Part I. A Time to Kill [Bill]
My current issue of Entertainment Weekly [28 Sep. 2007] announces that "Violence is in the air as Hollywood comes out blazing with a season of brutal and bloody movies." To whit:
In Sweeny Todd, a murderous barber's victims are baked into pies. Go see Rendition, and you'll be treated to the story of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who gets intercepted in a D.C. airport, taken to a secret detention facility, and tortured. And then there's Agent 47, the genetically enhanced assasin-for-hire and star of Hitman, who's always down for blowing out some brains. . . . "These are dark, disturbing times," says director Neil Jordan, whose vigilante drama The Brave One debuted at $13.5 million last weekend. "Movies have to reflect the times we live in. [The Brave One] is about violence, pure and simple. It struck me as the appropriate theme at the moment."And what is "the moment," exactly? Apparently, according to the gurus at EW, these movies [which also include the recently released Eastern Promises, which includes a delightful "naked fight" scene with a buff and bruised Viggio Mortensen--yay! say some, but not me--3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Kingdom, and No Country for Old Men, among others] are some kind of artistic reaction to our collective frustration with the war in Iraq. According to Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, "It has to be tied to Iraq. These are furious times. People feel impotent. People are resigned to the system not working, and that manifests itself in these violent fantasies." Another screenwriter, John Logan, explains, "Audiences have always been drawn to the catharsis of violence."
I want to set aside for a moment the fact that the current season of new releases is somehow more drenched in blood than previous seasons or has reached some kind of critical mass of killing and drilling [um, let's see: Sin City, every other Resident Evil film, The Hostel, The Saw trilogy, FOX's 24, HBO's Rome and The Sopranos and Deadwood, F/X's The Shield and Nip/Tuck, insert your Quentin Tarantino or John Woo or David Cronenberg or Robert Rodriguez or Brian de Palma film here, Fight Club, Gladiator, 300, The History of Violence, Grindhouse, Casino Royale, Pan's Labyrinth, the Mission Impossible trilogy, the Bourne trilogy, etc. etc.], and turn to the question of what kind or type of violence might be important here, and how that contributes [or doesn't] to catharsis, and whether we even know what we mean anymore when we talk about catharsis [or even, tragedy]. I mean, seriously, is The Brave One or Rendition really going to help me achieve catharsis for our collective sins in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? Wouldn't that be like saying these films would help me accomplish a kind of metaphorical revenge, and against who or what, exactly? I'm already drenched in fear and anxiety and despair over what's happening in the cells at Guantanamo Bay: how does Jodie Foster holstering up as a vigilante killer on the streets of New York City help me?
Since I am currently teaching, in my British Literature survey course a trilogy of Shakespeare plays--Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and King Lear--that I specifically chose to teach as a trilogy because of their emphasis on both the spectacle and trauma of violence [especially in relation to issues of the polis and politics], I think it is worth considering with my students what Aristotle might have thought about catharsis in relation to what Entertainment Weekly, and by extension, we, think about it now. I want to start with the provocative statement that catharsis, through the staged spectacle of "beautiful" and "tragic" violence, may no longer be possible [partly because we don't "get" beauty in the same terms that Aristotle did when he was talking about tragedy, and furthermore, we don't "get" tragedy, either, or rather, we prefer violence shorn of any tragic dimension that might "touch" us]. Tarantino's Kill Bill double-feature is, by any account, a gorgeous and extremely violent and lushly designed and shot film which made me feel when I watched it . . . . absolutely nothing. It washed over me like a stunning shower of cherry blossoms tinged with blood and hacked, flying limbs whirling all around me in a gorgeous steely tableau of crisp snow-flecked . . . nothingness.
What does it mean to say a film's violence is beautiful, yet unmoving, and why might that matter? In the current climate, where we can watch, one right after the other, a streaming online video of a real beheading, devoid of a narrative frame, in Iraq or Pakistan, a film like The Hostel where people pay money to watch abducted women being tortured in private rooms, and the fictitious Jack Bauer [played by Kiefer Sutherland] on 24 power-drill a terrorist suspect in the groin, is it still possible to be moved, through fear and pity, by the beautiful spectacle of violence, and to what end? The key for me, is to refocus on the function of beauty [often overlooked when many of us are teaching tragedy, I think, in favor of concentrating on the related functions of fear and pity], especially as Aristotle relates that term, not just to catharis, but to wonder [rhaumaston].
Part II. Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange
One of the most beautiful scenes in film, that is also violent and tragic, is Julie Taymor's staging of the final banquet scene in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus [a "revenge tragedy," which puts it in the same class as Tarantino's Kill Bill; at least, that's what I tell my students]. The original play cannot be called great art--it is an early effort on Shakespeare's part and may have even had a co-author. On the page, it isn't very powerful and is also overly contrived, but in Taymor's hands, and largely due to the superb acting of Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, and Alan Cummings in the chief roles, it is elevated [I believe] to high [and moving] art. From the serving to the empress Tamora of her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, who have had their throats cut by Titus and baked into two meat pies, to Titus breaking the neck of his own daughter, the ravished and mutilated Lavinia, in front of his dinner guests, saying, "die, Lavinia, die, and thy shame with thee," and then, after telling Tamora what she has just eaten, stabbing her in the neck with her own cutlery, after which the emperor Saturnine leaps across the long table and plunges the sharp ends of a candelabra into Titus's chest, after which Titus's son Lucius slides Saturnine backwards along the table to his chair and then plunges a long spoon down his throat, spits on him, and shoots him in the head, we witness a gorgeous and highly stylized sequence of the eruption of violence and despair. Taymor chooses to freeze the frame--a la the style of the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix--just at the moment Lucius' spittle is flying, in slow motion, toward Saturnine's face, after which semi-still moment, the camera pulls sharply back to reveal Titus's villa dining room transported to the center of the ruins of the Roman coliseum, in the seats of which sit modern spectators [in other words, you and me]. My students love this scene, and some even cheer at the moments when Tamora is stabbed and Saturnine is spit upon, but they are also in completely quiet and dumbfounded shock when Titus breaks the neck of his daughter, Lavinia, while embracing and kissing her.
No matter how many times I myself have watched this scene, I never cease to marvel at it, and also be moved. [And, as Taymor, stages Lavinia's murder, everyone at the dinner table is also struck with wonder.] Indeed, I would argue, that my students and I are struck with wonder at this scene, a wonder which, in the words of Joe Sachs [who teaches Aristotle's Poetics at St. John's College in Annapolis, and who is also a translator of Aristotle's works], places us "in the power of another for awhile" and "the sight of an illusion works real and durable changes in us" as "we merge into something rich and strange." Quite obviously, by pulling back to show the corpses littered around the dinner table in the middle of the coliseum in which the spectators of the aftermath are, in essence, the contemporary moviegoers, Taymor asks us to ask ourselves, "why are we watching this, astonished and rapt in silence?"
It is difficult, I must say, for either I or my students to "connect," through pity, with the characters in Shakespeare's play. They are just too remote from our world and speak in a manner that is overly formal and archaic [never mind the occasional flights of beautiful poetry, which to our students' ears is often just "greek"]. I typically have a hard time getting my students to, say, empathize with an Oedipus or a Macbeth, such that they could palpably feel their fear and worry about their predicaments and lament their violent ends [and then somehow feel "purged" by the image of Oedipus weeping through bloody eyes as he embraces his daughters or by Macbeth's decapitated head landing on the ground]. And yet, again, the murder of Lavinia, and also the scene in which Taymor stages Lavinia after she has been raped and had her hands and tongue cut off by Chiron and Demetrius, who have also placed twigs into the stumps of her arms [the image of Lavinia, standing on a tree stump, branches crossed over her breasts and bending forward into the camera with blood flowing out of her speechless mouth is stunning], always arrests them. Somehow, more than the scenes they have watched over and over again in films like Saw and Grindhouse and Kill Bill [movies they love, and can even laugh at], these scenes both frighten them and make them sit still with astonishment. Somehow, and I can't put my finger on it exactly, both pity and fear suddenly rush in at these moments. They have to arrive together, because fear without pity is a cheap thrill, and pity without the recognition of the possibility of shared pain, is simply an empty sentiment. The idea that the violation done to another person is somehow also a violation to ourselves is the beginning of the true understanding of pity [or perhaps we should say, empathy, or compassion]. Something magic is at work in the film that it could have the capacity to grab my students' attention in this way [it happens every semester, believe me], and that magic is Taymor's art--more precisely, it is her ability to render violence in a way that is so beautiful, while also being so rawly intimate [let's give the actors credit here], that we cannot look away nor pretend it isn't us. And this is fiction, right?
To try to explain what I think is happening here, I turn [again] to Joe Sachs, who has generously shared his thoughts on tragedy and catharsis, via Aristotle's Poetics, on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In his notes there [not all of which I agree with], he writes,
The character Alonso, in the power of the magician Prospero, spends the length of the play in the illusion that his son has drowned. To have him alive again, Alonso says, "I wish Myself were muddled in that oozy bed / Where my son lies" (V.i.150-52). But he has already been there for three hours in his imagination; he says earlier "my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded / And with him there lie mudded" (III.iii.100-2). What is this muddy ooze? It is Alonso's grief, and his regret for exposing his son to danger, and his self-reproach for his own past crime against Prospero and Prospero's baby daughter, which made his son a just target for divine retribution; the ooze is Alonso's repentance, which feels futile to him since it only comes after he has lost the thing he cares about the most. But the spirit Ariel sings a song to Alonso's son: "Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange" (I.ii.397-402). Alonso's grief is aroused by an illusion, an imitation of an action, but his repentance is real, and is slowly trasnforming him into a different man. Who is this new man? Let us take counsel from the "honest old councilor" Gonzalo, who always has the clearest sight in the play. He tells us that on this voyage, when so much seemed lost, every traveller found himself "When no man was his own" (V.i.206-13).The way in which the beautiful spectacle of violence, artfully staged and performed, could bring us to this revelation, voiced by Shakespeare's Gonzalo, seems crucial to me if we want to understand how, in the contemporary movie theater, catharsis could ever be possible. But what sorts of violent and so-called tragic films do this today? According to the political theorist Jane Bennett, the enactment of ethical aspirations “requires bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions,” and further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is the argument of Bennett’s book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, that the contemporary world, contrary to certain narratives of a disenchanted world, does “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” As regards either medieval or contemporary art [which includes film], what sites of enchantment are available to us, and to our students, that would help them, through various beautiful [and sometimes terrible] spectacles, to be moved, through wonder, out of and back to themselves in a way that would help them to see, they were never just themselves, after all? And neither were we.