Wednesday, August 09, 2006

David Cronenberg's A History of Violence

When I first saw A History of Violence I didn't like it. My initial impression was that it was a lame parable about America along the lines of "If a man with a violent past can be accepted by his loving family at the end of this film then America can still be a proud nation in spite of the terrible things it has done." But this k-punk blog made me re-think it a bit. (You have to scroll down the page, but the images from A History of Violence make the blog about it easy to spot).

The K-Punk thing is a little too much in the vein of Slavoj Zizek, who reduces movies to mere examples for his Lacanian theory, but it makes some good points, the main one being, I think, that everything in the film has the quality of a movie set, so that the whole thing looks artificial from start to finish. This gives it an uncanny quality exacerbated by the fact that when we switch from small town America to gangster-land we see one seamless world, but feel like we shouldn't.

Compare the effect to one used by David Lynch in Lost Highway. In that world we cross over from reality into fantasy but don't yet realize it. In the film Pullman kills his wife because he is ashamed he cannot satisfy her in bed. In jail he imagines that he is someone else, someone who has what he lacks; he imagines he is a virile young man and then is released because, in Lynch-logic, if he is someone else then he didn't kill her. But the fantasy cannot last and reality intrudes until the fantasy breaks down and he becomes Pullman again. Lynch obscures where reality begins and ends but you can still find the divide, once you get how Lynch thinks.

A History of Violence, on the other hand is ALL MOVIE, ALL FANTASY but TWO INCONGRUENT ONES. The Norman Rockwell world and the Gangsterland world are both important parts of the American psyche, but they don't go together. Freud writes that in the unconscious, there is no sence of logical contradiction, there is no organization on that level. A History of Violence gives us a genre film -- two genre films -- on this darker psychic register.

7 comments:

katrin. said...

This may all be true, but it still doesn't make it a good film.

Geoff Klock said...

Even if you don't think it is a better film, you have to admit that it is at least a more interesting failure.

Björninn said...

Any film as funny as A History of Violence could hardly be called a failure. The ridiculously over-the-top violence, the swift 180 degree turns from cliche to 'realistic' but totally incongruent punchlines, and William Hurt's brilliant super-evil mobster (complete with idiot henchmen).. it's hilarious!

The most literal of these 180 turns being the play-act teen groping turned into married and patently reciprocal act of 69. It makes no sense within the fantasy, that is to say it doesn't fit in with the expectations of the audience. But this is the essence of a good joke: You laugh at yourself for having been taken in by the play-acting in the first place, and the larger the incongruity, the better.

The whole film could almost be summed up in a single exchange between Tom and Jack, father and son:

Tom: In this family, we don't solve problems by hitting people!
Jack: No, in this family, we shoot them!
And then he hits him!

It's a typical sitcom-joke structure: You say one thing and then do the opposite. But you're not supposed to laugh at domestic violence. The fact that you can't not laugh at it just makes it all the funnier. The supposed dual personality, caring father / ruthless gangster, simply acts as setup.

..well, at least for me it did. I just can't believe no one else found it funny.

Geoff Klock said...

Wow. A good point and solid evidence. I buy it.

Madd_Hadder said...

This movie sparked some serious debate between a friend and I because he felt it was far and away the best movie of last year and he raved endlessly about it until he got me to see it. When i saw it, I enjoyed it but not to the extent he felt i should have.

I felt it was trying to hard to be gross, funny and symbolic instead of just letting the story tell itself. However, WIlliam hurt shouting "How do you fuck that up" pretty much won me over.

Katie said...

That movie just isn't well-written. The dialogue is trite and unconvincing. (Have you ever heard teenagers talk the way the teens in that movie do?) It's so painfully obvious what the movie is trying to do and set up that you can't even enjoy the sweet sight of Viggo's bare ass. I mean, you can, but then someone says something and ruins it. I'm frankly surprised it wasn't written by Paul Haggis. He must have ghost-written a draft at some point.

And if I see one more so-neatly-symbolic-it's-almost-literal dream sequence, well, I'm gonna...I don't know what. Be mad.

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