Harvey Keitel on violence in film

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy last week, Noah Gittell wrote a thoughtful piece in defense of movie violence for The Atlantic today, with a primary focus on recent shoot-em-ups such as “Looper,” “Seven Psychopaths” and “Killing Them Softly.” His essay reminded me of a comment Harvey Keitel once made during the peak of an intense career in bloodstained, penis-flashing independent film. (Around that time, the actor’s powerhouse titles “Reservoir Dogs” and “Bad Lieutenant” were taking flak for their heavy uses of profanity and shocking depictions of rape and torture.)

Keitel, as told to biographer Marshall Fine in 1997:

I’ve never made a violent film. A violent film is one that bares a woman’s tits just to show them, instead of having it come from a place of some meaningfulness. There’s a way to present the conflicts we have in our sexuality that has meaningfulness and there’s a way to exploit sexuality without any meaning to it. There’s a way to present suffering and violence that has a meaning to it and a way to go lopping off heads that is mindless.

Frankly, I’m a little annoyed with the attention to violence in “Reservoir Dogs.” Yes there is a lot of bloodshed but, to me, “Reservoir Dogs” is more about the inner violence that the characters commit upon themselves in their need to have an identity, albeit in a criminal environment. Quentin and I were aware of our responsibility not to portray gratuitous violence. We were after what was real. As filmmakers, we have an obligation to journey into this abominable place that violence possesses. How can we render its horribleness, its deadliness, unless we go into it ourselves? Hopefully, we’ve done that in a real way, never gratuitously. Never, never, never.

And are the things we see in “Bad Lieutenant” really that extreme? Do we all have the potential to sink to the level this man sinks to? I’m reluctant to speak for all of humanity, but all I can say is dear me, the sky is falling. Look around at the state this world is in for the answer to those questions. In the face of evil in the world and in the heart of man, we have to allow ourselves to be stirred and scared to death because that’s the only way we can gain the knowledge we need to redeem ourselves.

Keitel and Gittell seem to be on the same page. “Calls to open a conversation about mayhem in entertainment sometimes miss the crucial fact that that conversation is already taking place,” the latter writes, “within the entertainments themselves.” Read the rest of Gittell’s Not All Movie Violence Is Created Equal here.