The fatal attraction

Quentin Tarantino is back with Kill Bill, yet another cinematic celebration of violence. David Thomson wonders if audiences can resist the corrosive effects of such images
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After a gap of five years, Quentin Tarantino returns to the movies with Kill Bill, which is a streamlined version of a kids' video game. It is no surprise that Tarantino should be interested in the spectacle of violence, as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both contained challenging moments of aggression and terror. But they were also pictures about people, and above all people who talked, who gave vent to their feelings and an extraordinary inner life. The pity is, I think, that in reflecting now upon his own talent and his own medium, Tarantino has opted to pursue "pure" cinematic violence and to ignore character and conversation.

In many ways, violence is simply a synonym for cinema. People have gone to the movies to see things that have been denied them in real life. Danger, adventure, violence - and success at all three - have always been part of the fantastic experience of sitting in the dark watching the faces of strangers that are as large as the side of a house. And because we at the movies are safe - in the dark, in the warmth, in the company of others - the danger is all the more alluring, and yet all the trickier to handle, because we are not likely to get hurt.

In the Psycho shower scene, Alfred Hitchcock filmed the pumping motion of the knife so well that we felt we were being attacked ourselves. People flinched. They shut their eyes. They hid under the seats. They may even have run out of the cinema screaming. But they had lost none of their own blood. The blood, or the chocolate sauce, or whatever Hitchcock used in that quaint black and white film, came from no human being. Not even Janet Leigh or her stand-in were caught up in the slaughter. The character Marion Crane is dead, and however many times you see the film, she dies always at the same point, at the same time, as if it were an appointment she was keeping. But Janet Leigh is alive and well; I saw her only last year in California and interviewed her for this very paper.

What have audiences ever made of that fascinating confusion? I mean the one in which the character is destroyed so completely that we cannot bear to watch, and yet the actress comes through and can be seen smiling at the Academy Awards. I said that violence in the movies is a tricky business, just as watching any event or situation normally forbidden in life is a very testing sport in fantasy. From the early days in the history of the movies, some people worried that the violence might be infectious, that it might leap out from the screen and claim figures in the audience. When the Lumière brothers showed their first films in Paris in 1895, one of their subjects was a railway engine drawing slowly into a station. This meant photographing the locomotive as it came towards the camera. Very slowly. But still, some people in that Parisian audience - and Paris has always prided itself on being a very sophisticated city - got up and ran out of the dark because they believed the engine might come out of the screen and hit them.

Is that crazy? Or is it simply the natural fulfilment of all the anticipation and desire that goes into watching movies?

A hundred years later, our children, my children, watch another kind of screen, the TV screen, and play computer games on it. They are games of combat. You can stop them playing these games in your house, but then they play them at their friends' houses. They are everywhere. Some people claim that they improve and heighten children's instincts and their ability to solve puzzles. Many people fear that they may give children the notion that violence is a game, and one free from damage or hurt.

In recent years, in Britain and America, children, or people below an age of legal responsibility, have killed other children. In some cases they killed many children. With guns they found in their parents' rooms. With guns that were so like the guns in video games that they made the same noises and gave the same spurts of fire, and the victim tumbled down in just the same way.

Is this because evil, pure evil, is out and about in the land? Is it because the entire condition in which these children live is itself racked with violence, unhappiness and discontent? Or is it because, in a hundred years, the movies have introduced a fatal notion of separation between violence and consequence? Is that why generals and politicians reporting to us on their victory in Iraq, or wherever, can speak of "collateral damage" - as if those words began to let them think that they were not responsible for the shattering of innocent people?

This is not to propose drastic censorship of violence or of anything in the movies. Is it violent, after all, when a movie cuts from shot A to shot B? We only use the word "cut" because deep down we know that something sharp and severing is happening. A cut is also a joining mechanism, something that brings together an A and a B, so that poetry or beauty or wonder can happen. So that the audience can see, and feel a connection between, hitherto disparate things, which is exactly what we would want art to do.

But the cut is still violent and it holds a quality of intimidation for us: we know that a movie can cut to anything quicker than we can close our eyes, and that is part of the fear and the thrill in being at the movies. Fear and thrill and excitement and being moved; these are all things that we tell ourselves we need and want, they are some of the mainsprings of art. And, at its best, we say that film can be an art.

But if film, or film on television, is used to show the world the "victory" in Iraq, when what happened was so much more complicated than victory, then the universal importance and power of film may be especially dangerous. Only a few weeks ago, the world at last lost Leni Riefenstahl, who claimed always that she had simply made a documentary record of the Nazi party rallies at Nuremberg. Is that claim accurate? In a way, if you want to know what those rallies looked like, you should go to the films, for their historical value. But it is also true that if you watch The Triumph of the Will for long enough, your foot will start to tap to the pounding beat, the pulse, of the movie. That rhythm is in the drumming, in the marching and in the cutting of the film. It has a power that makes you want to be there, in uniform, as part of the power. That's what propaganda means, and propaganda has not really found a more powerful medium than film.

Leni Riefenstahl was, in effect, banned from making more films by the shock felt after 1945 all around the world ­ the victorious world ­ at what Nazism had meant, and at how far the art of film might have been an important instrument in persuading people to join the party, to march with it and to order people into death camps. Should film therefore be censored now? Should it have been censored in the 1930s? Could such censorship have taken effect without military action?

At a more domestic level, what are we to do with our own fascination with violence, except use it like a drug, and let it have its way with us? We could step back and wonder at the larger social and political context in which games of violence can become such an entertainment. In America the ratings system used on films means that children of any age can see R-rated films ­ the R is for restricted ­ as long as they are with parents or guardians, or people who will say that they are parents or guardians. This means that an American child of three or four can be taken to see, say The Silence of the Lambs, or any other picture which, for good reasons or others, explores violence to the limits of the film-makers' imagination. I have been in theatres when such children have been crying out loud, and in some cases I have to think that this was because of the fear they felt at what loomed over them. Yet parents told the children, politely or not, to shut up, so that they could continue to enjoy the fantasy. Why is that allowed to happen? Because the film business is so eager to sell every last ticket that it possibly can, that it will let innocent tiny children in to see shows that are simply not fit for them. And, of course, you have to buy a ticket for the child too.

The responsibility of the business and the film-makers is never satisfied by claims that the public have a right to make their own decisions. People don't always know how "terrible" a film is going to get, or how profound its impact will be. My wife saw A Clockwork Orange when she was a teenager and has bad dreams about it still.

Stanley Kubrick, an artist by most people's reckoning, made that film in England and then chose to withdraw it because he feared it had been influential in a number of cases of copycat killings in Britain. He was right to make that amendment to his own work ­ and he only had power over the release of the film in the UK ­ but what are we to say about his decision to make the film in the first place? Was he wrong? Was he misguided? Should we honour his self-censorship? The film is now available again in Britain, after his heirs elected to free it up. Is that the proper respect that an artist deserves? Are we always brave and strong enough to see everything?

I don't mean to suggest that film is the source and model of all that is wrong in modern society. But I do think that the world of film, which includes those people who are madly enthusiastic about any film, need to examine very carefully what happens in our minds when we watch endless violent imagery and feel no wounds or repercussions. For one, I am no longer confident that a message has not been passed down to several generations, in their bloodstreams, in their nervous systems and in their trigger fingers.

There is extraordinary violence in society today. It is there in the way we speak to each other and look at each other. Hostile looks, mean words, unkind actions, a steady stream of insults and cheating that are now taken for granted as parts of modern life. We have institutionalised the violence of divorce and broken homes, trusting that our adult emotional needs, our search for happiness, are more important than the damage that is done in break-up. Yet we all know, all of us who have been divorced and have tried again, that there is a damage that is done in these things that does not go away.

Enough of us know why we are alive. But not enough of us have a sense of purpose that can calm the many contrary tides of aggression that are out there: on the street, in parking battles, in road rage and in that sinister silent metaphor for all kinds of prison camps, the London Tube. Especially the Northern Line, where hideous congestion ­ people so close to each other they could be having sex ­ co-exists with a lack of intimacy or shared understanding that is terrifying. Are those passengers waiting for the catastrophic accident that everyone on the Northern Line feels must come? Are they wondering whether, in the event of that, they will behave well, as Londoners did in the Blitz, say, helping each other, being part of a community and a society?

But where does this feeling of the crowd and loneliness come from? Does it have anything to do with the very nature of the movies, where the crowd sits in the dark, anonymous and unknown, unrecognised, and watches these huge burnished beautiful faces? Is that a model for religion or fascism? And do we always know how to tell one from the other? So many great films from Birth of a Nation to The Godfather are crammed with violence, and great directors have always been able to handle the violence so that we feel chastened and purged, changed by it all.

But then there is the mass of film-making, and it is the mass that really counts, because it is the 20,000 hours of moving imagery that every 18-year-old has seen, in which the brutality of the event and the intimidating aura of the darkness itself, come together in something that is simply and only terrifying and reducing. We are, I fear, so much less than we might be, for reasons that are obvious and over which politicians labour: lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of hope, lack of money.

But is it possible that the movies are the first medium capable of being art, that have in serious ways added to that burden? Do I mean we should stop the movies? No, by no means. You cannot stop a thing after it has been driving at a hundred miles an hour for a hundred years. But we can do so much more to understand it. One step that would make such a difference would be to insist that our children, who almost certainly will spend more of their childhood watching movies than reading, be educated in our schools about how film works, what film-makers do to manipulate people, and what a cut means, technically, emotionally and poetically. The engine of film cannot yet drive us to promised lands, but it could involve us in catastrophic accidents, and we have to know how that engine works.