FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 18, April 1999

 


 

Steven Schneider

The Means and Ends of Screen Violence

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Prince

_Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies_

Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998

ISBN 0-292-75565-1

xx + 282 pp.

 

'Peckinpah left a body of work that defines the essential issues and contradictions inherent in recording violence for the camera, and that subsequent filmmakers can only replicate but not transcend. In this sense his work defines a limit point for cinema. It occupies a horizon of experience and creative expression that will not be surpassed' (253).

 

After years of critical neglect (and worse, contempt), the post-_Major Dundee_ (1962) films of director Sam Peckinpah have been subjected to unprecedented scholarly attention in the nineties. Stephen Prince's _Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies_ is the sixth Peckinpah book of the decade, and it quickly puts to rest any fears that the topic has been exhausted, that there is nothing further to be gained from investigations into the director's corpus. As the title of the book indicates, Prince is primarily concerned with Peckinpah's role in initiating the (by now ubiquitous) depiction of graphic violence in mainstream American cinema. Drawing on an impressive variety of analyses, Prince attempts to defend such controversial Peckinpah productions as _Straw Dogs_ (1971) and _Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia_ (1974) from simplistic attacks on their merit, and to distinguish Peckinpah's didactic presentation of screen violence from the morally suspect work of his more commercially successful followers, including Scorsese, Stone, Tarantino, and Woo.

 

A learned and insightful film scholar, who has also edited a collection of essays on Peckinpah's 1969 classic _The Wild Bunch_, [1] Prince puts to good use previously untapped primary research materials -- specifically, 95 boxes of Peckinpah correspondence, scripts, production memos, and editing notes archived at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. But Prince's best attribute, besides his highly readable prose style, lies in his ability to buttress surprising claims about Peckinpah's poetic sensibilities and progressive social agenda with reference to technical considerations, in particular the director's complex audiovisual design of screen violence. That is to say, _Savage Cinema_ demonstrates in convincing fashion the inseparability of style and substance in Peckinpah's films.

 

Prince starts off by asking why Peckinpah, whose career as a feature film director was relatively brief, has left such an indelible mark on modern American cinema. Two answers are suggested. The first has to do with Peckinpah's character, his 'larger-than-life personality and the romanticism and authenticity (as noncontradictory qualities) that he brought to his roguish films' (xiv). But Prince mentions this point only to set it aside; one gets the sense throughout _Savage Cinema_ that, for better or worse, the author is loathe to repeat what has been written about his subject elsewhere. [2] The second answer has to do with the extraordinary influence Peckinpah's films have exerted over subsequent directors. Stylistically, the slow-motion violence, exploding squibs, and elaborate montage editing Peckinpah became identified with, have since become normative for the rendering of violence on screen. Thematically, his vivid characterization of villainous, often reprehensible protagonists 'exploded the moral absolutes that had given shape and meaning to screen narratives for decades' (xv). Although Prince alerts his readers to the fact that Peckinpah originated neither the cinematic nor the dramatic techniques in question, it is clear that he views Peckinpah as the director primarily responsible for opening the door (or rather, the floodgates) to ultraviolence in the movies. This acknowledgement gets reflected in Prince's next 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?' (xvi). Only if one conceives of Peckinpah as the father of 'contemporary movie violence' does this question make sense.

 

Chapter one -- 'Peckinpah and the 1960s' -- seeks to fill what Prince identifies as a gap in critical discussions of Peckinpah's work, by providing a detailed explanation of how that work reacts and responds to the era in which it was produced. Prince asserts (and one would be hard-pressed to deny) that Peckinpah's finest films were made between 1969 and 1974. His creative powers at their peak, Peckinpah released seven films (half of his overall output) during this six year period, including _The Wild Bunch_, _Straw Dogs_, _The Getaway_ (1972), _Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid_ (1972), and _Alfredo Garcia_. What was it about the late 60s-early 70s that brought out the best in Peckinpah? For one thing, the replacement of Hollywood's self-imposed Motion Picture Production Code with the Code and Rating Administration's G-M-R-X classification scheme in 1966-68 encouraged filmmakers and studios to target specific audiences in order to avoid censorship. Sergio Leone's trilogy of revisionary 'spaghetti' Westerns, Robert Aldrich's _The Dirty Dozen_ (1967), and Arthur Penn's _Bonnie and Clyde_ (1967) demonstrated to Peckinpah and his backers that hyper-violent productions aimed at the growing youth market were now the order of the day. Such contextual awareness leads Prince to assert that '_The Wild Bunch_ was not a revolutionary accomplishment but rather was the culmination of several years of steadily escalating (and profitable) violence in American cinema' (16).

 

Prince also traces Peckinpah's output during this period to the era's violent atmosphere. Vietnam protests, a rise in street crime, riots, and political assassinations all contributed to Peckinpah's belief that underlying American culture at the time was a barely suppressed death wish. His films vividly convey the paranoia and lack of faith in institutional authority felt by much of the younger generation, in spite of the fact that the scenarios he presented -- save for that of his last film, _The Osterman Weekend_ (1983) -- were far-removed from the socio-political sphere. Prince is thus led to the conclusion that Peckinpah's 'radical gesture was to . . . disengage violence from the era which foregrounded it. This has helped his films to retain an ever-contemporary voice, but it has also beclouded the conditions that made his work possible and has encouraged a critical tendency to see him as a timeless auteur' (44). 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. When Prince remarks that, by the late 70s, Peckinpah's 'didacticism regarding violence . . . had lost its punch because it no longer bespoke the felt urgencies of a social period' (45), the reader may well wonder how this squares with the 'ever-contemporary voice' of his earlier work. 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. Insofar as Prince is attempting to compensate for previous studies which paid little or no attention to the environment in which Peckinpah worked, however, his occasional overzealousness on this topic is forgivable.

 

The second chapter ('Aestheticizing Violence') elaborates on Peckinpah's audiovisual technique, in particular his use of montage editing to render violence aesthetically gratifying. The antecedents of Peckinpah's montage style are traced as far back as Eisenstein, but Prince pays special attention to the influences of Akira Kurosawa (_Seven Samurai_, 1954) and Arthur Penn. The author's analytic insight is in full display here, especially when discussing Peckinpah's fascination with slow-motion images of violent death. These images, according to Prince, 'derive their poetic force from the metaphysical paradox of the body's continued animate reactions during a moment of diminished or extinguished consciousness' (60). As this calls to mind Freud's musings on the source of 'uncanny' feelings, [3] the only thing missing from Prince's discussion is its placement within a broader psychological context.

 

Although the particulars of Prince's discussion in chapter two are beyond reproach, some of the conclusions he arrives at are open to debate. At one point he criticizes as 'wrongheaded' the view that 'Peckinpah's signal contribution in the late sixties was to bring to American cinema a more realistic depiction of violence' (49). 'Wrongheaded' because the director's montage-based aesthetic actually substituted for realism a *stylized* presentation of violence. In a sense, of course, Prince is absolutely right. But it cannot be denied that Peckinpah's post-_Major Dundee_ work played a crucial role in rendering obsolete the cinematic sterilization of violence. After _The Wild Bunch_, death on the big screen would no longer be so painless, bloodless, or quick. *Contra* Prince, the relevant opposition is not between realism and stylization so much as between realism and *euphemism*. In this latter sense, Peckinpah *did* 'bring to American cinema a more realistic depiction of violence'.

 

Prince also expresses amazement at the blindness evinced by Peckinpah regarding 'his own artistic complicity in stimulating aggressive reactions of viewers' (100). Prince bases his conclusion on Peckinpah's repeated professions that his aim was not to turn violence into a pleasurable spectacle, but to shock viewers into a new and socially constructive awareness of its horrors. Considering Peckinpah's tendency to misrepresent his intentions to the public, however (a tendency of which Prince is well aware), skepticism on this front is warranted. With rare exception, audiences are loathe to see a film in which the violence presented offers little or no aesthetic gratification. Peckinpah must have known at some level that spectatorial pleasure is a condition of commercial success, and it is a testimony to his artistic integrity that in films such as _Alfredo Garcia_ and _Cross of Iron_ (1977), he manifestly denied any such pleasure to viewers. Thus, Peckinpah's 'blindness' with respect to the undesirable effects of his more action-driven films (including _The Wild Bunch_ and _The Getaway_) was in all likelihood mere disingenuity.

 

In chapter three -- 'Melancholy and Mortality' -- Prince takes issue with Peckinpah's contention that the portrayal of graphic violence on screen 'would provide a cathartic experience for viewers, promoting social health by purging them of antisocial, aggressive impulses' (108). Brief but instructional forays into Aristotle's theory of catharsis and recent empirical studies on media violence support Prince's verdict that Peckinpah's effort on this front was misguided. The fact that Prince does not shy away from criticizing Peckinpah when occasion demands is refreshing, and adds to the legitimacy of his positive claims. Later in chapter three, Prince does in fact praise Peckinpah for his morally responsible treatment of violence. Though critics of the director tend to ignore the point, his focus on the physical and psychological consequences of violence serves the purpose of *disturbing* rather than stimulating viewers. Perceptive analyses of Peckinpah's 'melancholic trilogy' -- _Straw Dogs_, _Pat Garrett_, and _Alfredo Garcia_ -- leads Prince to the conclusion that 'Peckinpah came to appreciate the failure of an aesthetically induced catharsis as a means for restoring social health . . . [and] increasingly placed violence within morbid and joyless screen worlds where its spiritual and psychic costs might be rendered with clarity' (160).

 

The next chapter ('Interrogating Violence') associates Peckinpah's self-reflexive filmmaking with the didactic, *anti*-cathartic dramaturgy advocated by Bertolt Brecht. Prince's central thesis here is that, after _The Wild Bunch_, Peckinpah soured on kinetic montage editing and turned instead to three principal devices which allowed him to examine human violence in a more controlled and self-conscious manner. These devices include 'didactic tableaux' -- 'striking scenes and images presented formalistically so that they are detachable from the immediate narrative context' (169); ironic narratives and characters, which serve to create much-needed emotional space for the viewer (as well as the director); and the creative employment of mirror imagery, 'as a visual metaphor for examining the alienated subjectivity that [Peckinpah] understood to be a correlative of brutality and violence' (170).

 

As much as one appreciates Prince's effort to refigure Peckinpah as a fundamentally non-exploitative filmmaker, he tends to overstate his point. Violence-as-spectacle was a central theme in almost all of Peckinpah's films, even those in which his use of kinetic montage editing was restrained. In _Pat Garrett_, for example, although 'the elaborate montages of death are extinguished in favor of a primary emphasis upon the psychical and emotional components of physical violence' (169), at least two scenes (the opening shoot-out, and Billy's shotgun murder of a sadistic, ultra-religious prison guard) are notable for their bloody climaxes. All in all, though, Prince's argument in this chapter holds up quite well. His conclusion, that 'the project . . . Peckinpah made his own -- to become intimate with violence through its aesthetic rendering while preserving the awareness of its own destructive and horrifying consequences -- was immensely difficult' (196), has a sobering ring to it. For it was this project that would eventually alienate the director and contribute to his untimely death at the age of fifty-nine.

 

The fifth and final chapter of _Savage Cinema_, 'A Disputed Legacy', takes a critical look at Peckinpah's influence on contemporary directors of ultraviolence. But before turning to Scorsese, Tarantino, Verhoeven, et. al., Prince argues that, by 'systematically curtailing the normative pleasures' conventional cinema offers to audiences, Peckinpah managed to convey the message that *suffering* is the 'central psychological effect produced by violence and its core component' (221). Through his creative employment of the three self-reflexive devices mentioned above, Peckinpah succeeded in alienating viewers from even the most aestheticized episodes of violence. This alienation, in turn, was intended to promote self-awareness and force viewers to call into question their increasingly insatiable appetite for destruction.

 

Prince goes on to make a number of salient points about the violence that has become such a central feature of contemporary cinema. He notes first that the shallow, mechanical quality of so many ultraviolent movies today is a direct result of filmmakers adopting Peckinpah's techniques (including his use of squibs, slow motion camerawork, and montage editing) without adopting the melancholic contexts in which he embedded violent acts. Prince also observes that the carnage and gore now so familiar to audiences had no place in Peckinpah's work: 'as opposed to, say, DePalma or Scorsese, Peckinpah focused on the psychological and emotional response to violence and touched only secondarily on its physical manifestation' (237).

 

Near the end of the book, Prince lets his personal feelings about cinematic ultraviolence get in the way of his objective presentation. He is very critical of Tarantino, for example, whose violent sequences 'have the attributes of cartoon violence, which can be extremely graphic and destructive in its physical effects but entails no lasting suffering or pain' (240). 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. The same goes for the Stallone-Schwarzenneger body-count action flicks. These movies are basically cartoons for adults, and Prince needs to do a lot more arguing in order to justify his negative assessment (though perhaps he believes the empirical data cited in chapter three is justification enough). In the end, he confidently asserts that 'movie violence has proven to be a gigantic emotional and artistic dead end. Today, there is nothing left that has not been shown and nowhere stylistically for a filmmaker to go who remains interested in filming violence' (252). I think it safe to say that anyone who has seen _Saving Private Ryan_ (1998) this past year would beg to differ.

 

As opposed to the work of Tarantino and Stone, whose films are paradigmatically postmodern in their compulsive referencing to other films and media images, 'Peckinpah, instead was a modernist, perhaps the last modernist of the American cinema . . . The image, for Peckinpah, did not function as an interchangeable sign, designating only its own closed world of media-based reference. Instead, it had real-world referents that validated its aesthetic structure' (251). There can be no denying Peckinpah's real-world focus. But what are we to make of the self-reflexive devices he employed to further his didactic aims? Self-reflexivity, after all, is as much a signature of postmodernism as is self-referentiality. Be that as it may, this fact does not invalidate the conclusion of Prince's timely and important book. To answer the author's initial question: the reason Peckinpah has left such an indelible mark on those who have followed him is that his films bridge a vast artistic-cultural gap. If Peckinpah was 'the last modernist of the American cinema', he was also the first *postmodernist*.

 

Harvard University, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Stephen Prince, ed., _Sam Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch'_ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). This anthology appeared in December 1998 but carries a 1999 copyright. Thus, of Prince's two works on Peckinpah, _Savage Cinema_ was the first to appear.

 

2. See, for example, Marshall Fine, _Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah_ (New York: Donald Fine, 1991).

 

3. Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny' [1919], reprinted in _The Penguin Freud Library, Volume Fourteen: Art and Literature_, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1990).

 

 

 

Steven Schneider, 'The Means and Ends of Screen Violence',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 18, April 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n18schneider>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

  

 

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