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Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Film Violence Is Horrible and Beautiful: A Video Essay

Watch: Nicolas Winding Refn's Film Violence Is Horrible and Beautiful: A Video Essay

This video essay, in showing us the most violent snippets in Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, including films such as Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives, raises an important question. A couple of questions, really. The scenes Dávid Velenczei has assembled include a shot of good ol’ Albert Brooks stabbing a hapless old friend more than repeatedly; a man being strangled by two thugs, a rope, and the force of gravity; a lot of bloodied faces; many bloodied mouths; and the fairly blank face of Ryan Gosling as a visual thread. The scenes here are very difficult to watch, but they’re also beautiful: precise, elaborately composed, lush. So, the first question raised is this: is it okay to eroticize violence in this fashion? For that is, indeed, what is happening. The carnage here is one step away from the Red Shoe Diaries in its affect and presentation, but that in itself is nothing new. The choreographed gunplay of Brian De Palma’s Scarface; the pastoral annihilation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or The Godfather; the orchestrated trouncing of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, or Casino, or… or… And the viewer responds with a cringe but also a beckoning, like a particularly twisted flower leaning toward light: more, more. Because, as P.T. Barnum might have said, people love this stuff! And the directors in question (a tiny faction of a vast number) know this, and manipulate their viewers from a comfortable and profitable distance, begging the question: is the director morally culpable? Is this the proper use of film? Of course, the questions don’t stop there, or decrease in importance: the biggest of these is whether or not it’s okay to ask if such films are “okay,” whether it is appropriate to apply moral judgments to aesthetic evaluations. If Peter Greenaway wants us to watch a man stuffed with food and then cooked for dinner (as he did in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover), do you let the visceral response (roughly translated as “wow, gross”) or the analytical response (“beautiful glint on that body-glaze”) take hold, or do you acknowldge that the two are linked and have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, each drawing from the other? And beyond that, what’s a “proper” use of film?

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