Figuring Violence

by Amy Rust

In my course on the American horror film, students witness drownings and stabbings, mutilations and beheadings, murders and rapes. They see sweat and skin and blood and viscera. And the depictions continue week after week after week. The genre’s structure is such, moreover, that it demands female bodies for most of these images and acts. “Boys die,” writes Carol J. Clover in her groundbreaking study, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, “because they make mistakes.” So, too, do some girls. But other girls, “and always the main ones,” she continues, “die… because they are female.”1 True for the slasher films that are Clover’s subject, the logic holds for the genre at large.

In this context, teaching proves challenging. Horror films are, by turns, brutal, offensive, thrilling, and fun, their mix of pleasure and unpleasure notoriously difficult to analyze and assess. As with other works from before and (especially) after the end of the Production Code, the genre seems to agitate and anesthetize audiences at once.2 To wit, David Edelstein coins the term “torture porn” to describe the licentious suffering he finds in films such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and The Devil’s Rejects (2005).3 In their “quest [for] … visceral impact,” he writes, “actual viscera are the final frontier.” The “only point,” meanwhile, “seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments.”4 In my courses, students frequently share this position. Worse, they express its consequences, resigning themselves to the apparently senseless and sadistic abuses screen violence offers characters and spectators alike. Indeed, many students believe these films leave them a terrible choice: enjoy sensations devoid of consequence or simply despair their lack of meaningful sense.

I make it my task, for this reason, to find meaning in the increasingly graphic and corporeal violence that constitutes horror without, at the same time, diminishing the value of the genre’s sensuous claims. To reject the perceptual pleasures and pains (or pleasures in pains) of film violence proves as dangerous, in my estimation, as refusing its representational significance. Such dismissals only corroborate the idea that film violence is gratuitous, a notion my work actively challenges. Indeed, as both scholar and teacher, I pursue the immanent yet indeterminate significance of spectatorial sensations, which supply sites for reimagining and reorganizing even the most brutally gendered relationships to on- and off-screen bodies.

To achieve this goal, I read the technologies that depict and deliver screen violence as figures, a term that suggests how words, images, or—in this case—cinematic techniques forge irreducible encounters between perception (what we see, hear, and feel) and representation.5 As figures, in other words, technologies from handheld camera to editing to digital video are more than mere tools. They shape the contents of film violence as well as organize forms of relation to it. For this reason, figures join material practice to cultural significance and “having” to “making” sense. More important, they inhibit the interpretations they invite, since bodily sensation (what we see, hear, and feel) always precedes and exceeds the cognitive sense (what those sights, sounds, and feelings mean) to which it gives rise. As a result, I tell students, film violence settles and unsettles narrative and historical significance, potentially opening encounters with on-screen brutality to alternative structures of meaning.

In the classroom, we pursue these alternatives by tracing both the contents and forms of film violence. This means exchanging self-evident wholes and uncomplicated effects for techniques that influence viewers in ways they may or may not expect. Discussions begin, therefore, with primary as opposed to secondary sources. Watching clips together, we describe the details of what we see, hear, and feel, including elements of composition and sound design as well as bodily and emotional responses. Only then do we tie sense to sensation, letting our observations about form lead us to interpretations of content that demonstrate the immanent and irreducible links between what we think and how films makes us feel. Students learn, in other words, that interpretations are processes, even if analysis does not mean anything goes. Figures teach them that representation springs from perception, but perception also resists determinate significance.

In our discussion of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), for example, we study the violent encounter between the film’s protagonist, Ripley, and its cyborg antagonist, Ash.6 Expressed as a clash between male and female as much as artificial and human intelligence, this battle takes the form of sexual assault. At its climax, Ash throws an unconscious Ripley onto a table and forces a rolled-up magazine into her mouth. Viewed closely, the shot reveals pornographic images pinned to the walls surrounding the pair, images that presumably fill the pages of Ash’s magazine-cum-weapon. In the end, male crewmember Parker races to Ripley’s rescue, disarming then destroying the nonhuman threat.

At first, students interpret this scene as evidence of the film’s distrust of technology: a cyborg assaults Ripley, and a human rushes to save her. Still, as I suggest to the class, this reading assigns Ripley a troublingly conventional role: she is the female victim men subjugate or save to prove their power to each other as much as to her. For this reason, I ask students to return to the scene a second (or third or fourth) time, encouraging them to explore the figures—that is, the contents and forms—of violence its technologies and techniques supply. Noting the clip’s use of handheld camera, for instance, students describe how its mix of fluidity and instability make them uneasy, not unlike the film’s depictions of Ash and Ripley, which evoke uncertain similarities and differences between the two characters. In fact, a detailed analysis of the scene reveals the equal treatment the pair receive across cuts: a close-up of Ash is matched by a close-up of Ripley, a medium shot by a medium shot, and so on and so forth. The result, students find, corroborates but also challenges their initial relationship to the clip. As much as Ash and Ripley are opposed (man / woman, cyborg / human), they are likewise drawn together, complicating heteronormative and anthropocentric assumptions about them while uncovering the less obvious, though no less significant, gendered and racialized abuses they share. Indeed, students realize that the pornography with which Ash chokes Ripley likely belongs to the ship’s human—and predominantly white, male—inhabitants, a fact that suggests the displacement of systemic brutality onto Ash, a nonhuman “other,” and Parker, an African American man.

In this way, I remind students, figures settle and unsettle significance at once. In Alien, techniques such as handheld camera and parallel editing split human from non-human and male from female, but they also transform these divides into sites where opposites meet. As a result, these devices open actual narrative brutalities to potentially less violent configurations. Alien’s content may depict clashes among men over the bodies of women, but its form discloses the too-easy distinctions between self and other by which patriarchy substantiates its authority. For this reason, I tell the class, figures do not move us away from a film’s—or an era’s—gendered and racialized violence. Rather, when we trace the shape and significance of on-screen brutality, we uncover the relationships it mediates between spectators and both on- and off-screen abuses.

Having used figures in class, students then bring them to writing: first, in short essays on single, preselected clips and then, later, in papers for which they choose primary and secondary sources. By the end of the term, the complexity of their conclusions are frequently impressive. In an essay about Halloween (1978), one student argues that the film’s killer, Michael, and victim-hero, Laurie, permit us together “to traverse gender boundaries through our identifications with them.”7 At the same time, however, the pair express limits the film places on “how far we should cross into the ‘other’ to redraw [those] boundar[ies].” To substantiate these limits, the student points to cinematic techniques such as eyeline matches and subjective camerawork as well as special effects such as artificial blood.8 In so doing, her essay underscores the perils and prospects of the film’s gendered brutality: “When Laurie [is] … masculine, [her attacks on Michael are] seen as success and strength, but when Michael moves into the feminine [role of victim] he is failing and disappointing.” The result, writes the student, “complicates the idea that the film encourages us to move into both gender identities. … Yet [it] can also be read,” she concludes, “as further encouragement to root for and identify with Laurie,” who expresses both masculine and feminine attributes.

With this example, I mean to do more than highlight one student’s accomplishment. Indeed, from this activity, we can see how figures empower students to read films with care, heightening their relationships to a text and their responsibilities to its matter and meaning. After all, critique, I advise students, has roots in “breaking up” and “loosening,” not determinate mastery. Its links to the word “crisis,” moreover, conjure the sociohistorical and political urgency of these breakings up and the judgments they consequently demand. When we study a film, therefore, we do so to extend its problems and promises to multiple texts and contexts. In the case of screen violence, this means asking how gendered and racialized forms of relation link diverse contents, permitting us to ask systemic—as opposed to singular—questions about the ethics of brutal images and the pleasures and pains they grant audiences.

Figures are by no means the only path to this kind of critique. In challenging the gratuitousness of film violence, they complement the efforts of, say, Linda Williams, for whom melodrama and pornography route and reroute the significance of bodily sensation.9 Clover, too, invokes the figure, when she suggests that bodies in slasher films should not be read literally.10 Hardly feminist dreams come true, these slashers, like melodrama and pornography, nonetheless demonstrate more complexity than conventional wisdom attributes them.

This complexity is, in the end, my foremost pedagogical aim. As opposed to senseless and sadistic excesses, figures constitute immanently meaningful possibilities for care. They also alleviate anxieties—common in film violence scholarship—that narrative structures constrain perception too much or too little. For some, that is, representation abstracts perception from lived bodies inside and outside the theater. For others, sensation threatens to overrun the contexts that otherwise secure its sense. In both cases, significance threatens to pull away from sensation and cultivate pernicious pleasures. Because figures settle and unsettle matter and meaning, however, they answer both sets of concerns. They also answer students who articulate hopelessness in the face of indeterminate brutality. In fact, I often suggest to students that volatility need not be something they fear. Instead, it may be valuable for dislodging the mastery with which narratives and histories, though not figures, often engage on- and off-screen abuses.

1 Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 34.

2 Spurred by public outcry over Hollywood’s potentially negative influence on children, as well as the threat of boycott by the Catholic Church, the Production Code—written in 1930, though not enforced until 1934—served the Studio System as a self-regulated form of censorship until it was dismantled in 1968 in favor of a G-M-R-X ratings system. With regard to violence, the code specifically warned that “brutality and possible gruesomeness” be treated “within the careful limits of good taste” (to view this code, see Stephen Prince, Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968 [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003], 295).

3 Saw, directed by James Wan (Santa Monica: Lionsgate, 2004), 102 min.; Hostel, directed by Eli Roth (Santa Monica: Lionsgate, 2005), 94 min.; and The Devil’s Rejects, directed by Rob Zombie (Santa Monica: Lionsgate, 2005), 109 min.

4 David Edelstein, “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn,” New York Magazine, January 28, 2006.

5 My use of “figure” is largely indebted to the work of Jean-François Lyotard. See his Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). In film studies, figures also appear in Dudley Andrew’s “Figuration,” in his Concepts in Film Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 157–71; D. N. Rodowick’s Reading the Figural, Or, Philosophy after the New Media (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); and Adrian Martin’s discussion of Nicole Brenez’s work in Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking from Auerbach and Kracauer to Agamben and Brenez (New York: Punctum, 2012). Though largely untranslated, Brenez’s work has fueled contemporary interest in figuration. See Brenez, Abel Ferrara, trans. Adrian Martin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Martin’s “Ultimatum: An Introduction to the Work of Nicole Brenez,” Screening the Past 2 (1997); and see also William D. Routt’s two-part review of Brenez's De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: L’invention figurative au cinéma (Paris: De Boeck Université, 1998): “For Criticism, Part One,” Screening the Past 9 (2000), and “For Criticism, Part Two,” Screening the Past 9 (2000).

6 Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 1979), 117 min.

7 Halloween, directed by John Carpenter (Los Angeles: Compass International Pictures, 1978), 91 min.

8 Eyeline matches are elements of continuity editing that join shots of characters looking out of frame to shots that contain what they see. Subjective camerawork positions the camera as a character's eyes, thereby giving the impression that viewers see what the character sees.

9 See Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) as well as “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 2-13.

10 Clover writes: “We are, as an audience, … ‘masculinized’ by and through the very figure by and through whom we were earlier ‘feminized’” (Men, Women, and Chain Saws, 59; emphasis added).

Amy Rust is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, where she recently completed “Passionate Detachment”: Technologies of Vision and Violence in American Cinema, 1967–1974, a book-length investigation of the devices that mediate film violence after the fall of the Hollywood Production Code. Her work on the freeze-frame, so-called "torture porn," and the emergence of Steadicam in 1970s Hollywood have appeared in Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film & Video, and the forthcoming anthology Sustainable Media.