Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Screening Room, Blood and Guts: Violence Is Central to Some of the Year's Best Films

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Screening Room, Blood and Guts: Violence Is Central to Some of the Year's Best Films

Article excerpt

SCREENING ROOM BY FRANK PITTMAN

Blood and Guts Violence is central to some of the year's best films

While lions and sharks go into frenzy at the smell of blood, at the sight of blood, moviegoers seem to experience a heightening of all emotions, sometimes recoiling from the horror, but more often anticipating the danger to follow. Violence and blood on the screen, even more than naked people coupling, grabs our attention and makes us perk up our ears and feel our own vulnerability, like rabbits sensing danger.

Makers of schlock films for stoned adolescents have long known the power of blood and guts to arouse kids from their torpor. However, beginning in the 1960s, filmmakers began to discover that graphic violence on the screen can be used for more artistic purposes. One landmark in the expansion of the language of film came in 1967, when the machine-gun massacre in Bonnie and Clyde turned the film's finale into an unforgettably beautiful and devastating dance of death. Then in The Wild Bunch in 1969, the aging band of outlaws went to their deaths together in an orgy of violence, with each hyperrealistic bullet hitting in slow motion, making us viscerally experience their fate and indelibly reminding us that humanity is a blood brotherhood, bonded by that blood.

The most brilliant, most ambitious films of the past year--No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeney Todd--each revolved around a different way of using the power of violence to seize our attention and reveal both how vulnerable and how capable of evil we humans are.

Stephen Sondheim's Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is surely the most gruesome musical ever made. As a play, its ironic tale of mass murder and cannibalism was brought to life by stage magic and alternately playful and romantic music. It's now a movie, made by horrormeister Tim (Beetle Juice) Burton. Eternally weird Johnny Depp, who was directed by Burton in Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, is Sweeney.

The story tells of "a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful." She was lusted after by a ruthless judge who, after sending Sweeney off to prison for life, forces himself on her. Years later, Sweeney returns to find her presumed dead and their teenaged daughter being forced into marriage to the judge. Sweeney's despair and resultant hatred of the human race makes him see all people as unfit to live. He slits their throats and his comic sidekick Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) bakes their bodies into meat pies, "the worst pies in London."

There's no room for humanity in the world Sweeney comes to inhabit: dog eat dog, human eat human. He sees the evil around him, and in his rage, joins in. The tragedy is this: as Sweeney rages at the human race, he stops noticing whom he's killing and ends up dispatching those he'd most wanted to save. He justifies his impersonality with: "They all deserve to die."

Sweeney Todd is about a man who, having been deprived of love, falls into hate, which is as engulfing as falling in love--and ultimately, even more suicidal. On stage, the play's magic was its music, having more life, beauty, and wit than even Sondheim's A Little Night Music. But Depp has no resonance in his voice. We hear only hoarse whisperings that spoil our sense of Sweeney as a tragic lover. He can't rise above the squalor of London through the music. On screen, the sets are too realistic and those slit throats and pools of blood don't feel like a metaphor. We're too close to the slaughter, and we miss the stage magic that reminded us this was a cautionary fairy tale.

There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) Anderson's tense study of a joylessly competitive California oil baron in 1927. It's based on Upton Sinclair's novel about the Teapot Dome Scandal, Oil!

The movie's director is a protZgZ of Robert Altman, whose thickly populated films brought whole communities to life, displaying everyone's relationships with everyone else. …

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