Violence, seen and unseen

“Ron Coleman tries to calm his shaken son, Trey, after a screening of
‘The Passion of the Christ’ in Killeen, Texas, on Wednesday.”
(AP/Steve Traynor)

Although one of my ongoing interests in film is how spirituality is communicated through such a literal art form, I’ve been doing my best to avoid The Passion of the Christ, due in large part to the unrelenting gruesomness of its approach as universally relayed by critics both for and against the film. I simply value the power of the imagination and filmmakers who know how to use it. (In his published screenplay for his never-completed Jesus film, Carl Theodor Dreyer purposefully depicts Jesus’ most intense suffering offscreen: Jesus’ moans and prayers are heard while the camera remains on the faces of his sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gesthemane, and Dreyer stipulates that the pounding of the nails should be heard but never directly visualized.)

In fact, I’ve chosen to avoid Gibson’s film entirely, especially as one of his supposed inspirations, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), with its abrupt construction and lingering faces (not to mention its depiction of Jesus’ life), continues to stimulate and move me to reflection.

Wondering how to communicate my thinking on this issue without affording even greater media attention to Gibson’s film than it has already received, I was pleased to come across the following comments by Chicago Reader critic Fred Camper on his wonderful a_film_by listserv that I’ve had the pleasure of browsing the past few weeks. Camper’s point of reference is the documentary Shoah, but as he implies, the distinction between seen and unseen violence can easily be applied to fiction as well. (Emphasis mine.)

I think the film Shoah constitutes a pretty eloquent argument against ever using footage of concentration camps and corpses, or so I try to argue [here]. By constructing a nine-and-a-half hour documentary about something that’s never shown,
Lanzmann represents the true meaning of the Shoah not as bodies (which really don’t have much to do with the living people that once inhabited them) but as an absence.

It seems to me an almost immutable principle of cinema that the viewer tends to identify, in a positive sense, with the things seen–rooting for the bad guy being the common phenomenon. So while Resnais’ corpse footage [in Night and Fog] certainly causes revulsion at the inhumanity of it all, at the same time the viewer of corpses is put in the position of the Nazi murderers who created them and who are their only true owners. The film was certainly appropriate for a time when people wanted to forget all this, and his montage serves as an intrusive reminder, but the power of intrusive Shoah footage is I think more profoundly evoked in the great Nuremberg movie-watching scene in Sam Fuller’s Verboten, in the cutting between the images and the boy’s face, which represents as only Fuller can, a clash of consciousness, the way violence represents an impingement on identity.

A classic example of “rooting for the bad guy” occurs in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960). When the protagonist is murdered halfway through the film, Norman Bates rushes in, cleans up the mess, stuffs the victim’s body in the trunk of her car, and attempts to sink the vehicle in a nearby bog. And when her car suddenly pauses in its slow descent into oblivion, the audience can often be heard emitting a gasp of suspense–the car must sink! The ability of the cinema to prescribe a point-of-view simply through its depiction (another way of speaking of “desensitization”) is too formidable not to approach with fear and trembling.