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The violent new wave.

IT HARDLY is news that the contemporary cinema is hyperviolent, but there appears to be a new tendency in film that ups the ante on ways of demonstrating the worthlessness of human life. Given that these films come at a time of new, humanistic movies ("Lorenzo's Oil," "Malcolm X"), one might sense that, particularly with their excessiveness, the new wave of violence is a culmination to a nihilistic trend that was very evident throughout the 1980s and suggested a despairing, suicidal culture.

The most notable cause celebre of current on-screen violence is without doubt "Reservoir Dogs," by first-time filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. It deals with a gang of addlebrained thugs who badly botch a jewel heist (which never is seen) and spend most of the picture hiding out in a warehouse while engaging in some bloody internecine feuding as they try to figure out who among them is the stool pigeon. Some bravura performances from Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, and especially Harvey Keitel don't dull the edge of some moments so grisly (an ear slowly sliced off and a hood writhing in a pool of blood that inexorably widens) as to satiate the most gluttonous appetite for destruction.

What gives the movie its nihilism is as much its steady stream of pop culture allusions (suggesting a rather typical immersion in media culture, rather than a concern for authentic moral, social, and philosophical ideas) as its bloodletting. The audience is given a barrage of references to Madonna, Lee Marvin movies, and the old TV cop show "Baretta." The soundtrack is filled with the most banal 1970s pop-rock, good-humored rip-offs of Bob Dylan and the Beatles used, it seems, to underscore the filmmaker's disbelief in the efficacy of pop culture in representing the best aspirations of American life. This allusionistic cinema has less to do with underscoring the notion of the pervasive effects of media than with bolstering a particularly insulated, cynical moral vision.

At the same time, "Reservoir Dogs," coming as it does at the dawn of the multicultural, relatively progressive Clinton era, reads like a swan song for male-oriented action movies, a grotesque, postmodern--"Rio Bravo," a world of men without women where the romanticism of that conceit is stripped away. Ideas dear to such directors as Howard Hawks savagely are sent up here. The loyalty of the male group and "professionalism"--ideas central to the western, the crime film, and the war movie--are blown apart with an insightful, caustic humor that provides the impulse to see this unnerving picture a few times.

Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" has received notoriety eclipsing " Reservoir Dogs." Ferrara's film is connected to Tarantino's both through its grim take on its genre and a standout performance by Harvey Keitel, for whom 1992 was a banner year. Yet, the two works are different in significant ways. "Reservoir Dogs" couldn't end on a bleaker note, one that laughs at the social and moral worth of art itself. "Bad Lieutenant," for all its monumental excesses in its meditation on a totally corrupt New York cop (and legal system), concludes with an uplifting and eminently Catholic message that could make it Easter fare on a twin bill with "The Last Temptation of Christ," another postmodern gesture at restoring credibility to organized religion.

Like "Reservoir Dogs," "Bad Lieutenant" has some exceptionally stagey, set-piece moments meant to showcase scenery-chewing performances. Both, in fact, seem rather static and enervated, with scenes merely spliced together without particular heed to narrative flow. Ferrara's film is especially notable for the fact that almost nothing happens. While his earlier "Ms. 45" and "King of New York" were stylized reflections on the collapse of the city (as a metaphor for the failure of the social contract), "Bad Lieutenant" continues the same controlling idea with a pared-down aesthetic that makes it look at times like a work by Yasujiro Ozu or some other Japanese master. Yet, it is this stasis and enervation that provide the atmosphere of a moral dead end. The violence that is present certainly rocks the picture: the gang rape of a nun and the particularly sadistic sexual abuse of two teenage girls by the title character are as unnerving as anything on the screen in recent memory.

On a different scale altogether are the ultra-violent cult films of Hong Kong director John Woo. The appearance of his biggest success, "The Killer," on home video has pushed him into the mainstream. Woo's pictures are non-stop gunfire, shot for the most part in slow motion, with extensive use of exploding blood squibs. The evocation of Sam Peckinpah in "The Killer" is obvious; the plaintive score, interludes, and nostalgia for a lost way of life evoke another master of violence, Sergio Leone (as well as the Akiro Kurosawa of "Yojimba," "Seven Samurai," and "Sanjuro," and a few Bruce Lee films). Woo's hoodlums also are on journeys of redemption (in "The Killer," the lead gunman wants to help a woman blinded in a shootout). The self-reflexiveness of Woo's movies, and their nostalgia for lost values, provide a skeleton key to the new wave of violence.

These films are intellectual conceits, preoccupied with the history of media, assuming that all experience is mere representation, and are unable to envision a future outside of furtive attempts to reclaim a dead past. "Reservoir Dogs," "Bad Lieutenant," and "The Killer" offer still more instances of cinema talking about cinema, pushing the conventions and codes of male-oriented action genres to the limits until they become exhausted. The very "redemption" that Ferrara and Woo trade in begs the question: Who is to be redeemed, by whom, and for what reason? These violent works project a guilty universe that is of their own reactionary making.
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Title Annotation:violent films
Author:Sharrett, Christopher
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
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