Pleasure and Peril in Narrative Film Violence

by Shilyh Warren

It may seem at first curious to compile a collection of essays on violence in fictional narrative films for a journal that has tended to focus on the intersection of feminist pedagogy and documentary film. Even more curious when you realize that the project has been collaboratively spearheaded by a scholar of feminist documentary and a graduate student in Intellectual History.

The fact is that most violent fictional narrative films exert their violence on the bodies of women, or as Larkin Hiott’s review of Carrie (2013) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) for this special feature demonstrates, by making women’s and girls’ bodies sites of monstrosity or evil.1 For this reason, we assume that many feminist educators resist recirculating these often exploitative, stereotypical, and viscerally upsetting images and narratives in their classrooms. What can we possibly learn that we do not already know about how violence operates and how it compromises the flesh and psyches of women who are either unwitting victims or bullied avengers?

I first decided to teach a course on cinema and violence because of my own work on transnational feminist documentaries about sexual violence against women. In my research I constantly encountered brilliant theories built upon fictional narrative films. However, studies of cinematic violence regularly exclude discussions of documentary film and video. Some authors claim the omission is necessary, such as Jim Kendrick, who explains that documentary violence “is ontologically and epistemologically different” from the fabricated, illusory representation of violence in fictional films.2 And while some would argue that the distinction between fabricated and factual violence falsely cleaves the real from the fake, particularly in the realm of representation, Kendrick maintains the dichotomy, claiming finally, “Fictional film violence is complicated enough.”3 Stephen Prince’s edited collection of essays neglects documentary films completely, while David Slocum’s includes two essays that grapple with documentary concerns, albeit tangentially.4 In his introduction, Slocum rationalizes that the volume explores “the history and theory of American film violence,” suggesting that this objective is possible without serious attention to documentary film (or experimental film for that matter).5 Surely the representation of violence in documentary film and video attests to the deeper, larger questions scholars such as Slocum have in mind: questions about the blurred lines between reality and representation, between witnessing and acting, and between viewing pleasures and life experiences. As recent books that draw attention to documentary violence confirm, nonfictional representations of violence are crucial cultural and aesthetic sites for understanding the broader histories and theories of cinematic and actual violence.6

However, if I can generalize from my own teaching experiences, our students are more likely to consume violent fictional film narratives and other digital media than violent nonfiction. Therefore, we depend on scholarship that can speak to popular, mainstream media and aid our learning goals in the classroom. In the past few decades, feminist media scholars have devoted valuable attention to rape revenge narratives, for example, which traditionally center on graphic sexual violence against women and the series of subsequent retaliatory acts by the woman or her proxy character, usually against the men who violently assaulted her. Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws deserves much of the credit for generating scholarly attention to these often disturbing films and laid the groundwork for later studies.7 In fictional rape-revenge films, “justice” is a matter of retribution, which most films posit as an acceptable reaction to a prior “cataclysmically serious event of rape.”8 The vast majority of these films depend on the incorporation of a graphic scene of sexual violence—what Alison Young calls a “crime image”—to warrant the graphic scenes of retaliation that comprise the rest of the film.9 In rape-revenge narratives, justice most often exiss outside the borders of the law and is executed by the victim-(or her proxy)-cum-vigilante.

As Kimberly Lamm’s review for this special feature attests, feminist revenge narratives raise significant and difficult questions about the pursuit and pleasure of cinematic justice. Films about women resisting “sexist violence,” in Lamm’s terms, are important also because of the ways they construct representations of female aggression in the service of feminist politics. Is there a place for violence in feminism? Can retaliatory acts of violence by women against men be considered a form of feminist activism? In rape-revenge features, ranging from I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) to more contemporary iterations such as Thelma and Louise (1991), Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), spectators are hailed not so much for their ability to intervene or take action, but rather for their ability to take an embodied pleasure in the morally righteous, although legally suspect, acts of violent retribution.10 Why might we find pleasure or discomfort in this form of feminist activism depicted on screen? What do we consider justice and why?

In an essay on an infamous fictional documentary about rape called No Lies (Mitchell Block, 1973) Vivian Sobchack tells us that one of the qualities of narrative cinema is that as spectators of fictions we are “relieved of having to act responsibly, socially, morally, of having to act at all.”11 Movies make us see, feel, and hear, but strictly speaking, moving images do not necessarily make us move. Fictional films especially allow us to consistently retreat from the worlds they create; they show us a world of violence, but they also comfort us with complete narrative resolution and convince us that by the end of the film’s runtime all scores will be settled. This cinematically endorsed inaction becomes especially troublesome in the case of sexual violence, since as Sobchack argues, the third person perspective, which cinema makes possible when we identify with the perspective of the camera, “has enforced a rather amoral, if unintentional, passivity upon the audience.”12 In other words, when we experience fictional depictions of sexual violence against women, we share the complicit, inactive viewing position of the bystander. Even though rape-revenge narratives so often force us to first experience violence against women from this position of passive bystander, by allowing us to identify with the vengeful woman they also create the possibility of feminist viewing pleasure.

How do documentary films trouble these terms of engagement? Documentary films about unadjudicated sexual violence against women rarely have recourse to what Young calls the “crime-image.” Nonfictional films primarily offer an experience of the aftermath of sexual violence, its traces and excesses — ontological, epistemological, and affective. Therefore, if narrative fictions about sexual violence grant us a symbolic pass as bystanders, documentaries tend to demand that we refuse to stand by. They plead, they scream and yell, and they hope to shake us into new realizations and new avenues for action. In other words, they construct alternative modes of spectatorship and affinity and ask us to connect to the problem enough to do something other than nothing. Documentaries require an ethical engagement distinct from that of fictional films, and perhaps this is one reason why fictional films depicting violence are so much more popular among general audiences and scholars.

It is the overwhelming popularity and influence of fictional violence that we wish to attend to with these collected essays and reviews. We also hope that many of the insights shared here about the pedagogical challenges and rewards of teaching violent films spark further conversations about the particular demands of documentary violence. Whether this means attending to viewing context and audience expectations, as Maria Pramaggiore’s essay on Teeth suggests; close-reading the tensions between form and content, as Amy Rust does with her students; or challenging students to look “at” rather than “away,” as Jason Middleton explores in his essay on birth scenes and horror.13 Teaching violent films in feminist classrooms, whether these are fictional or documentary, forces us into the most intimate folds of living and dying, connecting us viscerally to the stuff we both fear and desire intensely. If we wish to engage students in an ethical and political consideration of gendered violence in the world, we must take on the media that imbues it most heavily with pleasure and desire.

When Laura Mulvey made a case for a feminist engagement with Freud, she argued that it was precisely because Freud gives insight into the workings of capitalist patriarchy that his perspective is so crucial to understanding the machinations of fictional films.14 Her famed argument called for feminist filmmakers to pay attention to these gendered dynamics of looking and feeling in narrative films and to respond by killing the pleasure they afford. As my co-editor Merry Jett points out in her essay, however, we can no sooner deny the various pleasures of violence then we can assume that all feminist spectators wish to. In other words, Mulvey’s call to kill the pleasures of narrative film, so brilliantly executed in Riddles of the Sphinx (1974), for example, remains at odds with the carnal appetites of most filmgoers, even feminist ones.15 As we see it then, our task is to understand how violence works within a feminist framework by drawing these films into our courses, engaging with their effects and affects, and holding ourselves accountable for the pleasures they afford to so many. As film scholars we have well addressed the potential dangers of narrative films; the essays in this collection ask us to consider their pleasures and their purpose as pedagogical tools as well.

1 Carrie, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Los Angeles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2013), 99 min.; Dawn of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder (Universal City: Universal Pictures, 2004), 100 min.

2 Jim Kendrick, Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre (London: Wallflower Press, 2009), 7.

3 Kendrick, Film Violence, 8.

4 Stephen Prince, ed., Screening Violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000); J. David Slocum, ed., Violence in American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2001). In Slocum see Phyllis Frus’s consideration of realism in mainstream movies about domestic violence (“Documenting Domestic Violence in American Films”) and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg’s chapter “Splitting Difference: Global Identity Politics and the Representation of Torture in the Counterhistorical Dramatic Film.”

5 Slocum, Violence, 2.

6 See, for example, Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer, eds., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Leshu Torchin, Creating the Witness: Documenting Genocide on Film, Video, and the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); and Janet Walker, Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

7 Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000);Sarah Projansky, Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2001); and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2011).

8 Alison Young, The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2010), 45.

9 See especially ch. 1.

10 I Spit on Your Grave, directed by Meir Zarchi (Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1978), 101 min.; Ms. 45, directed by Abel Ferrara (Austin: Drafthouse Films, 1981), 80 min.; Thelma and Louise, directed byRidley Scott (Los Angeles: Metro-Golden-Mayer, 1991), 130 min.; Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, directed by Quentin Tarantino (New York City: Mirimax, 2003 and 2004), 111 min. and 136 min. min.; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev (Copenhagen: Nordisk Film, 2009), 158 min.

11 No Lies, directed by Mitchell Block(Santa Monica: Direct Cinema Ltd.,1973), 16 min.; Vivian C. Sobchack, “No Lies: Direct Cinema as Rape," Journal of the University Film Association 29, no. 4 (1977): 14

12 Sobchack, “No Lies,” 14.

13 Teeth, directed by Michell Lichtenstein (Los Angeles: Roadside Attractions), 88 min.

Riddles of the Sphinx, directed by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen (London: British Film Institute), 92 min.

14 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.

15 Riddles of the Sphinx, directed by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen (London: British Film Institute), 92 min.

Shilyh Warren (PhD Duke, 2010) is assistant professor of film and aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her current book project revisits women’s documentary films of the 1970s and her work on feminist documentaries has appeared in Signs, Jump Cut, and Mediascape. She also has forthcoming essays in SAQ and Camera Obscura.