A.O. Scott, Movie Violence and the Art of Collapsing Distinctions
There are important things to say about movie violence, but A.O. Scott, in his piece in The New York Times last week, “Brutal Truths About Violence,” doesn’t say them.
He takes two recent movies that have little to do with each other, or, to be honest, with the film culture at large—“Kick Ass,” which opened below expectations in April, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which barely opened in the U.S. at all (153 theaters)—ties them together, and tips them over. He creates his own tipping point. “Enough is enough,” he writes. Or in typically qualifying fashion: “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries [about movie violence], but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough.”
The problem? These two movies display completely different attitudes about violence. Scott would argue that both revel in it, but at the least they’re polar opposites in intent: “Dragon Tattoo” is trying to make you feel the violence (so you can be horrified), while “Kick Ass” needs you inured to violence (so you can laugh at it).
At this point in his article, though, we’re merely having a mild disagreement. What propelled me to write this post is the way he dissects two scenes of rape and revenge in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” He writes:
[Director Niels Arden Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. While the film may want to draw a moral distinction between the episodes — one an unprovoked and heinous assault, the other an act of righteous vengeance — their intensity renders them equivalent.
Renders them equivalent? I don’t know what this means. That they’re both intense? Or that their very intensity renders their differences meaningless? And if the latter, is this specific to “Dragon Tattoo“? Or does the intensity of, say, Dirty Harry killing Scorpio render it morally equivalent to Scorpio killing innocent people?
Hardly stopping for a breath, Scott then ties ”Dragon Tattoo" to one of the most infamous movies ever made:
The 1978 exploitation film “I Spit on Your Grave” was widely reviled upon its release, but the violation and vengeance it presents, and the detail with which it depicts a gang rape and a victim’s serial revenge, are not so far from what is shown in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Both belong on a spectrum with Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” (2002), which narrated its story of rape and revenge out of order, and collapsed any meaningful distinction between condemning sexual brutality and reveling in it.
I haven’t seen “Irreversible” so I can’t comment on it. I have seen “I Spit on Your Grave.” Parts of it. And I can comment on why “Dragon Tattoo” is not on the same planet.
Here’s the IMDb plot description for “Spit”:
An aspiring writer is repeatedly gang-raped, humiliated, and left for dead by four men whom she systematically hunts down to seek revenge.
Now here’s the plot description for “Dragon Tattoo.” Apologies for its verbosity:
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, ruthless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from almost forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vanger's are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.
The rape-revenge cycle of “Spit on Your Grave” is the whole story. It was designed to appeal to our darker, prurient desires, and then to metaphorically kill them off, one by one.
The rape/revenge scenes of “Dragon” aren’t even mentioned in this overlong synopsis. The movie’s themes are certainly about “men who hate women” (it’s the Swedish title of both novel and movie: “Män som hatar kvinnor”), but the movie’s a mystery, a thriller, a crime drama, and a kind of romance/buddy tale. The rape/revenge scenes, if we haven’t read the novel, actually come as a shock. They come, to be honest, as a kind of disappointment. Lisbeth is our hero here. We thought she was too smart to get trapped in this manner. It’s like watching Spider-Man getting raped.
Which brings me back to this line:
But [Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. [Emphasis mine.]
Again, I’m not quite sure what he means. “Pornographic” in the sense that the scenes show naked bodies? Or “pornographic” in the sense that the scenes arouse lust? I certainly agree with the former definition (we see two people naked) but not the latter. At least the scenes raised no lust in me. And I’m hardly a boy scout.
Rape scenes are always going to inspire some mix of horror and lust, and the goal of a responsible filmmaker, as opposed to an exploitation filmmaker, is to tamp down the lust and increase the horror. And the best way of doing this it to let us know the woman. Let us care about the woman. She can’t be a stranger and she can’t be fake.
Oplev does this. Lisbeth is never sexualized during the film—that helps—but more importantly, at this point in the story, we know enough about her to care about her. Lisbeth reminds us of women we know so we care what happens to her; the woman in “Spit” reminds us of women we don’t know so we don’t. It helps that Noomi Rapace in “Dragon” is a real actress and Camille Keaton in “Spit” is not. She’s a B-movie actress in the middle of an exploitation film, and almost every scene is so badly produced it reminds us that it’s being staged. She can’t remind us of women we know because she’s obviously not real.
There's great irony in Scott's piece. Certain violent movies, he argues, create equivalence (through intensity) or collapse distinctions (through chronology), but I would argue it's actually Scott who does this. He focuses on meaningless similarities and ignores meaningful distinctions. That's either no way to begin a serious discussion about movie violence...or the best way.
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