Volume 3 Number 19, April 1999
Reply to Schneider
The Means and Ends of Screen Violence
_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 18, April 1999
I appreciate Steven Schneider's attentive and detailed treatment of my book. Here are a few responses and suggestions.
Schneider notes that I pose the following question: 'If we accept that contemporary movie violence is excessive and produces harmful social effects, does this not tend to invalidate any claims we might make on behalf of Peckinpah's work?' He writes: 'Only if one conceives of Peckinpah as the father of 'contemporary movie violence' does this question make sense.' On the contrary, I believe the question stands irregardless of who 'began' contemporary movie violence. Perhaps a rephrasing can demonstrate this -- what are the grounds for a legitimate (artistically, morally, philosophically) use of graphic violence in cinema? I define 'legitimate' in the sense of being nonexploitative. One can ask about the integrity of Peckinpah's work without having to maintain that he started it all because, clearly, he did not. It is important, however, to maintain a historical perspective when examining and assessing his work. Viewing his films in a historical context lends credence to his view (i.e., that he might hold this view) that a breakthrough in the techniques for rendering screen violence could lead to a breakthrough in viewer consciousness/awareness. That, of course, was the modernist conceit. Today, seeing where movie violence has gone and has taken subsequent filmmakers, one may be skeptical of claims that breakthroughs in technique help produce breakthroughs in vision. But one should nevertheless grant Peckinpah the privilege of not being subject to our hindsight on this issue.
Schneider questions my view that movie violence has become a stylistic dead-end for filmmakers by citing Spielberg's _Saving Private Ryan_. Indeed, Spielberg did achieve a new level of intensity comparable (for viewers today) to the way late sixties audiences may have found _Bonnie and Clyde_ and _The Wild Bunch_. But one should not lose sight of the very clear historical dynamic at work. The history of movie violence -- and I make this point in the book -- shows us that these new thresholds are soon breached. The level of gore in _Saving Private Ryan_ will in time become more normative than it presently seems.
In his discussion of chapter one, Schneider writes: 'Surely, Peckinpah's failure to realize his didactic intentions after 1974 has at least as much to do with the narrative incoherence of his pictures as with their ahistoricity.' Indeed, and I go into considerable detail in chapter five about the reasons for this narrative incoherence. Regarding my emphasis of the social context of late sixties America in which Peckinpah worked, Schneider writes: 'In his desire to situate Peckinpah within a particular historical context, to show that Peckinpah's films were products of and comments on their times, Prince runs the risk of trivializing the director's repeated claims that his main interest was in examining the very *nature* of human violence.' The reason I am suspicious about claims to an essential 'violent nature' in people is that these claims can be used to justify virtually any position, and I stand with Albert Bandura in stressing the cognitive and social learning components of human violence. Discussion about violent instincts doesn't get us very far, and I think these were among Peckinpah's more stupid remarks.
Schneider mentions my detailed discussion of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in chapter two. He may not be aware that I know his work very well indeed. My book, _The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa_ (Princeton, 1991), will be re-issued in an expanded edition this Fall, with two new chapters covering his last films, and his legacy to world cinema.
Schneider criticizes my insistence, contra realism, on Peckinpah's stylization of violence, and he suggests that, indeed, Peckinpah did bring to modern cinema a more realistic depiction of violence. I would not minimize the realist vs stylized distinction in regards to Peckinpah's work. As a modernist, Peckinpah believed that his images were grounded in the *reality* of violence, in distinction to postmodernists like Tarantino, for whom screen violence is merely a special effect. But Peckinpah understood that his efforts to approach the phenomenon of human violence required the mediations -- the special stylistic transformations -- of art. Insisting on *realism* can be a trap for the unwary, and stylization need not impede a filmmaker's efforts to find truth.
Schneider feels I'm a bit too harsh on Tarantino and his ilk, writing: 'Here it looks as if Prince is taking Tarantino's admittedly black humor a little too seriously. The fact that the violence depicted in such films as _Reservoir Dogs_ (1992) and _Pulp Fiction_ (1995) have an excessive, unreal quality is precisely what gives viewers the emotional distance they need to enjoy it.' Indeed, and I would add that it is precisely the cartoonishness of the Tarantino-Stallone-Schwarzenegger films that makes them problematic. They have exactly the features that correlate with viewer aggression in the empirical studies -- painlessness, deserving victims, and scenarios of justifiable aggression. If one puts credence in the empirical findings -- and I do -- this constellation of attributes may lead to some unfortunate social consequences. To his credit, Peckinpah rarely played violence as a joke.
Again, I appreciate Steven's attention to detail, and his well reasoned response to my book. The problems and issues of movie violence are complex and deserving of sustained debate and examination.
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999
Stephen Prince, 'Reply to Schneider', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 19, April 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n19prince>.
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