- A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form
The final sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) uses montage to juxtapose the murder of workers with the actual killing of a bull. Emory professor Karla Oeler, in her introduction to A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form, states that “This example is not innocent, since it is the practice of montage, famously deployed through this kind of shot by Eisenstein, which lies at the heart of an areferential and sometimes antireferential film praxis that runs through twentieth-century cinema” (2). It is an example to which Oeler later returns and which encapsulates much of her argument. As Oeler posits, murder and its filmic representation mirror one another not only in their very violence and in their acts of erasure, but also in their ability to evoke that which has been “cut” from both film and life.
Oeler’s argument is structured on multiple levels, relying on and engaging with both historical and critical discourses and providing numerous close analyses, thereby creating a sort of structural montage within the text itself, further reflecting her point that “Montage can function like cubism to achieve a new realism through emphasizing the partiality of any one view” (13). Her words serve equally to make sense of the manner in which she constructs her text.
A Grammar of Murder is divided into two parts: ‘Murder and Montage’ and ‘Murder and Genre.’ The more formally focused Part One, as its title suggests, examines the prevalence of and intertwined relationship between murder and montage in the early Soviet Cinema of Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod [End Page 15] Pudovkin, and Sergei Eisenstein, on the one hand, and the more stylistically realist Jean Renoir films of the 1930s, on the other. As Oeler states, “Montage is shadowed by murder” (13). The pairing allows Oeler to formulate, in dialogue with the writings of André Bazin, a fruitful point of juxtaposition which “is not sound technology, or even such devices as depth of field or a moving camera, but the way technology and formal choices serve, pointedly to obscure, or elide the dying” (130).
Part Two, centered on the Hollywood genre film, appears simultaneously broader in scope and less structured in its analysis – which may reflect not so much to an underlying weakness of Oeler’s text as its ambition. Here, Oeler covers ground vast enough to include films as disparate as The Naked City (1948) Mildred Pierce (1945), The Shining (1980) and Dead Man (1995) and traversing genres including the western, film noir, war film, and horror. (Unfortunately, Oeler’s well-researched analysis of Mildred Pierce already reads as somewhat dated against HBO’s 2011 adaptation.) Her engagement with literature is likewise expansive, ranging from the works of Jane Austen to Cathy Caruth.
However, the variety of films she selects to scrutinize in furthering her thesis is far from comprehensive. When she writes of Stanley Kubrick, for example, that “we would be hard pressed to find another filmmaker who pushes both violence and stylization […] to such an extreme,” it is difficult not to imagine the more contemporary Quentin Tarantino, whose oeuvre would appear to provide equally, if not more, fertile ground for a discussion of stylized violence than Kubrick’s. It is difficult to tell whether such omissions are meant deliberately to reflect Oeler’s theme of erasure or if they are simply not of interest as what Oeler terms “case studies.”
Similarly, Oeler’s conclusion is best understood as a coda offering a brief examination of Hitchock’s use of aerial shots rather than as a summary of her thesis. Oeler’s book is meticulously researched and insightfully written with great pains taken to guide the reader through its exploration of the cinematic murder scene. It will likely prove an invaluable contribution to the growing body of discourse on murder, violence, and cinema. In the end, Oeler writes of Hitchock and Godot, “the murder scene’s stark negation of a particular perspective produces paradox: the bird’s-eye view that evokes blindness, the...