Setter’s ‘Spectives: Will You Take That Violence Offscreen, Please?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613If Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex today, I’m sure he’d have the doomed king pluck out his eyes onstage amid a free-flowing stream of fake, ketchup-colored blood.

It’s the sort of thing we’re seeing in the movies of this era. Lots of onscreen violence. CGI corpuscles. And plenty of slow-motion fights, allowing us to leave no “cool” move unwatched.

I think I know why this is happening. It’s not to call attention to the evils of violence, as some may have proposed years ago following the decline of Hays Code limits on cinematic vices.

In the movie Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan noted why he thought the Scorpio killer would murder again: “He likes it.”

That’s what’s going on. Audiences enjoy onscreen violence. And they always have.

It’s not necessarily worse than having the bloodshed occur offscreen. It certainly depends on the context … and the movie. But many films these days are taking advantage of humans’ primal desires—without providing opinions other than “Doesn’t this look cool?”

I’d like to see more than that.

There has to be a reason for every action in a picture, especially when it concerns a person getting hurt. We have to ask: Why are we seeing this? In Ran, the brutality conveyed the horrors of war. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the ruthlessness of a villain and his regime. Yet in 300, what are we looking at? The glories of stylized Sparta? How awesome it is to see a bunch of macho guys slice up ancient Persians in athletic ways?

Sorry, that’s not a valid perspective.

I’m not saying we should feel bad for enjoying a violent film—if it’s good enough. And a bloody movie needn’t be pro- or anti-war to justify its gore. Yet there should be some context to warrant its depiction; it can’t just be cosmetic, as 300 is. Humans don’t just want Titus Andronicus; they want Macbeth. We need substance with our violence.

The popularity of 300 may suggest otherwise, but that movie’s appeal won’t, I believe, last as long as, say, Ran‘s. The difference is in filmmaking—plus, in part, the outlook on violence. Something I wish more pictures today had.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sympathy for the Movies’ Devils

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.

On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious,  whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.

Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.

There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.

Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.

Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.

That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.