Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A History of Violence

Just watched David Cronenberg’s History of Violence. I’ve been a Cronenberg fan since seeing Naked Lunch in college. It was part of what made me really want to become a writer in a serious way. I used to sit and smoke cigarette after cigarette (Camel Wides or Benson and Hedges 100’s) until I got this buzzing in my head that almost laid me out on the couch, and I’d sit at my purple Remington Portable typewriter and pound out page after page of stream of consciousness weirdness in an attempt to break through something into somewhere else. A lot of my prose was (and, to a certain degree, still is) a bit stilted, as if the critic were sitting on my shoulder, making sure that I didn’t do anything stupid enough to be interesting. So I would do just about anything to break out of my own head, try to sound like something other than a college kid in a small town who really didn’t know shit.

So, the movie. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this. Go see it.

I got to really thinking about it, and I’m trying to organize my thoughts, here, but it really is about the history, that is, human history, of violence. It didn’t seem to me to be an “anti-violence” movie in a traditional, “violence is bad, kids” way, as much as it asks us to examine our attitudes toward violence, and how humans have handled it throughout the ages.

I’ll just start with what really struck me. The last scene is an amazingly powerful bit of film-making. The main character, Tom, has just come home from what appears to be the final chapter of killing that was required to defend both his family, and, by extension, the life that he has worked so hard to create. His family is at the primal scene of the evening meal. He stands at the door, wounded, outside the circle. He has been estranged from all of them by the horrific acts that he has committed to save them, and by acts that he has done in the past that have come to light through the course of the movie. No one looks at him. His wife looks down, his son looks at his mother, and then away. His daughter, finally, is the one to act. She gets up from the table, gets her father’s plate and utensils, and places them at his seat. He hesitates, and then sits. His face is filled with frightened hope.

His son is next. He is completely at sea, looking at his mother, trying to gauge her reaction. He seems to come to a decision, and he offers his father the meat from the table. Still the father’s eyes are locked on the mother. Will she accept him?

She finally looks at him, her eyes are filled with tears. He watches her with fear and hope and longing. His eyes are red, his whole world depends on her. Not a word is spoken. The screen goes black.

There was something so mythic about this scene. This was the primal scene of the man returning to the tribe, and his petition for cleansing and reintegration. Violence is, and has almost always been, in civilized groups, a taboo. The chaos that it sows requires that it be circumscribed by very strict rules and rituals. Though it may be necessary for the masculine to access that shadow side of violence and rage in order to protect and further the interests of the tribe, there must always be a reintegration in order for civilization to continue. Violence could almost be seen as a contagion in this case – you can’t bring that shit back in the house without undergoing a ritualized cleansing.

And who regulates that cleansing? Well, short of a priestly caste, and going back further in human history (not to mention into the realm of archetype and myth), it is the Feminine that must give the blessing in order for reintegration to take place. Why is it that mothers, sweethearts and wives are held in such high esteem during times of war? What is the role that the feminine plays in the prosecution of violence? Obviously, sometimes violence is required, but if you bring it into the circle of the tribe, breakdown of the whole society becomes eminent. Therefore the Feminine, left behind while the Masculine goes off and murders, must be there when the Masculine returns. And there is a ritual – blessing is not always automatic, nor should it be. In order for the ritual to have power and efficacy, there is a test. The Masculine must petition the Feminine for re-entry into the tribe. For though everyone in the tribe may wish to receive the returning warriors back into the fold, it is ultimately the Feminine that must recognize and certify his fitness. If he is still the Wild Man, still the killer, he brings the contagion with him, and society will disintegrate.

What makes this scene, and this movie so powerful, is not only mythic quality that it has, the sense that this is a reenactment of a situation that has happened, has been happening for thousands of years. It is also that the characters are human, each of them with their personalities intact, each of them of them with their own histories, their own ambiguities and their own relationships with violence.

And the whole movie functions on this level. The story is complete in itself, but there is always the mythic level beneath. The ritualistic aspect of the returning warrior is emphasized in the preceding scene, where, after murdering his brother in self-defense, he throws the gun into a lake, only to collapse on the shore. He removes his blood-stained shirt, and washes himself clean.

Again, working backwards, before the penultimate scene of murder, the lead character and his brother discuss the benefits of marriage. Tom’s brother, a gangster and criminal, remarks that he can’t see any upside to marriage. He, of course, cannot see or recognize the value of the civilizing aspect that Tom’s marriage has. He has built his whole life on violence, and his life is entirely outside of society. Tom’s entire life has been restructured around his attempt to reintegrate into society.

As their discussion continues, Tom’s brother reveals that he tried to strangle Tom in his crib. “Every kid does that, I guess,” he muses. Cain and Abel are indirectly invoked through this simple sentence, as well as the equally ancient myth of Hercules attacked in his crib by the snake – the snake always reminding us of our “lower”, shadow natures.

Tom has tried to flee his violent nature, the shadow. It is not enough to flee it, however. He has to kill it. The only way to kill it (in the form of his brother) is to embrace it (the killer inside himself - the skilled assassin that he tried to flee).

This is an amazing movie. Certainly one of Cronenberg’s best, and one of the better I’ve seen in a long while. Check it out.

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