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Transfigurations: Violence, Death and Masculinity in American Cinema

Asbjørn Grønstad
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In many senses, viewers have cut their teeth on the violence in American cinema: from Anthony Perkins slashing Janet Leigh in the most infamous of shower scenes; to the 1970s masterpieces of Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah and Francis Ford Coppola; to our present-day undertakings in imagining global annihilations through terrorism, war, and alien grudges. Transfigurations brings our cultural obsession with film violence into a renewed dialogue with contemporary theory. Grønstad argues that the use of violence in Hollywood films should be understood semiotically rather than viewed realistically; Tranfigurations thus alters both our methodology of reading violence in films and the meanings we assign to them, depicting violence not as a self-contained incident, but as a convoluted network of our own cultural ideologies and beliefs. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0850-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. Prolegomenon
    (pp. 9-12)

    One day during one of my field trips to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I went to the Memorial Union’s Porter Butts Gallery to see an exhibition called “Representations of Violence: Art of the Sierra Leonean Civil War.” Consisting overwhelmingly of atrocious images, the works on display – nearly all of which were by young Sierra Leonean artists – transmitted a Boschian sense of horror whose lingering impression did not cease to repulse the spectator. Moses Silma’s “Kamajors Attack on Koribondo” (2001) and “The Bo-Freetown Highway Ambush” (2002), and Ayo Peters’s “January 6, 1999 Invasion” (1999) rendered in a fashion suggestive...

  5. Introduction: Film Violence as Figurality
    (pp. 13-22)

    This book explores the figuration of screen violence, as well as its historical and institutional contexts,¹ in a number of metaviolent films both celebrated and vilified, and attempts thereby to forge a new understanding of a phenomenon whose defining feature seems to be perpetually elusive. AsTransfigurationsgrapples with a series of issues that at times may seem only tenuously interrelated, I shall here take the liberty to summarize and pinpoint its major preoccupation. The objective is to re-establish an awareness of the transtextual opacity of film fiction, an awareness long occluded both by theoretical fallacies and by the petrification...

  6. I Screen Violence: Five Fallacies
    (pp. 25-62)

    Violence, as William Pechter has remarked, is “the staple diet of the American film” (83). Incorporated into a variety of filmic forms, violence has a bearing on most genres and historical periods. From The Great Train Robbery (Edwin Porter 1903), in which violent conflict propels what is often identified as the first movie narrative, to Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese 2002), “fashions in narrating violence” have changed in accordance with the stylistic, technological and cultural evolution of the medium (Miller 89). Most of the time, however, film violence is dismissed as mere exploitation. Despite the fact that, like eroticism,...

  7. II Filming Death

    • 1 The Transfigured Image
      (pp. 65-79)

      In the introduction to part I, I suggested that the approaches discussed in the previous chapters represent dominant positions on the subject of screen violence. With the exception of empiricism, they are neither research methodologies, nor are they as compartmentalized as the present survey may seem to indicate. In analytical practice, elements overlap and intersect. In spite of possible objections, I have nevertheless chosen such an outline, for these fallacies typify predominant approaches to thinking and writing about film violence. Their logic and concepts provide the terms and conditions –the discursive framework – for how scholars come to understand media...

    • 2 Narrating Violence, or, Allegories of Dying
      (pp. 80-94)

      Audiovisual fiction that shows us death by violence is embroiled in a curious contradiction. By presenting death as violent form, the film violates – or, rather, curtails – its own act of representation. Nagisa Oshima says that “filmmakers want to shoot the dying” (257), but in doing so they also terminate the conditions for the possibility of representation as such. Film violence, therefore, is in a sense a subject that tests the limits of representationality and by implication narrativity. Marking the beginning of infinite stasis, violent death is conceptually at the opposite pole from representation, which involves being. Death and...

  8. III Male Subjectivities at the Margins

    • 3 Mean Streets: Death and Disfiguration in Hawks’s Scarface
      (pp. 97-115)

      Consider this paradox: in Scarface, The Shame of the Nation, violence is virtually all encompassing, yet it is a film from an era before American movies became really violent. There are no graphic close-ups of bullet wounds or slow-motion dissections of agonized faces and bodies, only a series of abrupt, almost perfunctory liquidations seemingly devoid of the heat and passion of the spastic Lyle Gorch in The Wild Bunch or the anguished Mr. Orange, slowly bleeding to death, in Reservoir Dogs. Nonetheless, as Bernie Cook correctly points out, Scarface is the most violent of all the gangster films of the...

    • 4 Kubrick’s The Killing and the Emplotment of Death
      (pp. 116-129)

      As far as the issues of violence and mortality are concerned, the work of Kubrick exhibits none of the neurotic prevarication which both Daney and Coursodon claim characterizes the Hawksian approach. Kubrick’s films have leaned toward a kind of reluctant misanthropy which reveals the capability for self-destruction as the linchpin of man’s existential predicament. Some of the most memorable images and defining moments in Kubrick’s cinema foreground this nexus of violence and civilization: the seven-minute long execution sequence in Paths of Glory, the nuclear montage which concludes Dr. Strangelove (1964), the confrontation between the prehistoric apes in 2001: A Space...

    • 5 Blood of a Poet: Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch
      (pp. 130-154)

      Even more than Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch represented a definite departure from classical cinema’s euphemistic portrayals of the violated and wounded body. By showing the vulnerability of the flesh, as well as the “physical fact of death by violence” (Pechter 92), Hollywood cinema was finally able to produce an image ofrealbodies. It is difficult to overstate the historical and cultural importance of The Wild Bunch. Signifying is in Peckinpah’s film illimitable, its structure nearly collapsing from the weight of its own narrative vision. Hyperbolically praised as the Moby Dick of westerns (Slotkin,Gunfighter Nation594),¹ and...

    • 6 As I Lay Dying: Violence and Subjectivity in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs
      (pp. 155-171)

      Violent films, like the public and critical turbulence they generate, seldom emerge in cycles. The peak of screen mayhem that was part of the New American Cinema – and whose token conclusion arrived with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – left in its wake a hiatus in the evolution of violent form. Perhaps the most conspicuous legacy of the Renaissance films in the field of violence was the injection of increasingly graphic depictions into what David Robinson calls “prestige productions” that were distributed by major companies (76). Prior to Peckinpah’s challenging of the norms for rendering violence in the classical cinema, such...

    • 7 One-Dimensional Men: Fincher’s Fight Club and the End of Masculinity
      (pp. 172-186)

      One of the most memorable performances of masculine bravado in classical Hollywood cinema takes place in Ford’s “Irish” epic The Quiet Man (1952), in which the character of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) instigates a mock fistfight with his brother-in-law Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). As the two men pummel each other around haystacks, streams, and hillsides, even stopping for a pint at a nearby pub, they seem to respect what I believe is the seventh rule of Fight Club: “fights will go on as long as they have to.” Conceptually as well as rhetorically, this particular sequence from Ford’s movie comes...

  9. Postscript
    (pp. 187-190)

    The principal relevance of the concept of violence, I have come to believe, is its instrumental and heuristic value. Like most other concepts, violence is philosophically functional; it represents a theoretical intermediary which, in turn, prompts us to pursue and problematize a range of other concepts. For this reason, the subject of my inquiry concerns perhaps as much the possibilities of a particular interpretive methodology as it does the theme of violence. For Slocum, film violence is “the lazy signifier” (“Violence” 2), indicating semiotic opacity, or a certain elasticity of meaning. Whatever multiplicity of significations the concept invites, we may...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 191-220)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-260)
  12. Index of Names
    (pp. 261-266)
  13. Index of Film Titles
    (pp. 267-270)
  14. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 271-274)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-277)