A writer’s reflections on violence
Quentin Tarantino was right to be mad. Last week, in an interview with the journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Tarantino reacted testily when asked for his thoughts on the cultural impact of violence in the movies: “Don’t ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question…You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” And although Tarantino ultimately comes off, as he often does in his press appearances, as a bit of a dick, it’s hard to blame him. For most of his career, he’s found himself at the center of the debate over cinematic violence, despite the fact that most of his films, Kill Bill notwithstanding, aren’t nearly as violent as their reputations would imply. A movie like Pulp Fiction contains only a few seconds of actual violence, as opposed to the nonstop killing we see in many mainstream action films, so Tarantino’s irritation at being asked such questions again isn’t hard to understand. Yet while I don’t much feel like entering that particular discussion either, I think it’s worth asking why the same handful of works and artists are repeatedly invoked as illustrations of violence in the media, even as countless other, even more violent movies are quickly forgotten.
The statement by Wayne La Pierre of the NRA in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre was stupefying on many levels, but especially with regard to the movies he mentioned, which were limited to “blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers.” Setting aside the fact that neither is a slasher film, or even particularly graphic in its onscreen violence, it’s a little odd that the most recent of the two movies he decries is more than a decade old, when dozens of objectively more violent films have been released in the meantime. Clearly, these movies, both of which I admire with reservations, aren’t disposable or forgettable: they’re ambitious, stylish, problematic films that implicate us as much as the characters, and many viewers still haven’t gotten over it. Most audiences, it seems, handle cinematic bloodshed in much the same way as I’ve noted they deal with surprises. They don’t mind being surprised, or shown graphic violence, in the context of a genre they understand, but when their assumptions about a work of art are called into question—or if it makes them uncomfortable—they feel what Pauline Kael, Tarantino’s favorite movie critic, observed all these years ago about Bonnie and Clyde:
Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.
Of course, the kind of violence that really shakes and infuriates an audience is very rare, which is why LaPierre had to reach so far back in time for his examples. For most works of art, violence functions for the artist much as smoking does for actors. The reason why there’s so much smoking in movies isn’t because Hollywood is determined to glamorize tobacco use, or is somehow in the pocket of the cigarette companies, but because smoking is a tremendously useful tool for performers, who are always looking for something to do with their hands: it gives them a wide range of ways to emphasize lines or emotional beats, and no comparable bit of business has managed to take its place. Similarly, violence is a proven, replicable way of provoking a reaction from the audience, and it doesn’t require much skill to pull off. Suspense in itself is tremendously hard to achieve, but putting a pistol in a character’s hand is easy, and in an art form starved for reliable tricks, it isn’t surprising that filmmakers often turn to violence for dramatic effects. Movies don’t glorify violence; they glorify the narrative jolts that violence can provide. When a movie resorts to periodic bursts of violence to keep the audience awake, it’s simply following Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
And I’m no exception. I’ve noted before how I inserted a violent scene into the first part of The Icon Thief because I felt that the story was lacking a necessary action beat, and I’ve often found myself parceling out moments of violence throughout my novels—which tend to have a pretty high body count—as if laying in dance numbers in a musical. I feel justified in doing this because this is one of the conventions of suspense fiction, and I’d like to believe that the violence in my novels is at least inventive, powerful, and integral to the plot. But I have misgivings about it as well, if only because I see all too clearly how violence can become a crutch, a way of artificially propping up a story that lacks organic excitement. Here, as in everything else, it all comes to down to craft. When I think about the works of art that will be experienced by my daughter Beatrix—who, after all, was named after a character in a Tarantino movie—I find that I’m less worried about her seeing violent films than in settling for movies that use violence as a substitute for craftsmanship. The problem isn’t violent movies; the problem is bad movies of any kind. And the only way to discourage mindless violence is to honor those artists who use it mindfully and well.