Ever since Edwin S. Porter had his great train robber fire directly at the camera, the landscape of cinema has been drenched in blood.
Attitudes have shifted since those morally-simplistic early days. Watching The Great Train Robbery now, it’s difficult to distinguish between the wild bunch of outlaws and the “righteous” posse that guns them down—as smoke swallows up the falling bodies, the line between good and evil blurs, until only the violence remains.
The best filmmakers working today refuse to glorify acts of violence simply because they are perpetrated by the “hero”; they contemplate violence, scrutinize violence, question the nature and purpose of violence. Quentin Tarantino, for example, frequently examines the myriad contradictory emotional responses violence can evoke and provoke. Consider Inglourious Basterds, which dances a merry jig all over the razor thin line between slapstick (all the scalping) and horror (the chilling scene in which Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark): we’re shocked when the Nazis applaud the senseless slaughter in Nation’s Pride (the propaganda film within the film), yet minutes later, we’re laughing and cheering as Donnie and Omar wantonly fire into the crowd, reducing Hitler’s face to a mound of crimson pulp.
Japanese director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano takes a less sensationalistic approach; he’s more interested in exploring the repercussions of violence. In his films—the dreamlike Dolls, the unflinchingly bitter Hana-bi (or Fireworks, if you prefer the translated title)—death usually occurs just beyond the edges of the frame, emphasizing the aftermath: a wheelchair-bound police officer pouring his grief and trauma onto a canvass, a woman saving a spot on her favorite park bench for the lover who will no longer be joining her, a cleanup crew scrubbing dried bloodstains off the asphalt.
While Kitano ponders the results of violence, Scorsese focuses on the causes—the forces that motivate men to resort to bloodshed. His most iconic characters—Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Tommy DeVito—are ticking time bombs; “as the earth moves toward the sun, [they] move toward violence” (paraphrased from Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver screenplay). These are men driven by fears, anxieties, and insecurities they can neither comprehend nor verbalize; they can only express themselves, can only resolve their conflicts, by spilling blood. Thus, every scene is a taut, suspenseful countdown to the inevitable explosion.
The conversation between Travis and his street smart fellow cabbie “Wizard” outside the Belmore Cafeteria epitomizes Scorsese’s slow-burn recipe. At his lowest point after Betsy (his Madonna) rejects his advances, Travis is desperate to forge a meaningful relationship with somebody, anybody. But when he tries to open up to Wiz, to confess the dark urge “growing in [his] brain”—to use “true force” to “wash all the scum of the streets”—the words tumble out in an incoherent tangle: “I just want to go and really… really do something. I just want to go out and… I really… you know, I really want to… I got some bad ideas in my head, I just…” Wiz can only offer frustratingly generic advice (“Go out and get laid, get drunk”). Devastated by his latest missed connection, Travis purchases the arsenal he’ll ultimately use to liberate Iris. Moments like this pervade Scrosese’s body of work. Vickie innocently comments that Jake’s opponent is “good looking.” The inebriated Billy Batts teases Tommy about his old shine box. A match ignites, lighting the fuse.
When violence finally occurs, it is sudden, savage, and senseless. Rapid editing strips away all pretense of “motivation” or narrative context, breaking the action down into a disorienting—almost abstract—series of gunshots/punches/stabs. As the gore trickles down the wall, any semblance of meaning dissolves; all that’s left is pure imagery, movement, rhythm—the repulsive, captivating poetry of violence.
[Originally written February 5, 2012.]