When was it that movie actors all started shooting guns with both hands? It happened overnight. All those years, all those Westerns and gangster films, where you only used two hands if you were using two guns. Now, if an innocent girl when confronting her assailant manages to grab a gun, why, she clutches it in both hands and holds it in outstretched arms, just like she’s seen it in the movies.
– John Boorman (1)
Quentin Tarantino’s script for Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) clearly contains a heavy dose of autobiographical fancy. Christian Slater plays Clarence – at the start, a pretty ordinary schmuck who works in a hip comics store (in Tarantino’s real-life case, a video store). Suddenly into his life walks Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a ditzy whore with a heart of gold. Clarence is instantaneously propelled into a glamorously seedy world of sex, drugs, money and Hollywood movie producers. Tarantino has freely admitted that Alabama is something of a dream doll for his alter ego Clarence – the kind of Perfect Woman that only a lonely nebbish working in a video store, overdosing on classic gangster B films, could project.
In fact, just about everything that happens in True Romance past the first five minutes is of this order: not just the amour fou bits, or the old American dream of escaping at full speed to Mexico and raising cherubic kids, but especially all the pumped-up stuff about marching into an underworld den and then fearlessly wielding a gun in the name of the honour, dignity, respect ... In such a scenario, the violence meted out by the hero is almost always cathartic and celebratory: the big clinch, occurring in slow motion with all soundtrack channels heightened, comes when a guy like Clarence can pull out the gun hidden on his person and give the villain a bullet in the head. Along the way, literally dozens of secondary characters can fall out of the frame screaming and bleeding never to be seen again or given a second thought by the hero or audience – for, as they say in these kind of movies, life is cheap.
It is easy for a skeptical viewer to watch True Romance and feel that it is a film off in the clouds – a live-action cartoon which entertains absolutely no relation, literal or symbolic, to the actualities of daily, social violence happening in any of the troubled hot-spots or urban pressure-cookers of today’s world. Who could make such a film, or even enjoy watching it, if they had not somehow already severed the reality of violence and death from the hypnotic, spectacular, hilarious depictions of it in the action movies of John Woo, Walter Hill, Guy Ritchie or John McTiernan?
Tarantino knows all this, avowing time and again publicly that he is in love only with movie violence – violence as fun, fantasy, fiction and dramatic metaphor. The apotheosis of this in his work, and its most successful expression to date, is Kill Bill (2003-4). This evident disconnection between violence in the world and violence on the screen is easy to assert, and certainly easy to seize on as a defense of one’s viewing enjoyment. But it is far harder to really understand and absorb.
Nonetheless, in a public debate where acts of movie violence are often carelessly and hysterically conflated with real crimes of violence – the usual link being some spurious cry of mass desensitisation – it can still be useful to remind ourselves of the artifice of movies, and of the many and varied ways of cinematic action, particularly since the 1960s. The ‘bullet in the head’ syndrome so beloved of Tarantino is a figure of movie lore. British film critic Raymond Durgnat, in collaboration with Judith Bloch and Scott Simmons, has argued that popular cinema’s action genres – not only crime thrillers but also swashbucklers, war films and Westerns – are, at their most physical and visceral level, transparently built on fantasy. They often pretend to offer the nitty-gritty documentation of ‘professionals at work’ – all that fiddly, beautifully rendered detail of guns being loaded, prey stalked, gadgets wired and triggered, like in John Badham’s Point of No Return (aka The Assassin, 1993) – but the ultimate gun (or sword or knife) play belongs to “the realm of impulse, a magic of the wish made deed”. (2)
Durgnat and Bloch trace the gradual evolution of this movie fantasy, with weapons such as the gun becoming more and magical in American movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. The trend peaks not in Hollywood, however, but in the radical takes on action genres performed elsewhere – in the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (whose Yojimbo, 1961, was remade by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing, 1996), and in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone that launched the career of Clint Eastwood. In these movies, it is not only the guns which attain near-supernatural powers, but the heroes too, with their “fantastic prescience”, their amazing abilities to see villains around corners and hear the slightest pin-drop in an abandoned warehouse or empty landscape.
In this period of the early ‘60s, movie violence becomes something very different to what it was in disturbing films noir like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953): it suddenly becomes excessive, inflated, parodic, tongue-in-cheek. This element of obvious artifice in the depiction of violence, with its attendant possibilities for liberatingly tasteless humour, has remained in popular cinema, particularly in the horror-comedies of early Peter Jackson (Braindead) and late Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell). Today, we routinely call such movies cartoonish for a good reason: their black humour, fuelled by the dare to any audience to take such violence seriously, is the live-action adaptation of the fantastic protocols of animated violence, from Tom and Jerry and The Roadrunner to Itchy and Scratchy in The Simpsons.
Cartoons take us to Pop Art; and fantastic prescience leads us to the ethos of cool. Again, it is national cinemas other than America which make the really significant contributions here. In France, the ‘classical purist’ Jean-Pierre Melville took the heroes of American thrillers, iconicised them, and gave them a new and fantastic poise within a painterly world of movie unreality. Alain Delon in Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) is the indisputable godfather of the charismatic Hong Kong idol Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s The Killer (1990) – not to mention Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011). In Japan, the remarkable Cinemascope crime films of Seijun Suzuki or Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower, 1964) stylised violence to the point of total, kinetic abstraction, anticipating the Japanese Tetsuo movies and anime by about two decades.
A key movie in the history of screen violence, Point Blank (1968) with Lee Marvin, was the first American assignment of a gifted young British director, John Boorman, who seemed to bring the hip culture of London with him. This was, in the mid ‘60s, an intellectual and creative milieu where the radical art historian and critic Lawrence Alloway moved freely from promoting British Pop Art to writing about gangster movies in a book called Violent America, bridging such diverse interests in exactly the way Jean-Luc Godard did in the synthetic sci-fi world of Alphaville (1965). It is not a great step from the Pop Art stylistics of Point Blank and Alphaville to the much-disparaged ‘designer violence’ of Tony Scott’s direction in True Romance – limbs and feathers floating choreographically in a shallow, telephoto-lens space.
It is hard to underestimate the role of Godard, and the Nouvelle Vague generally, in this genealogy of modern screen violence – and Uma Thurman as a reincarnated Anna Karina in Pulp Fiction (1994) verifies the fact. Godard defined cool in À bout de souffle (1960), mixed Brecht, Warhol and surrealist poetry in Alphaville, offered us a terrorist bankrobber and a wimpy cop as a modern-day Carmen and Joseph in Prénom Carmen (1983). Godard’s own politics urged him to play down violent spectacle, to severely de-dramatise it (in Alphaville, a fight scene is reduced to frozen tableaux of guns in hands, heads next to tyres, etc) and, in the name of both fun and instruction, to play up artifice: “it’s not blood, it’s red”, we hear off-screen in Made in USA (1966), as paint is messily splashed on would-be corpses. Furthermore, in coining the famous aphorism “all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”, Godard added a certain play-acting, ironic, second degree dimension to Hollywood’s violent scenarios, by turns shambling and anarchistic in tone, which has influenced subsequent filmmakers from Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Little Chaos, 1966), Wim Wenders (Hammett, 1983), Wayne Wang (Life is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper is Expensive, 1990) and Aki Kaurismaki (I Hired a Contract Killer, 1990) to Tarantino and his confrères (Roger Avary, Eli Roth, Robert Rodriguez).
Yet, at the same time that Godard was making a joke of screen violence, he was also trying to produce powerful, uncomfortable, highly disorienting emotional and intellectual effects with it, from Karina’s street death in Vivre sa vie (1962) to the inexplicable, grinning skulls of Made in USA, via all of the automobile collisions and road deaths that litter this auteur’s career. Weekend (1968), with its elliptical and abrasive visions of car mania and cannibalism at world’s end, speaks to a new vision of cinema violence, a new mission for the spectacle of screen death. It indicates the double-barreled cultural action going on, the world over, by the end of the 1960s. Parody and cool remain but filmmakers, driven to reflect on a torn and convulsing society, seek to up the ante on screen violence, to introduce a new and shocking component of confrontation, horror and visceral effect.
It is hard today to really evoke the shock that the bloody ending of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde must have generated in 1967. Many films followed in its wake, especially those of Sam Peckinpah such as The Wild Bunch (1969). The emotional impact of these films was very different to the more dispassionate, social-realist chill imparted by Hollywood art movies like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967). Bonnie and Clyde tapped a crucial, largely inarticulate ambivalence in audiences and critics alike; viewers were appalled, but also moved to paeans about a new “lyricism of death”, as mythic gangsters’ bodies rose, fell and spurted buckets of blood in graceful slow motion. Symptomatically James Toback, a literature professor at the time who was later allowed to unleash his own rough fantasies in films from Fingers (1978) to Black and White (2000) via Bugsy (1991), defended this wave of cinema fiercely in the context of a sociological symposium on Violence, Causes and Solutions. (3) Grabbing the Nouvelle Vague motto of “style as morality”, he celebrated the screen’s grubby, Norman Mailer-like displays of violent, unresolved emotions; his key examples were Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank.
So, after the history lesson, what might people be actually saying when they describe any random contemporary film as violent? The word covers a diverse range of complex cinematic conventions, not to mention variable emotional effects engendered between screen and spectator. It can mean a film that shows violent acts graphically and in a prolonged way, as when martial arts star Cynthia Rothrock castrates her enemies in action B movies like Angel of Fury (1992). It can mean a film that generates a violent effect through sophisticated means of audience manipulation, as thrillers have done from the era of Hitchcock to that of De Palma, Hill and Woo, where one is more likely to see and hear panes of glass smashing than any actual simulation of human injury. It can mean films that, purely on a psychological plane of the drama, delve into dark, disturbing, supposedly evil areas of human behaviour in a deliberately understated way, such as all the movies in the In Cold Blood psycho-thrill-killer tradition from Badlands (1973), The Boys Next Door (1985), River’s Edge (1986) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), to Karla (2006), Ted Bundy (2002) and many films by Chuck Parello or Ulli Lommel. (4)
And for every new bunch of painfully hip movies that try to make a sophisticated joke of violence, there are still carefully constructed, highly classical dramas in the mode of The Big Heat that give a unmistakably moral, firmly unsensational loading to its moments of death. Even Woo made one, a Vietnam epic called Bullet in the Head (1991).
Tarantino, who is certainly aware of the many threads in the genealogy I have sketched, plays his own canny games with violent representation. Like Godard or Fassbinder, he approaches Hollywood action genres from an unusual, backdoor angle, practicing the kind of ‘termite art’ once proposed by the painter-critic Manny Farber. One can only misapprehend Tarantino’s debut directorial success Reservoir Dogs (1992) by taking it as an exercise in designer violence and/or gratuitous gore. Like all his work, it is scarcely a thriller: in its deliberately ragged, minimalist manner, it spends more time on what guys talk about in cars than on the mechanics of the plot. And much of the film’s violence is not even on screen – in the famous torture scene, the camera actually averts its gaze prudishly at the crucial point of dismemberment. What Reservoir Dogs does display, in spades, is a pleasurably sadistic grip on a willingly masochistic viewer: the unbearable moments of prolonged expectancy before a violent act, the brittle banter and catchy ‘70s tunes aggravating the tension, are what really create the cinematic clinch. Tarantino is still, today, refining the art of this cinematic sadism in the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds (2009).
One of the most intriguing dimensions of Tarantino’s work is the way it intuitively fixates on two topics: violent fantasy (especially revenge fantasy) on the one hand, and a frenzied celebration of carnivorous pop culture consumption on the other. Tarantino has sized up both himself and his cult audience all too accurately here. He has sensed, quite rightly, that those spectators most anxious to get off on airy, bullet-in-the-head stories are also those most in pursuit of a lifestyle where issues of mass cultural taste – what you know, what you’ve seen and heard, what you like and dislike – are of paramount significance, regardless of whether one is being ironically flippant or deadly serious at the time. (A scene cut from the theatrical release of Pulp Fiction – but restored for some TV screenings – shows Thurman ambushing Travolta and staging a mock video interview in which she probes him on the burning difference between "Elvis people" and "Beatles people".)
Even though the combination of these two topics – violence and pop – feels absolutely right and natural in the movies of Tarantino (or, for that matter, in the TV cartoon series Ren and Stimpy), the reason why they should go together in any context is far from obvious. True Romance links up with two films made exactly a decade earlier – Jim McBride’s remake of Breathless (1983) with Richard Gere and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) – which propose a particular equation about violence and pop. In a sense, that abiding disconnection between screen violence and real violence that we see in so much contemporary audiovisual culture is the very subject of these three films.
When Gere loses himself in Jerry Lee Lewis and Silver Surfer comics, or Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) fixates on talk show comedian Jerry Langford, or Clarence gets his design for living from Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II (1987) and a handy Elvis phantasm, we see a pop culture that offers a full-blown imaginary world, an “image repertoire” (Roland Barthes’ term) of character identifications and fantasy scenarios. More pointedly, the relation of the fan to this imaginary realm is depicted in these films as potentially – maybe fundamentally – psychotic, happening in a scary virtual reality without boundaries or checks. In their very different ways, Atom Egoyan, Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke have all addressed this theme in their works of the past fifteen years. Indeed, one the great movies of the 1970s which Tarantino counts among his three all-time favourites, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), anticipated the psychotic equation of violence and pop, and this ungrounded, hyperreal, hypersaturated space of daily experience.
Of course, not all fun-loving aficionados of violent pop cinema are Rupert Pupkin; the important insight that these films offer is more melodramatic than realistic. Yet we do live in a time, very different to that in which Durgnat wrote his critique, in which it is not so easy to dismiss movie depictions of violence as simply magical fantasies of “the wish made deed”. In the age of gun culture, when members of the urban dispossessed take their cues for action from the overheated reveries of gangsta rap, perhaps the old hysteria about desensitisation and mass brutality has finally come home to roost.
When it comes to thinking through social upheavals of race and class around the world – from the Rodney King beating in the US to the Cronulla riots in Australia – Quentin Tarantino still, at least to the point of Death Proof (2007), had his head in a comfortably dirty fantasy: fetishising the merry blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s like Shaft, with their mixed-race casts, their disco kitsch, and their free and easy verbal profanity. Yet, even in his work, there is a clear impulse to get beyond the veils and codes of mere movie violence. Scenes like the brutal interrogation of Dennis Hopper by Christopher Walken in True Romance, or the sudden shooting in the stomach of Tim Roth by an anonymous woman in Reservoir Dogs remind us of those clinches of violent cinema more chilling than riotous, like the moment when Mark Rydell gives his lover “a coke bottle for a nose” in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). By the end of the ‘90s, glossy imitations of Tarantino’s violent set-pieces, in films such as Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998), had turned a scene like the syringe-to-the-heart in Pulp Fiction into familiar black comedy, no longer terribly provocative. And so Tarantino has leapt, in Inglourious Basterds, to a new level of spectacular effect: allegorically turning cinema itself, in the climactic conflagration-slaughter, into a weapon of war and righteous revenge.
Amid all the play-acting that has filled his films and those of his contemporaries, Tarantino occasionally aims for moments of truth – true romance or true violence – that could somehow put all that droll quoting, dreaming and posturing into some kind of perspective. For without such precious moments of truth, everything becomes just another bullet in the head.
1. John Boorman, “Bright Dreams, Hard Knocks: A Journal for 1991”, in Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds.), Projections: A Forum for Film Makers (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 85. back
2. See Raymond Durgnat and Judith Bloch, "Attention: Men at Work," Film Comment, vol. 15, no. 6 (November-December 1979), pp. 18-26; and Durgnat and Scott Simmons, “Six Creeds That Won the West”, Film Comment, vol. (September-October 1980), pp. 69-84. back
3. James Toback, “Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank: Style as Morality”, in Renatus Hartogs & Eric Artzt (eds.), Violence: Causes and Solutions (New York: Dell, 1970). back
© Adrian Martin July 1994 / February 2010