Violence in the Theatre and Real Violence
On Christmas Day 2012 Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, made its premiere. The film tells the story of an Afro-American slave in nineteenth-century America searching for his lost wife and of his efforts to achieve legal freedom. The historical background is bloody and the film is, as has been the case with many of Tarantino’s pictures, extremely violent.
Tarantino has repeatedly refused to discuss the wider significance of so bloody and violent a film even though it was released less than a month after the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting. He maintains that there is no relationship between depictions of violence in films and that happening in the real world, but refuses to be drawn on his reasons for so thinking.
In the case of another recent shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, the chief suspect James Egan Holmes appears to have taken a very different line. His apparent inability to distinguish reality from fiction seems to have strongly influenced his decision to kill twelve people and injure a further 58. On such a matter, Tarantino’s silence is regrettable.
Returning to Django Unchained, Tarantino has repeatedly spoken of his wish to portray nineteenth-century Mississippi accurately, even down to over a hundred, somewhat controversial uses of the ‘n-word’. In one interview the director declared his film to be about telling the truth. His reluctance to be drawn on the social implications of violent cinema is perhaps understandable.
He is by no means the first to advocate violence in the theatre. Antonin Artaud is one of the most significant twentieth-century figures to have employed a ‘theatre of cruelty’ to make his plays more ‘real’. ‘Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle,’ he wrote, ‘the theatre is not possible… [I]t is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.’ For Artaud, cruelty was about truth and while he was not referring exclusively to cruel violence it is not hard to find correspondence between his ideas and films like Django Unchained.
Here is the nub of the issue. Violence in film seeks to create a visceral thrill – palpable and apparently real – but it is violence that ultimately serves a fictional end. However moving or gut-wrenching it remains fiction. Meanwhile, violence in the real world is rarely finessed as it is in a Hollywood studio. Even if well-choreographed and capable of moving a plot forwards it will always be incapable of communicating violence as it actually is.
It is tempting to assert that this doomed and violent quest for authenticity as articulated by Messrs. Artaud and Tarantino points up exactly what is wrong with theatrical and filmed violence. The failure of cinema to communicate the true reality and tragic experience of violence is just that of which we should disapprove. But the experience of the Aurora shooting suggests otherwise. The Dark Knight Rises, the most recent film in the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, is anything but realistic. The cinematography is breathtaking, and iconic. Like the comic books upon which it is based, it presents Batman as an unstoppable force going it alone against the forces of crime and vice. As a result it mythologises violence, presenting it with an aura of mystique and romance. It is a simple and elegant myth – one into which it is easy to buy and by which one is readily enthralled. By contrast, Tarantino’s violence may be aesthetically distasteful, even to the point of dark comedy, but he does leave viewers with no further appetite for blood and gore. While his attempt to ‘tell the truth’ may ultimately prove a failed quest it at least introduces a degree of ambiguity that strips decisive acts of violence of some of the magic that can be so tragically appealing.