There was a telling moment the other day on Saturday Review, the Radio 4 arts-discussion show I present. We were talking about David Michôd's excellent film Animal Kingdom and someone on the panel – I forget who exactly – expressed the view that it wasn't overly or explicitly violent. I did understand what was being said here. Michôd's film is mostly preoccupied with what happens in between violent acts, full of frightening moments which teeter on the edge without ever quite toppling over. For anyone maintaining a Top Ten of Menacing Moments in the Movies (riding high on my chart would be the coin-toss scene from No Country for Old Men and "you think I'm funny?" from Goodfellas), I would suggest that the sequence in which the psychotic Pope goads his brother Darren with "sympathetic" enquiries about his sexuality may require a reshuffle in the upper rankings. But at the same time I felt I had to contradict that description, if only to protect the more squeamish listeners from feeling they'd been misled. Because, while Animal Kingdom doesn't dwell on its violence, it's absolutely explicit about how violent violence is. To put it bluntly, there's a lot of blood-splatter, which is now cinema's visual hallmark for explicitness in this field.
That it was possible to say Animal Kingdom wasn't a violent movie suggested that the depiction of violence has branched into two main tributaries. Along one branch you have films which are unblinking about what violence consists of, but which aren't essentially interested in violence itself and have no interest in dragging it out. Along the other branch you have those movies in which the violence – rather than what leads up to it and what follows it – is the central pleasure. Animal Kingdom isn't overly violent, therefore, in the context of the kind of torture-porn you get in the Saw films, even though its visual account of violence would have generated shock and disgust even 40 years ago. And the one thing that both these branches of cinema have in common is blood-splatter – an indispensable part of modern cinema that is generally credited to Sam Peckinpah, who employed it (to mixed consternation and delight) in his 1969 movie The Wild Bunch.
I don't know whether it's true that Peckinpah was the first to open this bloody Pandora's box (if you know of an earlier movie that employs arterial spray or exit-wound action-painting I'd be curious to hear about it), but once open there was no going back. It's just too useful for both parties and, more to the point, allows each to claim a little of the other's advantages.
Because another uncomfortable truth, even for those of us who can't understand why anyone would want to watch two Saw movies, let alone seven, is that blood-splatter is visually exciting, a sanguinary equivalent to the porn movie's money-shot. Animal Kingdom isn't a prurient or exploitative movie, but blood-splatter, an affidavit of its honesty about the events it depicts, nonetheless allows it to feed a baser appetite in us to see the worst.
Conversely, films which glory in damage to the human body can (and quite often do) defend their deployment of graphic violence with the suggestion that this is authenticity not mere aesthetics. But that blood-splatter now has an aesthetics all of its own is surely true. If it didn't, then a director like Quentin Tarantino wouldn't be able to pastiche the conventions and limits of bloodletting as he did in Kill Bill. And you certainly wouldn't be able to download blood-splatter brushes for Photoshop, a bit of hobbyist software which allows enthusiasts to give their creations the gloss of forensic accuracy with just the click of a mouse.
We're so habituated to it now (or so addicted, if you concede that it satisfies some need in us) that what was once a shocking step-change in realism has become effectively invisible (as in a sober and self-restraining film like Animal Kingdom) or has to be effortfully made salient again (as in films like Kill Bill, or any movie which employs slow-motion to give us more time to relish an arabesque of blood). Either way, its absence now would be oddly unsettling, taken by the sophisticated movie-goer as a failure of honesty, or of imagination.
Sex and the very singular Renaissance painter
The National Gallery's eye-opening Jan Gossaert show is well worth seeing, if only for the enjoyment of working out how he manages to smuggle an extra little frisson of sex into the standard religious and mythical subjects of Renaissance art. Most nudes, let's face it, aren't sexy because – to paraphrase John Berger – you sense that they're only there to be looked at. Gossaert's stock figures, though, give you the strong impression that things are just about to get very physical. Or, in the case of Hercules and Deianira, that they already have. Gossaert's grasp of physiology is nothing to write home about, frankly. But he fully understands the eroticism of tangled legs, not to mention Hercules peek-a-boo fig-leaf -- a skimpy item which doesn't fully do the job it's supposed to. In one of his drawings of Adam and Eve (often as piously asexual as the couple in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic) he unexpectedly introduces deep-penetration eye-gazing, a twist on the stock conventions which, along with Eve's straying hand, makes it absolutely clear what's going to happen next. But the best detail occurs in one of his Venuses, where the naked goddess has modestly covered herself with one hand, but then obliging parted her fingers to create a What-the-Butler-Saw effect. There are some marvellous portraits, too, but it's the pictorial fluffing that sticks in the mind.
We need a bigger adaptation
Clive Swift, a long-standing Independent reader, writes to respond to my review of Andrew Davies's South Riding and suggest that it might be interesting to compare it to the 1974 Yorkshire TV production, adapted by Stan Barstow and starring Dorothy Tutin in the role of Sarah Burton (Mr Swift himself took the role of Councillor Huggins). That version is available on Amazon, as it happens, though since it's 13 episodes – as opposed to Davies's three – an in-depth analysis would take a bit longer than I have available. That fact alone tells a story though – about the changing ecology of the TV schedules. It's difficult to imagine 13 hours being handed over to any adaptation, sight unseen, such are the pressures to either get a hit or to get it over before too much damage has been done. Ironically, given that Davies was pulled off The Pallisers to do South Riding, the other really big costume drama of 1974 was Simon Raven's much admired adaptation of Trollope's political saga for the BBC, which starred Susan Hampshire. And if it's difficult to imagine any commissioner having the nerve (or the freedom) to commission a 13-parter, you can imagine how unlikely it is that anyone would now order up 26 episodes before testing the water. They were a lot bolder 37 years ago.