Brutality and Berthold Brecht

Watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made me think once again about violence in movies and in the theater.  As I summarized in my previous post, my experience in watching the movie can be easily divided into two parts; pre-rape/sodomy scene, and post-rape/sodomy scene. 

Before the violent scene, I was actually getting into the movie.  I was drawn into the story of a 40 year old murder mystery.  The old man tells about his neice who disappeared, and was presumed dead, and his wicked relatives.  (As another reviewer noted, his description of his family members as racist liars is actually quite kind.)  However, then came the scene where Lisbeth is graphically attacked.  The scene was so disturbing to me that I found myself emotionally disengaging from the film.  I felt numb, unable to get the scene out of my mind.  For the next several minutes, I found it very difficult to focus on what was happening in the movie.  I eventually was able focus, but I never connected to the movie as strongly as I did at the beginning of the movie. 

This train of thought actually made me think of King Lear.  I first read King Lear a number of years ago, over winter break, and I remember very well that evening I finished Act III.  For those who do not know, at the end of Act III, the Duke of Glouster, due to the betrayal of his illegitimate son, has his eyes gouged out.  It is probably the most disturbing scenes in all of Shakepeare.  When my mom read King Lear last year, I kept asking her, “Did you finish Act III?”  She replied, “I’m not sure,” to which I answered, “You would know.”  It was due to this scene that I had long been uncertain as to whether or not I really wanted to see King Lear performed.  However, last year, a local theater was showing a taped production of King Lear, with Sir Derek Jacobi in the title role.  My friend and I had to see this.  You can imagine our horror when intermission came, and we still had not seen the infamous eye gouging scene.  I quickly remembered what one of my professors said in college about a production that made a similar move.  “The eye gouging scene simply has to come right before the intermission.  This way, the audience has a chance to look at their programs, go to the bathroom, and recover from the shock before going back into the play.  If it comes right after intermission, the audience is in too much shock to follow what happens next, and unless you’re familiar with King Lear (which most audiences aren’t) that’s a dangerous move.”  I was able to recover from the shock of the eye gouging, because I carefully began disassociating myself from the play before the scene even began. 

Now, where does all of this lead?  To Brecht, of course.  Last September I saw a production of The Life of Galileo by Brecht, a German Marxist playwright, one of the two most inluential playwrights of the 20th century.  Brecht’s plays are incredibly cerebral, with long speeches and monologues that require the audience member to think about the ideas that are being expressed.  In fact, Brecht did not want the emotion of the play to distract from the ideas that are being discussed.  To this end, he made sure that the audience could see the lights, had the actors move sets, change their costumes on stage, and incorperated musical numbers into his plays. 

One of my theater instructors saw a production of Mother Courage and Her Children that exemplified the Brecht approach to theater.  At one point in the play, Mother Courage’s daughter dies.   My instructor was totally absorbed into the scene, and was truly disturbed by what had just happened.  However, as soon as the scene ended, the actress portraying the daughter stood up, in full lighting, and began to help move set pieces for the next scene of the play.  At that moment my instructor thought, “Oh yeah, that’s right!  She’s not really dead.” 

I thought about that moment because this kind of technique is unheard of in movies.  At the end of the rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the camera pans off to Lisbeth’s bag, and instantly cuts to the next scene.  We do not hear the director shout, “Cut!” and see the actors resume their normal personalities, or see the makeup specialists reapply makeup or see the crew check the lights and camera.  (The average movie audience wouldn’t know what to make of this kind of technique, but I’d like to see it done, oddly enough.)  The audience in a movie never gets a break. 

But the audience may very well need a break after a particularly intense scene, whether it’s the rape scene in Tattoo or the Gouging Eyes scene in King Lear.  But how exactly does the director give the audience a break?  Should he be completely revolutionary and employ a Brechtian technique, reminding the audience that “It’s just a movie?”  Or do we employ the old Shakespeare technique of “Send in the Clowns” and introduce comedy to lighten the mood? 


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