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Sunday, July 23, 2006

A History of Violence, Sex and the illogic of Indian Censorship

The last David Cronenberg film that really caught my attention was Crash (not the multiracial ensemble drama of last year). In A History of Violence, he proves that he is also a very good director of actors. Such a director not only brings the best performances out of his actors, but also allows in his shot selection for such performances.

The film itself is important because of its underlying structure, which I should say is fairly interesting, to the point of being considered uncommon. Any classification of violent cinema is wrought with oversimplification, so I am not going to fight that when I have my two-bit theory to add.

I suppose one can identify two kinds of structure in violent cinema: the Sam Peckinpah, and the Quentin Tarantino. In the former (typified in Straw Dogs), the violence builds up, breaks out against the protagonist when he is wronged, then this creates a motive for more 'build-up' and the film ends on a larger-scale orgy of vengeful violence unleashed by the hero. This is the formula in most of our classic Indian violent-film narratives, from Virumandi to Jeyam.

The Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand involves a uniform unleashing of violence that usually does not 'build-up'. This creates an entirely different reaction in the film audience. These films are like porn: violence is no longer erotic or provocative (unless you are entirely new to the genre). So this allows for a mechanical titillation, detached study, or even a parody of violence. You can still jerk-off to porn, but the need for porn in the human mind is different from the human need for sensuality and sex. A typical example of this type of violent film, apart from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, is Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

A History of Violence, on the other hand is slightly different from these two types. Its violence seems to build, but the audience quickly notices that it is actually of the mechanical sustained sort that has been fairly in-your-face since the opening scene. But what creates the tension akin to the 'build-up-to-violence' type, yet while it seem to actually be of the steady-state sort? Two reasons: one, is because the victim-perpetrator relationship keeps flipping back-and forth continuously (aided by the constant introduction of newer threats); and two, what actually 'builds-up' is not the 'threat of violence', but the 'threat of non-violence'.

(You cannot keep me from discussing either Hitchcock, Kubrick, or The Godfather) In the first Godfather film, the threat of violence was what kept building up, and then was unleashed in an orgy of vengeance to achieve dramatic and emotional closure. The failing (if you want to call it that) of the third and last film of the Godfather trilogy was while the narration was infused with the idea of this 'threat of non-violence', it was not carried through in the direction. The reason I think the third film was considered to be fairly out of sorts with the first two, was not because it was unlike the first two, but it was too much like the first two. If it was to have been a story of a quest for 'redemption' and the futility of it, then what the story should have fought should have been a constant threat of non-violence. It does allude to it, after-all Coppola isn't an idiot. The father's narrative is threatened by non-violence because the son becomes a wimp singer etc. but it does not carry it through because the 'projected hero' (Andy Garcia, not Al Pacino) becomes a replacement to the Michael, and the Vito of the first and second parts, and his narrative naturally is one of 'a fight against the threat of violence', eventually directed against his lover and cousin.

The narrative of A History of Violence, thus constantly fights the threat of non-violence because the Viggo Mortensen character (we quickly realise unless we are totally stupid) is actually filled with an almost invincible 'superior' violence since the beginning. Unfortunately, there are two things that prevent this idea from reaching the Indian audience (which by the way, has a penchant for keeping its mobile phone on during the show, and also prefers to take the call and loudly chat-away as well, inside the cinema). The first of the two reasons is the understanding of what a film should build up to. This is because our film culture is obstinate enough to be entirely imitative, and cannot hope to explore beyond the 'build-up to violence' sort of narrative that we have rehashed through our film history. The second reason is that our film censors decided to cut out the sex scenes between the Tom and Edie characters.

Tom's unusual finesse in carrying out the first set of killings in his diner should have been the first clue to the character's inherent superior violence, which means that his narrative's denouement is built-up to, not by threatening him with violence, but by threatening him with non-violence. The next clues would have been his behaviour in the sex scene with his wife. For until then, we are ready to accept the myth that he might still be a docile small-town good-American stereotype. But small-town good-Americans do not shag like that, and small good American man's wife is never a sex object; but the scenes show that she is. Unfortunately, none of us in India get to see these scenes (available otherwise here), and get to these understandings of Tom's slight deviance from the norm of 'the victim hero who has been wronged' archetype. Also, the Indian audience is so damn accustomed to even otherwise docile heroes being masters of specialized martial arts during the fight scenes, that the reality that docile men fight-back very differently does not sink in as a clue to the character.

So, there is utter disappointment for the Studio 5 audience when the hero's narrative does not end with a display of an already disappointing one-sided scene of violence; but actually ends with an even more important resolution at the hands of loving domesticity, which he does receive with a certain morbid relief—the non-violence that has been dogging him, which he finally succumbs to. This scene is not merely a post-orgasmic catching-your-breath and hugging-around-in-bed affair. It is the climax. And has been beautifully directed (I should say with just a hint of a comic-book sort of cheekiness/cheesiness).

How can I close any film analysis without a rant at the illogic of Indian censorship? Anything vaguely resembling ass, tits and snatch are out, yet missing facial features, mutilated body-parts, gurgling blood, and 'motherfucker' after 'motherfucker' is in. This merely point out the illogic of the idea behind censorship that talks about 'prurient material that corrupts human minds'. If so much gore and language is not going to provoke us, how the fuck will a bit of skin and bush do? Or are Indian brains considered to be extra-sensitive to only sexual provocation? Bunch of repressed old men who are not getting any, if you asked me.

Idea for Nilu: Porn terrorism. If we are so mature in the face of violence that it does not provoke us at all, then sex should be the next thing terrorists should carry out. Only so that Indians can become mature in the face of that as well.

1:42 pm


Comments to A History of Violence, Sex and the illogic of Indian Censorship

One could argue that it really was Peckinpah who introduced "violence-as-porn" in "The Wild Bunch".

That said, CBFC deserves to go the way of small pox.

posted by Blogger km 

1:50 am, July 25, 2006

Can't agree lesser!!

Although my discovery of the censorship was a monetary disappointment watched it in Mayajaal, I realized the censor did a terrible job of the cuts.

Let me know if you have the Original version.

BTW: how is life treating you?

posted by Blogger Ari 

6:16 pm, July 25, 2006

km: You know, you're right in one sense. I supposed the Peckinpah classification with Straw Dogs in mind, but the Wild Bunch is another story right?

Ari:Life has leanrt not to be too cruel to me. How're you doing mate? I'm sorry don't have the original version. We might have to wait a while for the DVD to arrive in India.

posted by Blogger Anand 

9:00 pm, July 27, 2006

interesting review. i watched and greatly enjoyed the history of violence (albeit uncensored). its a pity if they cut out the sex scenes in india ....they were an essential part of the character buildup (if you recall, there is a difference in the way they make love in different parts of the movie...)

there also seemed to be certain an undertone of humor in certain aspects of the violence...

It didnt win many awards, but i really think it deserved much much more...who knew vigo mortensen could act!

posted by Anonymous ashok 

3:40 am, August 12, 2006

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