Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre, James Kendrick

London: Wallflower Press, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-906660-26-0
UK£12.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

Upon first receiving a copy of James Kendrick’s Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre, the thought of a book consisting of only one hundred and thirteen pages (plus notes) that deals with the broad concept of film violence instantly flagged suspicion.  This book is part of the Wallflower Short Cuts series, which is promoted as a series of texts designed as an introduction to film studies, and I was pleased to discover that Kendrick’s approach to screen violence emerges as a valuable contribution to the already extensive body of work on the topic.  Enabling a foundation from which both students and academics new to the topic can expand their understanding of screen violence, the book serves, as Kendrick himself states, as an excellent “starting place” (p.5) making it a beneficial pedagogical tool.

Consisting of four chapters, Kendrick initially examines the ideological and historical role of violence in cinema.  Beginning with a contextualisation of the concept of film violence, Kendrick notes that within the vast array of writing on the topic, the definition of screen violence becomes a subjective experience based on the perception and contexts of the individual privy to the acts of violence projected onto the screen.  Providing theoretical approaches from such academics as J. David Slocum, Vivian Sobchack and Martin Baker, he explains how the concept of violence within cinema is constructed as a “perception, an elastic, sliding, flexible term” (p.13).  Kendrick further highlights this issue of subjective perception in the study of screen violence when examining how the topic has been approached within academic circles throughout the history of cinema studies.  Covering approaches from the industrial (through the introduction of the Production Code), through to the social implications of violence on the screen (the fear of how violence will impact “vulnerable” audiences), what emerges is a continuum between contemporary fears and arguments, and those from the past.

The following chapter examines the history of violence on film, and this is where the text’s limitations as an introduction to the topic is most fully exposed.  This section aims to examine cinema from the silent era to contemporary cinema.  However, as the emphasis (in both the chapter and the book as a whole) is placed on American cinema, there is only a sporadic coverage of the influence that films from other nations outside the US have had.  Although Kendrick himself notes the limitations in scope, it could be argued that this book could have aimed to just specifically focus on American cinema, with other editions exploring the role of violence in other national cinemas to follow.

The section on European and Asian cinema from the 1950s proves to be a brief precursor (consisting of a mere three pages) to the discussion of the New Hollywood movement.  The discussion of influential films such as Eisenstein’s Bronenosete Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1926) Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (France 1929) are given equally limited space.  However, what does come out of this chapter is a confident and comprehensive account of how the act of depicting violence within popular cinema has shifted from a marginalised or maligned facet of cinema to that of a mass source of spectatorial pleasure.  By chronologically charting the evolution of violence within the history of popular American cinema, Kendrick successfully engages the reader with an account that, although is narrowly focused in scope, still manages to facilitate an informative and well constructed overview of the history of the development of film and violence in cinema studies.

The final two chapters of the book examine the relationship between specific genres (the western, horror and action film) and screen violence, followed by a case study examining the implication of violence within the New Hollywood movement.  It is in these two chapters that Kendrick applies his already comprehensive theoretical framework and begins to formulate specific assertions in relation to the ideological function of violence within constructs of genre and reception theory.  Although most of the arguments and theoretical positions provided within both sections are not new, for example he deals with the relationship between violence and gender in the horror film, what Kendrick manages to accomplish is a theoretical framework from which the reader is able to glean some of the more interesting theories surrounding these specific genres.

Although limited by scope and size, overall Film Violence offers a well structured and broad examination on this vast topic, which in my view is a great feat in itself.  Kendrick himself stipulates “understanding film violence is central to understanding the social and historical role of the cinema” (p.4), a view which he convincingly argues in this short, but nonetheless stimulating, book.