The Problem with Aesthetic Violence

On Disney, David Lynch, and Django Unchained

by Eric G. Wilson

In the weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—which depicts a freed American slave taking bloody revenge on cruel slaveholders—has faced a lot of media scrutiny. Pundits have wondered if this kind of fictional brutality incites real-life violence. It’s a debate that seems to resurface every few years, but in this case the ideologues can save their energy: Django Unchained is more harmless and reassuring than most old-time Disney flicks. Beside it, Bambi is like a noirish nightmare.

Tarantino’s gore fulfills our moral fantasies. It’s innocuous commotion setting up, and acting as a foil for, a soothing conclusion in which the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. And the more horrific the brutality, the more gratifying the reckoning. Compared to the slaughter of Bambi’s mother, never avenged, this kind of closure is pure Pollyanna.

Tarantino has been careful to distinguish between the artificial violence of his films and actual carnage. In an interview on NPR, he claimed that viewers are tired of movies on slavery or the Holocaust that depict only pain. They welcome fiction in which the victims rise up to be “the victors and the avengers,” “paying back blood for blood.” This aesthetic violence is “cathartic,” “good for the soul.”

Aristotle suggested that certain fictions are indeed capable of arousing audience emotions to such high intensities that the emotions exhaust themselves. Consequently, the audience feels becalmed, relieved, refreshed: purged. Watching Oedipus Rex, we fear the hero’s transgressions (killing his father, marrying his mother) but pity his suffering (he gouges out his eyes). By story’s end, we have spent our fear and pity, and leave the theater lightened.

Tarantino probably didn’t mean to fashion himself as a tragedian when, in a recent CNN interview, he aligned his cinematic violence with Shakespeare’s bloodier strains. Regardless, an abyss divides Django Unchained from Hamlet, a typical tragedy in which the hero and other innocents meaninglessly suffer and die, and the ending is grim.

In a tragedy, desert and reward are out of sync. In comedy, characters get exactly what they deserve. Tarantino’s bloodshed in Django Unchained is, in this context, perfectly comical, and far beyond his famous black humor. The comedy is structural: the hero slays the evildoers, avenges the innocent who suffered, and enjoys an upbeat conclusion. Perhaps this solacing aesthetic is the reason Django Unchained is Tarantino’s highest grossing film to date.

Virtually all of Tarantino’s films are light entertainments masquerading as crazed carnage parties. His last truly scary moment occurred in 1992, in Reservoir Dogs, his first feature. A robber slices off a kidnapped cop’s ear just because it amuses him. This senseless torture evades neat moral narratives and points to the decidedly un-aesthetic monstrosities—motiveless, pointless—that destroy our lives.

In a 1998 article, psychologist Clark McCauley describes an experiment in which a group of college-aged males and females watched video footage of animals being slaughtered and a child undergoing a gruesome operation. The sequences were unadorned with sound effects, unlike the next scenes the group watched: of the Hollywood gore in Friday the 13th, Part III, professionally scored. The viewers found these obviously artificial images riveting, but the raw footage disgusted them. Some walked out.

Most Hollywood violence is too meaningful to be disturbing. Actual brutality often escapes meaning, and this is one reason it unsettles.

Is there an artistic middle ground between commercial and actual violence? Can a film director meaningfully represent violence without making it cartoonish? Can he capture atrocity without traumatizing audiences?

The late David Foster Wallace believed that Tarantino, even in his chilling ear-severing scene, is not this director. David Lynch is. For Wallace, Tarantino is addicted to style for style’s sake: he just wants “to see somebody’s ear getting cut off.” In contrast, David Lynch “is interested in the ear.” Lynch “knows that an act of violence in an American film has, through repetition and desensitization, lost the ability to refer to anything but itself. This is why violence in Lynch’s films, grotesque and coldly stylized and symbolically heavy as it may be, is qualitatively different from Hollywood’s or even anti-Hollywood’s hip cartoon-violence. Lynch’s violence always tries to mean something.”

Take Lynch’s own famous severed ear, in Blue Velvet, from 1986. The film’s protagonist, Jeffrey, discovers a detached human ear in a field behind his house. From the moment he picks it up, he falls into a sinister mystery that ultimately forces him to face the evil hidden in his own interior. (Lynch himself said he used the ear “because it’s an opening. . . . [Y]ou can go down into it. It goes somewhere vast.”) Jeffrey’s eventual sadism and the horrors lurking within his small town—including Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper’s appallingly creepy kidnapper, murderer, and rapist—all reveal, as Wallace has it, that “Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up.”

Such revelations, common in Lynch’s cinema, make us “acutely uncomfortable,” because they drive down into our own dark regions—spaces Hollywood usually helps us escape. But intimacy with this inner ghastliness can generate meanings far more complex and productive than those cozy significations of the multiplex. To examine our inmost evils is to learn about complicated morality outside the clichés: the challenges of personal responsibility, empathy, rectitude, generosity.

Walt Disney Studios distributed Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story. It is the tale of an old man, too frail to earn a driving license, who drives a riding lawnmower over two-hundred miles in hopes of reconciling with estranged brother. There is no killing in the movie, no blood, but it follows ferocities of the heart too discomforting for most cameras, and gestures toward the frightfulness of unchaining grace.

Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, and five books on the relationship between literature and psychology. The paperback edition of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck will be available this February.