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Thread: David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence

  1. #16
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    As far as I can remember, the first sex scene took place before the diner heroics.
    That was what I was thinking re Oscar's remarks. However your observations, here, arsaib, are quite specific and I appreciate that. Thanks for saying I was clear and rational and complimenting my sheer presence on the site, but I don't know that I can bring to mind the details you've got at your fingertips from the film now. I would have to have another viewing to reexamine my viewpoint -- and reconsider the more favorable ones expressed here. I still have to feel at this point that the film is more thought provoking in theory than in practice. I don't think either of the principals is of the depth or complexity the high praise of the film would require. In particular, I find Viggo as I said to be something of a handsome hunk, a blank, not an actor of depth and this of his not a performance of any complexity. As for the story line, it comes out of a comic book mentality and it remains that. Granted as Oscar said greatness on film can be made out of pulp, but in this case I just think the critics have gone too far and overrated the film.

    As for the cogent arguments by New York critics about the film not being so profound or original, one of the main ones was Matt Zoller Seitz, the New York Press's no.2 guy who's more balanced and less provocative than Armond Whilte. (I think White is crazy, but I still am interested in whatever he has to say--though I don't always stay to pour over it, it depends.) The review can be found here: http://www.nypress.com/18/38/film/seitz.cfm. You can take it from paragraph nine on. "The movie's moral algebra is more simplistic than the Cronenberg norm....Despite Peter Suschitzky's elegiac, whisky-dark lighting, Howard Shore's depressive horror film score and other promising elements, Violence is actually Cronenberg's most structurally, morally and emotionally conventional film. Despite its clinical title, superficially melancholy and knowing tone, it ultimately depicts "good" violence that unquestionably solves more problems than it creates...Violence's role in Cronenberg's filmography is much like that of The Brothers Grimm to Gilliam, and of Cape Fear to Scorsese: a calling card movie from a great and important director who, by all rights, ought to be exempt from this sort of thing. A History of Violence is the movie Cronenberg has to make in order to keep making movies. It's not a manifesto, but an insurance policy. "

    This was not the only negative review, but it gibes most with my opinion of the ones I can find.

  2. #17
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    Thanks for the link, Chris. It's an important review which deserves to be read.

    Here's a direct link (hit "refresh" if it doesn't appear right away).

  3. #18
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    Originally posted by arsaib4
    And the sequence where the man turns in front of our and Edie’s eyes: on surface it seems ordinary, but the way Cronenberg has framed and shot it, it heightens our awareness for reactions both internal and external. In the next sequence in the hospital when Tom says, "What did you hear?" Edie responds, "It’s not what I heard but what I saw." Perhaps she was also speaking for the audience.

    This "heightening our awareness for reactions" is crucial to understanding the film, as far as I'm concerned. The film can serve as a tool or device to examine one's own response to violence under several scenarios.
    Your statement about Edie "perhaps speaking for the audience" is also quite important to me. Chris stated about Viggo's character: "I don't identify with him at all". This raises the larger issue of whether or not being able to identify with a character or not is important to you. Personally, I rarely feel identification towards movie characters (the last character with whom I sort of identified was the one played by Donnie Wahlberg in Huckabees) . Perhaps I regard characters compassionately and analytically, but from a distance, as I've been trained to regard psychotherapy clients, always on the look out for any transference. For the sake of discussion, let's leave aside my personal idiosyncrasies. Then I'd say, if we are to identify with any character(s) in A History of Violence, that character would not be Tom Stall, but the characters placed by the narrative in the same position of ignorance regarding Tom Stall's history as the viewer (Tom's wife and son). Like arsaib4 illustrated, certain key scenes assume the point of view of Edie. Moreover, the son's experiences with violence, or more specifically, with the threat of violence from bullies, is closer to the type of experience the viewer may have encountered.

  4. #19
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    Saying I didn't identify with the character played by Viggo is shorthand for saying that I don't find him convincing, don't feel he has any particular depth or complexity. He goes from one stereotype to another, and then I guess back again.

  5. #20
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    Another comment, after reading Rosenbaum's review

    I just got a chance to read Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of AHOV, to which he gives his highest rating, "masterpiece." Now that thanks to Oscar I know Rosenbaum exists, I pay attention to what he says. I know how astute, knowledgeable, and responsible he is. Can I take a minute to look at what he wrote about A History of Violence, and show why I don't buy into it?

    It's funny how he says that in his café "defense" Stalls "deftly and definitively" "responds" "to the violent threats of two killers"; that's more than misleading. It's like the CIA Vietnam euphemism, "to terminate with extreme prejudice," for assassinate. It sets up a sudden brutal killing as nifty heroism, and buys into the movie's easy logic of making Tom an instant hero inevitable, which it just isn't. (A really "deft" response would have been to disable the two thugs and turn them over to the cops, not to murder them.)

    I don't get what Rosenbaum says next: that a movie can't be both a popular thriller and an art film at once, but Cronenberg "comes close to pulling off this feat." Can you or can't you? Since this is crucial to Rosenbaum's praise of the movie, its failure for me to make any clear sense is also devastating.

    Every moment of the movie can be seen as "some kind of cliché," Rosenbaum says, but in spite of that (he also says) you can't say it "plays as cliché." Well, why not? I think you can. Rosenbaum says Cronenberg is pulling off a magic trick, but he doesn't explain how or why. The two sex scenes, R. says, "expose more layers of personality than we can possibly keep up with.." Pure assertion: actually, the dichotomies in the two sex scenes are quite simple. Rosenbaum talks some about laughter during the son's scenes by two audiences, a more adult one and a young one, saying it came at the same time. I don't know that that proves anything. There are more than two Chicago audiences to consider if one's judging responses. And then, abruptly, the review ends. One page, to prove a movie is a masterpiece. One of his most disappointing reviewing efforts. And once again, I think what this illustrates is that A History of Violence is all in people's heads, and moreover, in the case of critics and film buffs, quite often it's in their heads before they've even seen the film. That's because, as Oscar has said, this is a movie that's good to talk about. In fact it's better before you've seen it. It's the idea of the movie that thrills, not the actual execution.

    The relatively simple film -- even Rosenbaum admits it's ridden with clichés -- provides a kind of Rorscach blot into which people have read all sorts of complexity; Rosenbaum is just claiming the complexity is there. Nothing he says actually proves it.

  6. #21
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    Sex with Maria Bello

    One of the strong points of this movie is its sex scenes and Maria Bello to her credit has already performed first rate scenes in one of her strongest performances to date in The Cooler (2004) with William Macy. In A History of Violence both Viggo Mortensen and Maria are directed and perform sex in such a way as to be both non-tintillating but realistically animal and the way it probably is accomplished in real life without the pornographic insinuations. The best cutaway is Maria's expressive behavior after the stair scene where her animal brutality is replaced with an almost dismissive, emotional deadening where she turns back into her more reserve, withdrawn self with likely mixed feelings - a brilliant performance of blended, twisted emotions. Just these scenes are reflective of basic human behaviors exposed in their raw nature full of the emotionally animal and the human confusion that attends to its aftermath.

  7. #22
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    That's a better description than i could give, and I think accurate.

  8. #23
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    A Comedy of Violence

    As I suspected earlier, the comedic aspect of the film seemed much more pronounced on a second viewing. While initially, it was difficult to make light of the hospital sequence in which Mortensen's character tries to explain himself to Bello's about what transpired earlier, now it's hard not to laugh when he hesitantly brings up the possibility of a multiple personality disorder while realizing that she ain't buyin' it after what she saw (and perhaps due to the fact that she's in a David Cronenberg film).

    Anyway, here's what Kent Jones had to say on this particular aspect of A History of Violence:

    "Then there is the comedy. A History of Violence is comic throughout -- dryly so. So dry, in fact, that it's possible to experience the film in a number of ways. On the negative end, one might see it as a pale Coen Brothers retread, or as an ever-so-slightly skewed variation of cable-TV juggernauts like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, in which the assorted elements of a "typical" household, every sociological element locked firmly in place and on display, is thrown into relief by one discordant element -- a paterfamilias who happens to be a Mob kingpin, or a family-run funeral home (the strategy probably originated with Goodfellas [1990]). Or, one could just as easily experience A History of Violence as a straight drama. Simply put, it plays funny and it plays serious -- your choice. Cronenberg sticks very close to the standard narrative of the retired gunslinger, and he changes very little. But given his own predilections (a biological, as opposed to a sociological, psychological, or metaphysical vision of experience), I suspect that he finds the narrative itself inherently absurd. In other words, the comedy is built in rather than applied from without. The strength of the film is in its lucid understanding of its core dilemma -- that of a man who labours under the delusion that he has made himself over into completely different human being. You could laugh, cry, or do a little of both.

    As for the Coen Brothers comparison, the resemblance is only momentary and extremely superficial. Nowhere in the film are we meant to contemplate grotesquerie as such, the way we are in any given Coen Brothers enterprise. Every grotesque element -- the disfigured face of Ed Harris' Carl Fogarty, the two more severely disfigured faces of Tom/Joey's first victims, the outrageousness of William Hurt in a goatee as Joey's gangster brother Richie -- is directly related to the theme of violence. As self-sufficient spectacles of deformation, they don't amount to much -- Harris' face is a nice make-up job (Crazy Joey has taken out his left eye with barbed wire years before) but it doesn't carry much of a charge on its own. Nor do the two victims' faces, blown-off and pulped, respectively, since they are held on just long enough to leave a mental impression. As for Hurt, his acting (stylized and carefully modulated braggadocio) is less about grotesquerie than animal power gaming, luring his brother into his lair and getting him settled in before he can do away with him.

    Cronenberg is also very far from the sociologically correct comedy of suburban despair. First of all, the details of the household, the high school, the Philadelphia bar, etc. are bare bones, emptied of eye-catching tell-all details, with just enough verisimilitude to give the action credence. Every space becomes a kind of arena, every interaction a contest for domination. And Tom/Joey is no figure of suburban pathos like Joey Soprano or David Fisher. There is pathos here, but of the most rarefied variety: that of a man who realizes that the irrational, the instinctive, and the altogether unfathomable constitute a far greater portion of is being than the comprehensible, the rational, and the malleable."

  9. #24
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    Kent Jones's discussion is fascinating -- I'd like the opportunity to read all of it, at one time -- and is, I'm convinced now, far better than the film. It was your previous excerpt from Jones that made me, and maybe others, excited to see A History of Violence. But when I actually saw it, I was completely disappointed. Somehow the idea that the film can be seen as completely comic or completely serious (" it plays funny and it plays serious -- your choice") doesn't seem reassuring. Great art -- Shakespeare's plays come to mind -- can often be seen on various levels, but not in the sense of being completely comic or completely serious depending on how you want to see it.

  10. #25
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    I think Jones is referring to specific moments that "play" differently to viewers with a prior knowledge of them.

  11. #26
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    Well that means I have to watch it again, but I don't want to because I was underwhelmed, but who knows?

  12. #27
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    I have watched it some time ago and I really want to defend some things mentioned. ...

    wait till i have the time to defend ... i will write ...
    ;)

  13. #28
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    A reinvented Viggo Mortensen (with the physical appearance and steely sublimited strength of Kirk Douglas) plays a small town family man who may or may not be what he seems in David Cronenberg's deft reimagining of noir. Ever since "M. Butterfly" (with the exception of "eXistenZ") Cronenberg has been expanding upon one of his major themes, the horrors within ourselves that find their manifestations in extensions of the human body, seeing now these horrors turning within, and "A History Of Violence" is his cleanest exploration of his concerns yet, starting with a facile Rockwell-type depiction of rural Indiana living, building to a tough, Philly-mobster denouement, and concluding on a quiet, deliciously open-ended grace note. While Cronenberg's approach this time may be more accessible to general audiences, sacrificing the brilliantly messy visualization of the psyche in his previous feature "Spider", his conclusions are no less troubling.

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