This is the kind of violence violence-lovers hate

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IT TAKES just three seconds for Cindy's expression to change, and she's not just making a horrified face; she's actually horrified. She twists round, saying: 'Oh no, oh no, God, God,' looking really sick, which is how I feel. Time, every second, is dragging disgustingly; this doesn't look like it's going to end. It's just not normal. Violence happens quickly, and then it's over, and then you move on to the next thing. That's right, isn't it?

Five, six seconds now; the blood is still coming, but it's the screaming that's the worst thing, this unbearable broken gurgling wail. I grab the remote, and freeze the tape of Reservoir Dogs, which Barry Norman called 'as violent a movie as I've seen in years'. Tim Roth is writhing in the back of a car, bleeding from the stomach, getting the blood all over the beige leather seat, shiny red patches all over it, which looks so horrible it seems . . . unreal. But that's just the point; it's not unreal, it's just unlike a movie. Roth is shouting, squirming, passing out. Jarringly, the violent act, of Roth being shot, is the beginning of something, rather than the end. In movies, violence ends things - there's a noise, a splash of action on the screen, and then it's over. Then you can move on.

Cindy says: 'I can't watch this, I really can't,' and she turns away from the screen. So how could she like The Deer Hunter? Why wasn't she bothered by Cape Fear? These movies are full of killing. Cindy went to see Death Becomes Her the other day, in which Goldie Hawn gets her stomach blown out. She thought it was 'quite funny'. She saw Home Alone 2, with someone's head being set on fire. She loved it. So what's she afraid of now?

Pain, that's what. In the cinema, we see plenty of destruction: kicking, shooting, stabbing, car-crashes, explosions. But pain remains a mystery. I've seen everything: John Wayne spraying machine-gun nests with gunfire, the dying Germans dropping quickly, yelling 'Aargh]'; Clint Eastwood shooting rooms full of people, popping away at the dazed gunslingers who grimace briefly as they go down. Last week I watched Sam Neill fire a warning-flare into the mouth of a psychopath; the flare made his head burn with a yellow flash and carried him handily out to sea, where he floated away, smoking. Movie violence used to be clean, and now it's explicit, dirty; now we get lots of blood and special-effect guts. What we don't get is how people feel when these things are happening to them; we have no insight into their pain.

I press 'play' to get Tim Roth squirming again. Do I want it? Not at all. I want it to be over. But it takes ages. Harvey Keitel stops the car; he drags the screaming, bleeding Roth into a warehouse. The blood is thickening; Roth is splashing, lying in a viscous pool the texture of thin custard. He's dying, and he knows it; it's a frightening analysis of how a man feels about his own death. What would you do if you were pouring with blood, your life draining away? Would you say a few brave words and turn your head quietly to the side? No - you'd be weeping and coughing, gargling your blood, moaning with fear. Roth's performance makes you imagine what this would be like; you can sense how helpless he is, and this is one of the things you fear most. It's also one of the main reasons for not being violent in real life. This is violence treated with the respect it deserves.

It's also violence that most violence-lovers will hate. If you like violence, you want it to have a point; it should move the plot along, give the camera a chance to show you new things. Fans of violence like violence to work. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, for instance, the torture-scene works really well; for a short time, you feel that Stallone is in a little bit of pain. But really, this is only an excuse, it's a license for him to be really violent. Your guy is being given an appetite, and in a minute, he's going to satisfy it. You have to sit through a tiny bit of bad violence, and then you get your pay off - half an hour of rousing, pain-less gore.

In movies, you nearly always know the extent of the violence before it happens; violence is thus robbed of one of its most important real-life characteristics - its ability to be surprising and unpredictable. Will Robert De Niro kill Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange in Cape Fear? No, of course he won't - he'll scare them, and then they'll have a big fight, and he'll die. Will Hedy kill Allie in Single White Female? Oh, sure. No, you know exactly what will happen - Hedy, the less pretty one, will turn out to be a nut, there'll be a stalking scene at the end, and a frantic scuffle with the prettier woman prevailing.

These films are violent, but, like almost all violent films, they skirt around the subject of violence itself. Scarface and The Godfather and Body Double display very little understanding of what happens when people start to shoot and torture each other: what it looks like, how long it takes, how scary it is. These are films about how much fun violence can be to watch. And they work; you go away from them feeling happy, flushed, invigorated. They might as well be ads for violence.

'Just turn it off altogether,' Cindy says, still not looking. Roth's blood is running out of him in a stream. I can't bear it either; I want to cling to the fantasy that violence is quick and clean. Watching Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis blowing somebody's head off, or shooting them in the chest with a silenced gun - phutphutphut - and then not having to think about it any more is a ritual, distant experience, like listening to news of a tragedy in a place you've never heard of. Roth's screen death is much more intimate, like Hillsborough or the Birmingham pub bombings.

I press 'eject' and turn it off. The movie has been running for five minutes. With huge relief I pick up the TV remote. Let's hope I can find a gangster movie, or a thriller. Or a film about Vietnam, or the Second World War - one where the Japanese have got them pinned down in the jungle, maybe. Something I feel comfortable with.-