It is impossible not to be a bit cynical. The marketing of these films, even the reviewing, suggests that you go and see them if you dare, these are movies for real men. 'Quentin Tarantino's violent and bloody first feature (Reservoir Dogs), I wouldn't wish upon anyone's maiden aunt,' said Derek Malcolm in the Guardian. 'Thrilling, frightening, bloated with blood, redeemed by intelligence,' concluded Geoff Brown excitedly in the Times.
Women very easily feel excluded by all this. Violent movies and horror have always attracted a younger, male audience. 'What are Reservoir Dogs?' Jim Shelley asked in the Guardian: 'They are charming, vain, proud, funny, aggressive, childish, cool, and full of bullshit . . . in other words, they are men.' In other words, they are many of the things women often most despise about men, the pathetic, dangerous and threatening things. No wonder that, as the film critic Judith Williamson notes, many women just boycott this kind of movie, decide in advance they would rather not be put through it, thank you.
And yet, while violence in movies is undoubtedly partly about cynical shock value and partly - apparently - about some kind of mysterious, usually male, catharsis, it is also about important, universal things like power, sex and death. To suggest that women aren't interested in human potential for violence, or the arbitrary imminence of death, is ridiculous. Anyone who is interested in relationships is, by definition, interested in these things.
The real problem for women with screen violence is not that we are soft, or faint at the sight of blood, but that we find little to identify with in what's currently on offer. Women are almost never the perpetrators, very frequently victims: no wonder it's unpleasant.
When the steel toecap is on the other foot, it's a different matter. One male friend of mine thought for a bit about violence in movies this week, then announced that the worst scene he could remember was Kathy Bates breaking James Caan's legs in Misery. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon blowing up the truck in Thelma and Louise had a lot of men absolutely spitting. Women in America, on the other hand, took to making gun shapes with their hands and yelling 'bang bang' to truckers when they were cut up on the highway. A joke, but a cathartic joke.
Women are not very often allowed this response to screen violence. Usually we are asked, mostly by young, trendy, male critics, to admire the camera angles, the clever style, of films like Blue Velvet, in which Isabella Rossellini was tortured (and what's more seemed to need it). Or like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which critics assessed in terms of its references to Dutch still-lives, Dante, Fellini and Handel, without considering what it might feel like to be a woman sitting watching Helen Mirren systematically and graphically abused, however deftly the colours combined.
A British Film Institute study, Women Viewing Violence, discovered that the more women had been exposed to domestic or sexual violence, the more offensive they found its portrayal on screen. Given that one piece of research claims that 63 per cent of women have been flashed at, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a general dislike of the fictionalised stuff. Yet it is still true that perceptions of crimes against women are actually rather removed from reality. The most common form of violent crime is against men, by men; the second is domestic violence, the third domestic rape, and only the fourth, rape by a stranger. Yet rape by a stranger is what we are all afraid of.
Violence against women on screen reinforces this message: that we aren't safe, that we must always be on our guard, that we must not walk in dark places alone, that our freedom must be limited. It is hardly surprising that we resent it. It is not simply that we don't identify with male violence (as many of us could with Thelma and Louise's violence); it is that we sense that all this stuff about male violence against women is actually keeping us at home, restricting our movement by subtly reinforcing some general cultural message that we are not safe to be let out.
'The violence was pretty horrible, but I didn't find it anything like as disturbing as violence against women,' said a young woman emerging from Reservoir Dogs. Neither did I. Reservoir Dogs (which is a thrilling and, I think, brilliant film) made me feel sick, but not in the way Blue Velvet made me feel sick - hanging around me, tainting the air, insidiously threatening. The sort of realistic, DIY violence that these new splatter-punk movies, new brutalism, or whatever you call them specialise in, works powerfully on the imagination. But what the film actually showed was a bunch of men behaving basely, animalistically, childishly. There was actually something here for women to identify with: the film made me feel maternal. I wanted to scoop up all those naughty boys, speak to them sharply, and put them to bed. Unfortunately, there were no mums in the movie to do that, so they all ended up dead. That's what happens to silly boys if they're not careful.
'Man Bites Dog' is reviewed on page 18
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