In a previous essay, I had made an effort to personally point out how depictions of mindless violence and glorifying anti-social elements in popular culture were factors that needed to change and undergo an evaluation, going beyond the ‘cash grab’ mentality of financiers backing such projects. These times of pandemic have pushed back production but important conversations need to be sustained. I personally write this from the prism of my own thoughts and I am sure it will be shared by others.
In this second part, I look at examples of how violence becomes part of the narrative in various forms and types, leading us to understand its predominance in terms of imagery. The expression ‘violence of the mind’ is embedded in our cultural lexicon and inummerable social evils on the part of the perpetrator and the victim suggests multiple ways in which it is more pronounced than peacekeeping efforts. Blame it on the petty nature of human actions and rivalries. Or on human nature per se. Hence depictions of the same find their way in cinematic form, through the penetrating eyes of the camera. Showing truth is one thing. But holding its gaze on unsavoury aspects of human nature for far too long and without layering it with a counterpoint, leonizing warlords and criminals just to catch undue attention is a charge the industry needs to rectify in coming years. We, as viewers, additionally need to readjust our own prisms where we openly denounce violent acts in public and yet consume the same gratituous brand of storytelling on our screens.
In fact, this essay stems from the recent release of RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE which traces the trajectory of a comic book writer( the iconic Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy fame) who receives critique and self- evaluative pointers vis a vis his own predilection for portraying graphic scenes of violence in his body of work. While it references horror tropes, it also kind of deals with a male-centric culture that perpetuates it and even reveres it as far as the ‘fans’ are concerned. Now as I read about it and watched its trailer, which in a way is designed keeping in mind the ridiculousness of its thematic matter via horror/ slasher genre aesthetically, I thought it fit completely with what I was addressing in my own words.
Talking about graphic novels and comic books, it’s clear to see how the idea of violence holds centrestage in almost all of them. Darkness wrought by a subliminal attraction to anarchy and anti- heroes is dissected in them. Violent imagery gets pronounced to much propulsive effect in video games that peddle aggressive tempers, toxic machismo, misogyny and sexism to disturbing results, owing to the hyperrealistic form of the subjects. Their popularity spawns a greater urgency for the same bathos to find consumers by the handful. I mean to keep it impersonal here but I have grown up around acquaintances who always indulged in the vicarious worlds of such games and there was a direct correlation between their inherent teenage aggressions and what they found represented on screen, which they chose for themselves as perhaps an extension of their own personalities. It was pretty casually overlooked as a pastime by guardians. Better sense has prevailed today and greater psychological probings have shown how this idealized toxic masculinity takes root through acquired behaviours based on the environments around us and video game companies have commercially captured that sense of things for their own footprint. The thrill at its projection especially by young, impressionable males makes for a disturbing sight indeed.
Cue the fear around cinema halls at the time of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ release in 2012 in which the apprehension of some twisted minds appropriating the antics of its central antagonist BANE was so possible and real. It had its roots in an instance of a shooting in a cinema hall playing the movie in the American state of Colorado, as far as I remember. This is not to say that the film decreed such behaviour by its imagery because it didn’t as its narrative was anti-crime and on marshalling forces of resistance against the pestilence of evil within society. Hence the collective pleas for gun control. Violence has been ingrained in the minds of individuals who pose such a threat and their actions directly reference the events portrayed on screen. This is the uncomfortable corollary that we can’t escape. Multiple counts of shootings attest to that volley of facts.
Joker/ Arthur Fleck’s trajectory in JOKER (2019) comes to the same point where using a gun punctuates the disturbing cumulation of his adult life. Now this film, in particular, is redolent of 1970s when the idea of violence and masculinity found complex vessels in filmmaking exemplars given that the Vietnam War era’s residue was at the cultural forefront. In India, sociological churning within a disillusioned post- independent context birthed The Angry Young Man trope perfected by superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Class, religion, capitalism and personal entanglements all took their swipes along with depictions of violent tempers. JOKER is revelatory as it finds systemic apathy towards the underclass to which Arthur belongs to mix seamlessly with capitalist machinery and a lobby that fails to understand the complexities of mental health. His own mother’s mental history and complicity in his childhood abuse( whether just physical or sexual is never explained) at the hands of another man builds up layers upon layers of a rootlessness that ultimately leads to his implosion at a television telecast, very much like the explosive center of the news-making excesses in NETWORK (1976) where the host’s on-air death haunts cinematic annals of recreated history. Arthur is given a gun by a manipulative man and multiple betrayals and rejections lead him to finally use it in just the way a destructive society has moulded him to be. This is one example where the history of a future menace to society is traced but with compassion towards his mental unraveling and deeper understanding, we trace the origins of an embattled man being led to his monstrous volte face by a society which is as savage and brutal as he eventually becomes.
That definitely doesn’t condone him for his violent means at the end of the day. It’s just that the writing is not depicting gratituous violence for the heck of it but is diving deep into the collective whole impacting the individual self. He just doesn’t stand a chance to be anything else and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance peels away those layers with exactitude where we feel for him, pity him and are horrified by what he becomes by the end. It is like a mini cautionary tale that indicts instruments of society who glorify violence and blatantly celebrate it to further twisted agendas.
That is why Ultraviolence- a portmanteau first used in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the novel- is such a potent provocation to genteel, hypocritical society that always denies any untoward tendencies when in reality they brew in our very own backyards. In the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s 70 plus years and constant reminders of World Wars and other pogroms, we know how violence has always been a constant, building empires and dominating civilizations for millennia. It doesn’t change the narrative in 2020 either.
Be it blood-shedding in 80s slasher genre or B movies incorporating horror elements, that strain is ever prominent, buzzing like a fly in our ears.
Violence breeds racism, lynchings being a product of our sub- human resources while hunting for sport is of the same makeup. A recently released film ‘ The 24th’ deals with the historical perspective on racism and violence with great agency. DJANGO UNCHAINED, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, 12 YEARS A SLAVE attest to that distressful history.
There is another aspect of violence that war films address, portraying the fury and the epiphany of its absolute senselessness in view of millions perishing and works as PLATOON, THE THIN RED LINE, THE DEER HUNTER, FORREST GUMP and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN put that clearly in perspective. Or take the melancholic, internal look at it in DUNKIRK.
Vigilante narratives hungering for justice too find righteous anger and treading beyond lines of convention when violence against the victims lends them steely resolves as they’re wronged by the system. In THE BRAVE ONE, a woman and her non- Caucasian partner are violently attacked and the policing apparatus turns a blind eye to their concerns beyond an initial probe even as it involves common thugs and no string pulling players, making them statistical figures in a cityscape already inundated with crime. Jodie Foster’s internalization and verbal articulation as a narrator of her radio show captures that grippingly. The underlying idea is to see that violence of the mind is born first as shown in 70s classics like TAXI DRIVER and STRAW DOGS and is always motivated by the larger workings and systemic corruption. Depicting that uncomfortable transition is one thing, making mindless violence committed by felons the norm or vainglorious in any way is criminally sacrosanct in popular culture. Giving it a male-centric excuse is deplorable.
In the end, we need to know where we stand on the issue at large.