Gratuitous Violence

One of the more common complaints I come across in the discussion of film is the notion of an element within the story being gratuitous. It’s an interesting point, because it’s almost entirely subjective to the viewer. Given that many of the films I watch are soaked in blood, gratuitous violence is often the sticking point. At what point does a film no longer need to depict its violence to get a point across?

Martyrs, is one of the more intensely violent films I’ve seen, and I actually have a little regret in writing my review of it, because apparently some readers have misinterpreted the tone of that violence. I’ve apparently made some people think the film is a showcase of gore, when that’s not the case at all. While it is a horror film, it’s much more akin to being a mystery – the horrific and violent elements in it suit it perfectly, as the film has set out to stun you, but it’s not done in a way that revels in the violence, à la Saw.

Irreversible is another film that often gets the “gratuitous” cry, but I believe that’s another case of perfectly justifiable extreme violence. It’s a tragedy (albeit an extreme one) and the violence, sickening as it is, is completely contextual. On paper, and to the sheltered viewer I suppose, a nine-minute long rape scene does sound unnecessary. But within the film itself, it’s incredibly difficult viewing, which is what it’s supposed to be. Especially in the case of Irreversible, when someone tells me it was too difficult to watch, I always ask, “should a rape scene be easy viewing?”

I understand that a great number of people don’t have the tolerance for extreme cinema I’ve built up (or possibly “have just been desensitised to” might be more appropriate) and as such I understand that many find excessive violence troublesome, but more often than not, there is a point to it.

I recently acquired a copy of the new Mortal Kombat, which was banned here in Australia for its excessive violence. It was something of a wake up call to me when my housemates witnessed me playing it and couldn’t stomach some of the more vicious moves in it. There’s an “x-ray feature” in the fighting which shows you the internal impact of the blows the characters are landing on each other. These moves are ludicrously violent, and the damage done to the bodies would not be survivable if they were real people and not a complex assembly of video-game data, and I will admit, they are stunningly violent.

But in the case of the Mortal Kombat series, ridiculous, over-the-top violence is its signature attraction (other than being an awesome game). MK made it’s name on its release purely for being so ridiculously violent, with blood gushing from even the more minor wounds, and the furore stormed up by Moral Guardians acted as great publicity for the eager young gamers who just couldn’t get enough.

But in admitting that the violence is both unrealistic and over the top, I still say it makes sense within the context of the games. They’re not trying to pass themselves off as being realistic in any way. The storylines are so campy (yet undeniably epic) that the violence exhibited in the games sits perfectly alongside the tongue-in-cheek and over the top nature of the series.

In trying to take me down a peg, people will often argue the “less-is-more” point of view. I’ll agree, this can work very well, and is often a classier method of storytelling.

In SE7EN, the “lust” victim is probably the most squeamish murder. A man is forced to rape a prostitute, while wearing a giant double-bladed strap-on. The thought of any kind of genital attack is enough to make most people particularly queasy, but it’s not actually told in explicit detail in the film. The film shows us the crime scene, the body of the victim (barely recognisable as human due to the amount of blood) and the distraught (read: psychotic episode) man who was forced to perpetrate the crime. It’s only later in an interview scene that one of the detectives puts down a photograph of the strap-on that the audience is made aware just how the prostitute died.

This works exceedingly well, because the imagination is often a lot more powerful than our powers of perception. It forces us to piece the elements together and come to the grim reality of how the prostitute died, which is more effective than showing the act itself.

Another example would be Michael Haneke’s attack on audiences everywhere, Funny Games. The film will have it’s own article on this site in the coming weeks, but the basics of the plot are as follows: two mild-mannered men take a family hostage, and proceed to play a series of “games” with them, all with an underlying bet the two men make – they bet the family will be dead the following morning, and the family bets they’ll be alive. If you can’t tell from those terms themselves, the two men are clearly just toying with the family, but it’s a very meta film, in that it’s toying with the audience too.

The film (or films – Haneke remade the original German film in 2008 with an American cast – both films are nearly identical, as the message within necessitates) is essentially Michael Haneke experimenting with an audience. It’s an attack on how viewers participate/allow horrible things to happen under the guise of entertainment, so while the two men are going through the motions of what could be a standard horror-film, it’s constantly subverted along the way.

Case in point – despite the original film being rated R18+, and the remake MA15+ (and once again let me stress – the films are deliberately identical just proving the OFLC is full of shams) all the violence within the film happens off-screen. The most notable of the violent acts is where the child of the family, a boy who is roughly 9 or 10 years old, is shot by one of the men. This actually happens completely off-screen – the camera stays with one of the men as he goes into the kitchen to fix himself a sandwich, and we hear the commotion in the background, before returning to the room, where we don’t see a graphic depiction of the boy’s corpse – just some sparingly blood-splattered walls.

Here, the effect is devastating, and it’s meant to be. The film is deliberately relying on you remembering that what you’re witnessing is the murder of a child, not merely a character dying as the plot dictates. If it had been shown on-screen, you would be repelled, but in the cathartic way that violence provokes a reaction, not a meditative response.

The less-is-more approach is perfectly valid, but I don’t believe that it functioning in some very high-quality films means it’s a failsafe. The distinction between “less-is-more” and “gratuitous” violence is nearly the sole reason I found the remake of  I Spit on Your Grave so repugnant. The original is attacked for being gratuitously violent, but as I discussed in Part One of that review, its excessive violence is very much to its benefit. The lack of violence in certain parts of the remake leads to horrible implications of the victim of the piece. It’s the lack of violence within her rapes that means her revenge later on in the film is bordering on what most people would call gratuitous.

Even in the incredibly misguided A Serbian Film, with all the horrors it contains, I can still argue that for that particular film, most of it is contextual. A film that extreme would be hard pressed to make anything seem out of place. Even though it’s one of the most horrific things I have ever borne witness to, the baby-rape scene makes some kind of horrible tonal sense with the rest of the film, because the violence just keeps escalating beyond control. It’s horrible, it’s shocking, I wish I’d never seen it, but within the bounds of that particular story, it seems to make sense.

The problem with gratuitousness is how far the filmmakers are willing to go. In defending Irreversible in one of my film theory classes a few years back, a girl complained that the film didn’t need to show the fire-extinguisher-face-beating scene, that they could have pulled away and just implied what was going on. I argued again the case that the violence in Irreversible is deliberately unflinching and hard to watch, but she still maintained that there was simply no need to show what it shows.

It’s an arguable point, but then extrapolate that to anything. There’s no need to show any violence whatsoever if you can just imply it. It works really well for SE7EN but even then, that’s still a violent movie regardless. Leaving it to be implied can also derail the intention of the storytelling – at the end of Season 2 of Veronica Mars, lovable woobie Mac is left abandoned by her prom date, because it turns out that actually he’s the killer – many people read the episode to have implied that said villain had actually raped Mac, which the writers hadn’t intended to be the case.

If there’s no need to show the violence, then there’s no need to show anything at all – no sex, no bad language, no scary scenes. This isn’t to say that every film should go out and be as exploitative or showy as it could be, but the reason films include such graphic content is because it’s an inherently visual medium. “Show don’t tell” is the core-concept of good storytelling, and violence, even if it can be called gratuitous, is just a logical extension of that concept.

I should point out that I do believe some violence is gratuitous. Lars Von Trier’s crapfest Anti-Christ sticks out in my mind particularly, because it was just so ridiculous, but masked in many impenetrable layers of pretention. I hated the film – it bored me immensely and it felt like Von Trier was having an “artistic” wank at his own presumed genius (though I have loved other films he’s made). It’s a polarising film, but trying to be somewhat objective, it takes a meditative, slow-burn psychological thriller, and throws in some clitoral-scissoring and blood-ejaculation for shock value. It makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film, and it’s just empty cinema in those moments

Also, even though I found it to be largely difficult-but-intriguing viewing, I couldn’t see any excuse whatsoever for the actual animal slaughter in Cannibal Holocaust either. It was unnecessary, and didn’t help the storyline or themes of the movie at all. It’s horrific, but not in line with the artificial horror of the rest of the film, and it just doesn’t work well.

Violence is an interesting issue to me. I can stomach a lot of it. I’ve seen some of the most fucked-up films out there, and I’ve come out (more or less) unchanged by it. It was really surprising to me when my housemates couldn’t stomach Mortal Kombat, because it reminded me that most people aren’t as desensitised to it as I am, and that it is still for many, a greatly affecting/disturbing element of many films. I suppose what I’m trying to say in all of this (even though it’s taken me far too long to get to the point) is that while violence in film ranges from the implict to the extremely explicit, it’s rare (though not unheard of) for me to be able to completely rule it out as unnecessary.

When I’ve had the argument with people in the past, I’ve always tried to make the point that films shows us what they will at their own discretion, and with variable results. The films that show too little or too much often don’t work as well as those that maintain a balance between the two. The films that set themselves up to be completely over the top and do over the top things are a lot more appreciable than “serious” films that exploit the shock-value of violence.

It’s ridiculous to say that the more violent a film is, the better it is. But it’s also ridiculous to assume that violence doesn’t have its place in cinema at all. The next time you think something is unnecessary, just take a moment, and ask if it works within the film itself. If you think it’s unnecessary because it made you feel sick – ask yourself if that’s actually a good thing – I wouldn’t go the extremes Michael Haneke has with Funny Games, but if you aren’t at least a little affected by graphic violence, then the film isn’t using it well.

If you’ve read this far, well done. The rambling is now over. Go grab a coffee or some damn fine cherry pie.


One thought on “Gratuitous Violence

  1. You certainly are a connoisseur of the gruesome and gratuitous, Dave. I have seen se7en innnumrerable times and would rate it a mastrepiece of American cinema. Being somewhat o0der — a senior citizen no less — I havde not played Mortal Combat but am \aware of the furore surrounding it. I have seen both versions of ‘Funny Games’ and agree with you it is significant that in both versions the violence to the child happens offscreen. Though I have not seen it I am aware of the iconic status that Variety Magazine accords ‘I Spit On Your Gr\ave’

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