Last night, I saw David Cronenberg’s new film, A History of Violence. It usually takes me a few days to absorb a movie and figure out what to think of it. My intial impression of History is that Cronenberg does not intend to glorify violence, but he wants us to empathize with a protagonist who is at odds with his past and present lives. Tom Stall’s expertise at executing violent acts is called up when two intrepid murders threaten his co-worker. Tom [played by Viggo Mortensen, also a poet whose readings sell out] does not want to become his old self, nonetheless, he is required to revert to save a life, and thus, his past catches up.
Though the main character instructs his son against violence and denies such potential within himself to his wife, his violent behavior is celebrated in several ways, albeit “necessary” ways. He is swift, his attacks are gruesome, and he is modest about his power. He sincerely wants to deny it. Likewise, we want the underdog to win, and he redeems the underdog in all of us when he wins in dramatically bloody ways. He is a hero in spite of recusing himself. And he is accepted back into the humble, family-man fold in spite of his potential for killing. I don’t know if a specific lesson is intended, but because the movie left me thinking, I’m speculating an intended message or two lurks below the surface implications. I’m just not sure what it is.
Addendum: might the message be something as simple as Violence is inevitable in a culture that sees relationships in terms of power struggles? In other words, we are always trying to “one up” each other, sizing the next guy up, so that we know where we stand. Who is the underdog? Which one of us sets the terms by which we interact?
Consider the reconciling sex scene between Tom and his wife. In the struggle upon his return home, he acquiesces in an instance – he doesn’t want to “win” by physically overpowering her – and in that resignation, she in turn “wins” and claims the spoils, so to speak.
On a larger scale, Cronenberg suggests we don’t want to acknowledge that these power struggles exist, that we long for an innocence that never was, “And yes, we talk about America and its mythology of itself, which sometimes seems more real to people than the reality of America–that yearning for that naive and innocent past that undoubtedly never existed but that somehow is embedded in the national consciousness and which is embodied in that scaled-down small town in the middle of Disneyworld.”
[Here’s a link to “How To Read a Film” for those interested in the elements of film analysis or digging below the surface story. And as Viggo Mortenson implies in this review, “David [Cronenberg] has found more layers or allowed us to find more than I thought were there in the script,” there’s more than meets the eye in this film on violence. So start digging audience participants!]
“Excerpt from an Argument with Enthusiasts, Concerning Inspiration”
I agree that something
but intelligence doesn’t enter into it.
At the moment I can calmly say
that we turn certain
lights go on; that there are rational
tricks to make
things go away and things arrive.
But with whatever brilliance in
the middle of the night
in whatever living-room we sit down and discuss
what dead men know, things
we can only intuit
breathe in the room. The curtain
fattens and collapses, swells again. Nobody
hears his own voice right.
The mind is flashy, yes, but take
the stupid wind away and say what’s left alive.
Breathless is dead, however bright.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.