Thursday, 28 February 2013

Gratuitous Violence in Tarantino and Homer

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fun. But of course even while watching it I was wondering whether I really should be enjoying myself, whether I should not rather be disgusted and appalled by the sheer violence of the spectacle. People die by the score here, often in a rather gruesome manner, blood is splattering, and there is so much of it coming out of the bodies of the slaughtered that in one memorable scene the walls of a mansion are entirely covered with it. At the same time, perhaps because it was so exaggerated, so hyper-realistic, it was hard to take the violence seriously as violence. It was more like a Manga comic strip, a carefully choreographed dance sequence, a symphony in blood.

Accordingly, the people mutilated and killed did not come across as real people, but as actors, or dancers, playing their part in an orchestrated whole. Their death did not matter because they were never really alive in the first place. That is not to say that the acting was in any way bad, on the contrary. Christoph Waltz as Django’s bounty-hunting companion, Leonardo DiCaprio as the polished, but brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie, and Samuel Jackson as senior house slave Stephen were all superb. So were the dialogues. But it was all very much, and deliberately so, staged. The protagonists were more like characters in a play, a medieval mystery play perhaps, or even more an ancient tragedy where the roles were never freely chosen, but preordained by fate or the Gods. The story itself is of classic simplicity: a man has been treated unjustly and sets out to seek revenge and to find and win back the woman he loves and who has been taken away from him. And in order to get there he literally wades through seas of blood. This is the stuff of myths: injustice, revenge, love and death; the fight between good and evil. It’s basic stuff, resonating with the core of our being.
Of course, the whole thing is also very funny, which is exactly what makes it credible as a modern reinvention of ancient myths. The all-pervading humour saves it from becoming too pretentious. But still, do we really need so much graphic violence? Several critics have complained about the “gratuitous violence” that seems so central to Tarantino’s work, and many are worried that by making violence seem fun it might inspire actual acts of violence. I don’t know whether those worries are justified. Personally, I have no interest in hurting anyone, and I can honestly say that after watching almost three hours of Tarantino I didn’t feel any more inclined to shoot people or harm them in any other way or to find it funny when this happens in real life. But it may have a different effect on others.

I’m a bit puzzled, though, about the accusation of “gratuitous violence”, which suggests that there is also violence that is perfectly all right to show, or a way of showing it that is perfectly all right or at least acceptable. Gratuitous violence, presumably, is (depicted) violence that doesn’t serve any useful or good purpose, which seems to imply that as long as violence is useful it is fine. Of course the assumption may well be that the only useful or good violence is one that leaves no doubt that violence is a bad thing. The only acceptable violence would then be violence that teaches us to be non-violent. All other uses of violence would then be “gratuitous”. But what if there were no useful violence? What if all violence were inherently gratuitous, senseless, ultimately serving no purpose but its own? Could we in that case not learn about the true nature of violence through a depiction of gratuitous violence?
Compare Tarantino to Homer. Most of the Iliad consists in a description of violence. Limbs and heads are cut off, over and over again, people are being killed in all sorts of ways and by their hundreds, without pity or remorse, the bodies of the slain are torn apart by dogs, the suffering of the enemy sneered at. Compared to Achilles, Django is a gentle philantrophist. By today’s standards, Homer’s heroes were monsters. And the violence in Homer is in no way less gratuitous than Tarantino’s. Its depiction was not intended to turn readers into pacifists. It was meant to entertain, and to arouse our emotions. Should Homer be forbidden? Is Homer dangerous? Or was he when he was still read or heard? What exactly is the difference between Homer and Tarantino?  


  1. As I was once taught, If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything.

  2. I guess my writing what I did was to say I had read the piece and wasn't that crazy about the subject matter - Tarantino and gratuitous violence.

    Nevertheless, I can see the transcendental serve of films and story telling. It is better to keep the violence on the screen rather than in society. It serves as a social release.