America didn’t invent violence, but it certainly commodified, packaged and turned it into a major cultural export. Every time there’s a mass shooting in the USA, all right-thinking people are up in arms. And yet we’ve become inured to a popular culture in which hitman is just another job, like milkman or postman, and praise is lavished on directors like Tarantino for their ironic depiction of psychopathic morons as regular guys who just happen to kill people for a living.
The Godfather trilogy at least tried to make some sense of the honoured society, albeit highly glamorised. The Sopranos was great television, by all accounts, but made no judgments about the ghastly characters it portrayed. Both spawned a series of cash-in enterprises — American, British and even French: think Guy Ritchie’s lamentable oeuvre, or the series of films celebrating Jacques Mesrine.
David Lynch is an interesting filmmaker, but I had a little epiphany recently watching the first few minutes of Wild at Heart. At the point where Nicholas Cage’s character started to beat the shit out of some other character, I realised I don’t want to watch this stuff. And that rather opened the floodgates: I shan’t be bothering in future with any film that is all violent action and no moral core.
A violent film can indeed have a moral core. In the best classic noir, a flawed character finds redemption, while the incorrigible meet a suitable end. Most of these films are technically pretty basic, apart from the usually deft use of lighting. There are no big set pieces or casts of thousands, and only minimal special effects. They rely on simple, straightforward storytelling about a conflicted but essentially decent guy who lets his conscience be his guide and comes out on top. They are little moral parables, and I love ‘em!
Although it is set in a small frontier town in the 19th century, High Noon is a good example of the genre. Other Westerns, however, have always been problematic, since a major theme is the dispossession by force of indigenous populations to feed the growing populations of the industrial eastern states. The first pioneers who trekked westward did so in the belief that they had a divine right to the land. When the locals objected to their trespassing, there was usually a military force – or at least John Wayne — on hand to exact revenge and encourage compliance. How the West was won was not unlike how, more recently, the West Bank was won.
Wayne and his fellow Indian-fighters were presented as noble and heroic, however many nameless extras they sent tumbling off their ponies. The only villains, apart from the “hostiles” themselves, were psychopathic gunslingers and the cattle barons who employed them. For a while, following the publication in 1970 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that indigenous vs. settler relationship took on a different complexion, with the military as the villains, as in Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, for example. But as memories of Viet Nam faded, that position fell out of favour, and we have ever since been in an era of gung-ho, might-is-right propaganda from Hollywood.
Psychological explanation for this abound. It might be as simple as the time being right for a return to the cruel spectacles that characterised earlier periods of history. And the rise of the antihero — an alienated soul, adrift in a world that has lost its moral direction – provided the excuse to portray amorality in full detail. Early antiheroes like Dean Moriarty and Jimmy Porter generally kept their angst to themselves, but as writers and producers began to see the spectacular possibilities of a completely amoral central character, the message began to get muddied. Violence or sheer unscrupulousness as a means of achieving a selfish goal became the norm.
Cheating and conniving don’t made great visuals, though, and the violence became correspondingly more graphic. It’s the technical aspects of film-making that have come to dominate the critical discourse. If it’s got lots of good acting, cinematography, direction, editing, music and so on, it’s in with a good chance of an award, however repugnant the message. Even though Bonnie and Clyde wind up picturesquely bullet-riddled, we are invited to admire their countercultural willingness to challenge and reject society’s mores.
But the problem with moral relativism is that the baby commonly gets thrown out with the bathwater. If there are no fixed notions of right and wrong, there is no constraint on the individual. If authority – the Government, that favourite target of hedonists and libertarians — tries to impose it, any form of resistance, maybe including mass murder, is justified.
Will the fact that recent shootings have been the work of troubled, reclusive nerds having no trace of, for instance, Al Pacino’s Scarface’s dark charisma, prompt a change of tack?
One can hope.