2011: The Year's Greatest Cuts Slices of Filmic Violence

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In 2011, there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and a historic drought and famine in Somalia. The US government successfully assassinated one of its own citizens, while a US citizen barely failed to assassinate a member of the US government. There was a Civil War in Libya that killed 30,000 people. And as for me, I realized that I really appreciate movies where people get beaten, sliced open, amputated, shot, and just generally hurt physically in as many ways possible.

The sheer variety and determinedness of violence onscreen this year was overwhelming. Surgically forced ass-to-mouth went meta in The Human Centipede 2; I Saw the Devil showed us cannibalism so real you could taste it; and A Serbian Film took an English-language-learner’s misinterpretation of the term “torture porn” to its most literal conclusion. Even outside of the gushing stigmata of this Holy Fuck Trinity, 2011’s screens were soaked straight through. Across genres, there were moments of filmic violence that audiences won’t easily forget, from Ellen Page’s head blown in half in a comedy (Super) to weird rape/homicide/forced-tattooing in an indie love story (Bellflower).

2011 seemed more consistently punctuated by video of real-life tragedy, violence, and human suffering from around the world than any year before it.

In some ways, these films reflected the year’s real-life brutality. Of course, there’s no direct link between what’s onscreen and what’s real life, as the always-sage US Supreme Court recently decided when they ruled that shooting hookers so you don’t have to pay them in Grand Theft Auto is — just like political donations from multinational corporations — protected as free speech by the First Amendment. But still, 2011 seemed more consistently punctuated by video of real-life tragedy, violence, and human suffering from around the world than any year before it. The same year we all saw Lieutenant John Pike casually spray chemical weapons point blank down the throats of peaceful students, we also all watched — with Cannes’ trés importante approval — Ryan Gosling squash somebody’s skull like a rotten pumpkin just moments after a dreamy first kiss with Carey Mulligan in Drive.

I’m not sure this is a complete coincidence.

Maybe it’s because I’m still a noob, but given how this year’s filmic gore ripped the beating heart right out of the zeitgeist, my appreciation of it is a little self-conscious. Am I a horrible person for being buoyed by the sight of 13 samurai butchering an entire army in Japan’s 13 Assassins, while avoiding the pummeling of news reports about the country’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown? Am I going to be banned from living near public parks for seeing deeply artistic intent in A Serbian Film’s scenes of sexual infanticide, from a country barely 15 years out of its genocide?


Or maybe I’m just shy about being so late to such an awesome party. Either way, I hope you won’t have to close your eyes too many times as I try to figure it out.



My past avoidance of filmic bloodbaths had more to do with boredom than puritanical squeamishness. Some of the very first films I fell in love with were extremely sadistic, but only emotionally. Lars von Trier, Todd Solondz, Darren Aronofsky, Ingmar Bergman, romantic comedies, Pixar’s entire catalogue (just kidding, I can’t even joke about that level of pain) — their palette of emotional devastation seemed as endlessly unpredictable as the human mind itself. But physical violence on screen, I thought, was always the same: impact, incision, blood, death — in that order.

That all changed this year, and while I’m not sure exactly which knife wound or roundhouse won me over, I do know who I have to thank for making me realize that I had come to appreciate representations of violence: the now-legendary defender of UC campus lawns, Lieutenant John Pike.

The famous video of Mr. Pike shooting a chemical weapon at point blank range into eyes and down the throats of peaceful UC Davis students was the most emotionally distressing piece of film I watched all year — and this was the year I saw Charlotte Gainsbourg “circumcise” herself with a knife in Antichrist. I replayed the UC Davis video a few times every hour for a full day, shaking. Yet compared to this year’s other documentary violence, John Pike’s moment of fame was mild. There wasn’t any blood. Nobody died. How could this small scene wreck me more than imagery from disasters that kills tens of thousands?

Like our legal system and our film ratings boards, we tend to group violence categorically according to its function: self-defense, domestic abuse, bar fight, war, excessive force, rape, homicide. Abstractly, I could construct various hierarchies out of these or other categorical blocks; in a pyramid of ethics, for example, “self-defense” would be at the “least-serious” base. Similar hierarchies were built (and frantically rebuilt) by the Bush administration to categorize specific violent acts within the functional category of “torture,” based on the intensity of the physical pain they caused.

Hopelessly alone and clownishly out of place, Pike and his spray can were devoured by an endless tide of cultural images that were, themselves, unaffected by his violence.

These categorizations are pretty useful for censorship boards and intelligence agencies, but they’re of little concern to anyone experiencing physical pain. Likewise, they’re lousy maps for navigating representations of pain and violence. Pike’s bored casualness, the shaky framing of the scene through the hand-held camera of a fellow student bearing witness to his colleagues’ pain — the details that got to me were only loosely connected to the intensity of the pain the students must have felt.

Tellingly, a change in those very details provided an antidote of sorts, as almost instantly, Pike spawned a meme. Through the efforts of countless people with computers and too much spare time, Lieutenant Pike was cut-and-pasted from the site of his crime and inserted mid-spray into the images that comprise our collective memory. From Kanye West hijacking the Grammys to Georges Seurat’s most famous example of pointillism, Pike futilely pepper-sprayed everything except UC Davis students. Hopelessly alone and clownishly out of place, Pike and his spray can were devoured by an endless tide of cultural images that were, themselves, unaffected by his violence. Somehow, the change in the original’s aesthetics felt like a victory over the act it depicted.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a cop with a moustache taught me the importance of aesthetics in representations of violence. But as I LOL’d at the Casually Pepper Spray meme, I realized something else: for all our concern about the ethics of watching violence onscreen, these representations of violence might be even better suited to heal than to incite.

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