Killing Them (Not So) Softly

This image appeared above the page one fold in the NY Times Arts and Leisure section on Sunday March 3, 2013.

01_gun camera NYTimes

It is both an amusing and a disturbing mash up graphic: that often debated link between screen violence and real life violence that continues to haunt us. This simple image prompted me to look again at how I, a working cinematographer, consider the violent imagery in movies I photograph.

Love may be the great enduring theme in movies but so is hate, and the spawn of hate is violence. Love and hate are sometimes so inextricably linked in life and movies that any simple parsing eludes us. I think of that great scene of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter when he dramatizes with intertwined fingers the eternal struggle for man’s soul.

Right hand “Love”;  left hand “Hate.”
Right hand “Love;” left hand “Hate.”

To some, the Times graphic may be simplistic, yet another journalistic attempt by self-appointed moral guardians to finger point at a paper tiger. Others may find the subject darkly disturbing, but are just not certain how to begin a meaningful dialogue. Many filmmakers, however, just wish the whole topic would flame out like a VFX fireball.

The Times article featured a range of opinions by four writers, including staff movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis. While each view is articulated and impassioned, there is nothing cited in the four essays that we haven’t read before. (What else at this point can we say?) It may seem futile to initiate here yet more discussion of a topic already so polarizing within the Hollywood community. But as a cinematographer, my own perspective is at ground zero of image creation, the camera and lenses that make these images. How can I ignore the image flow arrested by either silver grain or pixels.

I confess to being deeply curious about these ever-changing  technological variations that we create in concert with VFX supervisors. This glossary of what is deemed image violence is as old as cinema itself, starting with the now unbelievable shock effect of a train arriving at La Ciotat station in an early Lumierè film, a scene that, according to problematic cinema lore, caused patrons to rush for the exits.

But it is verifiable that one of the first close-ups in cinema history is a violent one, an outlaw firing a pistol directly into camera in the final shot of Porter’s The Great Train Robbery.

02_great train robbery 1

Ironically, the NY Times gun/camera graphic harkens back to the cameras of Etienne Jules Marey, his “fusil photographique” and the “phrevolver,” both being pre Edison/pre Lumierè disc cameras that the polymath French scientist used to capture benign images of birds in flight.

Marey’s “fusil photographique.”
Marey’s “fusil photographique.”
Marey’s “phrevolver.”
Marey’s “phrevolver.”

In his article, A.O. Scott trod a cautious line, managing to articulate a traditionalist viewpoint about the link between real life violence and movie violence, without actually using the words “movie” or “film.”

But it is absurd to pretend than gun culture is unrelated to popular culture, or that make-believe violence has nothing to do with its real-world correlative. Guns have symbolic as well as actual power, and the practical business of hunting, law enforcement and self-defense has less purchase in our civic life than fantasies of righteous vengeance or brave resistance.

If I read this correctly (and please dispute me if you think otherwise) Scott believes that the power of our pop culture’s (movies, video games, and TV) depiction of violence has more of a grip, “purchase,” on our imagination than they does the reality in quotidian life. This seems to be contrary to what Chris Sullentrop believes in his Times essay. For him, the much-beleaguered area of video games is not the bad boy of the lot. He says we should look instead to the television commercials promoting video games and action movies. That may seem a bit dubious to the hordes taking a pee break during Super Bowl commercials for the coming spring and summer movie mayhem. But I did sense that the relentless onslaught of undifferentiated action movie previews during game breaks made the gridiron violence seem to pale.

Arguably, the most grounded of the four Times articles came from Manohla Dargis, who sketches a capsule history of screen violence and our magnetic attraction to it as embodied in early cinema’s real life and recreated killings. Her focal point is an Edison film about the electrocution of the rogue circus elephant Topsy, from 1903.

And the “recreation” of the execution of McKinley assassin Leon Czolosz.

Dargis quotes a congressman that “steadily the stream of pollution which has flowed forth from Hollywood has become wilder and more turbulent.” At least this pronouncement from inside Washington’s beltway was not a mixed metaphor, but in the spirit of “nothing new,” it flowed from the mouth of Francis D. Culkin in 1934. Dargis speculates on what the congressman would have made of the opening of Oliver Stone’s film Savages, which according to Dargis opens with multiple chain saw decapitations (a Mexican drug cartel’s video).

“Living with Death,” the editorial intro to the four essays, evokes the event that has made the subject of screen violence a hot button again.

In the weeks after more than two dozen children and adults were shot to death in Newtown, Conn., we thought we would long recoil from such grisly scenes staged for entertainment’s sake, especially when the public debate quickly turned to our culture of violence and the violence of our cultural offerings. It’s a cyclical discussion. . .

And, one could add, a cynical one. Yes, in December just days after Newtown, the Hollywood premiere of Django Unchained was duly cancelled, just as the release of Gangster Squad was rescheduled to a January 2013 date, a sympathetic nod to the Aurora movie complex killings on July 20 during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.—The Playlist Blog: “Warner Bros. Considers Moving Gangster Squad to January 11, 2013” link

This did not, however, seem to diminish the trove of million dollar plus, 30 second “spots” aired on Super Bowl Sunday. These trailers ginned up the targeted young male demographic for this coming summer’s guns and more guns movie fare.

Another one of those nagging “what if” correspondences between entertainment fantasy and real life violence came this past January 20 in an image by the Mali photojournalist Issouf Sanogo. An AFP story describes it like this:

A French legionnaire stands guard near armoured vehicles in Niono, in central Mali. His eyes are shielded by combat goggles, and a black mask depicting a grinning skeleton face is wrapped around his nose and mouth. To people familiar with videogaming, his imposing image may be reminiscent of Ghost, one of the characters from the violent game Call of Duty.

The French language story headline reads “Mali: un soldat se croit dans un jeu video.” Subsequently, there was considerable debate about the influence of the video game. Judge for yourself. Here is the advert for Call of Duty.

Ghost rom “Call of Duty.”
Ghost from “Call of Duty.”

And this is Sanogo’s photograph of the French paratrooper:

French paratrooper in Mali, photo by Issouf Sanogo.
French paratrooper in Mali, photo by Issouf Sanogo.

Does it “prove” anything? This is not a conversation that is likely to inspire any dispassionate debate. Recent Oscar winning writer Quentin Tarentino has sometimes come unglued when the subject of  “violence” comes up in interviews for Django Unchained. The maestro of graphic dismemberment spent almost half of his KCRW radio interview with his friend Elvis Mitchell discussing food  in his movies, dismissing the gore in Django by simply admitting, "I have a higher tolerance for viscera than most people." (He wasn't referring to sweetbreads). One is unlikely to find such articulate defense of screen violence on the opposing side, arguing for its moderation. There’s too much money to be made by simply giving the audience what they seem to want. This was Dargis’ point. We (not just we Americans, but the international audience that constitutes an ever-growing box office percentage) seem to have a deeply rooted, dare one say, “primal,” need for scenes of violence—real or imagined: consider much "reality TV" that mines violent criminality.

As many literary historians have said—“Look to the Greeks.” One need look no further than the Iliad or the House of Atreus as embodied by the great tragedian triad of ancient Athens. But is there an equivalence in our response between the poetic wounded and death metaphors of Homer or Euripides, and the blood bag and prosthetic body explosions of many current movies?

How we deal with the subject of violence in visual media is a thorny one. The critic Susan Sontag early on rendered harsh judgment in On Photography of our attraction to the reputable genre of conflict photojournalism, characterizing it as a kind of dark pornography. She revisits it with more empathy in her late work, Regarding the Pain of Others.—Regarding the Pain of Others link

Here, Sontag considers the idea of our growing immunity to horrific images, whether photographs or movies, then dismisses what had become platitudes that equate frequent exposure to violent images to an ever-escalating indifference. After a great deal of hovering, she settles on fundamentally humanistic ground. In fact, whenever we suffer loss of life from actual violence, we most often, individually and as a society, are ennobled by a coming together in heartfelt grief.

Using the final words of Lincoln’s first inaugural address as a title, Steven Pinker published a book in 2011 arguing that especially in Western societies, violence is actually declining. The Better Angels of Our Nature would seem to give lie to the argument that cinematic violence demeans and diminishes our humanity. We as a people are becoming less violent despite the media gore engulfing us. Greek “catharsis” anyone? entry: The Better Angels of Our Nature link

On a personal level, I no longer count the simple dictum that equates exposure to media violence with insensitivity to violence in the real world, but I have charted a personal path, The origins lie in my effort to render alternative national service to the Vietnam War by joining the Peace Corps. From my early days as a camera assistant and operator, I have attempted to avoid movies that I felt exploited mindless violence as a substitute for credible characterization. The few times I hedged that bet I regretted it, on one occasion even removing my name from a film’s credits as a feeble mea culpa.

As filmmakers, I would offer that there is no way to have a meaningful career without engaging the question of how we will deal with movie violence.  Early on, we may be satisfied with an ad hoc approach, film-by-film, even allowing ourselves broad latitude to work on distasteful projects as steps toward building a career. But inevitably, as that career takes shape, we are confronted with screen violence within a broader societal context. Finally, the images we create are part of our legacy to posterity— that is, if we are fortunate to have a few movies survive our own brief moment on the cinematic stage. What are the images we wish to outlive us?

This sort of reflection would seem to me to be worthwhile. Yet, I have cinematography colleagues who have very different perspectives, who either engage movie violence as not much more than an ever-new challenge of creativity and technology—or who consider the debate to be of dubious merit; finally, they say, "It’s just a movie." One colleague, long noted for his resumé of humanistic dramas, was lured into photographing a top grossing tentpole movie that, according to one critic, had a cumulative body count of over 900 souls, (surely many of them CGI), the storyline being drawn from comic book characters.

While I was still a camera operator, a cinematographer whom I had worked with many years as a camera assistant, asked me to do a TV movie. Unusually, I was not able to get a script ahead of the start of production, so I didn’t know the plotline. On the first day of filming we reported to a location inside a corrugated metal Quonset hut of an old military base in San Pedro. In the first scene, a group of Arab terrorists barged in firing automatic weapons into the ceiling, herding a bevy of scantily dressed young women into a shivering group. The rogues had just kidnapped the finalists from a beauty contest and were holding them either for cash ransom or for their ill-defined ideological principles. Take after take the machine guns barked and the ladies screamed. Near the end of the day I warily approached the cinematographer to tell him I couldn’t do this. The sadistic sexism was disturbing enough; the insistent, mindless gunfire was further revolting. I realized then and there just how many dozens of gunshots a crew must endure for every one that makes it into an edited sequence. Not a future I looked forward to. I told the cinematographer I would stay until I found an approved replacement. He assured me that were I to leave, he would never work with me again—and he was true to that promise. A friend took over two days later. I feared that bad fallout from that decision would compromise my already sketchy work possibilities. I was in distress that evening when I reported the decision to Carol. About a week later, a foreign cinematographer, one totally outside the Hollywood system, phoned to ask me to do a film with him in Alberta, Canada. That’s how I became Nestor Almendros’ camera operator on Days of Heaven.

Arrival of the harvesters, “Days of Heaven.”
Arrival of the harvesters, “Days of Heaven.”

Whenever I discuss career options with cinema students and the choices they should make at the beginning of their career, I tell this story as my own cautionary fable.

One door closes, another door opens. Don’t be afraid to close doors to rooms that harbor demons.

Next: "82nd & Fifth," a new Met Museum website: the world's art--- one piece at a time.



Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

Print Edition   Digital Edition
July 2020 AC Magazine Cover June 2020 AC Magazine Cover May 2020 AC Magazine Cover