The extreme violence of contemporary Hollywood movies and their assault on our senses, both moral and physical, comes into focus when we recall a celebrated ancient Greek sculpture. Recall the Laocoon, dating from the second century B.C., a spectacular, shocking image of a Trojan priest being ensnared and consumed (with his two sons) by serpents in divine punishment for warning his countrymen against the Trojan horse. In the 18th century, the sculpture was the subject of a number of studies on the aesthetics of pain and violence, the best known being by Gotthold Lessing. In stark contrast with today's films, the principles of classical restraint adduced by Lessing in his profound discussion of the proper portrayal of violence, both in the visual arts and in poetry, were applied with astonishing fidelity in movies of Hollywood's Golden, or Classical, Agethe 1920s to the 1950s. To be sure, these principles were applied not because Darryl F. Zanuck, Cecil B. DeMille et al., read Lessing (though with DeMille one cannot be sure!) but because they were part of the artistic legacy of Western culture, which until the 1960s informed the best of popular culture as well. The artistic imagination and technical skill demonstrated by Hollywood filmmakers in the dramatization of violence (and eros) in the manner advocated by Lessing is a major reason for the superiority of films of that era to those since. To understand a major problem with contemporary Hollywood moviestheir uncontrolled, sordid treatment of violenceand the libertine culture of which they are the leading example, Laocoon is an excellent place to begin.
Lessing asks why the sculptor, despite trying to be realistic, does not permit Laocoon's suffering to find expression in a scream (as does Virgil in his written account of Laocoon's ordeal in the Aeneid). Instead, the sculptor depicts the mythical figure with his head raised and arms outstretched in silent horror, his countenance frowning in agony but not contorted, the mouth almost closed rather than wide open as if in a scream. The author's argument proceeds from the principle that beauty is the "supreme law of the visual arts." The craft employed by the sculptor to create an image of beauty is intended to evoke a moral reaction in the viewer (what we mean by being "moved"); a literal depiction of, in this instance, extreme violence, will only disgust and repel the viewer, forcing him to turn away and losing the cathartic benefit of a moral lesson. The literal is the enemy of art; the artist's "target" is the imagination of the audience: only there can the full horror of the awful event be conveyed. And to reach the imagination requires far more of the artistartifice and craft, guided by moral inspirationthan mechanical literalism. (In the self-censorship Production Code that governed Hollywood movies from 1934 to 1966, drafted by a Jesuit, Father Daniel Lord, movie art is defined as an "appeal to the soul through the senses.") Or, as Lessing writes, "...that which we find beautiful in a work of art is beautiful not to our eyes but to our imagination through our eyes."
Beauty therefore should take precedence over the artist's personal expression, which must be subordinated to and restrained by it. To show Laocoon's distress literallythe figure screaming with mouth wide openwould be ugly and loathsome, and would repel the viewer. By depicting instead "manly bearing and noble patience," Laocoon's torment is transformed into "the tender feeling of pity," "the true pathos of suffering." The artist's restraint expresses nobility of soul, both of the subject and of the artist himself.
Lessing explains another, more practical reason for placing restraints on the expression of pain. An artist can never make use of more than a single moment. Therefore, that which "gives free rein to the imagination" is most effective. And to evoke an emotional response through the imagination, "no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present the utmost to the eye is to bind the wings of fancy and compel it, since it cannot soar above the impression made on the senses, to concern itself with weaker images.... Thus, if Laocoon...cries out, [the imagination] can neither go one step higher nor one step lower...." The artist wants to stimulate the imagination because it takes us "far beyond what the painter could show."
Moreover, the single moment chosen by the artist, "if it is to receive immutable permanence from art, must express nothing transitory." Laocoon's screams would pass. But if the artist suggests a permanent feeling associated with his painsuch as his "manly bearing and noble patience"he will evoke the feeling of pain more powerfully because expressed metaphorically through the imagination, leaving us with an indelible image engraved on our moral imagination. Applying this principle, many artists show the moment before or after the infliction of pain or violenceportraying fear, foreboding, heroic resignation (e.g. David's "The Death of Socrates," depicting the subject before the event), irreparable loss, shame (e.g. Rembrandt's "Lucretia," depicting the subject after she has been violated), resolution, and so on. In the portrayal of violence, the artist knows that less is more.
Of course, a motion picture differs from a sculpture or painting in that, like a poem, it can show "everything," and is not limited to one moment. Lessing in fact addresses this issue in distinguishing Virgil's epic poem from dramatic poetry. Virgil can write all he wants about Laocoon's suffering, including his scream, without losing the reader because we do not actually see what is happening. ("The reporting of someone's scream produces one impression and the scream itself another.") Drama, however, is like the visual artsonly more so, because "we do actually see and hear him." Further, drama offers more opportunity for creating a metaphor that will move the moral imaginationby dramatizing the pain. One such technique is to focus on the reaction of witnesses to the violence without actually showing it. The dramatization ultimately takes place in our mind, which makes the violence tolerable (serving as a filter, as it were); the mind also gives us an understanding of the violence in a way even the greatest artist could never show literally.
Let us examine how these principles work in John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956), the most critically acclaimed of all Westerns. Ford is the most celebrated American director; often described as the poet of the American screen, his understated "invisible" technique represents the summit of Hollywood classicism. "The Searchers" is about civilization (the homesteaders) and savagery (the Comanches). The hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his greatest role) embodies the fearless courage and power of the warrior that civilization needs for self-defense and survival. However, in the course of the film we also see how he becomes a mirror image of the Indian chief, Scar, he is fanatically pursuing in search of his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who was kidnapped following a raid in which Ethan's brother and sister-in-law are massacred.
The Indian attack on the homestead is an outstanding example of Ford's art. Ethan is off with the Texas Rangers on what they come to realize is a Comanche diversion, which has left the homesteaders defenseless. As the men race homeward, Ford returns us to the Edwards farm, isolated in the cool night wilderness: we hear the wails of coyotes (or are they Indian calls?) and dog barks; a swarm of quail suddenly bursts off the scrub brush and flies off. Inside the cabin, the father, Aaron, slowly takes down his shotgun from the wall and the mother, Martha, nervously boards the windows, except for one, from which she sends out her younger daughter, Debbie, with her doll, to hide at the family burial ground nearby. "Promise you won't make a sound and come back no matter what you hear," she desperately entreats the girl. Snuggling beside the gravestone of her grandmother, Debbie looks up and is engulfed by a shadowChief Scar. He lifts his horn to his mouth and calls out a signal.
Ford abruptly cuts to Ethan galloping back home. Suddenly he rears in his horse as he sights the homestead from a promontory and Max Steiner's urgent music falls silent. Then, as the music resumes with a cry of horror, Ethan looks down upon the farmengulfed in flames. Reaching the scene, he calls out forlornly through the smoke, "Martha. Martha." He lifts a piece of a torn blouse. Next, from inside the dark shed, Ford frames a shot of Ethan looking in from the outside. He enters, looks inside, then halts, dropping his head in horror. (Photographed in silhouette, this is one of countless shots in Ford's movies that could be freeze-framed and hung in an art gallery.) Going back outside, he orders the late-arriving nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), "Don't go in there. Don't go in." He has to slug the boy to stop him. Then Ethan tells the third man with him, Mose (Hank Worden), "Don't let him look in there, Mose. Won't do him any good." The scene ends as Ethan picks up the doll, which he finds at the burial ground.
Showing only one Indian, with little dialogue and absolutely no actual violence, Ford (assisted by the great Steiner's musical gift for heightening drama) creates a deeply disturbing, shocking picture of savagery, rape, and pillage. He does this employing techniques that would be familiar to the creators of the Laocoon and to Lessing. (Further demonstrating the difference between artistic imagination and pedestrian literalism, compare this sequence with Clint Eastwood's direction of the massacre of his family in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" .)
Later, Ethan has set out in pursuit of the Comanche band, accompanied only by Martin and Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.), who was "bespoken" to the older sister, Lucy, who also was kidnapped. Following some magnificent long shots of the trio set against the epic buttes and mesas of Utah's Monument Valley (accompanied by Steiner's Wagnerian fanfares), they come upon a set of tracks that have cut away from the rest. This concerns the experienced warrior Ethan, and he rides off alone, telling the others to stay put. Shortly thereafter he returns, dismounts and falls to the ground, silent, disturbed, even disoriented (most unusual for the implacable Wayne). Martin asks, "You all right?" "Why did they break off?" Then he notices that Ethan's "Johnny Reb" coat is gone. "Huh?" responds Ethan. "I'm not going back there." They ride off and later, Brad excitedly claims he has spotted Lucy in the Indian camp off in the distance "wearing that blue dress." Ethan slowly answers: "What you saw wasn't Lucy. What you saw was a buck wearing Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat. Buried her with my own hands." Brad shouts, "Did they...? Was she...?" Ethan yells: "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out?" His voice breaking (this is the biggest dramatic scene of Wayne's careerhe could act), he pleads: "Don't ever ask me. As long as you live, don't ever ask me more." Brad cracks and runs off toward the Indian camp: we hear a rifle shot and know that the enemy and the savage wilderness have claimed another victim.
The better movies of Hollywood's Classical Age are filled with thousands of memorable examples of such allusive, creative treatment of violence. The Holocaust, of course, posed the greatest of challenges to a true artist. In the haunting finale of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), for example, director George Stevens keeps the camera on the Frank family and their doomed neighbors as we hear the spine-chilling shouts of the Nazis banging down the attic door that had shielded them for so long from the Holocaust. Those shouts and the fierce banging serve as the metaphor for what is to come; they remain fixed in the viewer's mind, and Stevens wisely eschewed any idea of actually filming what happened next. (To be sure, the book never reaches the concentration camp either, but another movie director could have made a different, more "commercial," and brutal choice.)
Turning to a more contemporary illustration, in "Sophie's Choice" (1982), director Alan J. Pakula dissolves from a shot of Sophie's daughter, huddled with her mother (Meryl Streep) and little brother in the cattle car en route to Auschwitz (as Sophie's narration describes the poor little girl's fate), to a shot of belching black smoke, from which the camera pulls back to reveal the smokestacks of the crematorium. That is all we see, but thick smoke climbing skyward and the accompanying sound effectthe loud whoosh of the furnaceshaunts the memory two decades after seeing the film. Likewise, Steven Spielberg, for all the violence in "Schindler's List" (1993), and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), always observes a careful line, using new special effects to suggest the horror without exploiting it or abusing the audience's sensibilities.
In all these examples, the wisdom of Lessing's insights, especially with regard to the power of imagination, avoiding the literal climax, and dramatizing the violence, is obvious. How interesting to find them so superbly realized in Hollywood movies of another era. These insights are drawn from eternal moral principles that should inspire the arts and the best of popular culture (as they once did) just as they underlie our political structure. In our increasingly libertine society and culture, returning to first principlesrestoring the virtues of moral elevation and self-restraintis a major challenge of civic education in which, yes, the great movies of the past have an important role to play.