In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain,” a spy thriller from 1966, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews play a physicist and his assistant/fiancée who are sent to obtain secrets from an East German scientist. It’s not a great movie. The holes in the plot are enormous, and Hitchcock’s penchant for casting movie idols in morally ambiguous roles (e.g. James Stewart, Cary Grant) doesn’t work, as neither Newman nor Andrews can pull off the necessary enigmatic qualities for believability and no real chemistry exists between them. But one scene in the movie lingers in the minds of everyone who sees it.
It’s the scene in which a Stasi agent, suspicious of the two, follows Newman to a farm where he is to receive instructions and discovers that he is a spy. To escape arrest, Newman and the farmwife kill the agent. But they are not professional killers, so the murder of the agent is protracted, clumsy, and gruesome for the era. It is unpunctuated by dramatic music, so common in movies to underline tense moments, which means that during the stabbing, beating, choking, and gassing of the agent we hear the characters’ every gasp and grunt. It’s really quite a disturbing scene.
And that’s the point, I think. In Hitchcock’s later movies you see a turn away from the aestheticized movie violence that seems somehow acceptable and a turn toward the portrayal of violence in a much more upsetting way. The shower scene of “Psycho,” of course, but also the terrifying attacks in “The Birds” and the ghastly murders in “Frenzy.” It’s as if Hitchcock is rubbing our faces in the entertainment value of the very type of movies he was famous for making: “You think murder is fun, eh? Take a look at this!”
So many books I read take an entertainment approach to violence. Either it is portrayed as heroic, with sympathetic characters dispatching villains in oh-so-many creative ways, or it’s portrayed as an element in the creation of the hero’s character. Authors seem to compete for new ways for their maniac-villains to torment other characters, as if coming up with original means of maiming or killing people is a high demand of creativity.
Personally, I don’t enjoy watching violence in movies or reading it in novels. But I recognize that it can serve important plot and thematic needs, so I grit my teeth and read. It troubles and offends me, though, when I sense that an artist is using violence simply to rev up a tired scene, or to cheaply buy an emotional reaction. That’s often the moment when I stop reading.
There are violent moments in my novels. In Slant of Light, there’s an axe killing, a hanging, and a fair number of gunshot deaths. This Old World keeps up the shootings, along with some stabbing and arson. I try to make those moments surprising, repellent, and true to their characters and contexts. I never want anyone to enjoy those scenes, but I do want them to feel that they are necessary. Violence is a part of human existence, so we can’t write away from it. If you enjoy those scenes, I’m doing it wrong.
When I see news photos of American civilians strutting around supermarkets with guns on their hips or rifles slung over their shoulders, I fear that they have fallen prey to the myth-making power of violence-as-entertainment.
They see the imaginary role of violence as a problem-solver, not the real impact of violence on the people it envelopes. One of the most powerful scenes in the TV series “The Wire,” itself an intensely violent series, comes in its second season. A character named Ziggy, who has for many episodes served as the butt of jokes and scorn in his desire to be taken seriously as a would-be tough guy, is disrespected one more time. He rushes to his car, takes out a pistol that he has recently bought at a pawn shop, and shoots his adversary in the chest. Then he rushes back to his car, and – in a profound moment of terrible surprise to the viewers – stops, weeps, trembles, and bows his head to clenched hands in what might be prayer, as the recognition sweeps over him of how many lives, including his own, he has just destroyed.
I wish every instance of heroic, retributive violence in our popular books and shows would be balanced by such a moment of severe reflection. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part.
Steve Wiegenstein @ stevewiegenstein