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October 07, 2005

Moviegoing: "A History of Violence"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards

I'm happy to report that my first trip in months to a movie theater -- to see David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" -- was a semi-success. I found the movie interesting enough. It was yummily projected, thank heavens. And for once the audience itself was a pleasure: absorbed, engaged, quiet-but-responsive.

viggo_mortensen and maria.jpg Viggo, solaced by Maria

Have you caught the picture? It's a peculiar affair. Taken from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke (haven't read it), the storyline is the kind of simple, settling-accounts affair that could have provided a workable spine for a Roger Corman quickie. Cronenberg's treatment/direction of this material is something else entirely: somber, magnificent, timeless. So watching the film is a little like watching "Jackson County Jail" if only it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky. Cronenberg talks to Cinema Confidential about the film here.

I was taken by the project as a kind of oddball moviemaking experiment, and I had no trouble watching alertly. David Cronenberg is peerless at establishing a tone of spiritual-yet-very-physical, modernist dread. He convinces you that something inconceivably awful is about to erupt while keeping you hoping that, despite everything, it won't -- and then he sustains that queasy, gut-and-brain sense of imbalance seemingly forever. Mystery, horror, and metaphysics all congeal into one pulsing heap of beautiful-repulsive unresolvable fascinatingness.

Much of the story here is set in a small town in the midwest, but David Cronenberg's midwest looks and sounds like no midwest you've ever seen in a movie before. This ain't "Jack and Diane," sunny-cornfield, sock-hop territory. Instead, it's gray, it's quiet, and it's damp. It's also plump with a churning sensuality. With their fair coloring, clear faces, and plaid shirts, the characters look heartland-familiar, but messy sex and dark anger come just as easily to them as being-nice does. What's held at bay is made as palpable as what's openly acknowledged. And what might erupt probably will.

I was only semi-convinced by the film, not that I minded this. After all, how often do we get to experience a real filmmaking experiment in a mainstream movie theater these days? Cronenberg adds to the low-key dissonance by casting those ecchht-Wasp actors Ed Harris and William Hurt in roles that seem meant for Italians or Jews. What the hell? Yet why not? And why should anything gel anyway?

I was also thrilled that the film gave the heavenly Maria Bello a chance to show off her range. Despite her beauty, Bello is an amazingly frank and direct performer. She's got the acting gene (and the acting drive) in spades, heedlessly playing the extremes of anger, mischief, betrayal, and defiance as avidly and skillfully as she does desire and friendliness. (She was pretty stunning in "The Cooler," too.) Plus, as she nears 40, Maria Bello is hard to beat for careworn-but-fresh sexiness. She talks to MovieWeb about "A History of Violence" here. Nice quote:

"Since I first started acting, I never separated a character's sexuality from what they eat for breakfast. I just think it's sort of silly. If I can be a part of helping to overcome that puritanical thing in our culture, so be it. I'm happy about it."

That's a real actor talking.

My main beef with the film has to do with its complete lack of tonal variety. Cronenberg varies nothing, nothing. A scene might be exposition or it might be climax; it doesn't seem to matter. Cronenberg weights it all in the very same way. This is why I generally think that his talents are better-suited to conceptual projects like "Crash" than they are to more conventional narratives. Big exception for me: his Stephen King adaptation, "The Dead Zone," which I love every bit as much as I do "Crash."

The Wife, by contrast, watched "A History of Violence" in a state of complete rapture. For one thing, she found Viggo Mortensen very easy on the eyes, in a soft-spoken, Sam Shepard-esque, downtown, arty-macho, hippie-Christ kind of way. Hey, she has a weakness for the type.


And I don't think she'll mind me saying that she's also one of those hardcore David Cronenberg fans you sometimes run into -- people who are absolutely transfixed by the icky-erotic, slow-motion, gut-wrenching, gruesome-ponderous, art-horror thing that Cronenberg does. "Scanners"? Couldn't be more brilliant. "eXistenZ"? Can't get enough.

But The Wife made a point that spoke even to the Cronenberg non-nut that I am: She argues that "A History of Violence" may qualify as one of those films that resonate deeply -- as in "on a very primitive level" -- with guys. There was certainly some of that in the audience we saw the film with: guys nodding their heads in approval and clenching their fists in satisfaction. You could sense them thinking/feeling, "Yup, that's what it's like to be a guy. Chicks will never fully understand our drives, our needs, and our desires. They have no idea, and they never will." These guys were feeling stirred.

Which got me thinking about this kind of film. Classics of the "Yup, that's what it's like to be a guy" type include "Dirty Harry," many of the spaghetti westerns, and "The Wild Bunch." I polled a few dude friends for further candidates; they volunteered "Deliverance" and the original "Cape Fear." John Milius was forever trying and failing to make such a film; the young Walter Hill made a few that probably qualify. Did you see that a director's cut of "The Warriors" has just been released on DVD?

So: "A History of Violence" -- well worth seeing. But what watching the film has really left me musing about are those films that make the caveman in us guys nod in grim and lusty satisfaction. What gives them their power? What is it they connect with? And will chicks ever have any idea? Some of the films that set my own testosterone and reptile brain to Boil are "Mona Lisa," "Cross of Iron," the 1946 version of "The Killers," "Winchester '73," "Vera Cruz," and -- go ahead and laugh, I swear it's darned good -- "Young Guns 2."

Nominees from others?



posted by Michael at October 7, 2005


Loath to admit it, but Straw Dogs still does the trick for me. And I think Tony Scott's True Romance is a pretty effective foray into latent tough-guy lizard-brain territory.

Posted by: Chip Smith on October 7, 2005 2:20 PM

"Straw Dogs" is the film that does it for me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2005 2:38 PM

Come to think of it: "La Grande Bouffe," "The Last Woman," "Going Places," "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," "The Maltese Falcon," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2005 2:48 PM

I dissent. That movie was slow, didn't pull off the mix of at least two genres --family drama, husband-wife drama, hero with dark past coming back to haunt him, morality play, action-comedy, and the scenes of sex and violence came off as gratuitous, artless, and obvious.

One flaw amongst many: [Spoiler alert] What the @#$& was wrong with the kid?! Your dad wastes three bad dudes from the city on your front lawn --on top of wasting two other psycho bad dudes from outta town just a few days before to become the town hero and, and... wait for it... you're upset about it. Huh?!! Immediate disqualification for completely implausible potrayal of teenage american male.

Posted by: CC on October 7, 2005 4:00 PM

I am utterly nonviolent (and a woman – sorry), but “Irreversible” still does it for me:

Posted by: Searchie on October 7, 2005 7:16 PM

I am a Cronenberg fan. Seen everything but Crash, back to the early seventies. Very good Cronenberg are Fly, Videodrome,Dead Ringers,Naked Lunch. Funny that you should like Dead Zone, it is his most mainstream, with light and gentle moments, and indeed Cronenberg most often works in a monotone of Dread.

Lizard brain movies? Men show their freedom in a ton of ways. In the Company of Men? Saw two men go postal in movies last this weekend. Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Ed Harris at least twice in Pollock. But most men know they can go postal, and choose not to. Or maybe that is just me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on October 7, 2005 7:26 PM

Funny - one of the few movies on I've seen that has anything to do with American female sexuality as I live and observe it.

Posted by: j.c. on October 7, 2005 7:51 PM

Robert Aldrich is the king of guy films. You mentioned Vera Cruz, others would say The Dirty Dozen (Nora Ephron said it, but I won't admit to knowing that). But the real answer is Emperor of the North: Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin battering each other with chains, hammers, and axes on the back of a big-ass freight train, all motivated by pure one-upmanship. Tools, rage, violence - three cheers for the Y chromosome!

I suspect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is what it feels like to be an old man, but I'm just guessing.

Posted by: Brian on October 7, 2005 7:57 PM

CC -- It's certainly a peculiar movie, isn't it? Interesting to learn that you weren't buying. Are there movies that do hit the reptile brain part of you?

Searchie -- I'll match you for nonviolence! Although I suppose that the way I hate-hate-hate violence is a little weird in its own right. ("If you fight, I will kill you!") "Irreversible" is an excellent choice. It does get to one, god knows. How would you say it gets to you? I haven't run into too many gals who were fascinated by the film ...

Bob -- Spoken like a true Cronenberg fan! Note to others: true Cronenberg fans tend to think that liking "Dead Zone" is a sign of someone not really getting Cronenberg. True Cronenberg fans have really farout tastes, like "Rabid" or "Naked Lunch." The Wife looks at me scornfully too from time to time ...

J.C. -- Don't stop there, explain yourself. I loved the way Maria pingponged between trust, love, indulgence, and then betrayal, outrage, and fury. The Wife joked after the film that she thought it really got the way many women experience men: they're sweet, they're fun, but they're also always this far from ruining your life. Is that the kind of thing you mean?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2005 8:01 PM

Interesting to see "Straw Dogs" and "Irreversible" mentioned in this context -- and not just because both films are centered around visceral rape scenes. Noe and Peckinpah are stabbing at the same underlying themes, I think, and invoking similar metaphorical subtexts in the process. But the differences are important. While David's retaliatory violence in "Straw Dogs" may once have made good fodder for cold war deconstructionist dissertations, the endgame, as it actually unfolds on screen, always evokes something closer to the quick. Something more elemental. More primal and transcendent. But the core of "Irreversible" seems significantly less personal; when Marcus and Pierre descend the bowels of France's homosexual underworld in search of the rapist, The Tenia, the narcissistic decadence against which their mission is cast makes it clear that the enemy is something other than a man. Thus it is Pierre the intellectual, not Marcus the avenger, who ends up bludgeoning a would-be rapist. And even as The Tenia is spared his desserts (a point I missed upon first viewing), it hardly seems to matter.

Posted by: Chip Smith on October 7, 2005 10:21 PM

I much admire Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers,” the latter still one of the saddest and creepiest films that I have ever seen. I also find it interesting how often DC’s characters attempt to find some kind of transcendence via transformative, non-procreative sex, or how often a “normal” family relationship is shown as being impossible or somehow incomplete (e.g., the automobile accident fetish freaks of “Crash”).

There are movies that I call “manly man” films, that deal with honor and dishonor among men of action and deal with the call to “virtuous violence.” Classic films like “The Magnificent Seven” and its Japanese source, “Seven Samurai.” “The Hunt For Red October” and “Clear and Present Danger” are good more recent examples. In “Danger” there is a classic manly man scene in which the semi-independent CIA operative played by Willem Dafoe decides that Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan is an honorable manly man when Ford demonstrates loyalty to and concern for the absent Admiral James Greer, mentor to both men and now sick in a hospital. On the other hand, the bad guys, from drug lords to rogue CIA agents to presidential advisors, are shown as easily willing to betray friends and allies in order to achieve their ends.

Howard Hawks “Only Angels Have Wings” from 1939 is an early prototype for this type of film and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is the most successful recent example. But I think that the ultimate manly man film is the 1953 French Film, “The Wages of Sin,” about a group of four men – exiles, criminals, desperadoes living or rather hiding out in a nameless South American country -- hired to transport an urgent nitroglycerine shipment without the equipment that would make it safe. Apart from being incredibly suspenseful, the film touches on all the manly man conventions: men are defined by their competence and loyalty to each other. Women are either entirely absent or exist on the fringes of the action, and in their absence the “woman” is the weakest man, who often ends up being one of the first to die. You see this last bit also in “Top Gun” or “The Hunt For Red October,” where the most openly sentimental man (e.g., Anthony Edwards’ “Goose”) dies so that the other protagonists can achieve a deeper understanding of whatever it is that they need to do.

Somewhat perversely, I think that the first two “Alien” films are the only “manly man” films with a woman in the central protagonist role.

Posted by: Alec on October 8, 2005 5:13 AM

“Irreversible is an excellent choice. It does get to one, god knows. How would you say it gets to you? I haven't run into too many gals who were fascinated by the film ...”

I sometimes wonder about that myself …

As someone who has never hit another person, it seems that my particular strain of non-violence fuels my fascination with realistic violence in some (but certainly not all) films: violence-by-proxy, perhaps.

My first viewing of “Irreversible” was a “cold” one – I had no prior knowledge of either the story or the reverse chronology of the plot. Noé’s chaotic camera work and jarring musical score drew me into an opening scene of unbearably graphic violence (the nightclub murder) for which I was completely unprepared.

And the rape scene enthralled and repelled me. I seem to remember that it consisted of a single long, excruciating shot, which was devastating. It hit home, too, because I’ve left parties alone in Paris (and Warsaw), dressed like Belluci, bound for the Metro or the Underground. It makes one think, it does ...

Noé’s message? Violence begets violence and can never be undone. And I’m fascinated with paper shredders and garbage disposals, too: that violence-by-proxy thing again, surely.

Posted by: Searchie on October 8, 2005 10:10 AM

I'd like to put in a few words for Walter Hill's "The Long Riders." And don't neglect what may be John Milius's only artistically successful movie, "The Wind and the Lion." Of all Cronenberg's highly variable efforts, I still have a fondness (if that's the word) for "Videodrome," even if its biotechnological metaphor is ludicrously outdated. (The Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics: watch for an opening in your area.) And Don Siegel's 1964 remake of "The Killers" is about 89% as good as the original.

Speaking of quintuple-Y chromosome movies, what was your final impression after re-viewing "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"? I thought, Yes, that is Peckinpaw, all right, but it's still pretty dreadful. Strange how thin the line between brilliant and dreadful is in Sam's movies.

Posted by: Bleak Mouse on October 8, 2005 10:30 AM

I've got a thing for the Mona Lisa movie, but not for the testosterone part of it, but for the sadness and regret of the main character: somehow it really impacted on me.

Posted by: MD on October 8, 2005 12:39 PM

Another score for the wife! Men are sweet and fun, and always this far from ruining your life - which they can do with ease thanks to the power of gender roles in this and every other society I know of.

It's just so horrible how she has to run things - and when hunky hubby's terrible secret is revealed poor betrayed wifey still has to do all the work. This is going to make me sound like a man-hater, nonetheless: she is so upset she pukes, and yet he just sits there all mopey and hopeful.

Men are sweet and fun when they are not being mopey and hopeful.

Men look at women the way a dog looks at doorknob - he'd love to get it open but not enough to try anything beyond sitting there mopey and hopeful with the occasional whimper.

Cable channels for chicks have plenty of “virtuous violence" in sloppy made-for-TV movies.

Posted by: j.c. on October 8, 2005 4:38 PM

The "Maltese Falcon" has perhaps the most 'basic' masculine line:

I hate to get hit and not hit back.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2005 10:05 AM

"Since I first started acting, I never seperated a character's sexuality from what they eat for breakfast."

Will someone tell me what this means? On second thought, don't bother. One more example of why actors should never be heard from outside their assigned lines.

Posted by: ricpic on October 9, 2005 3:55 PM

Oops. Should be: One more example why; not, one more example of why.

Posted by: ricpic on October 9, 2005 4:00 PM

I'm a Cronenberg fan from way back. From when 'Scanners' got released in 1980 to be exact. I didn't actually see the film until a couple years later (I was eleven years old at the time), but I became obsessed with it. Something about the aggressive, creepy TV ad campaign (showing the thrashing bald guy whose head is about to explode) and Gene Siskel's three-star recommendation, and his mentioning on "Sneak Previews" that Cronenberg had a devoted fan base. Anyway, this was the cinematic event that got me hooked on the movies.

My favorite Cronenberg is probably 'The Brood' from 1979, with Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed. I think it's his most coherent, perfectly realized work. 'Scanners' is a terrific horror thriller with some great B-movie moments (like the exploding head), and 'Videodrome' is wacky and inspired. 'The Dead Zone' I haven't seen in a long time, but I remember being pleased at the time that Cronenberg was breaking into the mainstream. 'The Fly' was his first major hit - and a touching love story.

To be honest, later Cronenberg doesn't do as much for as the early work - he's a bit like Woody Allen in that way for me - although I know he's supposed to have matured into a great artist. I am looking forward to seeing 'A History of Violence', though.

Posted by: dan g. on October 9, 2005 8:36 PM

Oh, and another vote for 'Straw Dogs'. After the first time I saw it, in college, a heated argument ensued between me and a feminst roommate, who thought the film's sexual politics were horribly offensive.

Posted by: dan g. on October 9, 2005 8:39 PM

Chip, Searchie - There can't be many of us who've watched "Irreversible" twice! I really did find it disturbing and fascinating, not least because, for all its gruesomeness, it's also kind of moving, as well as kind of a turn-on. There's a kind of sense that we do these things to ourselves, and why? about the film, and a kind of voluptuous wallow in it at the same time. Reminded me a bit of Celine, and of Houllebecq's novels, at least the two that I've read. It got that whole "I hate myself for loving this" thing going -- one of my favorite art experiences...

Alec -- You can't treat us to an intelligent, well-informed mini-essay like that -- and then not tell us anything about the movies that get to you personally. I'm thinking irrational, animal pleasure; deep, impossible-to-justify, shameful satisfaction. Stuff that doesn't reflect well on you, that (if you were single) you'd probably make a point of not mentioning on a first date. Any candidates?

Bleak Mouse (good name!) -- Those are great nominees. "Long Riders" especially has a kind of male dignity and gravity about it that's very moving, at least that I find very moving. I confess I haven't yet caught up with "Alfredo Garcia" anew. I'm one of those losers who announces intentions to do things and then instantly loses the will to do them. But it sounds like you didn't find the film a revelation. Did you notice that a "director's cut" of "Pat Garrett" is going to be brought out on DVD soon? In December, if I remember right. Someone evidently found some footage and some notes Peckinpah made. I wonder if it's any better than the released version, which I thought had some great stuff but a lot of ludicrous stuff too. As you say, that's kind of the Peckinpah combo. Come to think of it, that's one of the things that's so often present in movies -- the way so many of the big talents and big films walk that line between completely preposterous and really fabulous. Joel Schumacher once answered an interviewer who accused him of going over the top with his "Batman" movie by saying, "Well, nobody ever paid money to see a movie go under the top."

MD -- Your "sadness and regret" thing has me remembering how much a part sadness and regret sometimes plays in certain kinds of very male art: Bukowski, for instance. (There are a couple of Bukowski movie adaptations that get that tone too: er, my mind's failing me, that Dominique Deruddere one, and Marco Ferreri's "Tales of Ordinary Madness.") My own guess about where that tone comes from in male fiction is that it's post-coital. Guys get all excited, they strut around, they're transported ... And then everything's just really flat and kind of depressing, and what's-the-point, and is-that-all-it's-about. "Mona Lisa" is more mournful than that, but I wonder if some of that acknowlegement of the post-coital doesn't enter into its tone...

JC -- "Mopey and hopeful" is good, as is staring at the doorknob. I do a lot of all that myself. And I wonder why The Wife sometimes looks at me like I'm on the verge of ruining her life ... "Don't look at me that way," I say. "Why shouldn't I?" she asks.

FvB -- That's a priceless one. It's like the Y chromosome suddenly acquired the ability to speak.

Ricpic -- I put it at about 90% to 10% , the ratio of babble to really-inspired that actors come up with. OK, 95% to 5%.

Dan G -- When Cronenberg's work gets to someone, it can really get to them. I wonder why his cult is such a .. I dunno, "passionate" and "devoted" don't quite seem right. There seems to be some special wavelength they all find their way to, though. And there's nothing like "Straw Dogs" to lead to a good knock-'em-down argument. Its sexual politics are pretty horrendous, I think. Still: what a movie! College feminists are often tough to talk with period, though. I remember one awful evening, having to listen to this know-it-all Ivy feminist go on about the anti-Semitism of Mike Nichols' movies. "But he's Jewish," someone volunteered. Didn't impress her.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 9, 2005 11:45 PM

Michael – thanks for the kind words on my little meditation on “manly man” films. But if I had to choose a film that gets to me on a personal, visceral, animal level, it would probably have to be John Boorman’s 1967 movie, “Point Blank,” which is newly available on DVD. Lee Marvin stars as a lean, leathery revenge machine, a man who, paraphrasing the citation from Friedrich von Blowhard, having got hit, then hits back with a remorseless vengeance. Trying to help his gangster friend Mal Reese, the symbolically named Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot and left for dead by him and his own wife turning out to be Reese's lover. The rest of the film deals with how Walker gets his revenge on everyone involved, and features a brutally realistic fight scene, in which both Marvin and his antagonists fight dirty, with Walker of course coming out on top.

But the scene that sticks out for me is one later in the film in which Walker has persuaded Chris, his wife’s sister (played by Angie Dickinson) to seduce Mal Reese in order to help Walker get into his enemy’s penthouse lair. Reese has long lusted after Chris, and just as they are naked in bed doing the deed, Walker shows up, and Reese’s emotions swing from ecstasy to sheer terror at the speed of light. Walker toys with Reese like a feral cat spitting out and then grabbing a still living, partially devoured bird, playing up his victim’s naked vulnerability:

Mal (pleading): Let me get dressed!
Walker (deadpan): I want you this way.

I still think that this is the coldest thing that I have ever seen in the movies. And the coolest.

By the way, the studio’s promo tagline for this film says it all (and yeah, not the kind of thing that you would bring up on a date): “There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can't tell them apart.”

Posted by: Alec on October 10, 2005 11:37 AM

Michael -- Gaspar Noe would be my candidate to adapt Houllebecq for the screen - Noe, or possibly Ulrich Seidle. (BTW, for a good measure of wallowing sans the voluptuousness, check out Noe's first feature, "I Stand Alone" -- a singular simmering achievement in the cinema of alienation.)

Your mention of the part "sadness and regret sometimes plays in certain kinds of very male art," brings to mind a very male -- and, IMHO, very unfairly attacked -- film, "The Brown Bunny." That one struck so many chords, despite my lowered expectations.

I finally saw (and enjoyed) "A History of Violence." I think it's best understood as a Darwinian parable, and in that respect it seems more nuanced the more I reflect on it.

Posted by: Chip Smith on October 10, 2005 12:12 PM

ricpic: "Since I first started acting, I never seperated a character's sexuality from what they eat for breakfast."

That reminds me of comedian Lewis Black's favorite bit of overheard conversation:

"If it hadn't been for my horse, I wouldn't have spent that year in college."

Imagine Lewis Black's trademark exasperation going into hyperdrive as he tries to figure out what the hell that line means.

Posted by: Brian on October 10, 2005 5:38 PM

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