John Walsh: A film fails if the viewer turns away

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I don't know when a mainstream film sparked off so much argument as The Killer Inside Me, the noir thriller by Michael Winterbottom. I've had so many heated conversations about it, my head is spinning. The film, as you must surely have read, features two scenes in which women (played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) are viciously attacked out of the blue by the baby-faced, castrato-voiced, faux -charming cop, played by Casey Affleck, with whom they've become sexually involved. The violence is extremely graphic, relentless, shocking and hard to watch; but should we criticise Winterbottom for the extreme quality of his depiction? If he were depicting an earthquake, wouldn't we applaud him for making it as graphic and bone-rattling as he, and the sophisticated resources of a film studio, can make it? Isn't there a post-feminist case, that the more realistically you portray violence against women, the more you'll show complacent people how disgusting it is?

And who is to say when a portrayal of violence (or sex) on film is "gratuitous"? Who make you king of taste and sensibility? Forty-odd years ago, reviewers warned us against the violence in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde – St John Ambulance crews went on stand-by in the nation's Odeons because of the number of audience faintings during the ballet-of-death ending. Now it seems commonplace. People walked out of the screening, at Cannes in 2002, of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible because of the nine-minute rape scene and an earlier encounter in a gay club where a man has his face bashed in with a fire extinguisher. If it hasn't gone out on Channel 4 on a Sunday night yet, it soon will. One can argue that, while the serious dramas we like to see, the tales of hatred and revenge, haven't changed in essence since Sophocles, our interest in shock tactics goes on evolving until we need to see ever-more startling and transgressive material. But is it sick or normal that we want to watch such things in the name of entertainment, as a kind of savoury alternative to Sex and the City 2?

I could add more liberal bleatings of exculpation, except for one thing. I was so profoundly appalled by the bludgeoning of Jessica Alba, I could hardly follow the rest of the film. It's not just the sickening mess to which her lovely face is reduced – that's just a triumph of make-up – it's her expression when her supposed boyfriend starts hitting her, that stunned look of betrayal and puzzlement as his fist whacks into her face again and again. I've been unable to get it out of my head, much as I've tried. And I think it's a serious flaw in Winterbottom's artistry, to make the audience feel brutalised almost as much as the victim. It's an artistic flaw to offer viewers sights that make them look away, and return only grudgingly to the plot. The Killer Inside Me may well be a fine, four-stars thriller, but it seems to me to be one scene of abysmally graphic cruelty with 85 minutes of run-of-the-mill plot wrapped around it. And I have no desire on God's earth to go again, to see if I'm right.



Advice to Green: answer your critics in verse



Funny how literary effusions turn up in unlikely places. Only last week we were guffawing about Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, because of his love for writing Japanese haiku in Dutch.

"Haiku Herman" published a collection of the miniature, 17-syllable poems in April last year and damn fine they were too ("A cyclist approaches/ Doves scatter from the corn/ A clap of wings.") Now we learn that Robert Green, the England goalkeeper catapulted to wretched stardom over the weekend, also enjoys moments of Parnassian inspiration. I'm not sure if Mr Green favours sonnets or traditional ballads; perhaps he should try his hand at haiku as well ("The treacherous ball/ dribbles though my hands like water/ Oh sodding hell.") According to the tabloids, he also "claims to have storylines for a dozen or more novels mapped out".

This news will be welcomed by literary folk, for we may have a new Albert Camus in our midst. Camus, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, played in goal for Racing Universitaire Algerois for two years and rhapsodised about the game's esprit de corps . In 1950, he remarked, "After many years... what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport, and I learned it in the RUA." I think Mr Green should quote this noble sentiment next time he is trashed by the tabloids.









It's not always easy to befriend neighbours



According to YouGov, neighbourliness has declined. The British have fewer friends than they did in 1980 and regard their neighbours as noisy pests with horrible children and incontinent pets. We no longer do much friendly socialising over the garden fence. One person in two said they know more about the private lives of TV celebrities than they knew about their neighbours. Personally I've always found them a mixed bunch.

In Hammersmith, the old lady next door smelt of mice and stale milk and played Bizet on a battered upright. In Camberwell, the hooker next door drew the ground-floor curtains the day she moved in, and never opened them thereafter. In Putney, the next-door geek would send me notes beginning, "I have noticed a quantity of debris emanating from your green bin. Could you therefore..." In Dulwich, a retired IRA man lived on one side and two retired art teachers on the other. Now I'm in Holland Park, my neighbours are away in Antigua or Mauritius all year, but have generously left gangs of builders to gut and refit their houses, and provide neighbourly assistance. Jolly odd, though, sharing a communal garden fence with a dozen tilers, chippies and spot-welders...

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