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Monday, October 24, 2005


"A History of Violence" by David Cronenberg is an amazing movie and if you haven't seen it, you might want to read this, and then go.

Before I went to see it, I heard the name of my street mentioned on the radio during a homicide report. It is a street barely two blocks long so it makes for some pretty shocking news, at two levels. Shock, as in I can't believe there's been a MURDER three doors up my street; and shock! - I can't believe there's been a murder three doors up MY STREET.

Days later, I see the film. In it, a household deals with murder in its midst, except - unlike my scenario - repeatedly so ("History" repeats itself), with fewer degrees of separation (it's within the family), and where I had a radio newscast, they've shotguns and ammo. But really, these are not distinctions I entertain at the time. In fact, I don't even make a connection because the movie is immediately engrossing - a Hitchcockian thriller of the 21st century if ever there was one, with strong aspects of drama, tragedy and comedy - and because it's quite pleasing to be removed from personal concerns for 90 or so minutes. But, from the last scenes, I note the absence of a final act. Somewhat unsatisfied, I scan the credits for Canadian names I recognize, get up and leave.

Later, another stabbing is reported on a strip of sidewalk outside the cinema complex where just months earlier I walked with my parents, who live out-of-town. This assault was equally surprising to me: the weird city-mouse association it made to my country-mouse parents and the fact the victim was attacked midday in plain sight during typically bustling weekend matinee schedules.

Those matinee audiences, what shock would they feel as they emptied out past blood spilling on the sidewalk? Would it be more of the first kind of shock mentioned above - a Hitchcockian shock, if you will - or would it be the shock! that seems to arrive with the idea that you, a mere passerby, can figure into a crime scene? For the sake of this argument, Hitchcock's shock is Hollywood: Thrills and spills, macabre and mindbending, and dreamlike because the feeling is so cinematic - it's realer than real. The other shock is totally reality-based: analyzing personal motives and their impact on a society - the "My Street" factor.

Watching the Stahls, the fictional family, sitting around the dinner table in the movie's final minutes, motionless, speechless, as if in a courtroom heavy with the anticipation of a verdict, one wonders what they have thought and how they will go on.

As I posit this I begin to overlook my misgivings concerning Cronenberg's ending. Silent, virtually actionless and without tangible judgment, the film's conclusion forces a judgment out of the audience. My own judgment keeps changing, but at least I know this: "A History of Violence" is not so much a work of Hitchcockian nature as it is a Cronenberg film that references Hitchcock, Western culture and its relationship to violence. What I initially thought was the classic type of cinema that has something for everyone - laughs, startles, dread and melodrama - is actually a movie that puts everyone into it. And in that, it seems to me, Cronenberg has taken a readerly text and done it great justice while at the same time layering it with epic writerly challenges to the viewer. Which really blows my mind the more I think about it.

But that's just my stab at it. Here's a good resource for Barthes-driven realism in film.


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