Film Violence and the Institutionalization of the Cinema

Film Violence and the Institutionalization of the Cinema

J. David Slocum

SOCIAL scientists have traditionally conceptualized media as serving one of two functions in society: Either they effect social change, as in the case of muckraking journalists whose illumination of social ills and inequities contributed to amelioration, or they further the social control of predominant ideologies and social structures (Viswanath and Demers, 1999). The latter function, by which mainstream media perpetuate existing institutions, regnant values, and normative social systems, underlies many recent analyses (Ewen, 1992; Gitlin, 1981; Herman and Chomsky, 1988; Paletz and Entman, 1981). Not surprisingly, Hollywood cinema has figured importantly in efforts to posit media as significant forces in the consolidation, extension, and continuation of the established social order. Increasingly, though, film scholars have sought to complicate prevailing models of social control by emphasizing the ongoing contestation of dominant values and norms occurring in contemporary popular and even classical cinema (Polan, 1985; Gaines, 1992; Bernstein, 1999). Their guiding assumption is that the regular oscillation between popular cinema’s challenges to and maintenance of social values and structures enables Hollywood to serve as both an agent of social control and change.

Film violence can be seen as an especially telling manifestation of the struggles of popular cinema to balance at any given time the forces changing society and those controlling it. In their groundbreaking social histories of film of the mid-1970s, Robert Sklar and Garth Jowett revised earlier accounts of Hollywood’s development and reconceived the representation of violence (Sklar, 1994 [1975]; Jowett, 1976). Rather than simply being a contentious subject for policy-makers or industry regulators, these images betrayed broader social antagonisms. Writing about Mack Sennett’s slapstick films made during World War I and the great influx of immigrants that transformed America’s cities, Sklar observes,

Sennett’s comedies, appearing in an era of strife and official violence,

gave audiences their first glimpses of a social perspective that was to

become one of the most emotionally powerful of Hollywood formulas — the

anarchic individual pitted against disordered violent authority–which

reemerged in later periods of upheaval in the early 1930s and late 1960s”

(1994, 109).

He views violence as a manifestation of deeply rooted cultural conflicts and, crucially, suggests the actions of social authority–in Sennett’s films, the police–can be construed as violent just as readily as those of individuals. In doing so, the analysis also demonstrates the possibilities for examining cinema as a medium in which contests over social power and prestige were played out.

My proposal here is broader still: namely, that the history and recurrence of film violence, certainly in Hollywood productions, represents not only an account of shifting cinematic standards and cultural values regarding the use of force or aggression, but an element in the ongoing negotiation of the place and meaning of cinema itself in society. Such a proposal is by nature speculative. It surveys links between images or implications of violence from across film history and specific changes in normative film stylistics, dominant production or exhibition practices, and cinematic technologies. It likewise builds on correspondences between film violence and film industry policies, box office trends, government policy, and individual public debates about the medium of film or media generally. The results, I hope, are both a more expansive vision of Hollywood film violence and an innovative approach to understanding the shifting social role of American cinema.

Cinema is a popular cultural institution that helps to mediate a broad spectrum of social meanings, values, and structures (Tudor, 1972). Yet depictions of violent behavior are special: They invoke some of society’s most central and guiding values, those which justify the use of force, illuminate the parameters of social order, and demarcate legitimate from illegitimate action. Put simply, the place of violence in social life lends special significance to public discourse about violence in films. The history of film violence thus offers one account of cinema’s evolving role as a crucible of standards of legitimate action and social order.

A Century of Film Violence and the Institution of Cinema

The emergence of early cinema as a popular medium coincided with the development of an increasingly modern and urban U.S. society largely populated by ethnic immigrants. Film historian Tom Gunning’s notion of”an aesthetic of astonishment” conveys something of the stimulation, mechanization, speed, and increasingly visual elements that conjoined cinematic and social experience of the time. It also identifies an aspect of the disquieting power of cinema perceived by early opponents of the medium (Gunning, 1989). Local lawmakers and social reformers, who typically saw in this power the potential to corrupt children or to incite uneducated (ethnic) working-class viewers, sought to limit film content and exhibition. Boxing films (either recreations or actual footage of prizefights) were a continual topic of reformist debate nearly from the beginnings of cinema; in 1896, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight became immensely popular and therefore a target of reformers who were concerned about its effects. Debates over boxing in films explicitly engaged what many saw as the corrupting influence of unsavory content on women and workers. In the process, however, public discourse revealed a struggle over the cultural place of cinema and, even more, leisure for these groups at a time of economic prosperity and urbanization (Streible, 1989; Izod, 1988; Hansen, 1991).

As narrative films became increasingly prevalent in U.S. film production toward the end of the first decade of the twentieth century and the place of cinema in urban life continued to expand, local lawmakers took a more active stance, closing theaters, arresting exhibitors, and condemning specific films as corrupting. (Prizefight films were banned in 1912.) In 1909, The People’s Institute, a reformist group in New York City, founded the National Board of Censorship. With financial ties to the Motion Pictures Patent Trust, this group, which was shortly there-after renamed the National Board of Review, reviewed and gave approval to individual productions. The Board’s guidelines drew from eight prohibitive standards: number four involved undue depictions of crime; number five prohibited the “unnecessary elaboration or prolongation of suffering, brutality, vulgarity, violence, or crime” (Feldman, 1977, pp. 64-65). More revealing than the guidelines themselves, however, was their selective enforcement. The Board limited its jurisdiction to five- and ten-cent theaters, thereby creating a double standard that enabled costlier theaters catering to middle-class viewers to show more provocative films, like the white slavery cycle of the early 1910s, without formal approval (Izod, 1988, 16-25). As has occurred regularly since, official and public efforts to address and regulate violent movie content were intertwined with evolving social and economic conditions.

Thanks in part to such developments, both filmmaking norms and filmmakers’ relations to prevailing institutions, including government, stabilized throughout the decade. Paralleling Robert Sklar’s observation of the social role of Mack Sennett’s comedies noted above, Peter Kramer has argued that filmic slapstick was a fully fledged cultural form and industrial practice that coincided with and contributed to the institutionalization of what became known as Classical Hollywood Cinema (Kramer, 2000). Thus in pictures like The Butcher Boy (1917), the pratfalls of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle tussling in a candy store, become symptomatic of the consolidation of this normative film style and dominant industrial mode of production and distribution in the United States that is canonically dated at 1917 (Bordwell). The most famous film of the decade, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) became the subject of great public and political debate for its portrayals of African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as the disturbances caused by its screening in several cities. A landmark in the evolution of filmic storytelling and, especially, editing, the film helped to secure the place of cinema as a respectable social entertainment for middle-class viewers and as a cultural space in which values could be contested.

As moviemakers were normalizing their product, they used the First World War as an occasion to expand their global distribution (replacing the productions of European cinemas ravaged by war) and to expand their domestic role. Still a fledgling industry relatively new to southern California, “Hollywood”–which, by 1918, was a commonplace generic designation for the American film industry–became an important component of the U.S. government’s propaganda campaign aimed at shaping public opinion favorable to war efforts. At the heart of the campaign was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), formed in April 1917, headed by progressive journalist George Creel. Coordinating the mobilization of a legion of speakers and the distribution of millions of pamphlets, the “Creel Committee” also worked with film producers to coordinate the patriotic messages of productions like A Bullet for Berlin (1918), featuring cowboy star William S. Hart, and to use theaters as public spaces for speeches about the war and the sale of Liberty Bonds. These efforts were gradual and sometimes contested, as in Philadelphia when local censors attempted to cut scenes of violence and semi-nudity from D.W. Griffith’s war drama, Hearts of the World (1918). Overall, though, images and suggestions of wartime brutality contributed to widespread acceptance of cinema as the predominant institution for popular entertainment. World War I was a turning point for cinema as a national medium that not only contested values but also shaped them.

With the formal alliance with Washington over and the single-mindedness of wartime productions in the past, Hollywood suffered from both falling theater attendance and a series of scandals that generated public outcry over Hollywood morality on- and off-screen. In 1922, the industry averted a number of state censorship efforts by forming the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. Throughout that decade and into the 1930s, the MPPDA, better known as the Hays Office for its head, Will B. Hays, sought to establish standards for motion picture production; in the process, the office worked to mollify lobbying groups, especially those representing religious interests, and to stave off governmental efforts in censorship or statutory regulation of film production. A Production Code, initially drafted in 1930 in cooperation with powerful Catholic critics of motion picture morality, revised over succeeding years, and then backed with an enforcement mechanism in 1934, was the most concrete and effective instrument devised by the industry for self-regulation and public relations.

The Code emphasized the responsibility of filmmakers to create popular entertainment, to adhere to common standards of morality and decency, and not to violate the sensibilities of the audience. Yet most of the Code addressed social concerns about sexual impropriety, nudity, and the immorality expressed through deviant behavior. Its specific prohibitions regarding violence were vague: Under the applications concerning “crimes against the law,” the overriding concern with depictions of “murder” and “crime” is that specific details or techniques not be presented “to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation” (Belton, 1996, p. 139). With the cooperation of the studios, the Code succeeded in circumscribing images of violence so that their function remained instrumental, mostly validating existing values, and never excessively subverting mainstream assumptions.

The evolution of the Production Code illustrated the complex dynamic by which Hollywood worked through pressing social concerns and shaped cinematic standards corresponding to predominant ideology and values. Multiple studies of the morality of film narratives and individual spectacles–shootings, whippings, beatings, stabbings–and their supposed effects on viewers, especially youths and immigrants, appeared at the time. The most famous work of the era was the popular summary of a nine-volume study sponsored by the Payne Fund: Henry James Forman’s Our Movie-Made Children (1933) portrayed children as “unmarked slates” requiring protection from the scope and power of motion pictures. Writing euphemistically, his concern about the dangers of “movies in a crowded section” is a holdover from earlier, progressive reformers’ unease regarding ethnic workers in urban areas (Forman, 1933: 121-40, 251-72; Jowett et al, 1996). As film historian Richard Maltby suggests, contrasting the illegitimacy of violent action with the legitimacy of the government’s use of force in director Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1931) and throughout the gangster genre, criminal behavior on film became a register for exploring the shifting role of violence and its impact in a turbulent age (Maltby, 2000). Even more, some have argued that the Code was only part of a broader “Industry Policy” established to regulate and enforce standards of filmmaking that would uphold certain moral and social values and accommodate the interests of big business, political and lobbying groups, and foreign governments (Vasey, 1999). The public discourse on criminality in film bespoke concerns with the legitimacy of violence and finally social order. Popular cinema was the primary national venue through which these concerns were expressed and debated at a transfomative moment when sound technology was introduced, a variety of genres were honed, and Hollywood resituated itself in Depression-era America. The Code and its proscriptions finally helped to stabilize a new cultural role for sound movies and contributed to a shift by movie-makers from questioning and defying middle-class values to supporting them (Ruth, 1996; Munby, 1999; Maltby, 2000).

During the Second World War, an alliance between Washington, Hollywood, and American audiences regulated how the horrors of armed conflict were represented (Koppes, 1987, 1997; Polan, 1986). The Production Code provided filmmakers with the parameters through which to present images of physical force or psychic trauma that could, in years of Depression and war alike, emphasize for audiences the cultural negotiations between good, sanctioned actions and criminal or evil ones. The federal government’s Office of War Information, founded in 1942 and charged with monitoring and collaborating with the studios in order to ensure their contribution to the war effort, was keenly aware of the dangers in presenting war in its full, intense, and graphic reality. Instead, the suggestion of brutal action and the incremental increase in depictions of violence against Americans throughout the war enabled filmmakers to contain these shocking images in formulaic narratives with upbeat or at least reaffirming endings. Popular audiences demanded increasingly direct images of violence, indeed of deaths and killings, when they concluded that sanitized images failed to reflect the experience of their loved ones. The government acceded. In February, 1944, the OWI eased restraints on the depiction in movies of Japanese brutality, noting especially how harshly the enemy was known generally to have been treating American prisoners of war. Art historian George H. Roeder, Jr. has noted that popular cinema was central to the overall “visual experience” of the war, which finally encouraged polarized ways of seeing the conflict between the Allies and Axis powers (Roeder, 1993). He goes on to claim that it was precisely the consolidation and familiarity of existing Hollywood storytelling practices that suited the government’s political aims of maintaining morale. At the same time, the ideological differences between the United States and its German and Japanese enemies were underscored, along with the industry’s commitment to insuring continuing box-office success and industry profits (Roeder, 1993; Schatz, 1997). Even as popular cinema served as a powerful institution of social control and collaboration, in other words, the values and standards constituting that control changed in ways that made manifest the violent basis of social order and the legitimacy of violent action in extreme situations like wartime.

The Code and its underlying cultural assumptions faced three immediate postwar challenges: the end of the war itself, a changed marketplace for movie-going, and the breakup of the studio system prompted by the Supreme Court’s Paramount antitrust decision in 1948. Increasingly graphic images in many productions were among the results. Film noir like Double Indemnity (1944), Gun Crazy (1950), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) overtly challenged both the prevailing narrative filmmaking conventions and reigning cultural values of Classical Hollywood. As had occurred in the late 1920 and early ’30s, this period of industry transformation was also marked by a generic revision. Westerns examined struggles over leadership and masculinity; Red River (1948) and High Noon (1952) were among the productions that laid the basis for other “psychological westerns” that explored American standards of individualism and community. Melodramas such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956) questioned the transmission of values and authority between generations and occasionally, as in Some Came Running (1958), even engaged class issues typically ignored by Hollywood by stressing the darkness of American cities, psyches, and behavior. In particular, the eruption of postwar anxieties into brutal action produced images of unprecedented and irrational violence on-screen. Instances of violence across these genres punctuated the changes being made in narrative form and lent weight to the psychological and political questions they posed.

It should nevertheless be remembered that while violence was escalating in genre films and elsewhere, the most successful productions at the box office during the 1950s remained biblical epics and non-explicitly violent fare. The studios were again renegotiating their social role and seeking to remain the pre-eminent popular entertainment medium. Amidst viewing conditions fragmented by competition with television and increasingly diverse popular cultural practices, including foreign art cinema, U.S. filmmakers experimented with technologies like widescreen and drive-ins and revived genres like science fiction. Contrary to the experience of the war years, when it worked in concert with the government and viewers, Hollywood had to produce films for a more conflicted and morally ambiguous culture. The investigations of the motion picture industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee–and the studios’ acquiescence to the Committee’s pressures–were only the most conspicuous of signs that popular cinema had to reposition itself politically and culturally.

Hollywood refracted the anxieties and fears of the period, and much critical discourse analyzed the violent myths and symbols that had long informed popular cinema. At the time, Robert Warshow penned essays on what he termed “the two most successful creations of American movies … the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns” (1964, 89). Of the former, Warshow saw an extreme, definitively American, and finally tragic individualism expressed through brutal gunplay. The latter featured a central heroic figure who expressed himself most clearly through violent action; such action suggested to postwar audiences anxious over “killing or being killed” that there remained a necessity and responsibility of “establishing satisfactory modes of behavior” (1964, 105). For many, representations of violence epitomized the popular cinema’s process of mirroring conflic–from Cold War paranoia and consumer culture anxiety to post-World War Two traumas and family tensions–pervading contemporary society, reality, and psychology. In films of the late 1950s and early ’60s, from Touch of Evil (1957) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to Goldfinger (1964) and The Chase (1966), violence also betrayed a national cinema vulnerable to external economic conditions and unprepared for mounting anxieties in the society and culture around it.

The later 1960s and early ’70s were the golden age of American film violence, a fact understood by filmmakers and critics at the time and celebrated since. It also became the period known literally as that of “New Hollywood” for its challenges to Classical Hollywood production practices, generic and storytelling norms, and guiding cultural myths, like those of the masculine hero and the redemptive social conflict. Through the exaggeration of formulaic images of aggression, films increasingly mirrored cultural pre-occupations with violence. Productions also emerged from filmmakers’ efforts to expand the bounds of conventional film practice with stylistic and narrative innovations, and the by-then standard use of color film. Many productions also sought to engage specific audiences, like young people and African-Americans. Once again, during a time of national crisis and institutional reconsideration, genre revision became common. Narratives of gangsters, of previous wars, and, in particular, of the West, were subject to reassessment: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Patton (1970), MASH (1970), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Little Big Man (1970) accordingly employed disturbing and unprecedented images of violence to visualize their iconoclastic messages.

The efforts of a mostly new generation of filmmakers to reconsider the possibilities for Hollywood cinema joined in a broader discussion about the nature of human aggression and the impact of violent images. Sam Peckinpah’s stated aim in exaggerating violent images in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1972) was to undermine viewers’ conventional vantage points for watching movie violence (Prince, 1998a). By doing so, he sought to convey the horrors of the era to viewers inured by media to the real violence in society. Critics at the time responded to the unprecedented violent images and the larger public debates variously. Some celebrated the stylized renditions of gore as breakthroughs or as appropriate to the moment, others saw them as necessary cultural documents, and still others derided the films as base and indicative of a decline in both Hollywood cinema and U.S. society. At a moment of popular uncertainty, the break between classical norms for representing aggression with restraint and an emergent willingness to depict violence more graphically was lost on few observers (Alloway, 1971; Kael, 1969; Manvell, 1968). Moreover, for a popular cinema suffering from creative stagnancy, financial doldrums, and the uncertain consequences of recent studio takeovers by non-entertainment conglomerates, innovative productions, many of them featuring graphic violence, helped to energize filmmaking and reorient post-Classical Hollywood.

One context for that reorientation was the growing predominance of television. Images of brutal action and its consequences, particularly those related to the Vietnam War and domestic conflicts, set a high standard for the immediacy and insistence of violence in society. Even as violence grew more and more prevalent in cinema and society alike, increased efforts to make sense of it remained disjointed. During these years, policymakers increased their focus on the “mass media,” of which popular Hollywood cinema was only one component, and one secondary to television. Researchers sought to establish links between violent images and actual behavior, with varied but mostly undramatic results (Berkowitz and Rawlings, 1963; Berkowitz and Geen, 1966; Baker and Ball, 1969). The role of Hollywood as the primary source of popular entertainments grounded in longstanding myths and self-affirming ideology was clearly shifting, but the new function of movies in a self-critical and media-defined society remained unclear.

In the early 1970s, the “New Hollywood” efflorescence of creativity by filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Terrence Malick, Arthur Penn, and Stanley Kubrick achieved its peak (Kolker, 2000). Films like The Godfather (1971), Mean Streets (1973), Badlands (1974), The Conversation (1974), and The Godfather, Part II (1974) exhibited thorough understanding of classical cinema, the innovations of international art cinema, find contemporary critiques of U.S. society and culture. Violence was frequent in these productions, especially as an illustration of the persistent if typically underrepresented place of brutal action in classical filmmaking and American mythology. Also, a number of cycles of films relying on violent action appeared: Hong Kong martial arts films and so-called Blaxploitation pictures, intended initially for narrowly defined urban audiences, as well as more conservative “vigilante” movies like The French Connection (1970), Dirty Harry (1972), its sequel, Magnum Force (1974), and Death Wish (1974), were exceedingly popular.

Beginning with Jaws (1975) and, especially, Star Wars (1977), New Hollywood imperatives were superseded by a “blockbuster mentality.” This new mentality drove many studios to reduce creative risk-taking in search of huge returns from more formulaic entertainments that could be advertised on television, released to more than 1000 domestic theaters simultaneously, distributed readily to foreign markets, and accompanied by profitable merchandizing (Izod, 1988; Prince 1999). The introduction of cable television, VCRs, and multiplexes transformed exhibition practices and finally gave more identifiable shape to the altered role of cinema. So-called “Reaganite entertainment” eventually featured a return to immensely profitable and popular but mostly innocuous films with violence bolstered by special effects technology though emptied of its antiestablishment tenor (Ryan and Kellner, 1988).

Into the 1980s, violence became more excessive and began to elicit greater public comment. Scarface (1983) and the Rambo films (1982, 1985, 1988) were among the movies assailed by cultural critics and used to illustrate the depravity of a number of electronic media, including television and video games. Public discourse on the carnage in horror films or action blockbusters thus ironically became excuses for positing “Hollywood” as a synecdoche for mass media or a culture industry that was increasingly shaped by other media. Less public scrutiny was paid to the more probing images of aggression in films like Raging Bull (1982) and Blue Velvet (1986). Inverting the effort of many in the late 1960s to plumb the depths of human aggression through an understanding of graphic film images, film and cultural critics of the 1980s and early ’90s generated scandals around individual productions that were alleged to represent more widespread moral turpitude and social decay. Dressed to Kill (1980), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1982), Year of the Dragon (1985), and Basic Instinct (1992) were among the movies seized upon as outrageous. They were then made the basis for new standards of “appropriate” and “fair” representation without regard for the subsequent effects of such generalizing (Lyons, 1997; Prince, 1999).

The emergence of cable television and videocassettes provoked greater sensitivity among scholars and public policy makers alike to the meaning of violent images in specific media (Cumberhatch and Howitt, 1989; Donnerstein and Linz, 1986). The proliferation of the horror genre during the decade, for instance, was driven by the demand for these films at video rental stores. Still, most public debate remained selectively cast and avoided the increasing “cartoon” violence of mainstream actions films featuring teenage slashers or hyper-masculinized stars like Stallone and Schwarzennegger and spectacular special effects. An important subset of inquiries into media effects during the 1980s, involving attention to violent pornography, demonstrates the point. Attorney General Edwin Meese oversaw the production in 1986 of a report on obscenity and pornography that devoted a mere three out of its more than 1900 pages to the mainstream film industry; rather than explore Hollywood filmmakers’ tendencies to rely on carefully circumscribed images of sexuality or violence in mainstream cinema, the report dealt almost entirely with a marginalized “adult-only” film business (Final Report of the Attorney General, 1986; Slade, 1984).

Throughout the past century, images and narratives of violence have appeared regularly if variously in popular cinema. Much of the public and critical attention to these representations has been on censorship or media effects, institutional modes of regulation, or specific social concerns. However, tracing their evolution reveals the consistent links between “violence” on-screen and contemporary cultural contests over the import of notions like heroism and the good society. These contests, moreover, tend to occur at times of national crisis and involve a broad-scale reconsideration of social values like criminality and legitimate action. Having insistently served as a cultural space within which these contests have taken place, Hollywood’s changing role as a social institution amidst these evolving depictions of violence merits closer examination.

Norms of Film Violence in Cinema and Society

Among the norms of cinematic production and reception that clarify and mark changes in the popular cinematic representation of violence are narrative, genre, and (often gendered) viewing practices. We might begin to discuss these by considering a capsule view of narrative filmmaking practices during the classical period. It is a cinema of linear narratives, typically centered on individual, white, psychologically well-motivated male protagonists who move toward the resolution of public conflicts. The resolution, furthermore, is a dual one involving both a social integration and heterosexual coupling, which together reaffirm prevailing ideological currents and are usually grounded in national cultural myths. Narratives are presented visually through well-focused compositions, continuity editing, realistic settings, naturalistic lighting, and frequent reliance on generic story forms and recognizable star performers. As outlined by film scholar David Bordwell, these tendencies function to establish the parameters of images of conformity and nonconformity alike. Breaks from these norms, including images or suggestions of violence, thus frequently represent nonconformity, deviance, and transgressive behavior. The images may show violent actions deemed illegitimate but still acceptable as part of a mainstream cultural production (Bordwell et al, 1985, 70-84; Bordwell, 1985).

Narrative norms are important because narrative represents nothing less than popular cinema’s fundamental mode of organizing social, cultural, and psychological experience. The structure, development, and coherence of popular narratives are standard means through which dominant ideology perpetuates itself and recapitulates its guiding myths (Branigan, 1992; Gaines, 1992; Ray, 1985). Narrative conventions in Hollywood cinema strongly inscribe and code representations of violence, creating ideological and formal frameworks for spectacles of destruction and death. Instances of violence in this way punctuate narratives and highlight their structural conflicts and resolutions. Also, when depictions of violence fall outside, run counter to, or exceed those normative frameworks, the acts mount cultural challenges. Film noir, for instance, brings together the convoluted plots, frequent flashbacks, temporal ordering of events, and uncertain, often unredemptive closures with the altered gender roles, expanded and depersonalized consumer society, and repressive and reactionary politics of the postwar years. The brutish acts in many of these films accordingly become markers and symptoms of these layered challenges to previous, culturally-inflected narrative norms. By extension, as suggested earlier, they might also betray changes in the historical relationship between Hollywood and society (Kaplan, 1999; Krutnick, 1991; Naremore, 1998; Telotte, 1989; Polan, 1986).

Generic norms, too, are crucial to the organization and experience of cinema. Film genres “represent an aesthetic and social contract between audiences and filmmakers,” and provide, in Matthew Bernstein’s pointed formulation, “the most revealing link between film and society” (1999, 3). Yet genres are, by nature, subject to revision and subversion. They require ongoing revision to remain culturally relevant; it is precisely the tension between normative structure and variations that enable genres to exist and evolve. The question is to what degree individual films or periods alter the norms that are perceived to constitute a given genre. Writing in 1978, at the end of more than a decade of far-reaching revisionist filmmaking, John Cawelti observed that the significance of genres persists even when the cultural myths underlying them are inverted nostalgically, or revealed as inherently inadequate and destructive. Cawelti concluded, in fact, that even when films express a “dark awareness”–such as the “mythical simplification” that occurs in the inverting of oppositions between criminals and society or family in Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather — they nevertheless reconfigure and extend their respective genres (Cawelti, 1978, 517). In both films, violence is centrally involved in this complex generic transformation. Exemplary are the symbolic invocations of genre offered in the balancing of family life and business at Connie Corleone’s wedding, the reversal of traditional roles evident in the lighthearted treatment of the Barrow gang’s destructive encounters with the law, and the self-consciously ritualized narrative closure afforded by the series of violent spectacles intercut with Michael Corleone’s becoming his nephew’s godfather. If genres are assemblages of cultural forms dependent upon longstanding cultural myths and reshaped by historical imperatives, these productions from the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, like the Western, suggest that violence marks both coherencies and changes (Browne, 1998; Altman, 1999; Dixon, 2000; Neale, 2000).

As repeatedly referenced in the historical survey above, the refiguration of genres has been especially pronounced and active in times of national crisis or social transformation. That refiguration has consistently relied on the dynamic, shifting presence of on-screen violence. To follow Bernstein, both the aesthetic and social terms of the contract they represent between viewer and filmmaker likewise remain subject to revision. Genres evolve, in other words, in ways identifiable from changes in the relationships between viewers, Hollywood, and the broader society.

Part of the function of violence in genres is to produce and maintain social cohesion (Schatz, 1997). Popular filmmaking has adapted the sacrificial act long central to American literature and social theory. The sacrificial mode is one in which “the social is defined by what is given up in order to produce it” (Mizruchi, 1998, 23). During World War Two, Hollywood productions dwelled on the peculiarly American negotiation between individualism and group interest as the basis for a heroic sacrifice to the greater values of defending the nation and preserving democracy. In the midst of actual war, these films depicted the brutality of combat with unprecedented directness. Writing of the beheading death of an African-American at the hands of a sword-wielding Japanese soldier near the close of Bataan (1943), film historian Jeanine Basinger observes that

although we do not actually see the head fall, or blood spurt out, this is

one of the most graphic and violent killings of the pre-sixties period of

film history. Involving the viewer as it does in the swift action, the

effect, even today, is breathtaking. This death finishes out the bad news

for minority figures in the film–for them are reserved the most brutish

deaths (Basinger, 1986, 58)

Deaths, it should be added, that are consistently sacrificial–that is, those serving as an underlying modality or logic through which violence on the battlefront and homefront alike occur–frame the redemptive narrative and affirm the values of the larger society (Left, 1991).

Violence here is not produced by a need to release aggression but by a social imperative to overcome competition, discover kinship by confirming otherness, and affirm hierarchies of central versus marginal individuals (Girard, 1978, 1976, 1977, 1986; Hamerton-Kelly, 1987). From Westerns and melodramas to war films and courtroom dramas, such a cultural logic has proven essential to popular narratives, especially during the classical Hollywood period. Identifying which individuals are sacrificed, how, and in the name of what, grants insight into the evolution of social values. The transformation of the images in which these ritualized acts of violence appear also conveys changes in the relationship between popular cinema and the society around it (McKenna, 1991, 1996). One writer, James Twitchell, goes so far in considering the sacrificial thesis to assert “that the rise of entertainment violence in popular culture has co opted much of the force of religion and jurisprudence. Mass media carry much the same ritualized content through culture” (Twitchell, 1989, 46).(1)

From its earliest years, popular cinema has negotiated the role of women both on screen and as viewers. In fact, underscoring its centrality to various narrative and generic patterns, violence against women has been conceptualized as immanent in classical Hollywood and across more recent popular cinema. Many feminist film theorists have viewed mainstream filmmaking as composed of production and exhibition practices imbricated in an identifiable set of social and political power relations. In the process, these writers have offered sophisticated articulations of the links between filmic representations and cinema’s place in society.

Much of the feminist film theory that developed in the 1970s relied on the notion of a cinematic apparatus through which film technologies interacted with the ideological determinants of the cinematic institution and the psychodynamics of viewers. Classical narrative cinema was seen to repetitively restage the Oedipal drama from the masculine side, following the hero through his difficult separation from the mother to his eventual and triumphal identification with paternal authority. In her seminal work, most notably the essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Laura Mulvey emphasized the problem of the female erotic in classical Hollywood (and, specifically, in films of Josef von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock). Female viewers are presented with a choice to identify with either a male protagonist or secondary female characters who, in Freudian terms, are defined by lack (or castration). The choice for female viewers is therefore between the sadism of a patriarchal figure that subordinates women or the masochism inherent in women subordinated to patriarchy. Moreover, classical cinema not only emphatically defined gender but did so through spectacles of physical and emotional violence. As Mulvey herself wrote of the melodrama, “There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive and erupts into violence in its own private stomping ground, the family” (Mulvey, 1977-78, 53). Violence for Mulvey is grounded in sexual difference manifested both in film narratives and a viewing process that situates popular cinema squarely in a patriarchal society (Mulvey, 1975).

Some theorists responded by questioning essential gender categories and their implications for Mulvey’s spectatorial model. In the horror film, for instance, where one might expect to find spectatorial identifications unfavorable to women (and corresponding to the consistently ghastly images of violence against women on-screen), Barbara Creed, Carol Clover, and others argued for more ambiguous and fluid models. Women viewing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), I Spit on Your Grave (1977), and Halloween (1978) can accordingly identify with the monster’s gaze or their point-of-view could be more changeable (Creed, 1993; Clover, 1992). Other responses to Mulvey included finding instances of femininity rubbing against the patriarchal grain of classical practice, emphasizing the powerful role of women in the narrative development of classical cinema, and re-introducing the Marxian notion of a cinematic apparatus as a less gender-specific means for understanding spectatorship. Running through much feminist film criticism, however, was the presumption that beyond the cumulative exclusions and oppression imaged in mainstream narrative films, the greater potential aggression of these productions was located in the psychodynamics and viewing positions they propagated. Violence remained a means through which cinema, as an institution affirming prevailing values, subordinated women viewers (Carson et al, 1994; Doane et al, 1984).

In the late 1980s, Gaylyn Studlar mounted an original critique of Mulvey and other Freudian-based theoretical writings. Her writings built on the work of Gilles Deleuze, who had moved beyond the strict division of male and female in Freud’s Oedipally-dominated and father-centered theory, as well as the distinction between sadism and masochism. Deleuze instead shifted the locus of masochism to the infant’s relationship with the mother in the pre-Oedipal stage of development. For Studlar, focusing on the productions of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, like Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Scarlet Empress (1934), cinema created a relationship between spectator and screen that draws upon and acts out the experience of infants relating to their mothers and to fantasy. Such relationships rely precisely on a separation of the individual from the cinematic or dream screen and on the recognition that that separation, and the ongoing desire to overcome individuation despite that recognition, is masochistic. The cinematic observer is doubly implicated in this mechanism. Studlar asserts that the pleasures of narrative film involve both secondary and primary identifications, in which the spectator is seduced by both the given “conflict and narrative predicament” and by the cinematic apparatus itself that replays the desires and ambivalence of the pre-Oedipal stage. In this way, her theory potentially brings together the violence of specific film images or “external reality” with the perverse psychic pleasures of masochistic desire (Studlar, 1988: 177-93).

Studlar’s formulations are far-reaching in part because they are not limited to male or female spectators as occurs in theories with Oedipal presuppositions. The very norms of cinematic practice, she suggests, convey violence. The psychic effects of the process of film viewing itself can be more striking and far-reaching than those derived simply from the violent actions or narrative conflicts being dramatized. As a result, an understanding of film violence becomes linked to questions of cinema as an institution with a specific role in society.

These feminist writings, among other film theory, touch on some of the fundamental properties of cinema–the psychic processes involved in viewing moving pictures, the truth-claims made by film texts, the relationships proposed to exist between on-screen representations, their viewing, and social forces in the actual world. Attempts to comprehend the codes and strategies by which texts establish truth-claims and afford viewers privileged access to observable reality or to study how “fiction” and metaphor may make truth claims do not typically fall within public discourse on film violence. However they are epistemological issues that can enrich understanding of films as different as Psycho and the “Zapruder Film” and enable appreciation of how important representations of violence can be to the medium of cinema. They are also social issues that illuminate the deep bonds existing between viewers and the popular cultural medium that represents and, to some extent, shapes and regulates the viewers’ values, standards, and attitudes. These areas of study are crucial to a fuller understanding of narrative film, for just as we believe social values exist in Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens, they are relevant to Hollywood movies and the place of those movies in our individual and social lives.(2)

Norms and Negotiations Today

Over the last twenty or so years, and especially during the 1990s, popular cinema generally and film violence specifically have continued to evolve. Robert Sklar has observed that “the question of historical memory has become the touchstone of movies’ cultural power, as myths and dreams had been in the Great Depression and World War II” (Sklar, 1994, 358). The event whose memory has elicited the greatest critical attention is also among history’s most horrifically violent. Debates about Holocaust films, most notably Schindler’s List (1994), have been wide-ranging but have tended to dwell on the signal issue of how or if to represent genocidal violence (Loshitzky, 1994; Friedlander, 1992). Thus director Steven Spielberg’s decision to take a camera into the gas chamber at Auschwitz becomes for some a limit-case for imaging violence on film. The greater role of movies in shaping popular understandings of the past raises profound questions about traditional modes of understanding history or violence. Beyond recognizing the historical claims made by (and familiar representational forms used in) contemporary films in their depiction of specific events, the challenge is to explore how the representation of historical violence affects viewers’ relationship to cinema and cinema’s relationship to the society the history pertains to (Rosenstone, 1995; Toplin, 1996; Sorlin, 1980; American Historical Review, 1988).

History also furnishes, either through reference to earlier films or cultural formations, a backdrop for the explication of recent movie violence. That backdrop tends to highlight or even rest exclusively in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Paralleling the counterculture’s challenges to traditional social standards and values, Hollywood created scenes of increasing violence that culminated in three films that epitomize for many the era’s imagining of individual and social violence: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). While other films are sometimes added, with Psycho (1960) and Taxi Driver (1976) adduced most frequently as beginning and endpoint, it is the central trilogy that carries most of the cultural freight for the period. These works remain at the heart of today’s cultural imagination of violence and either merit continued study as precursors to the graphic productions of our own time or emphasize a discontinuity between earlier cinematic bloodletting and that of contemporary productions.(3) For critics like Christopher Sharrett, the achievement of filmmakers three decades ago was to subvert classical forms and demythologize popular cinema so that, in today’s media productions, increasingly, traditional modes of structuring and comprehending brutish action, like that of sacrificial violence, no longer hold sway (Sharrett, 1999)(4) The question becomes to what extent contemporary cinema constitutes a legacy of the past, especially the late 1960s and early 70s, when violent film was putatively a committed cultural practice in a tumultuous society, or to what extent today’s movies mark a shift from that past.

For avowedly postmodern critics, violence in contemporary cinema has lost depth and any meaning accrued through traditional relations to the real world. Even the most graphic instance of violence in these films potentially becomes like any other image, homogenized and emptied of meaning or seeming originality. National myths or cultural codes of representation are eroded and other substantive meanings largely evacuated, leaving only the images themselves. For as films become largely self-referential commodities, the concern is that they are increasingly intended for the spectator’s consumption–regardless of “content.” Attempts to critique this process, like Oliver Stone’s excessive use of media pastiche in Natural Born Killers (1994) or Errol Morris’ elevation of formal “documentary” qualities as subject for inquiry in The Thin Blue Line (1988), largely fail as these texts, too, are emptied of meaning by the very familiarity and repetition of the forms they employ. More routine examples of violence in contemporary horror or action films merely rework and re-circulate self-consciously spectacular images that tend to affirm familiar values and existing social structures. Where theorists disagree is how far the claims of postmodern culture extend, and how thoroughly they can be applied to the diversity of today’s filmmaking practices and the range of often ambivalent contemporary film violence.

These theoretical concerns have material corollaries and consequences–especially for a popular cinema in a contemporary society transformed by new media and digital technologies. The transition from studio mass production to more flexible forms of independent production, complicated by “the incorporation of Hollywood into media conglomerates with multiple entertainment interests, exemplify, for some, a `postmodern’ blurring of boundaries (or `de-differentiation’ of) industrial practices, technologies, and cultural forms” (Hill, 1998, 100). The consolidation of media conglomerates also informs contemporary debates about national cinemas meaningfully separate from other media interests in an increasingly globalized and technologized culture. While “Hollywood” motion pictures are still widely circulated and influential, it is necessary today to evaluate the institutional meaning of the designation, the norms of production and exhibition underlying it, the national myths and ideologies shaping its productions and representations of violence, and relationships with viewers. The far-reaching changes wrought by digital editing and effects technologies, in particular, have undercut traditional strategies for assessing verisimilitude and the links between media representations and the actual world; for the study of film violence, this likewise complicates understanding of the bond between viewers and on-screen representations. Similarly, some critics have argued that traditional notions of personal identity have broken down in a contemporary society defined less by over-arching myths and shared ideology and more by technology and media. In such a setting, violent film action reflects a cultural anxiety about differentiating self from other–and needing to ground experience in the body (Seltzer, 1998; Farrell, 1998).

Invoking the body as a central site of social and cinematic experience recalls, in a way, the beginnings of cinema and the initial, visceral reactions of theater-goers to early, often violent attractions. Following the Columbine tragedy, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee convened to hear testimony from media experts on the possible effects of media on the two adolescent perpetrators. Cited at these hearings were some of the ongoing studies of the behavioral influence of media; while the focus of this work moves increasingly toward the violence in new media like video games and cyberspace, the putative effects of television and film continue to be researched (Jenkins, 1999). Cinema, like these new technological media and the larger media landscape they together constitute, continues to change and reposition itself in American and, increasingly, global society. The evolution of norms for narrative and generic storytelling, for film production and exhibition, and for viewing practices, especially involving violent content, persist in contributing to those changes.

Taking a longer view of the history of violence in Hollywood cinema reveals recurrent parallels between depictions of graphic images and public discourse about them and the re-situation of the mainstream American film industry in American society. More precisely, Hollywood has most conspicuously employed images and narratives of violence at times of war or other galvanizing national crises like the Depression or the Cold War. During such moments, American popular cinema has, variously, forged alliances with government and regulated itself in order to avoid governmental intervention, maintained prevailing social norms and critiqued regnant values, and profited from movements both to maintain and to contest existing social structures. In other words, little consistency emerges from an overview of the history of violent film images in terms of their seeming conformity with or deviation from existing norms. There likewise appears no deterministic relationship between instances in which mainstream cinema operates as an agent of social control and those in which it serves as an institution of change.

Yet the correspondences persist and urge closer consideration of specific historical episodes when violent cinema functions as a cultural practice through which the role of cinema is negotiated. And because these representations speak so directly to ongoing contests over social order and the legitimacy of the use of force, these focused studies promise to shed light on the role of cinema as an institution in which public and critical discourse on violence is partly shaped. Indeed, like the society in which it operates, Hollywood cinema continues to rely on circumscribed representations of violence whose meaning reinforces and perpetuates dominant myths of communal order even as it frequently strives to produce forms of violence that challenge the values of viewers and the norms of mainstream culture.


My thanks to Robert Sklar for his support of this essay. Some of the material presented here is adapted from “Violence and American Cinema: Notes for An Investigation,” the introduction to my reader, Violence and American Cinema, forthcoming from Routledge and the American Film Institute in November 2000.


(1) Massacre is a less well-formulated logic of violence that nevertheless illuminates some post-Classical Hollywood and non-U.S, cinema, and the societies from which they emerged. Tzvetan Todorov has argued that massacre reveals a weakness or desuetude in the social fabric rather than performing a social function; instead of publicly confirming otherness, massacre takes place in secret, often remotely, and only vaguely acknowledges the moral law. His notion of a “massacrifice” society also perhaps merits more thoughtful consideration than it has received, especially when addressing recent cinema and contemporary society. This third term literally brings together the characteristics of the other two: victims are selected individually and killed close to home but the killing is committed without ritual and ultimately denied by a society that professes a coherent moral law but permits everything. One can imagine certain New Hollywood or more recent films — The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, or Pulp Fiction come to mind — for which such a category might be illuminating (Todorov, 1999, pp. 144, 253).

(2) My thanks to Edward Branigan for suggesting mention of this point.

(3) Others have identified discursive or cultural shifts that took place during the 1960s or 70s that remain pertinent and even predominant. One example is the transformation in the 1960s of the cultural status of documentary representations of death that arguably made Bonnie and Clyde more acceptable, and continues to shape our viewing of graphic images of death today (Sobchack, 1984; Mullin, 1995; Prince, 1998a, 1998b; Prince 2000; Cook, 2000).

(4) Sharrett addresses this question directly, and at one point in his “Afterword” to Mythologies of Violence, he writes: “Neither the postmodern condition that increasingly reduces the subject to spectator and consumer nor the destruction of human life in real experience and within the culture of representation necessarily suggests any epistemological or historical breaks when we look at the roots of current assumptions and representational practices in American history and ideology” (1999, 414). Unmistakable throughout both his “Introduction” and “Afterword,” however, is the implication of profound exhaustion, disaffection, apocalypse, and crisis in his characterization of contemporary culture–that marks it as separate and distinct from that of the 1960s and ’70s (Sharrett, 1999, pp. 9-20, 413-34).


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J. David Slocum is Assistant Dean in the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, where he teaches Cinema Studies. He is editor of Violence and American Cinema (forthcoming 2000). His essays and reviews on violence, media, and culture have appeared in the American Historical Review, Cineaste, Times Literary. Supplement, and Media, Culture, and Society. Currently he is writing a book on violence and cyberspace.

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