A brutal-looking 17-year-old girl takes a long swig from a bottle of sake and thumps it down on the bar, as an ugly- looking man next to her asks her if she likes Ferraris. ‘Do you want to screw me?’ she replies. ‘Yes,’ he says, his goofy and surprised smile revealing bad teeth. She immediately stabs him in the stomach and, as his blood gurgles out, she says triumphantly, ‘How does that feel? Do you still want to penetrate me now?’ He falls off the bar stool, dead — and the audience laughs. A voiceover from a third character confirms that the scene is indeed supposed to be funny, and the murder cool, because the young man is hideous and stupid while the girl is utterly vicious.
This scene is but a few minutes in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume I, a two-hour orgy of violence in which evil is exalted as alternately admirable, erotic or funny. We are treated, for instance, to the sight of a beautiful woman writhing in agony because her arm has been sliced off, and to that of a man being killed by having his head repeatedly slammed in a door. The penultimate scene shows the heroine decapitating, mutilating and eviscerating scores of men in a restaurant, before dispatching their commander, a woman, by slicing off the top of her head so that her brain shows like that of a monkey in a Japanese restaurant. The audience sniggered at most of these scenes, as it did when the 17-year-old met her end by having her temples impaled by a wooden post with a nail sticking out of the end.
It used to be only in SS marching songs that the laughter of the devil was regarded as a good thing, but now such laughter is the standard reaction of the cinema-going public. Diabolical is not a word I use lightly, but how else is one to describe a film made by a director who understands Christian morality so well that he knows precisely how to violate it? ‘She must suffer to her last breath!’ is how Tarantino’s beautiful heroine muses on her next victim, and ‘It is compassion and forgiveness I lack, not rationality’ is what she says to her first: when she murders her in the kitchen by throwing a 12-inch knife into her chest, and then turns around to see that her victim’s four-year-old daughter has been watching from behind, she says to the little girl, ‘Nicky, when you grow up, if you still feel raw about this, I’ll be waiting.’ She reacts, in other words, not with pity but with a desire to rise to the challenge of the future cycles of revenge which, as she happily recognises, her own acts will provoke.
To be sure, there have been many extremely violent films in the past. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film of the Marquis de Sade’s Salo — The 120 Days of Sodom shows teenage boys and girls being raped, mutilated, summarily killed and tortured to death for the sexual titillation of four men. It could be that Pasolini, like Sade, was turned on by this; but at least he made the four men into fascists, and so his odious movie was ultimately a morality tale. In Kill Bill, by contrast, the audience is supposed to admire the ruthlessness and cruelty of an idealised heroine, and the film’s utterly improbable plot serves purely as a vehicle for the depiction of gratuitous killing. Worse, the end result is unbelievably cheesy and boring. Tarantino’s nerdiness is so obsessive that every scene is drearily derivative of some other B-movie, while not a single line of dialogue could have been spoken by a real person. The director takes pride, in other words, in turning evil into a banality.
Evil already is banal in many forms of modern entertainment. In Vice City, a popular video game widely distributed in this country, the contestants play criminals who win if they commit gratuitous acts of brutality. You get points for swerving during a car chase in order to knock down women and children pedestrians, or for kicking an already wounded policeman who is crying out for help. So morally inverted is our world, in fact, that this generous tolerance of fictional violence as a source of amusement is matched only by an extreme prudishness about the depiction of real violence, especially if the consequence or intention is to discourage people from committing less of it in the future.
During the recent Anglo-American attack on Iraq, no seriously disturbing images of corpses or wounded bodies were broadcast, just as they had not been during the Kosovo war in 1999 or the Afghan war in 2001. CNN and the BBC had plenty of such pictures, but chose not to show them. Indeed, with the partial exception of the first Gulf war in 1991, no lurid images of the effects of war have been broadcast since Vietnam, when the novelty of television meant that the military authorities were unprepared for its power. Perhaps it is this which explains that war’s astonishing unpopularity. Today, television channels such as Al-Jazeera think that it is an important part of reporting to show the effects of violence — they regularly show gruesome shots of bodies severely mutilated by bombs — while Western TV channels prefer not to shock the sensibilities of their viewers. This plays straight into the hands of our governments, who are happy for people to believe the reassuring myth that our high-precision weapons do not decapitate children or blow apart the bodies of their mothers, and that war is but a sort of video game.
The result is that all the major massacres of the Iraq war — the killing of scores of civilians by cluster bombs in Hilla; the attack on the Baghdad marketplace in which 60 civilians died — are completely forgotten by the Western public, if they ever heard about them in the first place. They have disappeared down the memory hole as surely as did Nato’s similar massacres of civilians in Kosovo in 1999. So determined, indeed, is the American military to peddle the fiction that no one dies in war that the Pentagon has even banned the broadcast of images showing the coffins of dead American soldiers being returned home — a ban formally passed in 2000, but which came into force in March, just in time for the attack on Iraq.
In the name of similar reasoning about good taste, the House of Lords ruled in April that an anti-abortion political party cannot broadcast images of aborted foetuses in its party-political broadcasts. In May, a couple was even arrested in Wales for carrying a poster showing a truly terrible picture of a 21-week aborted foetus. Such images are indeed profoundly shocking — as are Tarantino’s depictions of butchery — but their purpose is to show that reality is shocking. They are intended to inform and to warn rather than to titillate. Their publication, therefore, is morally virtuous, while the depiction of violence for pleasure is evil. Yet they are banned.
Fictional violence on television may not incite people to commit acts of real violence themselves, but the failure to depict real violence certainly raises the public’s tolerance threshold for it. Numerous are the newspaper columnists who blithely rail against violence on TV, while at the same time egging on the government to unleash real violence in real wars. Yet if it is cool to have a fun evening out watching a fictional woman murder a mother in front of her child, why is it bad taste to show images of real mothers who have been killed in front of their children by the bombs launched by Tony Blair? And why are the instruments of censorship deployed against the latter sort of image, but never against the former?