Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre - James Kendrick
- Tony McKibbin
- 16 April 2010
James Kendrick’s short volume isn’t at all an ambitious book; and that is perhaps as much down to the nature of the commission as it is to the limitations of the writer. This is one of Wallflower publishing’s Short Cuts. The books are usually around a 150 pages on various subjects including editing, film noir and digital filmmaking; the series has now reached in the region of 50 titles. It is both a useful way for academics to get a book out there without quite having anything to say, and an equally effective opportunity for a reader to glean a lot of information from the one source.
One needn’t be cynical about this, and the books are usually very useful. Kendrick has read widely, and the two hundred or so references to books and articles are handy in mapping out the tricky terrain of film violence. Whether drawing on Rick Altman’s ideas on genre, or Stephen Prince, on what he calls “substitutional poetics”, the book raises significant points in relation to screen violence.
Altman differentiates between semantic and syntactic elements to genre, saying the former are the equivalent to, in Kendrick’s words, “primary linguistic meaning,” and are the building blocks of the generic text (common traits, attitudes, characters, shots , locations and so on), while, again in Kendrick’s words, “syntactic elements…are equivalent to secondary textual meaning.” The latter would include the film’s ideological nature; its thematic concerns. In other words, the horror film would be expected to have characters in distress, a psycho on the loose, a series of moments where the audience jumps, and plenty scenes set at night. But it wouldn’t be expected that it addresses female self-emancipation (Halloween?), critique consumerism (Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), or, in the case of sci-fi, enquire into the Malthusian problem of population growth (Z.P.G.). One might even say that it is in the syntactic, where the genre demands are less present next to the former – the genre tropes – that the filmmaker can find his freedom within generic boundaries. Though of course sometimes filmmakers can find it in a certain semantic virtuosity within the form: if a film like Romero’s was fresh because of its thematic; Wes Craven’s Scream was lauded for its self-consciousness: for the knowing way it used the semantic elements and still generated the shock moments to the viewer even though the film acknowledge the stock nature of situation and character.
Altman’s notions obviously go beyond violence in film, but they can help, if you like, minimise it. Kendrick says that though violence is central to genre, and perhaps most especially to the horror film, this doesn’t mean violence is inherent to horror. “Many scholars have argued against the need for graphic verisimilitude in representing onscreen violence in horror films, while others have argued,” Kendrick says, “that it is essential to the genre because part of the essence of cinematic horror is the transgression of visual taboos.” The question would be whether violence is a semantic or syntactic element of the genre, and here Prince’s substitutional poetics can prove very useful. When Kendrick proposes that “‘suggestive’ or ‘indirect’ horrors…are considered more highbrow, one can think of the significance here of Prince’s term, the degree to which the filmmaker forgoes the denotative directness of gore, for the connotative importance of suggestion. This wouldn’t make violence in horror a bad thing - nor in any other type of film for that matter - but we might find many violent films inadequate not because they are gory, but that they lack a substitutional poetics that can elevate the film beyond the denotative.
Kendrick, though, doesn’t utilise Prince’s term in relation to horror, but offers it much earlier in the book within the context of the history of violence in film. Kendrick explains Prince’s phrase in relation to classic Hollywood and the problem of representing violence within a censorial climate: Prince has written a book called Classical Film Violence, covering a period in cinema (1930-1968) where generally violence couldn’t be shown explicitly, so filmmakers adopted various strategies to imply the violent. Amongst them were “‘spatial displacement’ (placing violence off-screen), metonymic displacement, allowing something on screen to ‘stand-in’ for the violence), and substitutional emblematics (displacing the physical wounding of the body onto other objects.” We might note how such approaches have been offered in many key horror films, like Repulsion, The Exorcist and The Others, and also ‘arthouse’ works interested in abstracting the violence to create its vivid presence in the viewer’s imagination. In The Exorcist much of the film’s tension comes not from the aggressive moments, like Linda Blair’s character masturbating with a crucifix, but in shots from the top of the stairs, of the play of light and fog on the street. Michael Haneke in both Benny’s Video and Funny Games impressively uses off-screen space to capture the enormity of violent actions, while John Malkovich offers a masterly display of metonymic displacement in the manner in which he terrorises his wife in Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady. Prince may be talking chiefly of classic Hollywood between 1930 and 1968, but without the demands of censorship, substitutional poetics can allow for clear aesthetic choice.
Thus whether in a genre context or in arthouse film the filmmaker can choose between the denotative or connotative to create or imply menace. However, Kendrick’s work is not a philosophical tome, nor even an especially theoretical one, and Altman and Prince’s ideas are amongst the many that he touches upon. It is chiefly summarizing, and from this point of view a very useful guide for critics and theorists who want to push further into understanding the nature of screen violence. There are more important books than Kendrick’s short study out there, including the Stephen Prince edited Screening Violence, and the collection Screen Violence, with personal essays from numerous critics and writers interested rather than academic experts in the field. Yet Kendrick’s book serves a simple function that the other more important and ambitious books do not: it helps tell us where to go, as he notes that Eric Lichtenfeld marks the beginnings of the modern action film as the early seventies, while Rikke Schubart believes there “has been a substantial shift in the action film in the past twenty years from passion (elements of the film related to plot, myth, psychology and emotion) and towards acceleration (elements of spectacle, affect and exhilaration)”. Kendrick has the knack of giving us a simple overview, yet at the same time gets to the specifics of the writer he comments on so that we want to read more if we haven’t already come across their work, or to return to it if we have.
What is also nice about the book is that Kendrick doesn’t make a strong distinction between the journalistic, the informal and the academic. He is happy to quote from journalists like Philip French and Pauline Kael, directors Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino, scriptwriter Larry Gross, an independent researcher, Devin McKinney, as well as Prince, Vivian Sobchack, Altman and others that are more academically inclined and ensconced. The book might seem negligible in its length, but as Kendrick says “this book is the end result of several years of research, writing, reading, viewing and, importantly, constant dialogue with friends and colleagues”. One might have wished for more speculation and risk from Kendrick himself, but that is hardly the remit of this type of tome: its purpose is to inform us of the body-strewn field.