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Exposed: Investigating the Social Function of Sensational Violence in Film

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Exploitative violence – the brand depicted in many popular films, including Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s recent release, Grindhouse –is a prevalent fixture of the media landscape. Violence figures differently in various societies. For some, violence, or the threat of violence, is a daily terror. For others, violence is predominantly entertainment. Popular culture’s portrayal of violence is often campy rather than realistic. If graphic depictions of violence, such as those portrayed in the films of Michael Haneke, are too harrowing to witness, why are audiences drawn to the cartoonish version of violence depicted in films such as Grindhouse?

 Surprise? Horror?
Karyn Sig, Surprise? Horror?, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Grindhouse is a double-feature film showcasing Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, as well as an intermission with faux trailers from popular horror directors. The Grindhouse trailer explicitly defines itself as: “a theatre playing back-to-back films exploiting sex, violence, and other extreme subject matter.” The directors revivify a popular 1970s phenomenon, in which theatres featured two (sometimes three) films ripe with “exploitation [and] sexploitation.(1)”Grindhouse’s trailer keeps its promise: both features exploit everything from sex to violence to the physically disabled. In addition, the faux trailer by Hostel director Eli Roth for the ‘film’ Thanksgiving is perhaps the most gruesome and entertaining segment of the entire production. As Roth admits in an interview (2),the task of creating an outrageously exploitative trailer for the intermission was simple because the narrative devices often employed in a full-length mainstream film need not apply. The trailer is a vignette of highly graphic images that require neither plot, character development, nor resolution. The result is the fantasy of any horror film director or fan: three minutes of relentless, unabashed gore.

Disturbing vs. Sensationalized Violence

Austrian director Michael Haneke’s films offer a different perspective on violence. Refusing to exploit violence as a consumer good, his films attempt to “challenge Hollywood’s blithe treatment of violence.(4)” His 1997 film, Funny Games, parodies the treatment of excessively graphic violence seen in mainstream action and horror films. Much of Funny Games’ violence occurs off-camera, which intensifies, rather than diminishes, its resonance. The brutality and horror of violence is palpable after a wealthy Austrian family is murdered while vacationing in their summer-home. There’s no comic relief, only the lingering silence of an audience contemplating how two preppy teenagers could commit this senseless, atrocious act. This is the gut-wrenching impact of violence when we are not given an outlet such as, for example, laughing at images of spewing blood. The eerie realism in Haneke’s films is disturbing because it confronts with violence as a serious issue—something overlooked in over-blown action movies.

Haneke’s elegant, though disturbing, oeuvre critiques the treatment of violence in the media and attempts to thematize it without arousing fascination in the audience. For Haneke, the danger of the popular depictions of violence is its propensity to fascinate rather than disturb. His films encourage audiences to confront their role in “consuming and perpetuating screen violence.(5)” Indeed, viewers commonly walk out of a Haneke film, unable to stomach his bleak portrayal of violence. If images of real violence are too harrowing to watch, why is an explicitly artificial depiction so alluring to audiences?

Grindhouse’s “ostentatious, exaggerated, [and] theatrical(3)” gore is a perfect example of entertaining violence. This is true in the case of the Roth trailer, as well as Grindhouse’s two feature films. For example, in the Thanksgiving trailer, the voice-over assures us “white meat, dark meat, all will be carved,” while a nearly naked cheerleader lands spread-eagle on a shiny blade sticking through a trampoline. The film hints at real violence, but it belongs to another realm and is never actually executed. The film’s violence is explicitly disgusting in an over-the-top, cartoon-like fashion and it is precisely this artificiality that allows the audience to watch it without feeling disturbed. For example, blood spews from stubs that were once limbs and the audience laughs. Toxic pus oozes from sores and lands in someone’s eye, and again, the audience laughs.

The directors anticipate laughter from the audience; it is the intended response of campy or exploitative violence. One might interpret the audience’s gleeful outburst as symptomatic of our depraved modern society, one in which violence is commonplace and, at times, hilarious. This cultural critique, however, misses its mark. Violence is a prolific theme in video games, television shows, and films, but is our immunization an illusion? The fact is images of realistic violence seldom emerge in popular culture. In films like Grindhouse, irony is the norm. If we are in fact immune, it is only to a very specific brand of violence.

Planet Terror, Happily Ever After

Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is the first of the two Grindhouse features. The film borrows clichés from various genres, including zombie and slasher movies and film noir. It’s a charming tale of a community being ruptured by monsters, while love thrives in a time of peril. After the evil Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis) releases the toxic DC2 in the small town where the film is set, ex-lovers, Cherry (Rose McGowan) and Wray (Freddie Rodriguez), rekindle their romance while trying to save the town from annihilation in the meantime.

The trailer for the film glorifies violence: it seems sexy and alluring. It is rather sweet, after all, when the subtly romantic Wray brings Cherry a machine gun to attach to what remains of her leg after she suffers an attack from rabid zombies. The stripper-cum-cripple becomes a cyborg, a literal femme fatale, who redefines the term “killer” legs. She is a benevolent monster fighting evil and she makes mechanized limbs look desirable because of their destructive power. She slaughters the zombies alongside her proud boyfriend and restores peace to the town.

Despite its gore, death, and apocalyptic atmosphere, however, this tale of “terror” ends on a high note. Although Cherry loses her lover in the outbreak of violence, the sunny finale reassures us that she and their newborn daughter will survive. Forsaking the scorched city she tried to save, Cherry leads a group of townspeople on a pilgrimage to Mexico in order to form a new society. She still has a gun as a substitute for a leg, but a Gatling replaces the menacing machine gun.

Death Proof…I Wish I Was

The very title of Tarantino’s Grindhouse contribution speaks to our fear of confronting images that threaten our existence, or the cohesiveness, of our subjectivity. Like the film’s villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), we all long to be “death proof,” or immortal. Real violence, such as that portrayed in a Haneke film, reminds us of our mortal reality and of the body’s limitations. On the other hand, Stuntman Mike is a quasi-famous, former stuntman whose car, he claims, is literally death proof. We later discover that it is only death proof for the driver; the passenger gets thrown around like a pair of socks in the dryer.

The subdued creepiness in this film points to its potential to truly disturb. The enigmatic Stuntman Mike hangs out in bars and has a fetish for young girls and fast cars; his clothing suggests he is stuck in the past, circa 1970. His ultimate thrill in this film is to terrorize three girls test-driving a fast car on the back roads near his house. The high-speed chase creates a sense of urgency and imminent danger, but the women outwit Stuntman Mike and the hunt crescendos to a hilarious climax. The violence does not go beyond glimmers of danger; the threat is successfully diverted and laughter is the final (comforting) outcome.


Perhaps we can accept this popular depiction of violence as spectacle in substitution for the real thing for two reasons. Firstly, it is difficult to argue for the entertainment value of real violence. Viewers criticize Haneke’s films because they are very alienating and audiences at Cannes often openly boo his work (6). Secondly, realistic depictions of violence unearth our repressed anxieties of mortality. Real violence threatens the unity of the ego by underlining the mortal and destructible nature of the body; we respond to such images viscerally, expressing our existential fear through “retching, vomiting, spasms [and] choking.(7)”

We consider this mediated, cartoonish version of violence as entertainment because we can disavow any real threat that the violence portrayed here might present. We can successfully deflect our anxiety of death with laughter. This brand of violence reassures the fragile ego – it hints at death, but it is constantly diverting our attention away from our corporeality, away from our own ultimate deaths, and onto the humorous horror unfolding onscreen.

This is not a critique of Grindhouse’s campy depiction of violence (it is precisely what makes the film work), nor is it a call for increased exposure to graphic violence in the media or popular culture. But it is important to investigate the cultural function of these films and to question why we find violence wrapped in this packaging so appealing. We must not conflate the distinct depictions of violence discussed in this paper. We can come out of Grindhouse, with its annihilation and explosions, feeling just dandy and in the mood for pizza. Yet, we can barely survive a whole Haneke film, even though the violence rarely occurs onscreen. The difference is the way these films treat violence: one as entertainment, the other as a very real and disturbing part of existence from which we recoil.


(1) <http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/film.jsp?id=158166>
(2) <http://www.firstshowing.net/2007/03/27/uncut-eli-roth-interview/>
(3) <http://www.oed.com>
(4) <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/haneke.html>
(5) < http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0JQP/is_299/ai_30196116>
(6) < http://www.kinoeye.org/04/01/interview01.php>
(7) Elizabeth GROSZ. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Boston, Allen and Unwin, 1989, p.73.

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