In: Karl French (Hrsg.): Screen Violence, Bloomsbury Publishing 1996, p. 196-204


Speaking Up For Corpses 


JOAN SMITH

When Kathryn Bigelow's millennial fantasy Strange Days was released in Britain in the spring of 1996, it received damning reviews. The film's most outspoken critic
was Paul Gambaccini, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope, who announced on air that he had refused to interview Bigelow the first time a
Kaleidoscope presenter had made such a stand - because he would have been able to do nothing but insult her. Gambaccini's hostility is at first sight puzzling, given
that the movie is not especially violent, certainly no more so than contemporaneous releases like Seven. Nothing in it comes anywhere near the sadistic torture scenes in Scorsese's Casino or the prolonged mutilation of a cop in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs; visually stylish and stylised in a way that recalls Blade Runner (and set, like that movie, in a futuristic version of Los Angeles), Bigelow's film gradually exposes a romantic sensibility which simultaneously envisions humanity trembling on the brink of moral chaos and capable of redemption. Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a disgraced ex-cop who now makes a living selling `playback' - black market tapes which offer the punter the chance to experience other people's feelings along with sound and vision. What Lenny's customers want is sex, excitement, and the occasional out-of-the way thrill such as vicariously taking part in an armed robbery; Strange Days opens with a noisy, confused sequence as a gang of incompetent criminals raid a Thai restaurant and run into a police ambush. The whole episode, recorded on playback by one of the robbers and seen entirely through his eyes, ends abruptly when he falls to his death during a roof top chase. 

Furious with the dealer who is trying to sell him the tape after acquiring it illegally from a paramedic, Lenny pulls the playback rig from his head and exclaims: `What
the fuck is this? Goddamit! You know I don't deal in snuff!' Yet the pivotal incident in the film, and the sequence Gambaccini cited in defence of his decision not to
interview Bigelow, is a so-called `snuff' scene. A prowler, wired up to a playback machine, uses it to record his rape and murder of a prostitute, a friend of Lenny's
called Iris. What's more, after incapacitating Iris with an electric stun-gun, the prowler connects her to the machine, forcing her to experience his excitement as he
violates her. Here is part of the scene, taken from James Cameron's screenplay: 


Iris can now see herself as the Wearer sees her . . . wideeyed with terror, white-lipped, weeping. Helpless. And she can feel what he feels. 

The wearer's hand goes back into the fanny-pack and pulls out something else. A black athletic headband. We slip it over her hear head, down over her eyes. A
blindfold. Now she can only see what the Wearer sees. 

And also from the bag we pull . . . 

A yellow plastic object. With our thumb we extend the five inch blade of the razor knife. It is the type with the tipc that can be broken off by segments when they get dull. It extends with an ominous clicking sound. 


It's the standard Hollywood slice-and-dice scenario, familiar from movies like jagged Edge and virtually the whole of Brian de Palma's ouevre, but with a significant
difference. In Strange Days, the audience sees everything from the point of view of the rapist, actually becomes the rapist: `We put the knife up to her throat, and she
whimpers, afraid to cry out, and then we draw the flat side of the blade down across her body as if to tease her with the prospect of her death' [my italics]. Even
more dramatically Lenny Nero, who has been sent the tape anonymously, is forced when he plays it to feel the killer's excitement and the woman's terror: 


Lenny is feeling the stalker's exhiliration, pounding heart, flushed skin, panting breath, and Lenny knows that Iris is feeling the same thing, overlaid with her
own senses . . . so the excitement and terror merge into one thing, one overwhelming wave of dread sensation.

Lenny goes to pieces as the tape rolls. The screenplay describes him looking as though he has been `gut kicked', gasping for breath and vomiting the
contents of his stomach in a shop doorway. `It is the worst thing he has ever experienced', the script explains, `sharing that horrible intimacy of rape and
murder with another . . . so sick, so psychotically scopophiliac'. 

Actually, this isn't a precise description of what's just happened; scopophilia - Freud's preferred term for voyeurism describes the male viewer's habitual
position when watching scenes of sexual violence on film involving women. What is ground-breaking and transgressive about Strange Days is the way it imposes,
however fleetingly, not just collusion with the rapist but the sensation of female terror on that half of the audience which is used to regarding -it from a safe distance.
For women, this sense of horrified empathy at the cinema is depressingly routine; for men, it is startlingly unusual, so much so that it is hardly surprising that
Gambaccini, and other male critics, reacted so violently to the film. 

This is not the only way in which ,Strange Days breaks with convention. In a movie which makes an attempt, however muddled, to challenge gender
stereotypes, the men are long- 199 haired and dishevelled while the female lead, Angela Bassett as a chauffeur/bodyguard, is resourceful and resilient;
Bassett grows in stature as the male characters, from Fiennes to Michael Wincott as a sinister rock music impresario, fall apart. This is not to argue that
Strange Days is a great movie, although I think it is under-rated. What it does confront, however, and in an innovative way, is the problem of point-of-view. Most
filmmakers, if they think about it consciously at all, would probably regard John Berger's famous dictum in Ways of Seeing as prescriptive rather than descriptive:
men watch women and women watch themselves being looked at (or, in the case of Hollywood cinema, people in their image being raped and murdered). That is
how life is, so why shouldn't movies reflect it? And even if you want to do something more complicated and challenging, how do you make an audience, half of it
composed of people who do not share women's vulnerability to sexual predators, identify with the female victim's experience? 

Strange Days is not the first Hollywood film to address this conundrum. In 1988 Jonathan Kaplan made a botched attempt to persuade filmgoers to see things from a
woman's point of view in his film The Accused, in which Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her performance as a young working-class woman gang-raped over a pinball
machine. Almost everything that could go wrong with the movie did, from its degeneration into a conventional courtroom drama - a sympathetic female district
attorney, played by Kelly McGillis, decides to prosecute the onlookers when the chief culprits dodge a charge of rape - to a spectacular misunderstanding of the
function of female fear in pornographic discourse. The producers, fresh from their sensational success with Fatal Attraction, defended their graphic rape scene on
the grounds that, by focussing on Foster's terror, it forced the audience to recognise the horror of sexual violence. These were people, all too obviously, who had
never read a word of ale Sade's The Misfortunes of Virtue, where the heroine's fear and pleas for help are generally the prelude to some further atrocity:

'O sirs!' I cried, holding my arms out to them, `have mercy on an unfortunate creature whose fate is more to be pitied than you can think. Few have suffered
calamities equal to mine. I beg you, do not allow the predicament in which you discovered me to start suspicions of me in your mind, for my situation is the result of
misfortune and not of any wrongs that I have done. Do not increase the sum of the ills which lie heavy upon me, but on the contrary, I beseech you, kindly furnish me
with some means of escaping the rigours by which I am pursued'. 


This entreaty, far from softening the hearts of the young aristocrats to whom it is addressed, leads them to take further advantage of the heroine by tying her to a tree, stripping her and threatening to slash her buttocks with their hunting-knives. There are men for whom female terror, experienced at a safe distance, carries an erotic charge: what Kathryn Bigelow tries to do in Strange Days, with some degree of success judging by the furious reaction to it, is to introduce a new possibility -
identification - into a spectrum of male responses which normally runs from (at best) distaste for sexual violence against women on screen to (at worst) vicarious
enjoyment of it. 

The reason why this question of point-of-view matters, and it does, is not that violence on screen translates directly into real-life attacks on women. During the
Yorkshire Ripper murders in the late 1970s, women in the north of England picketed cinemas showing the Brian de Palma movie Dressed To Kill, in which Angie
Dickinson is slashed to death in a lift. The film, in some ways a re-run of Psycho, was undoubtedly in bad taste; the most pernicious thing about it, just like the earlier movie, was the way in which it identified the killer's feminine side - Michael Caine dressed up as a woman to commit his crimes, as did Tony Perkins in Psycho- as the murderous part of his personality. In the 201 almost frantic atmosphere of fear and distrust which pervaded northern cities at that time, with the death toil of women rising and the police apparently powerless to apprehend the killer, the connection between screen violence and violence against real women was, for many people, too seductive too resist. That remains true today, with a parliamentary committee claiming in a recent report that there are now more than a thousand
academic studies which establish a `Causal connection' between watching violent material in the cinema or on video and what happens in real life. Dame Jill Knight,
Tory chair of the Family and Child Protection Group, said: `There is clear evidence to show that screen sex and violence does have links with crime, and that it does
harm children. More and more people want to see something done. Now we have to work out the nuts and bolts'. According to a recent article in the Sunday Tines
(23 June 1996), opinion polls show that 71 per cent of British people agree with her, and believe that freedom of expression has gone too far. 

This is an old, not to say ancient, argumentwhich predates the invention of modern electronic media by hundreds of years. The case that certain types of
entertainment have a direct and malign influence on how people behave in real life was articulated by St Augustine in the late fourth century AD, when he described
the effect on a young friend of his, Alypius, who was taken against his will to a gladiatorial contest: 

When he arrived at the arena, the place was seething with the lust for cruelty. They found seats as best they could and Alypius shut his eyes tightly, determined to
have nothing to do with these atrocities. If only he had closed his ears as well! For an incident in the fight drew a great roar from the crowd, and this thrilled him so
deeply that he could not restrain his curiosity. Whatever had caused the uproar, he was confident that, if he saw it, he would find it repulsive and remain master of
himself. So he opened his eyes, and his soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator, whom he was so anxious to see, had received in his body. He fell, and fell more pitifully than the man whose fall had drawn that roar of excitement from the crowd . . .When he saw the blood, it was as though he had drunk a deep draught of savage passion. Instead of turning away, he fixed his eyes upon the scene and drank in all its frenzy, unaware of what he was doing. He revelled in the wickedness of the fighting and was drunk with the fascination of bloodshed. He was no longer the man who had come to the arena, but simply one of the crowd which he had joined, a fit companion for the friends who had brought him. Need I say more? He watched and cheered and grew hot with excitement, and when he left the arena, he carried away with him a diseased mind which would leave him no peace until he came again, no longer simply together with friends
who had dragged him there, but at their head, leading new sheep to the slaughter. (Confessions, Book VI, Section 8)


For Augustine, the case was made: exposure to violence corrupts those who see it, no matter how innocent they are to begin with. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Augustine's friend went on to perpetrate violent acts himself; like a spectator at a modern-day boxing match, which is perhaps the nearest equivalent to a gladiatorial contest, he simply went back for more. As Professor James Twitchell suggests in his book Preposterous Violence, it seems likely that these bloody contests `reflect and even predict the wishes and responses of those in the coliseum stands' rather than creating them. Even the much-vaunted studies `proving' the link between screen violence and criminal acts turn out, when you look at them more closely, to establish something rather different: that violent offenders,
like many law-abiding citizens, enjoy recreational violence at the cinema and in the comfort of their own homes. Who can say which came first? Rapists and
murderers are as much in need of a scapegoat as anyone else, indeed more so, and they are not insulated from this debate; they know that blaming I Spit on your
Grave or The Silence of the Lambs or Reservoir Dogs for their crimes will be music to a defence lawyer's ears (as is the schizophrenia defence unsuccessfully
adopted at his trial by Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper). Taking the argument one step further, it may even be the case that watching violent fictions reduces the
need, in some individuals, to commit violent acts: can we really justify the claim that attending a performance of the Oresteia or Titus Andronicus is cathartic but
watching a film like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, whose moral didacticism is equally overt, inevitably leads to murder? 

It seems likely that an audience's reponse to screen violence is far more complex, and diverse, than this model of straightforward imitation suggests. What is more
important, in a sense, is the cultural message conveyed by movies in which the male leads wade to their destiny through the corpses of butchered women. Two points are worth noting here: that celluloid violence against women, as opposed to male-on-male violence, is almost without exception sexual, and that the contest is always unequal. The atmosphere in movies like Pulp Fiction or the pyrotechnic ,John Travolta vehicle Broken Arrow is cartoon-like, so much so that they would easily
translate to action comics with the words 'pow!' and `splat!' standing in for the soundtrack; compared with the chilling torture and murder scene which opens Jagged
Edge, both films could fairly claim to come under the heading good clean fun. Nor is it obvious, even in an extreme example of the cops-and-robbers genre like
Reservoir Dogs, which of the characters is going to die and which will survive: the mortallywounded undercover cop takes out the psychopath who has tortured the
captive policeman and, in what looks like a deliberately ironic twist, the sole survivor of the bungled heist is the least conventionally `masculine' of the robbers, which is to say the only homosexual character. Events are not, in these films, pre-ordained in the way that they are for a certain type of female character in a standard Hollywood thriller; the audience knows, as soon as it sees Page Forrester asleep in bed in jagged Edge or the actress Nancy Allen in Blow Out or Iris running panic-stricken down the escalator in Strange Days, that her fate is sealed. It also recognises, because of the visual code which marks them out as disposable (rich bitch/cheap hooker) that it should not get emotionally involved with these women, ensuring that their deaths are a thrilling but not too painful part of the entertainment package.

What is different about Strange Days is that Iris, although her character is coded in exactly this way - tight, low-cut dresses, wildly unstable behaviour