A History of Violence

I was very excited to discover that David Cronenberg has a new movie out. In college, I earned a tremendously valuable "Certificate in Film Studies," and the capstone was a long paper I wrote analyzing the films of David Cronenberg. Videodrome is one of my all-time faves. Loved The Fly, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ ... appreciated Scanners, The Dead Zone ... wasn't crazy about Crash (1996, not the one last year that rocked), but everyone is entitled to stumble.

I was horribly disappointed in A History of Violence. What happened to David Cronenberg? It's one thing to stumble, and quite another to dive off a roof. History is the most tedious film I've seen since Signs. The first scene is the slowest and most boring I have ever seen in a film. The story unfolds about as fast as a fern frond, revealing itself to be a string of dismaying mobster cliches. Has he never even seen The Sopranos? There are no surprises -- the viewer has guessed everything up front -- except for the one in which such an established director could think this dreck was good enough to distribute. The acting is stiff. The ending is a groaner -- obvious, premature, perfuctory. The whole movie managed to even look boring. And there is an irritating Howard Shore score that doesn't fit the action -- I can't remember the last time I was actually angry at the music in a film.

Granted, David Cronenberg is not the most stylish or deft director around -- in fact, he's often downright clumsy -- but at least his films have always been interesting. But this dog ... I simply can't explain. It lacks any of the bizarre, gruesome, and radical ideas that are his hallmark. Why? Moreover, it was based on a graphic novel -- which means it came into his hands already storyboarded -- and he still either missed that the graphic novel sucked or screwed up in the relatively simple transfer. Where is Frankenstein, his long-rumored magnum opus? He could sink his teeth into that. He was born to direct that. My boy is seriously off his game. Avoid.


Joseph said...

To complain about The History of Violence being slow and boring betrays complete ignorance of the thematic content of the movie. Did it perhaps occur to you that the viewer was supposed “to guess everything up front,” that the movie was a variation on and critique of the typical detective/thriller films (especially the ones that revel in violence a la Tarantino and John Woo or more recently Robert Rodriguez). Any time violence takes place on the screen, the camera is unwavering in its very direct observation of violence. There are no cutaways, not even reaction cuts. American cinema especially since the Western has glamorized violence, and on one level Cronenberg is shoving it in the audiences face. How do you like that? The deliberately drawn out scenes are part of this, but they also build emotional ties to the characters. One of the most brilliant scenes in the movie is the lingering sequence of Tom driving to Philadelphia where you can’t help but imagine the wheels turning ion his head deciding what he will have to do there and how he can escape from this mess. And Tom is ultimately an antihero. Usually in American film, violence is justified by the reluctance of the hero to enter into it. The violence in The History of Violence is so horrific that even Tom’s reluctance can’t excuse him in the eyes of the viewer. The movie amazingly seems to hit all angles of the issue of portrayal of violence. The entire history from the ekkyklêma of Greek drama to the American Western to the Dirty Harries and Die Hards to the Hong Kong action flicks. Violence has had the tendency to be fetishized (naturally because fetishization is the primary function of both stage and screen. Not to say that Cronenberg doesn’t fetishize violence. He is the king. There is the typical Cronenberg intertwining of sex and gore in The History of Violence. Perhaps it is easier to see digest if you’ve seen more of Cronenberg’s early films ( Shivers, Rabid, The Brood). It’s there in the later ones too though perhaps more subtlety. Is there any more eroticized gore than in EXistenZ? The difference between Cronenberg and the others is that he is actively consciously fetishizing rather than passively and unconsciously, which not only results in more complex treatment of the subject matter and better filmmaking, but also in having a more conscious effect on the audience. Festishizing violence has certainly had an unconscious negative impact on American culture. I’m the last to say we should exorcise violence from anything for that, and I question how large the effect is; yet it is still there. The mindset of “justified violence” and the glamour of it has certainly played into America’s foreign policy decisions of late, or at least the government’s ability to twist the public psyche into buying them. Cronenberg is critiquing here, but I think largely he conflates violence and sex fro aesthetic purposes. How can any thing be more beautiful than when it sparkles prettily glistening wet with poison?

Grendel said...
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Grendel said...

Joseph, thank you for providing a counter-argument about this film. I'm just sorry that it's so precisely wrong.

First, to complain about the boring slowness is not "to betray complete ignorance of the thematic content." To complain about the boring slowness is to complain about the boring slowness. If a film doesn't grab me and pull me into the characters' lives so that I can identify with them and want to know what they are doing and why they are doing it, then it fails -- in my opinion. I could give a rat's ass about the thematic content of something that is just bad. He could have written an essay about it instead and saved me $5 (it was a matinee).

Second, if the viewer is supposed to guess everything up front, then for me it couldn't possibly fail more surely as a film. Again, save me the time and money. Plot should develop inevitably and surprisingly at the same time, because character is fate, and because suspense is why we sit in the dark gazing up at the silver screen. This is not easy to do. That's why not everyone with some aesthetic idea gets to be a writer or director.

Third, if you're saying that this film is a critique of the way violence is "fetishized" in Tarantino's films, I think you're off the mark again. I would grant you Reservoir Dogs -- but Pulp Fiction is a much better critique of the expectations of Hollywood violence. In that film there are cutaways -- to show that gore is unnecessary to depict violence. When Vincent and Jules shoot the kid, you just see them firing. When Butch machine guns Vincent on the toilet, you just see Butch firing. When Lance stabs Mia with the syringe, you just see his face. When Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the car, you just see Vincent firing. The rape is not shown, and neither is Marcellus' revenge for the rape. And so on. In fact, you could almost say that Pulp Fiction contains no actual violence -- just the after-effects of it. Now, that's a critique of Hollywood's violence fetish.

The History of Violence does, indeed, shove it in the audience's face -- just like most violent movies do. How is that a critique again? That's like fucking for chastity. "How do you like that?" Well, I don't. It's boring. It's been done a million times.

Tom driving to Philly ... wheels turning ... how is that brilliant? He drives a car, okay. He's driving to Philly to meet with his brother. Check. He sees highway signs for Philly. Wow. He arrives in Philly. He parks. All righty. And crosses the street to a bar. As for the brilliance in that pointless sequence, I don't see it. How about he pulls up to the bar? We know he drove. It doesn't add anything to make us watch him watching highways signs. It just points up the tediousness to even bring up that scene, let alone call it brilliant.

Of cours I did see Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. I didn't mention them because I didn't think they are among his best work. They have thematic content out the ying-yang, but so what? I respond to films from the perspective of writing and directing, what works, what doesn't, how did the writer/director achieve this or that effect. Not whatever this person's thematic critiques of culture might be. Those considerations ... you don't get to make me consider those things unless you succeed in telling a gripping story. Thematic concerns are up the pyramid, as Frank Conroy would have it. You have to build the base of the pyramid first -- you don't get to come up with a post-modernist, deconstructionist, whateverogical final brick and call it a pyramid.

Heroes are reluctant to engage in violence because violence is dangerous. If you're claiming that this reluctance is somehow used to justify depicting violence in films, you have a bit of a point. The epitome of this is the revenge story. Here, the very setup of the character and story are based on violence done to the hero -- therefore everything he does in the film is justified. Of course that's cheating and an awful way to go about art. But how exactly is this film different? Joey/Tom at first seems to be protecting his community and family, until we learn that actually he protecting himself from the karma that has come to Indiana from Philly to get its revenge on him. But by then we've identified with Joey/Tom, so it's just another way of tricking the viewer into justifying violence. What, should we root for his brother and his brother's flunkies in the mansion? No. We root for Joey/Tom. Because it's a movie, and he's the protagonist. Anti-hero? Maybe. But so what? Anti-heroes are everywhere. Pulp Fiction is just that -- the stories of anti-heroes.

Finally, it bothers me a little that you would say: "Violence has had the tendency to be fetishized (naturally because fetishization is the primary function of both stage and screen)." You lost me there. I thought the primary function of stage and screen was the dramatization of the stories of characters.

This also bothered me: "Cronenberg is critiquing here, but I think largely he conflates violence and sex for aesthetic purposes. How can any thing be more beautiful than when it sparkles prettily glistening wet with poison?" If he's conflating violence and sex for aesthetic purposes, then what he's doing is little better than violent pornography. Surely you can't argue that he's critiquing the "justification of violence" in Hollywood films in part by combining sexual and violent imagery? I would agree that he definitely does conflate sex and violence -- that is what he does. Infection, the metaphor that he used in his early films, neatly brings those themse together in one powerful force in those films. Videodrome is explicitly about conflating sex and violence. The difference is: Videodrome is a hell of a good movie, but History is muddled, ham-fisted trash.

Joseph said...

I think precisely what makes The History of Violence interesting is that is not simply a critique of the exaltation of violence. That would be simplistic and hypocritical, since he is obviously also exalting violence. The precise reason I say it is an aesthetic decision is because what he is critiquing is the technique by which the violence is glorified. Is it presented in a largely cartoonish way, with the camera giving greater attention to the action than the aftermath? I respect Tarantino as a visual director; but, especially in Resevoir Dogs, the characters commit crimes rather emotionlessly and the camerawork reinforces this attitude towards it. This contributes to Tarantino movies feeling much like a graphic novel, that is to say beautiful but rather empty and somewhat juvenile. In fact, the cutaways you speak of in Pulp Fiction are exactly of the convention of graphic novels and Hong Kong action movies where the violence was not showed because it would not have been allowed not as a type of critique. That may ultimately result in an interesting style, and I think there is a place for that. However, Cronenberg is critiquing that emptiness as an aesthetic choice because he believes it is possible to present the same subject matter with greater depth.

It is strange to compare the two because Tarantino is a more visual director while Cronenberg is more about creating an environment and atmosphere that creates interesting juxtapositions between content and presentation that tend to cause a questioning of the viewer’s own reality. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

I do object, however, to your critique of The History of Violence because other than its slowness you give no explanation of what is so bad about it. I suppose slowness can be negative in a movie, but is not necessarily so. Would you fault Godard, Scorcese, Cassavettes, Kubrick or countless other great directors for being slow? Plots need not be surprising or interesting or even exist for a good movie either. Naked Lunch has even less of a plot.

I’m not sure what it is that you dislike so much about The History of Violence, and your critiques of it don’t seem very fair. You are entitled to your opinion, of course.
It seems by your wish for it to be more like The Sopranos, you would like more of the empty action present there (don’t try to say The Sopranos has better character development as if it has any beyond the predictable oft-repeated TV variety). But it just seems like the things you are criticizing the movie for are things the movie never had any intention of doing. Nor are they things that movies “must” do.

One thing for me that any movie, book, play, or any work of art must do is diverge from the expected 9 the work that comes before it). Sure it must echo the works before it too. The things you are complaining of in The History of Violence, are the divergent elements here. Admittedly, not all divergence is good, but when you can clearly see how they relate to the larger fabric of the work…

As far as what I meant by “fetishization is the primary function of both stage and screen” is that is largely how both subjects are working. Theater fetishizes its content through stylizing it and presenting it in a necessarily artificial way. Film fetishizes by the obsessive attention of the camera and its forced framing of particular objects. I think it is good when directors are aware of that aspect of cinema and make use of it, and at least slightly disappointing when they are not.

SER said...

Wow, I really have to go see this movie to figure out who's right. I do know this much: Grendel is excellent at catching Frisbees in his maw.

MSF said...

i haven't seen the movie yet and thus can't comment on either critique.

but i can ask this: grendel, last year's crash? good? really? i found it completely enraging.

Grendel said...

MSF, I thought Crash (2004), directed by Paul Haggis, was enraging, too, but I liked it. I don;t mind if a movie makes me mad if that movie is working on enough levels to keep me engaged. Maybe it didn't work on enough levels for you.

As for reasons I disliked The History of Violence, I thought I gave them pretty clearly in my original post.

1. Pacing. Scenes drag on way too long, often simply to go where you know they're going in the first place.

2. Cliches. The mobsters are cliche, the diner is cliche, Tom's family is cliche, and his brother is cliche. The story is cliche. And yes, The Sopranos has more character development in any given episode than this film does, even though it plays with cliche as well.

3. Predictable plot. You know how you keep forming this preliminary plot in your head as you watch and keep revising it along the way as the twists and turns come? There are no twists and turns here, just a few gentle curves, well marked with signs, that you can see coming a mile ahead. When that "end" feeling comes, I thought, well, this is the trick end feeling, the head fake, and now it'll get juicy. But no, roll credits.

4. Acting. Viggo just falls flat to me. His wife is slightly better. His son is not bad. The rest of the characters are either Norman Rockwell cutouts or mobster cutouts. There is no spark between the characters, nothing leaps out, no guiding emotion for the viewer to grab onto.

5. Heightened expectations. This one is my fault, because I love Mr. Cronenberg.

vu said...

I agree with all five points, Grendel. No matter how one might slice and dice Cronenberg’s ideas and aesthetic decisions, his film is still guilty of shabby storytelling, not to mention the twin sins of being both obvious and predictable. One thing I kept asking myself when the credits rolled (spoiler alert, if anyone cares): why would an injured man, having apparently killed everyone in his victim’s house, go all the way to the pond in the back to wash his wounds when he could have simply used one of the twenty bathrooms inside? The answer: because the director wanted a dramatic shot of the sunrise. Very pretty, but also pretty dumb.

Grendel said...

Your question is exactly what Tracy murmured to me in that theater! And your answer is, I'm afraid, probably correct. And he throws the gun, without wiping off his oily fingerprints, about ten feet into the water! He hasn't forgotten anything about fighting, but he seems to have forgotten everything about staying one step ahead of the law.

And that final dinner scene -- I can't stand it when the director is obviously finding a lot more emotion in the scene than you are. It's embarrassing.

thisbe said...

ok, i haven't seen the movie or read through all these comments yet except to check cursorily (sp?), scanning to see if anyone had already made the comment i wanted to make, which is this: to say that "The story unfolds about as fast as a fern frond" cracked me up. thanks grendel!

Joseph said...

Response to the reasons for disliking The History of Violence:

1. I think the pacing is quite appropriate for what the movie is trying to do, and slow pacing is not necessarily bad.
2. The clichés in The History of Violence are intentionally exaggerated to provide commentary on certain genres of movies. I also don’t think you could actually call any character here a cliché; while they contain cliché elements, they also usually have some bizarre traits as well. The movie itself clearly has more oddities than clichés.
3. Again the predictable plot is part of the commentary on other movies. What is interesting is how the viewer is led to look at these conventional plots in a completely new light because of the pacing and the odd emphasis placed on specific elements of the plot.
4. I admit Viggio’s acting is pretty bad. This doesn’t bother me so much here because we are dealing with an intentionally artificial world and because the character himself is playing a role. The rest of the actors are at least average.

It concerns me that these criticisms seem to restrict movies to a very conventional sphere and fail to recognize what a movie might be doing outside of that particular sphere.

Pete said...

Joseph- I'm going to make you into a strawman. Apologies in advance.

If we're going to allow art to move across the boundaries of convention, and I think we should, we must be careful that we don't end up just judging on what a piece aims to do rather than what it actually accomplishes. The mere fact that this movie aims to comment on this or that doesn't make it a success. Look at me-- I'm commenting right now, but I'm not much of a movie. It also makes it tremendously difficult to judge experiments on a case by case basis, because you have to like them all simply for trying. That seems like a bad idea to me.

Experiments fail: in fact, most of them fail. That doesn't discount the effort itself. I might even say that it makes it more noble. And an experiment can be an interesting failure, as they often are, or it can be a boring failure or a whatever failure. Failure has its own spectrum too, which is great.

But I don't think we should get into judging a work on its intentions. Because even if one accepts your interpretations of what the movie "comments" on, that doesn't have to mean that one accepts that it is a good movie.

I feel like I'm channeling Frank Conroy here, and it strikes me that maybe the reason why this seems like a "conservative" aesthetic is because it has a relatively narrow standard. But I think what saves this standard, what it does that no other standard can really do, is cut across style, era, and other facts of the text and just demand that it support its meaning. It's hermeneutics in a strict sense of empiricism, and it holds up.

Grendel said...

Well, by your logic, Joseph, I could make a slow, predictable movie with bad acting, then say it's a "comment" on movies that are not that way, and call it an unconventional success.

All I have to go on is my gut at the end of the day, and that only counts if I can back it up with reasons based on other experiences with movies. Honestly, I can just smell a bad movie at this point. And this one stunk right off the bat in terms of failing to engage me, failing to convince me to suspend my disbelief, failing to enlist me in the characters' struggles. The reasons for those failures, as far as I can tell, are the five points I specified.

Are there exceptions that might render each of those points moot because the movie is still good? Of course. Take David Lynch, my favorite director. In Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet he fed deliberately cheesy, cliche, awkward lines to actors -- and the results were spellbinding.

Slow pacing: You're right, Kubrick plays with pacing. 2001 and Full Metal Jacket both contain numerous scenes that drag and drag, focusing on trivial or apparently acillary elements. But the accumulation of those elements resulted in powerful films. How? I don't know. Art is magic at a certain stage of the game.

Acting: Star Wars. Mediocre to bad acting, great films.

Predictable plot: Taxi Driver. You know where that's going, though it's so old it's hard to remember not knowing where it was going. Or take a movie based on a true story, where the audience by definition knows how it ended. All the President's Men, for example, or any movie based on a book you read. Lord of the Rings. Now, how can suspense be achieved when the viewer already knows where the plot is going? Why was I worried when the cave troll attacked the band in the mines of Moria? I don;t pretend to have the answers. I think it's mysterious. And yet I was riveted. That's what good films do.

If you're saying a film can have value without following "conventions" such as vibrant characters, engaging story, lively and suspenseful pacing, and inspired acting ... I suppose it can, though I'd be hard-pressed to name one that defied all that and still succeeded in fully capturing my admiration. But I concede it may be possible. My question would be why, though?

It's weird to think of me as conservative and conventional when my favorite films are ones like Videodrome, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Happiness, Napoleon Dynamite, Full Metal Jacket, Rushmore, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, Kill Bill. But I suppose from a certain perspective I am conventional.

I'm glad you got more out of History than I did! I'm also glad you're able to weave the film into the Cronenberg ouevre. To me, it's a failure and an abberration -- I'd rather be on your side of the fence. But I'm just not.