Posts Tagged ‘Violence’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Yesterday was Bastille Day.  I changed my Facebook profile picture for the occasion. Very few people noticed, and even fewer cared.  This is not surprising since most Americans pay little attention to their own history, much less French History.  Nonetheless, every July 14th, the anniversary of the day in 1789 when the people of Paris stormed and overtook the medieval prison known as the Bastille, I quietly commemorate the Tricolour.220px-LibertyEqualityorDeath

The French Revolution is fascinating. Everyone, including notoriously Franco-phobe Americans, should take at least a cursory notice every July 14th and maybe even sing a few bars of the La Marseillaise. Here are a couple reasons why:

  •  The litany of incredible personalities that changed the world.  Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just, Marat, Jacques-Louis David, Olympe de Gouges, Condorcet, Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Thomas Paine, and of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Paris was a political soap-opera.
  • The French Revolutionaries understood the importance of words and symbols.  From ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, to “The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, the Revolutionaries attempted control of language foreshadows our postmodern world, and our obsession with discourse.
  • The Revolutionaries did not just want to tweak a couple things; they wanted to create their world anew.  There is no denying such apocalyptic hopes led to terror and state-induced murder (see Louis and Antoinette, 220px-Heads_on_pikesand the guillotine,) but it is less remembered that they also produced idiosyncratically mundane social transformations. The Revolutionaries truly did ‘sweat the small stuff.’  They revolutionized places (Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason), people (name your kid Brutus, not Louis), measurements (Metric system), time (New months, days, and holidays), fashion (Hair down, no more wigs) and objects (Get rid of the Kings and Queens in chess, playing cards, etc).
  • The French Revolution, in all its gruesome violence, causes  a ‘gaper’s delay’.  Like a car crash on I-94, I just can’t look away from all those heads on pikes, Revolutionary wars, and mob killings.  Disgusting, but horrifyingly fascinating.
  • Lastly, in much of the world today, being for or against the Revolution still illustrates your political worldview. The events of 1789 are still contentious, and for many since that July day, the hope has been to put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  Though this hope is inevitably fruitless, as a historian, I love that events that took place over two hundred years ago can still cause heated arguments in every corner of the world.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Over the last couple weeks, I got sucked into watching the six hour saga known as The Godfather I and II.  It had been awhile, so I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of the dysfunctional Corleone family.  One thing that struck me was that the films are more enjoyable to me now, as I realize that they are largely the tale of a father’s relationship with his children. I am continually amazed at how having children completely changes your worldview.   But, that is for another blog post.

What I have been thinking about since watching the Godfather films is their depiction of violence.  Of course, the violent scenes in these films are infamous. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, Vito’s murder of Don Fanucchi, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, the decapitated horse head in the bed.  These films are part of Hollywood legend, and have made a mark as cultural references instantly recognized by the majority of Americans.  As I sat down to watch the movies for the first time in a decade or so, I remembered that violence was the norm in the world of the Corleones.  What I did not remember is how ‘unrealistic’ the physical depiction of the violence is. The gun shots sound fake in the film.  The bullet wounds look absurd.  The death of gun-shot victims is glamorized in an old Hollywood style (slowly staggering on their feet, only to dramatically fall to the ground.)  Most notably, the bloody wounds are almost laughable (the blood is a bright orange-ish red.) As I watched this, I thought to myself, “Hollywood special effects sure have gotten more advanced”.   ‘Realistic’ physical reactions to violence are an absolute must at this time.  (See: The first twenty five minutes of Saving Private Ryan.)

But then, I had two important realizations.  The first was, how in the world do I know what is realistic, and what is fake?  I have never been a part of a gangland hit.  I have never stormed a beach facing mortars and machine gun fire.  And of course, not only have I never took part in these events, I have never even seen anything resembling them. I have no idea how the human body reacts to physical violence.  And yet, I have no problem proclaiming if violent movies are ‘real’ or ‘fake’.  How odd this phenomenon is.  Evidently, Hollywood has created a sense of real violence in my mind so powerful that when actual violence does not conform to the Hollywood version, it can seem staged.  Does not the actual news footage of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald seem far too quick and clean? This is not graphic, ‘real’ Hollywood violence.

The second realization: The gruesome, ‘realistic’ violence of films today doesn’t always disturb me, and yet the ‘fake’ violence of the Godfather films is extremely disturbing.  Like most other Americans, I can watch bloodily disgusting films such as 300, and feel no effects from the dismembering of bodies or close-up decapitations that are central to the film.  In fact, such physically ‘realistic’ violence becomes passé.   In comparison, when Michael Corleone guns down his family’s enemies in the Italian restaurant, signaling the beginning of his eventual status as head of the Corleone crime family, I get sweaty palms, dry mouth, and an uncomfortable lump in the throat.

What is going on here? Simply put, realistic violence is not just about the physical effects on the body, but about the emotional effects on the mind.  Some of my students a couple quarters ago pointed this out.  I showed them a ‘realistic’ war film, The Thin Red Line, and had them compare that to an ‘unrealistic’ war film, Pearl Harbor.  One of my students stated that The Thin Red Line is much more violent.  But how so?  Pearl Harbor has its share of horrifying deaths. There is no shortage of blood.  In fact, The Thin Red Line is really not that graphic of a WWII film, especially compared to the more famous Saving Private Ryan.  After discussing why it seems so much more violent, my students and I realized it was because of the emotionally wrenching nature of the violence in The Thin Red Line.  All a viewer feels during the bombing scene of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is awe.  Not awe at the violence, but awe at the technological ability of the movie makers.  The emotions you feel while watching the battle scenes of The Thin Red Line are dread, fear and shock.  You don’t need a slow-motion decapitation to feel the realism.

Special effects in the Godfather I and II were quite primitive, but like all great stories, the wrenching of emotions these films provide for us are primal, and timeless.