Films to Chew on

Why does gratuitous violence also attract the "compatible Left"?

For years there have been two films from Hollywood that have drawn innumerable fans, especially among the “cultivated” (compatible) Left. These are Aliens with Sigourney Weaver and The Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins and Jody Foster. I have had to endure excerpts but have never been able to overcome the revulsion in order to actually sit through either film in its entirety. This was, of course, long before I recognised that I cannot watch “war films” anymore either, although I grew up on a steady fare of John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and all the other usual suspects who incarnated US war mythology from the 19th and 20th century.

Try as I might I could not explain why I found these two films– not to mention their sequels– unconditionally repulsive. Likewise I have been unable to fathom the insistence on the aesthetic value (virtue) or cultural significance of these grotesque stories.

In the process of re-reading material for another essay I took Ward Churchill’s volume A Little Matter of Genocide from the shelf again. The first essay discusses the history of the genocide in the Americas which killed an estimated 95% of the indigenous population beginning with the “discovery” of Hispanola by Christopher Columbus (never mind here the different names used for this person). Churchill asks why Columbus (Colón) was so important that various countries and ethnic groups would compete to identify him as their own. Churchill received communications from scholars as well as found references in their work who asserted that Columbus was Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and even Jewish. There was no one explicitly denying that this man was one of them.

The chapter ends with a discussion of Hannibal Lecter. It was the first time I read it with particular attention to this point. Like Aliens I could never grasp the interest in The Silence of the Lambs. Jody Foster is revolting (and judging from my one personal contact with her in Berlin several years ago her manners leave something to be desired) and I find Anthony Hopkins in the central role either a degrading specimen or a portrayal of that intrinsically disgusting quality of Englishness on the screen. Perhaps Hopkins, who has played innumerable roles with imperial nostalgia, has an un-American capacity for self-irony. But I estimate him to be more the Alec Guiness type. When one has grasped Alec Guiness one knows the way John Wayne would have been if he had been trained at Ealing.

But Churchill provided a good explanation of why I still refuse to watch the film (beyond my belief that it is superfluous Hollywood garbage) but more importantly wherein the vile fascination lay. The Silence of the Lambs is a film for the compatible Left. It is an incidence in which the underlying viciousness of indoctrinated Americans can be gratified by aesthetics and violence simultaneously (one of Benjamin’s attributes of fascism) without having to reflect on any specifically powerful person or class. Lecter is the viciousness of the POTUS for domestic consumption.

Churchill compares the fascination with Lecter to the squabble over who “owns” Christopher Columbus, by whatever name. No one scurries about claiming the honour of being the birthplace of Himmler or where he went to school. Unlike Hitler, in fact, there is not even — as far as a I know — a treatment of his artistic accomplishments, unlike Goebbels. But the cultivated and compatible need every scrap of redeeming value in a mass murderer (hence the debates about which US generals were really good — at killing, which is what soldiers do?) So we are left with Lecter fans (were there only two Lecter films or has there been a third?)

Ultimately they need every cultural and aesthetic verification that their refusal to abandon the cult of death is justified — if only for reasons of taste.

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is author of Unbecoming American: A War Memoir and also Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..