FILM VIOLENCE: History, Ideology, Genre - James Kendrick

(Short Cuts)
144 pages

            I already gave a recommendation for this book in the June issue of RUE MORGUE, but I think it deserves a more detailed review, so here's a longer, cyber-version.
            FILM VIOLENCE is another in a long line of concise & condensed studies, or at least clever overviews, of significant film topics, themes and (sub)genres coming from Wallflower. It is number 45 in their ever-growing Short Cuts series. I've already covered some previous titles here, like FILM GENRE: From Iconography to Ideology by Barry Keith Grant.
            The book is divided into four chapters. Part one deals with "What do we mean by 'film violence'?" and maps the complexity of the problem. First and foremost, Mr. Kendrick presents the topic as crucial to understanding cinema itself, since violence in all its guises is inherent to the flickering, "moving" image (violence on the technological level: light piercing the eyeball and deluding the brain with a deception of life). More obviously, it is linked to the necessity for drama and conflict in what is basically narrative art. Furthermore, "understanding film violence is central to understanding the social and historical role of the cinema" (p. 4). 
The author endeavors (and succeeds) in his attempt to provide a general foundation for understanding film violence from historical, ideological and generic perspectives, which entails looking at how film violence has affected and been affected by governmental policies, box-office receipts, gender difference, shifting notions of genre, well-known auteurs, changes in narrative and broad social trends. Violence, for Mr. Kendrick, is a "complex signifier" and he consistently refuses monolithic definitions, preferring its presentation as a complex mode of signification that needs to be thoroughly grounded in historical, cultural and industrial contexts as well as subjective experience. 
            Chapter two traces the depiction of film violence from the silent era until the present day, focusing on aesthetic innovations (special effects, slow motion etc) and various social responses to it. As the author puts it, "people have been shooting and stabbing and slaughtering each other onscreen since the movies began, and the only difference between then and now is that filmmakers have adopted and made conventional increasingly graphic means of depicting these violent behaviors" (p. 14). The crucial shift comes in the 1960s, when explicit cinematic violence ventured from the disreputable grindhouse B-movies into the respectable mainstream – first in Europe and Japan (esp. samurai films), then in the USA, too (largely thanks to Hitchcock's PSYCHO and BIRDS).
            Chapter three focuses on how violence was used in several of Hollywood's most popular genres (western, horror and action). Representation of violence in these genres is connected to their ideological functions and their changes over time. Horror is dealt with in about 10 pages, with special stress put on concepts of taboo, monstrosity and transgression (thematic, ideological and visual).  
Mr. Kendrick's brief analysis of Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) is rather unconvincing and problematic: this film is labeled "reactionary" because it offers "a sharp critique of excess in any form, particularly meaningless sexual excess" (p. 87). So it would seem, according to Mr. Kendrick, that "meaningless sexual excess" should, actually, be presented as progressive? Morrissey's film is called "conservative" because of its ironic stance towards the sexual revolution of its time. This is reminiscent of Robin Wood's famous misunderstanding of Cronenberg's early horror films, criticized for being against the "liberal" party line according to which meaningless sexual excess was progressive and deserved all the praise. This is surprisingly narrow-minded in an otherwise quite decent overview of the role of violence in horror film and various theoretical approaches attendant to it.
            Finally, chapter four offers a case study of the central role of violence in the films of directors of the New American Cinema in the 1970s, also known as The Film-School Generation (F. F. Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Paul Schrader, Brian de Palma...) and shows how they have reworked classical representations of violence to distinguish themselves from the previous generations of filmmakers. With this chapter the book ends somewhat abruptly, without conclusion of any kind. Instead, there are helpful items like selected Filmography, Bibliography and Index.
            FILM VIOLENCE: History, Ideology, Genre is a scholarly text, but it is clear and highly readable for those who are not film students. Its arguments are well supported with a wide selection of quotes from relevant studies on the subject so that it provides a rich overview of the variety of implications that film violence can have. As such, it is vastly informative and educational, insightful and revelatory to all readers interested in one of the essential cinematic traits, fundamental for understanding cinema itself.


FILM GENRE: From Iconography to Ideology - Barry Keith Grant

Wallflower (Short Cuts)
London and New York, 2007
132 pp
This book is another one in the long and precious series 'Short Cuts' by Wallflower, made up of short guides to various aspects of cinema. The series includes titles like CRIME FILM: Investigating The Scene, SHAKESPEARE ON FILM: Such Things as Dreams Are Made Of, WAR CINEMA: Hollywood on the Front Line, THE NEW HOLLYWOOD: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars, FILM NOIR: From Berlin to Sin City, THE HORROR GENRE: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch and dozens of others.
            The high standards established in the previous books are met in this one as well. No big surprise since the author, Barry Keith Grant, is the professor of Popular Culture and Film at Brock University and is one of the leading authorities on film genre – among other things, he is the editor of the three huge volumes of the indispensable FILM GENRE READER. No wonder, then, that he provides this highly readable, informative and authoritative introduction to all issues pertaining to the question of genre.
            Mr. Grant opens the book reminding us that the term genre has at least three major meanings: 1) it refers to a particular mode of film production, 2) it is a convenient consumer index announcing the kind of content to be expected in a given film, and 3) it is a critical concept, mapping out the taxonomy of popular film and pop culture in general. Then he goes on to analyze the term on the level of the generic system (the relation of individual genres to each other and to Hollywood production in general), individual genres (defining individual genres and their common elements) and individual films (reading specific films in their generic context).
            Genre as a concept is placed in its context within the popular culture and its origin is found in the classical studio system from 1920ies to 1950ies., with their economy of expression (through recognizable iconography and conventions) as the key factor in their market value. The studio system provided a stable context for filmmakers to work with consistency and to be creative and expressive within the given confines. The key elements of genre are recognized in conventions, iconography, setting, types of stories and characters, stories and themes. These are all illustrated with examples from well-known genre films.
            Never losing itself in abstractions and definitions, this guide constantly goes back to examples, providing minute case studies to elaborate a given concept: thus, film noir, the musical and horror film are among those singled out to illustrate the application of various theoretical tools in their understanding. Special place is given to analysis of genre and its role in society: genre is basically seen as a modern myth in which gathering in front of the cinema screen has the same purposes that in previous centuries gatherings around the fire were used. Of course, these shared dreams, hopes, fears and values are liable to be abused, and Mr. Grant pays due attention to various ideological uses of generic stories.
            The common complaint implied in the dichotomy: genre vs. art is explained and convincingly negated by the case study of John Ford and his use of the western genre conventions for his idiosyncratic style. It is even better supported by the case studies of Howard Hawks, as another 'genre director' who managed to be an 'author' at the same time, and of Fritz Lang and his peculiar use of genre. The chapter on gender and genre provides a very interesting modern reading of such action classics as DIE HARD and BLUE STEEL and the book concludes with a brief chapter on the genres outside of Hollywood: Italian 'spaghetti western', Hong Kong action films, Japanese samurai and monster movies, etc. Sadly, the book is limited to Hollywood's genres, and not enough space is given to their influence on film genres in Europe and Asia, which is merely hinted.
            If you're theoretically inclined, this book provides an invaluable essence of all varieties of approaches to genre and its meaning. At the same time, FILM GENRE is a clear, easily understandable, well-supported account of what a genre means and how it accomplishes what it set out to do. Because of that, it can serve as an eye-opener to any genre film buff out there who may not have wondered about the possible ideological readings of his or her favorite entertainment. No entertainment is innocent and no genre film is 'just for fun': Barry Keith Grant's books reminds us of the uses and abuses of generic iconography and of hidden meanings inherent to our favorite genres. That's why it is strongly recommended to every student of popular culture and to every cinemagoer who doesn't leave their brain at the box office.



Ghoul's rating: 3/5

PROMETHEUS is pretty far from what it could and should have been, and from what we had the right to expect from Ridley Scott and his premise. However, despite all its problems, it still represents a very rare, almost unique breed of filmmaking which definitely deserves to be enjoyed in the cinema theater, not at home. That which is undoubtedly great - pompous scenery, spectacular space ships, alien landscapes, special effects and the like - can be experienced only on the big screen. If you should see one movie in the cinema in the coming days / weeks, it's definitely PROMETHEUS. But do not forget to enter the cinema with reduced expectations. Try not to be influenced by the hype machine and, if possible, to forget the heights achieved by ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER some 30-35 years ago. PROMETHEUS is a decent, intriguing, somewhat exciting film, but it's far from a masterpiece.
It is good enough that it shouldn't be spoilt for you, and I certainly don't want to do that. This is the reason why, instead of a thorough analysis, at this point I offer only the listing of the film's major qualities and faults, without arguments, examples and spoiler material which would be inevitable if I were to illustrate my points with examples from the film.

So, these are the best elements of the film:

+ A good concept, intriguing ideas, more (sporadic) intelligence displayed than in the average recent American blockbuster.

+ Excellent visual component, especially in areas based on the designs by H. R. Giger.

+ Exceptional visual effects, excellent make-up efx and creatures.

+ Intriguing character of David (the android) and wonderful acting by Michael Fassbender portraying him.

+ At least one "mystery" from ALIEN is now clarified: the nature and purpose of the "Space Jockey", and indirectly, those of alien xenomorphs themselves.

+ Good pacing, no boredom; a fluent and entertaining film.

On the other hand, these are the film's main problems:

- Viewed as a prequel to ALIEN (which it definitely is), PROMETHEUS is unsatisfactory both in terms of ideas and overall effect.

- The plot is designed as if this were a pilot episode for a series, not a separate film; too many crucial issues at the core of the plot remain vague, underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

- A number of illogical situations and unmotivated behavior, inadequate to the context, including an amazingly chaotic disregard for basic procedures appropriate for such an expedition (security, weapons, quarantine, the principle of subordination, command line, etc).

- Blatantly unfounded and unconvincing motivation for the trillionaire Weyland to jumpstart the entire long, complicated and expensive expedition, which motivation remains unchallenged even when the hostile nature of the planet's environment and the Engineers themselves become more than apparent.

- Ambivalent, vague motivation for the android.

- Too much freedom in the departments of physics and physiology of both human and nonhuman organisms; credibility and physical probability are dramatically stretched almost to the realm of miracles and fairy tales.

- Lack of clear and firm rules regarding the "anything goes" liquid in the alien vessels; haphazard modes of reproduction and life cycles of different creatures resulting from contact with it.

- The conclusion is too rushed, with plenty of action, sound and fury, but with progressively less and less sense, tension and emotional involvement towards the end.

- A terribly bad ending (the last five minutes).

- Not enough Giger: they re-used his old, well-known designs for ALIEN, but they did not hire him to produce anything really new and unseen. The non-Giger visuals are okay, but far from memorable and unique like Giger's.

To conclude: it is fine to see a film brave enough to be playful with big questions and occasional nihilism and blasphemy, but it's a pity that nothing much is really done with those, probably leaving a lot for the sequel which may or may not happen. The film's main problem is trying to merge an ALIEN-like horror film with a concept which would've been better off without the forced links to ALIEN mythology. The result is neither a gripping, suspenseful horror nor is it a very clever Sci-Fi film of big ideas: PROMETHEUS is middling in both departments. Still, it is not entirely a failure, there is some courage and cleverness amid the silly clichés and forced scenes, and PROMETHEUS deserves to be seen – but, like I said, with lowered expectations.