10 March 2010

"Say 'Auf Wiedersehen' to your Nazi balls!"

While I was out getting lunch today, Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (BWH&H) once again filtered into my mind, as it is wont to do. For some reason, I was thinking about the violence in the five films examining Hiroshima's postwar yakuza scene, which then led me to ponder the cinematic depiction of bloodshed at large. And I ended up thinking my way into the swirling vortex that exists up my own ass.

Also, a heads up - there'll be SPOILERS about every film I discuss in here. But don't worry, the lone recent one is Inglourious Basterds, and you really should have seen that by now, if only to discuss it on venom-laden message boards. Something else you should know - every clip I post here (each one dutifully stolen from YouTube) is extremely NSFW. Fun!

The violence in Fukasaku's films is tinged with a certain something. I didn't consciously think about this; I only realized it after I put my finger on what that certain something is: humor. No matter how brutal or horrific the acts onscreen, there is a certain element of inherent comedy, usually when the facades his characters wear melt away as the shit hits the fan. Tough guys turn into blubbering, panicky messes, or friendly young women stop being nice and fight without mercy.

For example, in the opening scene of the first film in the BWH&H series, a group of American soldiers chase down and rape a Japanese girl. Terrible, of course, but it almost sends itself up with a brief shot where one of the men drops his trousers and enthusiastically jumps on top of her without a moment's hesitation. The way he does it is cartoonish, not bothering to shake off his pants or, uh...gird his loins for the point of contact as he leaps off both feet. The camera's angle, viewing him from behind with his skinny white ass in our faces, makes it look more likely he'll break his dick off on the floor than actually penetrate anything. For a moment, a bunch of cruel men are transformed into a pack of stereotypical frat boys.

In another example, watch this scene from Cops Vs. Thugs, where Bunta Sugawara and his partner give the business to a yakuza tough in an interrogation room. The tough is full of piss and vinegar until the police start beating on him. He valiantly tries to maintain his "Fuck you!" attitude, which becomes increasingly ridiculous as they slam him against the desk, ram him into the window bars, and eventually disrobe him completely:

Here's another illustration of this from Fukasaku's later and better known film, Battle Royale, in the famous scene when a group of schoolgirls go from chipper to murderous in the blink of an eye after an unfortunate - and rather hilarious - poisoning mishap.

The Coen Brothers also traffic in this, particularly in Fargo, with Carl Showalter trying to look inside the house before breaking in and the kidnapped wife getting caught in the shower curtain and flailing wildly until she knocks herself out.

People watch these kinds of scenes and go "Well, that was weird." I think they're not used to the two wildly divergent tones - comedy and darkness - working together in this way to complement each other and further unsettle the viewer. But here's the thing: These scenes aren't really weird at all, they're just the way terrible events would be likely to happen if they occurred in real life. Every day violence isn't perpetrated by muscled strongmen, but by your friends and neighbors, people who are gangly, awkward, ignorant, and all too human. This realism only makes it more haunting.

I was content to think that this comedy was somewhat unique to a certain set of filmmakers, but let's be honest with ourselves. Action flicks are really just comedies; some just know it better. I dare you to watch Commando and believe that Arnold and his collaborators aren't in on the joke. They had to be. I mean, in this clip, he's standing right there - RIGHT THERE! - and no one can shoot him. Of course it's funny, and, I would argue, intentionally so.

But then, some action films aren't in on the joke, and take themselves way too seriously. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the poster boy for this case, one Mr. John Rambo:

Calling Rambo silly isn't anything new or revolutionary. So let's continue this train of thought and ask ourselves a question some of you (no, not all of you, but some) may not have asked yourselves before. Namely, what truly is the difference between this:

And this:

Superior direction, acting, and editing, sure, but I would argue there's not much else in terms of plot and tone. Saving Private Ryan set the modern template for war flick aesthetics that Rambo rigorously follows, and in doing so, the latter film only highlights the flaws in the former. After the landmark and genuinely gut-churning Omaha Beach sequence, Saving Private Ryan devolves into Hollywood cliches that end up in a good ol' fashioned shootout. It's marvelously choreographed and shot, but still ends up sending the same message as Rambo: War is fucked up and fun. They try to dress it differently, but anyone watching at home still feels the urge to cheer on as the Germans get mowed down in waves. (The opening sequence, Band of Brothers, and presumably the upcoming The Pacific manages to sidestep this by grounding themselves more in actual, verifiable history and focusing on the minute details of second-by-second combat rather than "We need to hold this goddamn bridge!" heroics.)

Exhaustingly, this led me back to pondering Quentin Tarantino's violence, which seems to operate on another level entirely. Consciously operating as he does within Film Reality rather than Real Reality, his violence is extremely cartoonish, and yet it contains a viciousness that I feel more than I do in something that attempts to ape naturalism like Saving Private Ryan. It may be Nazis getting gunned down in the theater at the end of Inglourious Basterds, but it still contains a sickening punch. Is this what vengeance feels like?

Is it that Taratino's films are full of such obvious passion for the very medium itself? Is it the way he intricately raises tension in long - some would say boring - scenes before allowing the violence to explode in a short, powerful punch? Is it the tactility of his old school gore, which is much more present and gruesome than what even the best CGI can do to a human body? Is it the primal instincts of his revenge-filled story lines littered with bad guys who gots to get got? Even despite the comedy that is riven through his violence - or perhaps because of it - the moment of impact hits you in the gut and makes your laughter freeze in your throat, whether it's poor, poor Marvin in the back of the car or an unfairly treated young man who just wanted to get into Gogo Yubari's skirt.

Having taken you on a tour through some forms of cinematic violence - merely the tip of the iceberg - I'm afraid my mind has left me without giving me an overall point or lesson to impart. I hope you have found something to enjoy; if not my words, then a bit of the old ultraviolence.

1 comment:

  1. WTF?! A tour through autuerism and violent depravity without a point beyond eruditic masturbation? You have learned well from Taratino, my friend. Very well.

    I look ever forward to your "Vol. 2" on this topic. ;)