Friday, 16 August 2013

How to make a violent film without making it too violent

If you've heard anything about Nicholas Winding Refn's latest film Only God Forgives, it's probably that it's pretentious and that it's violent. But if you've listened to mine and Richee's podcast for this film you'd of found out that the violence is less in the acts committed and more in the general effect of Refn's directing.

"Although audiences remain uneasy with extreme violence, they're unmoved by violence on an extreme scale. And so a somber, psychological film like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist prompts a Daily Mail hate campaign... With just two on screen killings, while Return of the King scores a 12A certificate with each one of its 836 fatalities intact."
("Pacific Rim: Mass Destruction and Modern Cinema" The Guardian 13/7/2013 - a sentiment that rings true to me about nearly every other film that's out at the moment)

Refn, like his fellow Dane Lars Von Trier, knows how to court controversy through their directing style. Von Trier's The Idiots, about a group of young adults engaging with their "inner idiot", seems all the more stark and horrible when seen through the harsh realistic glare of the directors Dogme 95 rules. The birthday gangbang towards the end of the film is distinctly uncomfortable when seen in plain daylight. Channel 4 even had to pixel it out when they showed it in 2000. All that, just because he wanted to shoot with the window open.

Peter Bradshaw in his five star review of Only God Forgives in The Guardian describes the film as being "ultraviolent, creepy and scary, an enriched-uranium cake of pulp, with a neon sheen". The film isn't ultraviolent, but let's look how it fooled you into thinking it was:

  • In the July 2013 issue of Sight and Sound, Nick James' run down of Cannes desribes the timing of Only God Forgives; "The Cannes experience is a subjective one. Jury member Nicole Kidman remarked how unusual it is to watch films at 8:30am and 10:30pm. You could notice too how the much better-recieved films were after the heavy rain gave way to sunshine... The 8:30am screening of Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives was catastrophic; that evening's screening of Blue is the Warmest Colour... brought the house down". When I first read that, I exclaimed to Richee, how the hell could someone stand to watch it that time in the morning??! It didn't really stand a chance. Only God Forgives strikes me as the kind of film that is best viewed at about 2 o'clock in the morning when you're in that strange tired/awake stage and you can handle a bit of weirdness. Need I say that Blue is the Warmest Colour, a film about teenage lesbians with graphic sex scenes, shown in prime movie viewing time, won the Palme d'Or this year.
  • Saying stuff like "It's like pornography. I'm a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I've learned not to become obsessed with that part of it." Your gonna be slightly offended by a film that compares its level of its violence to pornography, because now you're there thinking you should see it as porn and get turned on by it, even though its morally and socially repugnant to be seen enjoying violence.
  • You start dedicating a film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the reviewer is immediately going to start thinking of weird surreal violence and compare Only God Forgives to El Topo.
  • If you have ever studied techniques used in torture, or in psychological experiments, you will know how subtle changes in the environment can change an experince from being good to bad, and discombobulate you. This film is a kind of psychic violation. The blood red interiors are reminisant of the saturation used in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which kind of makes you think that violence has already happend. The horror vacui of the wallpapers kind of distorts your perspective. Playing metallic, machine like music over people speaking, to the extent that you can't hear what they're saying, and it it looks like they're speaking that noise, is quite disorientating. The very slow scenes where Julian and Chang drift like ghosts through the shots can be fustratingly overwhelming. Having the God like figure Chang sing Thai pop songs after cutting people's hands off makes you feel a little weird, as if it didn't matter.
The acumilation of all of this can leave you feeling angry, unforgiving and believing that you've seen something worse than what you have. Only God Forgives is a pure case of atmosphere, and I believe Refn planned it all. I sympathise with everyone that has felt "violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff" while watching this film. But remember, this isn't Wizard of Oz. It isn't designed to be an enjoyable film. All these aggressive reviews, I bet Refn is thinking it a job well done.


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