An Economy of Violence

Posted: 16/02/2010 in Self-Indulgent Musings
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An Economy of Violence: Thoughts on the prevalence of violence in British Cinema


In the process of starting this blog and planning what to write about, I have been making lists of relevant films, thinking about what they have to say and what they have in common and I started to notice a surprising trend. As I wrote synopses to see what there was to say the same word kept recurring: violence. Always couched and confounded with other phrases, but brutality is almost omnipresent in the Brit Flicks.

If you’ve studied film censorship at all you’ll know that America’s MPAA is far more tolerant of violence than Britain’s BBFC (with the Brits more permissive of sex, especially between same-sex couples). For exemplification, check out Andy Dick’s cracking documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. I’ve never much questioned this received wisdom, but a simple collation of keywords demonstrates that it may not be quite so clear cut.

Once I had made this observation it became increasingly obvious how integral violence in fact is to our national cinema, to our view of ourselves. When I say this I am mostly referring to Insider Cinema, by and for Brits and people who can get inside British culture. Not so much your made-for-export Tourist London, but what we think of as (to any extent that cinema can be) the real us. Representation with the dirt left on if you will.

The films I was calling to mind- Pure, Scum, Stella Does Tricks, Dirty Pretty Things, Guy Ritchie’s back catalogue, The Hole, Trainspotting, Kidulthood, Donkey Punch, Land of the Blind, Everything by Shane Meadows, The Warzone, Straightheads, Sweet Sixteen, Hallam Foe even, anything featuring Big Daddy Winstone or that twat Danny Dyer, the list goes on. Obviously not all of these films are supposed to be real or even realist; there are a genre considerations, a horror or gangster flick will necessarily have bloodshed and butchery, but that does not account for the prevalence of aggression in the films above.

The violence may be a plot device, or inform character motivation, or reveal flaws of personality but it is ever present in the background, like a dangerous electric hum. For the citizens of Celluloid Britain, everyday violence is a fact of life. As in almost any national cinema, the harsh reality of inner city life is presented to us a bare fists struggle for survival. The concrete jungle as it were.  Because you can take the apes out of the wild… but they’re still animals you know. Even that nice PG Tips family with the cosy jumpers. [For AmE speakers I should point out that a jumper is a kind of knitted sweater. I’m told that in America the term is used to describe what I’d call a pinafore- S]

A brief speculative comparison however, will reveal that, much like toads and squirrels, there are entirely different breeds of violence on either side of the pond.

I suspect you’ll deduce which is which:

  • Type One movie violence is chiefly comprised of showboating machismo. Big choreographed set pieces to serve the purpose of merchandising the hero’s ripped musculature, demonstrating the villain’s ruthlessness or cowardice and ofttimes reaffirming the hero’s rugged morality. Meting out justice by the fist, for God and democracy and the Capitalist way.
  • Type Two tends to be more insidious; it isn’t always realised but when it is, the results are uniformly messy. Aggression is often a means of expression, a non-verbal demonstration of masculinity just as sexual display is used to represent femininity. Maleness is often hard to reconcile in this cinematic world, especially in a culture which expects New Men to be sensitive and thoughtful whilst still protecting their womenfolk and advancing in a (supposed) workplace meritocracy and it seems that recourse to physical domination and the infliction of pain is the  filmmakers’ only outlet for the inarticulate frustration of their characters.

This is a broad generalisation, but in trying to clearly define the difference between our violence and theirs it seems to me that violence is portrayed as a fact of life here, pervading many every day interactions and dictating the way people relate to and understand each other. Particularly, though not exclusively, the working classes. It isn’t just dispensed like Prozac in a university campus clinic however; more often it is threatened and implied to not inconsiderable effect. In Hollywoodland violence is comeuppance for badness, or a device to allow the hero to commit his heroic deeds. The British variety is par for the course, not something which is occasionally (or frequently if you’re Bruce Willis or someone) visited upon the deserving or endured by the worthy. Our violence may not always serve a purpose, but it rarely appears for entertainment’s sake alone. And therein lies the fundamental disparity and alongside it lies that oft-overused slur of the lazy critics: Gratuitous. Yeah, I said it.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking. I’m not sure I’ve articulated what I mean as succinctly as I might like, but I really want to hear what you think, so pitch in below and invite your friends.

  1. Solo says:

    It occurs to me that I pointed out what a jumper was for American readers, but the references to an 80s British television advert for teabags is probably lost anyway.

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