Making it Explicit
A bit of delayed New Year’s cleaning-up, this: a post I began before Christmas, prompting by seeing Sightseers. The most interesting feature of a worth-catching-though-not-mind-blowing film was the violence, or to be more precise the ways violence was used. A great deal of time is spent building tension as what Tina and Chris are what they will do, interspersed with a few brief but surprisingly graphic depictions of murderous carnage and its aftermath.
I understand that these shots are important to the aesthetic of the film, both as nods to British horror and slasher films, and as providing Tina and Chris with an unpleasant verisimilitude. But, for what it’s worth, they jarred a little with me. In fact, I felt that they worked against the building of tension which preceded them in each case – it might have been better to hold back more, to string us out a little longer by implying rather than showing what happened. They felt a little cheap – which is not to say they cheapened the film as a whole.[i]
All of which poses a perhaps unanswerable question – would Sightseers work without these shots? Unanswerable in that any answer will amount to a subjective judgement and indeed an expression of personal taste regarding the need for violence in a film partly about grisly killings. A slightly more interesting question is whether it would work as a (very black) comedy without explicit violence. I’m inclined to think it would. The explicit bits aren’t funny in themselves,[ii] and I don’t think they were needed to bring out the humour. What’s needed is the contrast between the mundane nature of Tina and Chris’s travels and their wilfully excessive responses to the irritations they encounter en route; and this contrast doesn’t require that we actually see what happens.
A possible if slightly random comparison might be with Lena Dunham’s Girls, celebrated for its gritty realism and audacity, a large part of which involves some non-Beautiful People[iii] having non-stylised sex. This might indicate something about my attitude towards sex and violence respectively, but I think these scenes matter more to the success of the show and to its humour. For a start, they tend to be funny in themselves.[iv] They’re also a good way of getting straight to the key themes of intimacy and gender identity.
Furthermore – though this is more speculative on my part – it might just be that relatively explicit sex has a different effect to violence, particularly when it’s presented in the fairly naturalistic manner of Girls. After all, many of us have had naturalistic sex with non-Beautiful People, whereas very few of us have seen a murder take place, let alone carried one out. In the context of a bittersweet contemporary comedy, the sex still has the power to shock, but it doesn’t feel as though it’s there for that purpose. Rather, it gives Girls a feeling of emotional honesty we can relate to, and without which the show would lose much of its charm. Sightseers is honest in its own way about the frustrations of everyday life, but the violence which results jars any fellow-feeling we might have for Tina and Chris.
[i] This isn’t true of all cinematic violence. Sometimes the film requires graphic and even disturbing images (see A Prophet, Hidden, and what seems like half the cinematic output of Korea). None of these, it should be noted, are celebrated as works of comic genius.
[ii] With the exception of the episode involving knitting needles, about which I can say no more.
[iii] Which is not to say that any of the people involved are ugly. This is television, after all.