A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) “A Veiled Body”

We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?

David Cronenberg

 

In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.

 The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.

The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”

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When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.

 Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.

This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.

 

Vigorous lines:

I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?

Edie Stall

Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.

Tom/Joey

 

David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”

If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.

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This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough.  When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.

His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.

 

References: 

R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) “Purity of Earth”

From the very first scene of Nausicaä we can see that we are in a place of magical beauty. The trees, a windmill and the surroundings are coated in what looks like a spider-web or frozen snow; the flakes are falling around a man riding strange creatures, wearing a mask, looking bird-like. The man breaks down the door, the focus is on the skulls of unknown entities; he picks up a doll which disintegrates in his hand. He says: “Another village destroyed”, and the scene is cut to the image of blue, monstrous flying bugs.

The man concludes: “Let’s go, soon, this will also be consumed in the Sea of Decay”. Two minutes of the film have just passed and we already know a lot about the world we are witnessing, yet we wonder. We are sure that this is not the Earth as we know it, yet it similar to it, just distorted to the point of unresembling beauty. We find out that the Sea of Decay is consuming village after village, but we can only guess what it is. This opening of the film is powerful, gives us some information to ponder upon and wonder about and brings us into the world of decay, but also of stunning beauty.

Soon, we are informed in a caption that: “1,000 years after the collapse of industrial civilization, the Sea of Decay, a swamp exuding toxic vapors, covered an earth strewn with rusting ruins, threatening human survival”. One of the images shown, after we are informed that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay and directed the film, presents a giant creature painted in flamboyant colors consuming a town. It is painted in the manner of a child, yet it is impressive. The Giant Warriors are shown with great rods in hands, surrrounded by fire, cities are in ruin. Thus, with the first reference to the element of Fire, we learn how the civilization came to an end. Bearing in mind the Japanese experience in WW2, one cannot escape the notion that this is an allusion to nuclear weapons, in a similar way Godzilla is.

We see a girl with angel’s wings, and cold colors dominating the movie are anticipated. The beginning is highly contrasted with the scene in which Nausicaä flies on a glider and the blue of the sky and sea prevails. This is again contrasted in the next image of a skull of a giant, which symbolizes death contrasted to Nausicaä’s serenity. She is the princess of the Valley of the Wind and has a “mysterious power” (in words of Lord Yupa) to calm and influence giant bugs, Ohms, to return to their forest and cease to be aggressive. The following verses from William Blake’s poem To the Muses can be used to describe Nausicaä:

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,

  Or the green corners of the Earth,

Or the blue regions of the air

  Where the melodious winds have birth

She is cheerful, kind and is embracing all the creatures that surround her (a fox-squirell for example); she is respected and adored by her people. In her father’s room there is the armor of a samurai with spears next to it and this reference to tradition cannot be overlooked. The oracle tells of a person “clothed in blue robes descending onto the golden field to join bonds with the great earth.” Now, the element of Earth is introduced and contrasted to the element of Fire. Later in the film, the oracle says that the creatures (Ohms) “reflect the anger of the earth”.

All the four elements that were important for Japanese mythology, Fire, Earth, Water and Air (i.e. wind) are present in the film. Their prominence was introduced to Japan via Buddhism and Indian vastu shastra philosophy. The oracle says that the ocean wind protects the people of the Valley; thus, Wind is represented as an element that enriches and preserves, along with Water. Fire represented the things that destroy, just as it does in the film.

Fire

Nausicaä finishes the oracle’s prediction with following words: “and guide the people to the pure land, at last”. “Pure Land Buddhism”, advocated the belief in the transcendent pure land which is impossible to reach in this world, since the world is necessarily corrupt. Thus, the myth is complete, a person will come to unite the bonds of men with the earth, but also bring them to the land of purity; in one word, he or she will end the corruption of men. Considering the ending, Nausicaä is an optimistic film. Although decay and death are prominent, there is a clear possibility of ending the corruption once and for all.

The idyllic setting is abruptly ended with the scene in which a Tolmekian ship comes and crashes into the cliff. The scene is consumed in blackness (the fifth element, the Void seems to make an appearance) and fire in which the Tolmekian ship burns. Nausicaä offers comfort to the dying Tolmekian princess and consoles her by saying that her cargo is in flames. In this scene, fire is a productive, positive element. It destroyed that which destroys. Valley of the Wind is attacked by the Tolmekians and the king is murdered in his bed. Thus, we see the symbolic fall of the Valley personified in the act of physical destruction of the king, the symbol and holder of sovereignty.

The people of the Valley of  the Wind enjoyed their tranquility and freedom due to their geographical position and belevolent rule. The Valley can be compared to Venice, serenissima (the most serene). The republic of Venice existed for a millenium, (just like the Valley), mostly due to its favorable geographical position and good fortune (Machiavelli), until Napoleon conquered it. Political philosopher Brian Barry writes that it was not uncommon in the history of humanity for the more advanced civilizations to be conquered by the less civilized warlike nations.

We learn that the Giant Warrior, whose kind once destroyed civilization, is kept by the Tolmekians. They aim to destroy the toxic jungle (i.e. the Sea of Decay) which consumes what’s left of civilization. The Giant Warrior is a weapon of mass destruction, and both Tolmekians and Pejites are aiming to possess it. They are engaged in an open warfare and throughout the film Nausicaä serves as a mediator between the forces, trying to convince them not to use the Giant Warrior. The Tolmekians and Pejites personify realpolitik, pragmatic approach to international relations which equates power with military force and might and gives prime importance to the interest of the state, which is  self-preservation in the first place. Both nations believe that getting hold of weapons of mass destruction (i.e. the Giant Warrior) is the only means to achieve security, both against other nations and the threat that the Sea of Decay poses.

 

Vigorous lines:

Every one of us relies on water from the wells, because mankind has polluted all the lakes and rivers. But do you know why the well water is pure? It’s because the trees of the wasteland purify it! And you plan to burn the trees down? You must not burn down the toxic jungle!

Nausicaä

Water - purity

Nausicaä finds this out when she falls through quicksand into a place where everything is pure and unpolluted. She says: “The trees of the Sea of Decay grew to cleanse a world polluted by humans. They absorb toxins from the earth, generate pure crystals, die and turn to sand”. She realizes that the Sea of Decay is a self-sustained ecosystem which purifies the water humans can use. Since humans polluted all the water, that is their only chance of survival. Ohms protect the trees and are living in unison with nature. An imbalance in the ecosystem, or even worse, its destruction, would destroy both the nature and human civilization. They live in mutual dependence and humans are not aware of it.

When Nausicaä falls through sand, she uncovers the world as it is beneath appearance. Other humans value only what they perceive, without inquiring into the nature of things; they are prone to solutions they envisage only by observing the surface, not the effective truth of things (veritá effetuale della cosa), in Machiavelli’s words. For him, we should not follow our imagination, but act in accordance with the world as it is. For Tolmekians and Pejites, the truth is obvious – there is a threat and it needs to be destroyed. For them “effective truth of the things” is to gain power to prevail and survive. Today, mankind is living in a world in which security threats are manifold, and policy can no longer be thought out in terms of amassment of power (economic or military power), regardless of threats to security which are created through our neglect of the environment.