Geoff Pevere: A Personal History of Violence

Ever since I decided a couple of months back to begin working on two online encyclopedic references to westerns and crime movies – lifelong objects of obsessional interest – I’ve been watching men kill each other every day. I don’t know what the daily average is, but it’s got to be probably somewhere in the neighbourhood of a dozen simulated killings per. At least.

On one level that seems a little unhealthy: multiply that by 365, multiply that by the number of years I’ve been watching movies about men killing each other, and what you come up with is, well, you know already. A lifetime of connoisseur carnage.

But then consider this: I watch practically no television apart from discs from my own collection; I watch almost no television news; and I don’t watch sports. And I play no video games. So I put it to you: even with my daily fix of directly mainlined, high grade movie mayhem, I’m probably getting a much smaller dose of the old ultra-V than most people – many of them kids – do.

I’ve always loved watching violent movies. A love of westerns was instilled in me by my dad at a very early age, and as I grew older I got equally fixated on crime films. By the time I had been introduced to the burgeoning critical discourse around film noir, gangster movies and international crime movies, I couldn’t resist anything that rode into town on a horse or carrying a concealed weapon.

But fight in real life? Are you kidding? I’d do anything I could to avoid conflict of any kind, and I developed an almost instinctive radar for people and situations that blinked red. Moreover, I’ve seen enough violent movies to know this as well as I know anything: violence creates absolutely nothing but more violence, and it only stops when somebody isn’t moving any more. If there’s a single lesson in all those movies, a lesson which is conveyed either as part of a film’s moral scheme or by the sheer fact that violent movies have never experienced a waning in global fascination, it’s that violence solves nothing.

The other lesson is that we can’t learn that lesson enough. We need to be constantly reminded of it because we are animal in nature and (arguably) violent by design, and because one of the defining struggles of human civilisation has been the reconciling of individual violent impulses with greater community responsibilities. The containment and re-channeling of humanity’s violent impulses are among those defining principles of history, politics and mythology, and the reason we create so many spectacles containing violence – along with so many spectacles containing sex and sentiment – is exactly the same: to keep those impulses in mind and in check, and to remind our better angels of our beastly beginnings.

In the course of re-watching certain enduringly interesting crime movies, I popped To Live and Die in L.A. in the machine the other evening. I’d seen it about four times already, but not in many years. This time around, I noticed something I hadn’t paid full attention to before: the film features the voice of Ronald Reagan talking about the supply-side miracle of lower taxes on its soundtrack, and then it moves into one of the most uncompromising and violent depictions of epidemic greed and amorality Hollywood movies had ever seen. Naturally, it was condemned for its glorification of violence, nihilism and adrenaline-pumped macho aggression, but – also naturally – such criticisms completely missed the point. A story of two secret service agents (William L. Petersen and John Pankow) who go undercover rogue in order to bag a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) responsible for another special agent’s death, William Friedkin’s movie is nothing if not a comprehensively meticulous study of how fucked up a world is when everybody acts on their own self-interest. In this movie, the glamour of ego-driven glory is like a drug: it makes people crazy, and it completely removes them from the realm of communal action and responsibility. Of course they’re killing each other like crazy. That’s the point, and To Live and Die in L.A. makes that point with the blunt force of car hitting a wall. (A violent metaphor I know, but what are you going to do?) There’s a reason why Ronald Reagan is heard talking about the drug of unregulated capitalism at the beginning of the movie: because the movie itself is about what happens when that is loosed on the street.

One of the extras on the 2003 DVD edition of the movies is an alternate ending. One in which the hero isn’t shot in a botched sting attempt made possible by the death of another innocent cop. In this ending, he’s allowed to live, and Friedkin filmed it only because the studio was naturally nervous that killing off the hero would be too alienating for audiences to bear. The alternate ending didn’t stick, thank god, but the mere fact that it was suggested as necessary in the first place tells you just how deeply embedded moral hypocrisy over violence is buried in our culture. As Friedkin points out in an interview on the disc, letting the hero live would not only have completely undermined the movie’s message about violence always blowing back on those who embrace and perpetrate it, it would have allowed our man to have gotten away with crossing over the dark side clean. In other words, it would have been infinitely more sociopathic and amoral that having him get killed. Instead of condemning violence, greed and socipathic vanity, it would have endorsed it. Plus they would have had to change the title: To Kill and Thrive in L.A.

 We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing about movies, media and popular culture for more than thirty years. He just can’t help it. His column appears every Friday.

 

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One Response to “Geoff Pevere: A Personal History of Violence”

  1. Really nice piece Geoff! Its personal ,insightful and illuminating with respect to the cinema, popculture and its reflection of the world!

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