film’s images were suitable for framing in that pinnacle of bourgeois values, the museum, where the sterile and sublime become indistinguishable, twinned values. This fallacy further assumes stasis – the timeless deified moment – is the highest expression of art, overlooking the vitally imagined, internal movement inherent in painting, be it the Chinese scroll that presumes the movement of the spectator’s journeying eye from end to end, or the dramatic, and thus temporal (not timeless) apocalypse of Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836). Beau Travail‘s pretense effectively negates Benjamin’s formulation of the actor: rather than a self-conscious attempt at unself-consciousness, the direction of the film’s actors self-consciously strives for self-conscious artiness, which then begs the audience to applaud its own self-consciousness of the film’s self-consciousness, as if they were effete museum patrons approving commissioned products. But I – robbed of my gaiety by these contests of tedium – refuse to applaud. In fact, my hands are doing something else entirely.
Technology’s Blood Enlivens the Gesture of Death
Some might say the death gesture took decades to mature, others would say it still has yet to mature, but I would say it can never mature, forever a prisoner caged between the naïve verite cues of snuff and the expressionism of the living stage. To my mind, the cinema’s greatest death scene is Dirk Bogarde’s chaise lounge funeral in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), and not simply because it is attractively upholstered with the borrowed longing of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. As he dies, an ecstatic deathly fever sweats the dye and makeup from Bogarde’s freshly primped brow and temples, which then trickle down his face like tragic blood turned bilious. The scene is truthful because its visual expressionism, undercutting the languorous influence of the music, reminds us of artistic illusions instead of hiding them. He bleeds the made-up falsity of the screen, the literally painted persona of the actor, and in doing so acknowledges the illusions of art, the deception of all appearances, as opposed to plastering them over with the second illusion of fake stage blood pretending to fleshly catharsis. As he fades away next to an antique camera positioned under the dying sunset, we realize the film is signifying the frame of its own photographed artifice and not “realistic” life, the first confession all works of art must make.
In early cinema, before narrativity became institutionalized, there may have been no technology for blood, but in its faltering experimentation there was an eye for the kind of murderously sporting attacks on the audience the Surrealists would advance two decades later. In James Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1900), the act of a man charging the camera filming him until he is close enough to swallow it whole is also the act of the cinema engulfing and digesting its audience. The Great Train Robbery (1903) is framed at its either end with an extradiegetic shot of a gunman pointing his pistol at the audience and squeezing off the formal affront of a harmless round whose smoke puff was tinted blood red. But by the time of the W.S. Hart western Hell’s Hinges (1916), the moustache-twirling comedy of Train Robbery had been abandoned in favor of dusky, painterly naturalism, yet manly rites of mortality were still signified by gentle puffs of gunpowder, seemingly no more threatening than a camera flash. And by the time of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and the cementing of normative narrative, the death gesture had retrogressed to undiluted Victorianism, the addition of the close-up only calling attention to its romantic bloodlessness. Most amusingly, in the classical Western, the black-hatted villain, at the instant of his death, fires off his gun one final time in lieu of bleeding – he explodes outward instead of gorily inward, as if the technology of metal and gunpowder prefigures the biological expression of blood.
In the censorious era of classical Hollywood, the death gesture needed to be devitalized, and thus made more like a religious event (the immaculate) than a living one (the sinfully real). Blood was largely a forbidden mango, and its natural appearance could (we presume) jolt audiences starving for Busby Berkeleyesque fantasies into the reality of their Depression (while the expression of sex, that which eased the Depression, simultaneously instigated the Hays Code). Therefore, gladiatorial midget-impalings and lion-maulings had to be trimmed along with lesbian coquetry in Sign of the Cross(1932) by DeMille, who knew too well and craftily that the Good Book was the best and most logical vehicle for skirting the Creationist Hays Code’s disavowal of physics and biology.9 But we conveniently forget that, long before Peckinpah, blood was occasionally allowed in the generic war film, as emphatically heroic, inspirational, and/or sentimental events, as in Wellman’s Wings (1927), Hughes’s Hell’s Angels(1930), Miller’s Flying Tigers (1942), or Garnett’s Bataan (1943). In these cases, blood was a stain applied with a brush, a goreless bullet hole through a helmet, black-and-white crimson squeezed from a hidden pouch in Wings, blood gurgling from a fighter pilot’s mouth in Tigers, a precocious blood squib in the arm in the indulgently produced Angels, or smoke ominously rising from a soldier’s bullet wounds in Bataan.10 Here, the biology of blood, leavened with romantic jingoism, became like baptismal waters cleansing life of its sinful offense, rendering otherwise immoral blood – as an expression of militarism – into an immaculate, virginal cause.
Before the standardization of transnational squib technology in the late 1960s, blood generally made its entrance in the shape of an ellipsis. For example, in the opening of Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), a cartoonishly Mexicanized Eli Wallach blasts a foolhardy peasant armed only with a machete: as he is shot, the peasant-mime clutches his white-clothed chest in the spots where immaterial bullets are supposedly penetrating him, while no blood is seen. Cut back to Wallach, who is apparently pleased with his temporary Mexicanization. Cut back to the peasant, who is now face down in the dust with two large red exit wounds manifested in his back, courtesy of sneaky montage. How did they appear? Presumably from the brush of an angelic stagehand, descended during that smokescreen cut, who, despite the irrationalism of his faith-based existence, has better offscreen knowledge of reality than the screen allows us to witness.
At the same time, however, technology, in the form of the blood squib, was to be born again like the Christian convinced of his new perception of reality.11 Audiences in the 1950s were shocked to see a ballistic trajectory terminate in the skull of a man who was onscreen and not off in Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957); years later, the asylum inmates in Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), a realistic film without blood squibs, would yell “I am one of you! I am sane!” only when wielding a machine gun – I cannot help but think the inmates are also the film’s deluded audience, conditioned to expect jingoistic gore where only antiwar pacifism is offered.
In 1968, the childish paint-spilling of John Wayne’s imperialistic Green Berets fallaciously signified the noble innocence of war, as if innocence were the unworldly ignorance into which one is born (the great lie of romanticism!) and not the true innocence that can only be gained (not regained) through wise experience.12 Yet the branch-impalement and throat-slitting of Green Berets were cordially afforded the naïveté of a G-rating (just after the MPAA rating system had been implemented) in accordance with the film’s non-subversive politics and the traditional rightist allowances for heroic military blood. Hardly a charming anachronism, this irrationalism continues today in full force: Braveheart (1995) and The Patriot (2000) would merit NC-17 ratings were their violences not in the service of the militaristic, rabble-rousing propaganda required to perpetuate the rightist industrial complex – certainly these are more violent films than even the uncensored, X-rated rough cut of Woo’s Hard Target (1993), a film whose violence was trimmed because its mildly deviant sentiments side with the underclass, the victims of industry.13 Similarly, the self-parodic, flag-waving blood squibbery of Tinu Verma’s Kashmir-set Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002) would be deemed pornographic, at least from the perspective of Indian censorship, if it did not glorify post-September 11th anti-Pakistani nationalism, particularly as the two nations try to out-cannon one another as we speak.
If rightist violence strives to romantically strip blood of its realism even as realism is its purported pretext, revolutionarily leftist tendencies in film violence have often opted for the opposite effect by exploiting real animal killings, shoving indigestibly, calculatedly raw realism down the throat of the bourgeois apparatus. We see this, obviously, in Eisenstein’s Leninist Strike (1924), where the shot of a slaughtered bull disruptively interjects the climactic slaughter of the workers; in Franju’s antifascist Blood of the Beasts (1949), where analogies between the postwar abattoir and the concentration camp are unmistakable; in Godard’s Marxist Weekend (1967), where the death knells of a slaughtered pig and chicken announce a return from sterile, unnatural capitalism; or arguably in Deodato’s allegedly anti-imperialist Cannibal Holocaust (1979), where colonialist filmmakers are consumed by the Third World noble savagery they wish to consume cinematically. Even if we accept these films’ theses, the animal killing’s artless symbolism – the “noble shock” – is more of a reminder than a revelation of the real, and takes childishly easy advantage of our alienations from reality and naturalness (presumably, an audience of professional slaughterhouse workers would not be terribly shocked by Blood of the Beasts). No, it is not the monkey’s brains of the mondo film which are cleaved and scooped for the itinerant gourmand’s delectation; rather, it is my own sanity’s hold on the distinction between the real and the realistic that is devoured by a cinema believing realism is not merely a mode of representation but an illuminated passage to Truth. There must be better ways to prove that reality exists other than recording a snuffed animal’s convincing death gesture – what exactly do we want to convince ourselves of?
Finally there is what I call centrist violence– what others might call the new liberal violence – which defends itself against fist-waving moralmongers not only through its realism but on the basis of morality: the dire effects of violence must be shown to our precious spawn, as if all brutalities were not beautified when framed and projected a hundred foot across, invested with glorious but now socially responsible squib technology. The moralistic realism of the squibs in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) became a manufactured publicity event – not too far removed from the illicit orchestrations of Snuff – assuring a self-aware, publicity-guided audience that it was about to experience real Realism, or real technology, for the first time.14 Even the most extraordinary and well-meaning examples of this centrist, objective violence stumble into embarrassing naiveté. After I attended a screening of T. F. Mous’ didactic WWII atrocity docudrama Man Behind the Sun (1988), the director, in attendance that evening,15 expressed afterwards his bewilderment and dismay when the mostly collegiate audience whooped, cheered, and applauded with delight the special-effects scenes of prisoners of war being skinned, depressurized, frozen, and so forth. But hasn’t Mous learned the lessons of McLuhan? What right do we have to be shocked by the applauding of technology, when all that matters now is technology per se and not its representative contents? Still, even with our cool alienations, we have come a long way. When drummers, trumpeters, and pipers accompanied warriors on ancient battlefields, they furnished war with a live soundtrack – and an organic one that might continually fluctuate as musicians were killed in battle – that aestheticized real violence not within a retrospective frame but during the moment of its own creation. Compared to this, what are the responsibly centrist reproductions of the media?
The Economics of Squib Technology
In his El Topo: The Book of the Film (1971), Alejandro Jodorowsky excitedly explains how using latex condoms for exploding blood squibs secretly approximates for him the burst of orgasm, though audiences unaware of the condom-based technology of squibbing may be excluded from the romance. When the blood supply for his low-budget production was exhausted, Jodorowsky hurled melons at the dwarves and cripples of El Topo‘s massacre finale, and then cut the film to show only crimson substances rebounding off their heads, creating an evidently unconvincing substitute for the squib.16 Which, then, is the greater secret orgasm – the technology of the diegesis (the physicality of bursting blood), or the formal technology of montage (splicing together melons)? And is one’s inability to afford technology itself an economic castration, or is the clever overcoming of this lack the greatest gush of all? Which is the greater titillation – the realism of technology, or the ingenuities that overcome it?
Before the standardization of violence in the mainstream feature, there had always been messy, destitute, underground attempts at exploring and explicating violence, from the gouged cat’s eye in Dwain Esper’s feverish Maniac(1934), to the fabled sheep’s tongue-yanking in Lewis’s sublime Blood Feast (1963), to the precocious make-up effects of Jose Mojica Marrins’ Tonight I Paint in Flesh Color(1966). In amateur films that could not afford convincing technologies of realism, such as Lewis’s, unconvincing death gestures – i.e., amateur acting – become equated with the butcher-shop technology undergirding them.17 Today, the conspicuousness of low-budget filmmaking’s lacking gore technology is the elliptical use of blood after non-elliptical blood was released from its taboo. For example, the montage construction of Jon McBride’s direct-to-video Cannibal Campout (1988) entails that shot A represents a screaming female head, shot B an axe swinging through the air, and shot C anonymous blood splashing across an onscreen speed limit sign; that the blood is clearly being hurled from a pail by an offscreen assistant rather than having it realistically pulse in arterial tempo is further evidence of its phallo-economic lack and, ultimately, paradoxical inability to be taken seriously as a socially rebellious, low-budget, alternative film.18 In a large budget film, where such effects are easily afforded, an intentional ellipsis of blood stands for classist subtlety and “good taste,” such that demonstrations of “taste” become inversely proportional to techno-economic capability. In essence, this perfectly defines “taste”: that which one is empowered to do but does not, as an ostentatious public demonstration of one’s class position.
A more philosophically interesting example is afforded by a technical gaffe in Abel Ferrera’s Ms. 45 (1981). When rape victim cum avenging feminist Ms. 45 shoots to death the sleazy photographer who wants to exploit her, we see squibs pop from beneath his clothes while gratuitous blood from offscreen is also squirted onto the wall behind him, as if it were coming from an exit wound. Yet the spray’s trajectory is clearly coming from the wrong angle, so we imagine a poor production assistant with a tube of blood praying his offscreen squirt simply comes somewhere into the camera’s diegetic field of view. Though the film is otherwise a textbook of successful low-budget filmmaking, the double tendency of this murder seems unable to reconcile the technology of realism with the low-budget lack of technology that cult films like Ms. 45 often demonstrate. In the context of a rape-revenge film, the double tendency becomes a gendered allegory wherein economic lack becomes the feminist’s own desire to effect the “masculine” – or even sodomitic – technology of squib realism, while the film’s insurrectionary potency is undermined by the very lack it strives to fill.
A Fool’s Semiotics of Technological Violence
Through the relaxation of film censorship in the late 1960s – which in the U.S. went hand-in-glove with the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam protests, and other liberalisms – the technology of purported realism had arrived, one which would rectify the one crucial lack in the cinema’s realism: the death gesture.19 The new liberal rationale of violence sought to transform blood from an occasional gesture of glamorous, patriotic rightism into a sensitized recognition of popular pain, as if a detonated condom would mitigate the violent unrest of newscasts whose documentarian realism slipped into comic juxtaposition every time Third World warfare was interrupted for First World toothpaste ads. (Such are the dangers of conquest – is it ironic or entirely fitting that the Teutonic climaxes of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra are now used to peddle deodorant?)
The new blood realism needed to be purchased with both realist technology and material politics, and no longer came prepackaged with the medium as faith comes prearrived at belief. Ironically, the two American films which purported to the new realism of violence, Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), used their concurrent revival of antirealistic 1920s avant-garde techniques – namely, slow motion and a rhythmic montage far lovelier than that of 1920s Russian brutalism – to unrealize their realisms.20 This also coincided with the blood realism signified by the standardization of color film21 in the U.S., after the rare black-and-white successes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967). For causes (the Vietnam War) to have effects (blood), the new evidence must be made colorfully convincing and lifelike, even in its illusions – and technology, be it that of blood squibs or nuclear missiles, is the art of wedding conviction to illusion.
In the mid and late 1960s, squibs were still rare events – George Hamilton being shot in the back in Malle’s Viva Maria (1965) or Peter Falk loosing a surprising ribbon of orangey paint from beneath his jacket in the otherwise uneventful Anzio (1968). After Peckinpah and Vietnam, the violence of the morally conservative Western was immediately polarized into, on the one hand, the vengefully rightist wish-fulfillment fantasies of Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) and Winner’s Death Wish (1974); and on the other the “new” liberal-allegorical Western, which used Native American blood-spilling for obligatory post-Mi Lai Vietnam allegories of racist imperialism,22 and the socialism of the blaxploitation film, a genre that would be soon sacked by cunning whites even as its films preached the dangers of Uncle Tom-ism. Yet what was considered blaxploitation in the 1970s was, sadly, more political than most expressly political films of today: who among us would not shed a unrecalcitrant tear when Pam Grier’s father is shotgunned by honkies in William Girdler’s Sheba Baby (1975), his spilled blood a shattering ghetto protest barely within the confines of its family-friendly PG rating? Still, there were limits: when in Coffy (1973) Grier shotguns the genitals of the black entrepreneur who exchanges her – and by extension the economic hopes of all blacks – for the milk-and-honey teet of a blonde bimbo, the camera refuses us the spectacle of his destructed crotch: for a blaxploitation audience, the punishment for political transgression is too vital, too real, to be shown.
In a context where it was being politicized so radically – as either the blood of the innocent or the righteous extraction of deviant blood – the squib could not remain a rarefied dramatic effect or occasional shock event. It, like political unrest, spread everywhere and appetitively, a constant reminder of blood responsibilities that remained unmet, a reminder that because movies were real, human beings were, by extension, now also real, and people bled in accordance with the new, race-rioting realism. Blood was the new symbol of sociopolitical visibility, the evidence that causes have effects, whether those causes be sexism, racism, economic injustice – but not, obviously, homophobia, which in the 1970s needed to polymorphously absorb all other deviant villainies when political correctness was curbing racism and misogyny. Ironically, the homophobia of the Dirty Harry series increased only when it tried to present itself as more liberal. In Magnum Force (1973), Dirty Harry‘s far more violent and well-squibbed sequel, writer John Milius redresses the criticisms of fascism aimed at its predecessor by having Harry oppose the true fascism of vigilantism, which, in predictable 1970s fashion, is conveniently equated with homosexual cops run amok. Thus Harry is able to prove his relative yet valiant centrism without jeopardizing his heterosexual sovereignty (in Death Wish, the heteronormative center is obviously the bourgeoisie itself and not its representatives, the police). Harry’s hegemonic masculinity is, however, represented more by technologies of sound dubbing than the sizes of the squibs he produces: in the airplane shootout in Magnum Force, in which Harry uses the villain’s own gun to kill the hijackers and not his signature .44, the sound of his gunfire is the deep-throated, trademark sound of his own .44 cannon, even though the appropriated gun he fires is clearly far smaller and thus incapable of such masculine statements. Therefore, the manifestation of his masculinity, and the salivating homophobia of the series proper, is displaced to the sound technician’s booth such that Harry’s onscreen heterosexuality should not waver as he faces down four gay vigilantes in Magnum Force, a homosexual hippie terrorist filmed erotically from the hip in the spuriously feministic The Enforcer (1976), and an unrepentant dyke in Sudden Impact (1984).
In Asia, blood technology developed in a timeline parallel to the West but, without a civil rights movement to politicize it, blood in Asian genre films remained expressionistic, frequently hyperbolic, and removed from Western positivism.23 The violence of the samurai film, dating from Daisuke Ito’s silents, reached its parodic yet logical end in the theatrically antirealist ocean of blood at end of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro(1962), an effect that allowed Kenji Misumi (Lone Wolf and Cub) and countless others to create a dripping convention from the kimono-hidden blood-hose which equated feudalized, Kabukized murder with the porno-comic spurt of orgasm.24 In Hong Kong and Taiwan, the unconvincing yet generous, gelatinous ketchup of the Shaw Brothers studio made swordplay even less realistic than it had been before King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1965), Chang Cheh’s One-Arm Swordsman (1967), and Ho Meng-hua’s Killer Darts (1968) introduced bodily special effects in China. The glutinous blood of 1970s Shaw productions such as Vengeance! (1970) and Duel for Gold (1971) evoked the glowing orange regality of rippling flags and imperial robes; this was a monarchical blood divine, anti-democratic, and not even purporting to Western egalitarian realism – only Gods and Heroes could bleed this thickly, this magisterially, this naively. These violences could be called realistic when compared to only the most comical or inept of their predecessors – the expressionism of these bloods, like wires and trampolines in the martial arts film, would instead signify degrees of combat and gesture rather than biological reality exposed to daylight. Unlike the American positivism that defended the new violence as political experience, these East Asian examples, as extensions of indigenous folk myth and theatricalism, were under no pressure to exchange old superstitions for the new mythology of realism.
In Hollywood, blood was brightly, optimistically red in the late 60s and early 70s, a sign of the time’s optimist politics and their dream of a unified world, only to get darker and more “realistic” in the bloodless Carter years, as the dream itself bled. After the fall of the left in the U.S., the squib became different. Action films, the generic courier of the squib,25 no longer needed to be political, eventful, or even realistic, but only as banal, mechanical, and soulless as the hegemonic politics of a Reagan-Bush America championing to a pornographic degree the embattled nuclear family. “Reality” now manifested itself in the blue-collar Americanism denoted by the neat masculinity of an adjective-noun title: Terminal Octane, Mediocre Justice 2, etc. Action films no longer needed to be rightist (Dirty Harry), leftist (Billy Jack),26 gendered (Pam Grier),27 or socioeconomic (every freewheeling bank robber movie by Roger Corman) – they might be coincidentally or in accordance with pre-established generics, but they no longer had to be. These new films – mostly direct-to-video – had nothing except inherited technologies of violence, now filtered through a lack of content, all designed to appease the average video store customer, namely the hormonally unstable adolescent boy whose competitively insecure sexuality (i.e., capitalism) and emotional underdevelopment (i.e., sadism) adequately summarize American culture.
Tired of searching for meaning, I became a bureaucratic bookkeeper, resigned to enumerating sheer quantities of squibs, as if cataloguing numbers of finches or bluebirds, always understanding that masculinity – the ability to kill and make bleed – was being quantified by profusions of technological signs. So I counted: fifteen to twenty squibs in an action film was about average; twenty to thirty was respectable; thirty to forty-five was ambitious; and more than fifty was a special event, indicating that either the director was masturbatorily enjoying his technology (as much as the viewer masturbatorily enjoys it) or trying to manfully out-squib the competition. Of course, through sheer repetition the ejaculatory eventfulness of the squib withered, though now its variations – size, shape, color – and not mere fact afforded amusement in productions entirely bereft of any other quality imaginable. The new indoor sport of squib watching was born.
At the risk of errant foolishness, I attempted a nationalized semiotics of squibbing: what will the squibs of each country’s films tell me? Japanese squibs seem like giant, excavating chunks – do Japanese bleed the volcanic holes of their own insularity? In Rajiv Rai’s Tridev (1989), each bullet hole seems to serve a thick tikka masala. In the Mexican Western, the cheap, earthy holes seem tilled not freshly by hot lead but messily with the faulty hoe of agrarian reform. And what of the pattern? Will it be the linear swath of the machinegun, or the plaid intrusions of the shotgun blast? The squib will be also accompanied by equality semiotic, overdubbed sounds. The looped sounds of spaghetti Western six-shooters inform us the Italians believe gunfire must sound like an especially high-pitched, coughing flatulence when transplanted to the primitive, uncouth American West.28 In Hollywood, a meat-slapping sound accompanies squib detonations – are Americans so bar-brawlingly crude that even when they shoot each other is sounds like a gut punch? In blade-wielding Hong Kong triad films, the bluntly dubbed din of gangland choppers hacking paths through human meat sounds like metal slashing sheets of thick plastic – humans are here simply inhuman – and often this slashing sound itself substitutes for the use of a blood effect,29 assisting the actor’s death gesture by sound and not sight. Likewise, in Japan the noise of thwacked melons will accompany the death gesture of the chambara swordsman unaided by concealed Kenji Misumi-esque blood hoses. And now you will sometimes hear the flesh-tearing sound that accompanies a bullet squib without actually seeing a squib, an a posteriori trick which could only exist after the squib’s conventionalization. Because the squib has become too generic to be realistic, it forces us to not merely redefine our illusions of realism but redefine the consensual “us” that perceives the signs of technology.
For example, Pauline Kael asserts that the squibs in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) are “glaringly fake,” yet Danny Peary claims the film’s “special effects are convincing.”30If the technology of realism is qualitatively subjective, how can realism even exist, considering it can be nothing more than a moment’s consensus? Furthermore, the use of the word “convincing” is itself ambiguous, as we are unsure if the effects would be convincing in real life (doubtful) or if “convincing” euphemistically means they are convincing within the already unconvincing parameters of special effects technology.
When on the skin and not concealed beneath clothes, the squib generally appears on the victim’s forehead, as if to demonstrate that the brain, that which perceives and judges realism, is not exempt from its signs. When squibs are placed beneath clothes, and if we are watching an action film, we may try to guess when an action scene will commence by spying for unseemly bulges beneath a shirt or a hairpiece. If the doomed supporting actor of an action film is thickset or obese, we wonder if some of the bumps beneath his clothes are the result of biology or technology, just one of the diversions superior to the actual film we invent when we become bored. The squib, now friendly as a dog bearing in its teeth the cyclical news of the day, has trained us to be Pavlovian machines salivating on command at the squib’s priestly appearance, and to feel outrage, disbelief, or even betrayal when filmmakers fail to meet our deluded expectations.
When not in the blue-collar film as a quantitative signifier disclosing degrees of masculinity, the blood squib operates in the white collar film as a qualitative signifier, appearing nearly as frequently, if less fulsomely, in the award-winning films of the bourgeoisie. What would The Godfather (1972) or Raging Bull (1980) be without their noble bloods? Would, in fact, anyone actually like The Godfather if it were not for Dick Smith’s top-drawer squibs, if it did not have violence professional enough to convince us of its fearsomeness? This fearsomeness, then, is represented by technology alone; without its blood, The Godfather would be revealed in its true guise, as a succession of tough-talking clichés, a parade of ethnographic stereotypes exacting clockwork revenge on one another for uninteresting reasons, all handsomely crafted – as if handsomeness excused a lack of content – yet impotent without decoratively spilled fluids. Likewise, Raging Bull without its bloodied Body and Soul (1947) boxing sequences would be unmasked as yet another one of Scorsese’s overdirected examinations of Italian-American misogyny and domestic abuse given the art film black-and-whitewash.31 The most recent malefactor is, of course, Gladiator (2000), whose horror-movie bloodletting is tamed by its Pentagonian budget alone – money will buy off shame, alchemize the execrable into the respectable, transubstantiate violence into technology, and even quietly bleed content into form.
Epilogue: How My Neurosis Returned Unrepressed in the Form of Videophilic Suicide
But what could I do when the squib, that minute technology into which I had filed all of my dreams and aspirations, which had delighted me in my youth in so many macabre, absurd, and even calming manifestations, was continuously slipping into banality? Squibwatching, that unnatural sport for those as alienated from nature as myself, had been doomed not by underpopulation but by excess. Sure enough, one day I finally saw the death of death, or, more accurately, the sign of the death of the sign of death: a thirty-minute psychic hotline infomercial, the main narrative of which demonstrated to the viewer that expertly trained psychics were granted special sight into the Civil War-era past. In the infomercial’s recreation of American history, we see two soldiers shot and wounded, replete with the kind of dripping slow-motion blood squibs once the princely domain of the R-rated film. I was heartbroken. Stunned. Crestfallen. What had happened to my beautiful squibs, which only yesterday used to dance through the air like feathered birds fleeting through a secret jungle? So mundane, so shock-less were squibs now that infomercials were harvesting their unrestricted appeal. Once dangerously immoral, the squib was now hocking products on TV – the squib not only bought visibility and respectability, it now sold it too, and for the gaudiest of all superstitions. Beauty had revolted – my fantasy of antirealism was destroyed.
What does one do when the fabric of one’s life unravels? I had sacrificed too many of my own hours – my blood – watching these films; it is only logical, then, that I should now sacrifice myself. I will briefly explain how I tried to do this.
On all sides am I surrounded by a shameful video collection – too many hours are stored in these tapes, too many squibs, too much life. My collection is vast and fulsome: I have little need to watch La Venganza de los Narcotraficantes, but I have it, which is half the battle, and, having it, the battle needn’t be completed. I read Walter Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library: “The collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories” – I cannot bear to look at my collection anymore, for they represent not films but the squandered hours spent watching them. Revisiting them is a horror, so I shut them away – yet since they contain my essence, my hours, stolen away as a tribesman’s soul is snatched by a Polaroid, I am in fact shutting myself away, burying remorseful hours too painfully vicarious to relive. I am an idiot.
Naturally, I wish to take up arms against society, but knowing only the mendacious, squibbed appearances of death I immediately recognize the futility. So I decide to subject myself to the squib’s trial, and see if I will pass.
When I shoot myself in the head, the sound of the explosion echoes metal and not organic tissue – my hands feel a wound in my temples, totally dry, and knocking of glass. I move over to the television, in whose blank picture tube I can see my wound’s convex reflection: it is a perfect oval, letting no blood, but exposing to light a picture tube inside my head, on which plays a film – not letterboxed, of course – in which I am committing suicide. Looking into this doubly reflected film, I am disappointed, though not ashamed, that my cinematic suicide is Wertherian, and when I finally muster the courage to squeeze the trigger, the squib on my temples doesn’t even detonate properly, only sparking bloodlessly. “It isn’t believable!” I scream at the film. But I in the film, head shaking with a defective squib, simply laugh at myself, standing on the wrong side of the convexity.
I turned my back on the cinema, the tyrant of realism – and it was laughing at me in my own voice.
- See “Reasons for Movie Ratings” at www.filmratings.com. [↩]
- To take another example of the denial of nature, Western Puritanism demands that the female breast be sexualized (and privatized) while the male breast can be desexualized (and publicized), not because the female’s is more conspicuous but because its lactational function remains ugly evidence of humanity’s Darwinian animalism. [↩]
- I do not, however, endorse Being John Malkovich – the fantasy of its narrative is too enslaved to the psychological realism the actors strive for. [↩]
- From The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [↩]
- Ibid. Benjamin is quoting Pirandello. [↩]
- A full discussion of these “elements” is the subject for a book. Suffice it to say I mean both audience receptivity and the manipulation of that receptivity by both critics and marketers (as if there were anymore a difference between them!). [↩]
- True, uneventfulness can be also effective as a satirical allegory of alienation, as in Fassbinder’s Why Has Herr R Run Amok? (1969) or Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975). Yet it is a fairly one-dimensional allegory, and the point can only be made once or twice in film before becoming gratuitous. [↩]
- Therefore, devout Buddhists do not generally make films. Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup (2000), a notable exception, is organically boring, and not self-importantly boring (for indeed a Buddhist has no self). [↩]
- Old Testament violence reaches its acme (or nadir) in preacher-auteur Ron Ormond’s If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971), a marvel of amateur fundamentalist Christian propaganda that fearlessly depicts the violence of a communist invasion of America. [↩]
- Bataan‘s most famous moment of violence – the beheading – is of course suggestively executed with editing, not onscreen technology. [↩]
- The squib in general, which may also detonate inanimate objects, should be differentiated from the blood squib, which is placed on human beings to assist them in the death gesture – squibs on inanimate objects had always been allowable because in real life we can see everyday objects break without the aid of bullets. [↩]
- This doctrinaire romanticism has prevented blood squibs from appearing on children; notable exceptions include Ralph Nelson’s The Wrath of God (1972) and Lam Man Wai’s Mountain Warriors (1992). [↩]
- I exaggerate slightly – Braveheart and Patriot are much more expensive films than Hard Target, and thus will suffer more if censored. Yet this economic censorship is consistent with the thesis of Hard Target, which itself becomes an “underclass film,” apart from the underclass status of its characters. [↩]
- Responding to the Saving Private Ryan media hype, Samuel Fuller sarcastically commented that the only way for the audience to experience the “realism” of battle would be for soldiers to barge into the cinema and massacre everyone inside. [↩]
- At a screening at Toronto’s “Fantasia Film Festival” in the summer of 1998. [↩]
- Even if audiences are unaware of squib technology, it is obvious that there is a visual difference between the exploding squibs of the film’s first half and the melon-chucking of the climax. [↩]
- In 1972, following his self-reflexive opus The Wizard of Gore (1970), the taboo on mainstream gore was disappearing, and Lewis had little left to do but admit the unrealism of his films by turning to the chocolate-milk nipples of his swan song, the comedy The Gore Gore Girls, replete with a befuddled Henny Youngman and flash-fried dummy heads. [↩]
- I cannot blame the film itself for this paradox, however – cult fans, wanting it both ways, embrace the social rebellion of the low budget but also demand good special effects. [↩]
- There are scattered examples of the squib not purporting to realism, or at least naturalism – i.e. the parodic gore of Monty Python’s mock-Peckinpah skit “Salad Days,” or the surreal bullet wounds from which birds fly free in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). [↩]
- Peckinpah’s slow-motion montage generally operates on the principle that: 1) Shot A is in slow-motion; 2) cut to shot B, also in slow-motion; 3) cut back to shot A, the motion represented therein having not progressed forward in time during the cut to shot B, but picking up exactly where it had left off before the cut began. Therefore, time operates “unrealistically” not only because the montage slows time but because it suspends it indefinitely – the suspended moment of death becomes deified through its timelessness. [↩]
- Blood in black and white films after the standardization of color is another issue. For example, consider the criticism Spielberg faced by filming Schindler’s List (1993) in the alienated black-and-white of a phony newsreel. Or consider David Shipman’s remark in The Story of Cinema that the “savagery” of Kobayashi’s Seppuku (1962) would be “unthinkable in color.” For the ultraprudish Shipman, “thinkable” and “acceptable” seem to be synonymous terms. [↩]
- I.e., Nelson’s hippie Soldier Blue (1970) and Penn’s guilt-ridden Little Big Man (1970); Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is more even-handed. [↩]
- I stress the term “genre films”; obviously, some films which were not strictly generic, such as Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains (1959), were influential in the depiction of realistic violence. [↩]
- Also consider a showing of Woo’s The Killer (1989) at New York’s Film Forum in 1991, before Woo was a household name in the U.S. With the burst of each slow-motion squib, the sold-out cult audience roared in paroxysms of sexual ecstasy. Woo, a devout Protestant, has always been coy and evasive about the sexual (i.e., aesthetic) extremes of his violence, arguably to the point of hypocrisy. See the interview with Woo in Stanley Kwan’s Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996). [↩]
- When squibs occur in non-generic films, it is only evidence of the easy possibilities of cross-generic pollination. For example, the confident squibs that punctuate the climax of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) are plagiarized from normative action-film models. [↩]
- Steven Seagal is a unique exception. Nevertheless, his popularity immediately declined when his leftism became overly pronounced (c.f. On Deadly Ground ). [↩]
- Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986) was said to have ushered in a new heroine, but, in addition to a futuristic scenario suggesting such heroines are not currently viable, she is unconventional only from the standpoint of character typology: her feminism has no economic dimension and is only concerned with her being capable of feats of strength and wartime courage equal to men. Although the maternalism she expresses is valid, it is presented as one side to a coin whose flipside one-dimensionally equates masculinity with violence. [↩]
- Yet this flatulent sound, notably, has been retained as the national sound of gunfire in Italian gangster and crime films – yet they, too, generically borrow from uncouth American models anyway, so the sound of American flatulence should stick. [↩]
- More often than not, if blood is used in a slashing-blade scene it is an “aftermath” effect achieved through editing and not seamless mise en scene. The repeated use of this technique plants the idea in the audience’s head that a mise en scene slashing blood effect must be especially difficult or costly to achieve (c.f. the expensively bloody Conan the Barbarian), even if it is not. Hong Kong films came up with an inexpensive yet transparent solution, a “squeeze bag,” concealed in the actor’s hands, from which he squeezes blood after pretending to be sliced. [↩]
- See Kael’s New Yorker review of Dawn and Peary’s entry for Dawn in Guide for the Film Fanatic. [↩]
- In general, I really do think Scorsese has long overestimated the artistic value of representations of spousal abuse. [↩]