My Dinner with Desilet

At my invitation, Greg Desilet sent his long response to my essay “A Critical Divide.” He wrote it in the form of answers to specific points in the essay, so I am reproducing it in its original form rather than trying to stitch it together into a stand-alone essay. It is very long (probably about half as long as my original piece), so I will highlight the parts I think are of most interest to my readers, which are also those I am most likely to respond to, if and when I find the time to do so. The parts in italics are from my original essay.

This–which he narrows down to scapegoating, with reference to Rene Girard–has unacknowledged social and psychological consequences, most drastically by generating self-perpetuating cycles of violence and preempting the possibility of healing or of a true and lasting resolution.

I don’t argue there can be true and lasting resolution to conflict or competition in life. Conflict and competition are, in my view, of the essence of life. But I do believe there can be a significant reduction of deadly violence in human relations, far below the levels of deadly violence present in many locations around the world today.

With his travesty of judgment, Greg had certainly got my attention (like that funky tooth).

Well, perhaps not the precise type of intense response to my view of Taxi Driver I was driving for, but it certainly beats indifference and boredom, which is what many writers (me included) encounter from readers all too often. So, at this point in my reading of Horsley’s reading of myself, I felt a definite sense of anticipation. Where is this guy coming from?

Potential alliances are at stake, and all that, and jousting does sometimes lead to casualties.

Quite so, but at this point I wanted to shout out to Horsley, “No, not in my case! I love critical commentary and disagreement.” This is the case partly because I love to argue but also because I’m actually not married to my views and always willing to learn the extent to which they may hold up against the scrutiny of others.

Unfortunately, I had not encountered anyone like you having read and reacted to my work in all that time.

So in Greg’s perceptual tunnel, Martin Scorsese’s, Paul Schrader’s, and Robert DeNiro’s cinematic exploration of the causes of male alienation, sexual dysfunction, and pathological violence is apparently on par with Tarantino at his worst?

No, no, no, I don’t say that. Taxi Driver is discussed in the chapter following the one on Django Unchained but this chapter is actually about The Brave One and how Jodie Foster fails to learn from the lessons that I argue should have been learned from her experience with Taxi Driver and John Hinckley. Django Unchained reaches heights of gratuitous depiction of violence far in excess of Taxi Driver and I believe my commentary on Tarantino’s film conveys the extent to which I find it to be over the top.

These are people for whom the movie has–I think unquestionably– had a healing effect due to its unflinching willingness to enter into the pain and suffering of its protagonist. Is it really possible that Greg can see the movie as a melodramatic action film exemplifying “how not to do screen violence”?

Keying off this last sentence, NO, that is not how Greg sees this movie!! It is most definitely NOT a melodramatic action film. And yet it is an example of how NOT to do screen violence. So what am I saying? Well, I say it in the title of this chapter: Psycho(melo)drama. This means the central dramatic conflict of this genre of film lies inside the main protagonist(s). And this internal conflict is of the nature of the melodramatic in that it depicts an exaggerated contrast of good and evil. The protagonist sees a part of him or herself as wholly and utterly without merit, shameful, debased, corrupt, and worthy of elimination. Thus, a significant part of the internal motives are self-destructive and even suicidal.

Apparently it is. But here’s the thing (and it’s my one ray of hope in this tangled morass): apparently the entire thrust of Greg’s argument (besides his complaint that the film doesn’t give Travis any “back story” or “contrapuntal” character conflict, more on that later) is: John Hinckley Jr. Since Taxi Driver allegedly inspired an act of violence, Greg reasons, there must be something about the movie that caused this to happen, ergo the movie is  irresponsible.

“Caused” is too strong a word here. I do not say there was something in the film that “caused” Hinckley to shoot Reagan. In fact, I go out of my way to foreclose this way of thinking when I say on page 263: “. . . Taxi Driver certainly did not cause Hinckley to shoot Reagan nor did it cause his obsessive attention toward Jodie Foster.”

Greg then sets about finding the evidence to support this conclusion (though I presume he never liked the film to begin with, he doesn’t say).

Correct. There was no point in time in my several viewings of this film over the years that I liked the film.

Travis’ date with Betsy (when he takes her to a porno movie) is among the most painful “contrapuntal confrontations” ever depicted in a mainstream movie, and the reason has little to do with either Betsy’s insight or strength of character. She is mostly just a witness to Travis’ catastrophic lack of social awareness.

Yes, in fact, Betsy serves as a prop more than a character. The prop of Betsy draws out the sexual
conflict in Travis just as the prop of the gun draws out the violence of the conflict within him. These
props picture and intensify the nature of Travis’s internal conflict but do not serve in any way to force
HIM to confront his conflict. They show viewers his conflict and its melodramatic extremes but do not
lead either Travis or viewers to challenge or confront this conflict. Picturing a conflict is not the same as
working through it just as exposing a problem is not the same as engaging it. But more on this below.

And what of Greg’s contention that Travis–along with Chucky from Child’s Play and the killer in Scream–is driven by “crude surface motivations”? This is like calling Macbeth a happy-go- lucky kind of guy: just plain absurd.

No, I do not say these characters are “driven” by crude surface motivations. I say “They . . . stand relatively alone and are not confronted by a contrapuntal character or characters adequate to probe beneath crude surface motivations.” These surface motivations are what might be projected onto them by themselves or by others, including members of the viewing audience. What actually drives such characters lies beneath the surface. These hidden motivations, I claim, are not adequately confronted and challenged in the dramatic narrative in the course of the film. Such motivations are driven by self-loathing and Travis does not in the least understand this about himself by the close of the film. And, consequently, nothing in the film propels casual, lax, or marginalized viewers to confront this conflict within Travis or, thereby, any similar conflict within themselves.

Until its final quarter, Taxi Driver is almost all interior action (which ironically is one of Greg’s complaints–not enough conflict!).

I don’t understand what you mean by “interior action.” This is close to a contradiction in terms,
especially when considering film. Everything is “exteriorized” in film. It’s pictures and dialogue, which
are all exterior. There is no way to show “interior action” except by way of exteriorizing it in some way.
And this exteriorizing is precisely how the potential for misunderstanding arises. For example, it is
possible for a viewer to “read” Taxi Driver as a straightforward story about a confused guy who wants to
do good in the world, act like a man, become a hero, and thereby also become attractive to women. He
sees a “corrupt” politician and wants to assassinate him, but that fails. So, after meeting Iris, he sees
how he can help her and acts. Then he becomes a hero. His troubles and his angst all derive from his
frustration in not being able to find a direct means to become heroic. End of story. If Horsley thinks
there are not an enormous number of people in America who would see the film and read it that way,
then he is not watching the same late night comedy shows I am wherein street interviews with college
students reveal people who think the Civil War was fought between Britain and the United States and
who do not know who is the current president of the country. The blockheadedness of many Americans
is absolutely staggering. So, am I saying every film must be dumbed-down to the least common
denominator within the potential viewing audience? NO. I am saying that, by aiming at depicting great
dramatic conflict, nothing is lost and much gained with respect to how a film appeals to an audience
because great conflict is inherently more interesting and compelling to viewing audiences than
melodramatic conflict—especially psycho(melo)dramatic conflict in which the effects of a festering
polarized conflict within the protagonist appear but the conflict, the showdown, itself never actually
takes place. And, in the course of Our Faith in Evil, I don’t simply state that the portrayal of great
conflict, referred to in the book as “tragic drama,” is more interesting and compelling than
melodramatic conflict, I provide reasons and attempt to demonstrate why this is necessarily so.

A few paragraphs later, Greg writes that all of these films “lack genuine conflict and substitute violence
and the tension of violence in its place.” What kind of weird contortions of logic is Greg applying here to
argue that violence and the tension of violence is less than genuine conflict? Violence always has roots
in interpersonal dynamics, roots that when ignored eventually give rise to out-and- out destruction. This
is what Taxi Driver is essentially about, and it’s what makes it so devastating to watch.

No, no, no. The depiction of violence must not be confused with depictions of genuine conflict whereby the functional parties to the conflict driving the narrative actually confront each other. For example, Travis’s attempted assassination of the politician is not the depiction of conflict. It is the depiction of the effects of Travis’s internal conflict in attempted violence. This is how misunderstandings of Travis’s motives can arise among viewers. Viewers really have no clear idea why Travis wants to kill the politician. I argue Travis’s internal conflict is melodramatic and unconsummated (comparing it to Jake LaMatta’s conflict in Raging Bull)—a consequence of self-loathing in which he demonizes a part of himself. I see this psycho(melo)dramatic interpretation as a viable understanding of the structure of the conflict at the core of the film, but I am certain many viewers of Taxi Driver find it easy to see the film as a straightforward melodrama of external conflict between Travis and evil characters. Even Horsley suggests this is how I view the film. I am also sure there are many viewers who do not know quite what to make of it all.

As becomes quite clear in his analysis (in Screens of Blood) of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Desilet (I
am shifting to the more formal address mode now) approves of movies that carry the right message.

No, this is a large misunderstanding of what I am undertaking. I am not overly concerned about “message.” As I mention above, I am concerned about what counts as GREAT drama. And I argue great drama is more interesting and compelling and therefore more entertaining and engaging than alternative structures of drama and that it also presents violence in a context less likely to promote violence as a solution to conflict because it explicitly shows the tragic nature of violence. Thus, when filmmakers choose to make a film, why risk the melodramatic plot structure and its inherent propaganda in favor of violence by showing violence in a celebratory context where it is depicted as the proper, rightful, and glorious means for solving problems? Following what I argue, no good reasons are left for doing so (including box office receipt reasons). Returning to the question of great drama, are there any criteria to be discussed around which critics and reviewers of dramatic productions can agree constitute the core elements of great drama? What would be the role of a critic if it were the case that no such criteria can be agreed on? Is “greatness” in drama merely a matter of opinion and taste or can it be persuasively argued that core criteria exist that at least permit critics to count a particular film as a candidate for greatness while also enabling other candidates to be excluded. Other candidates may well qualify as good films or entertaining films, etc., such that a film’s failure to count as “great” does not entail that it is worthless. And my further point, in relation to violent drama (and most great drama IS violent drama) concludes that only violence depicted in tragic drama (using the word “tragic” here in its more technical sense relating to the synagonal structure of conflict, which I describe in my book) places violence in a context in which it can be felt and understood in ways consistent with what I regard as the necessarily tragic essence of ALL real life violence.

How they do so (in terms of film aesthetics) is apparently of significantly less importance to him (I am
tempted to say of no importance at all, but that’s more of a taste thing!).

Yes, the aesthetics of film (including lighting, camera angle, framing, editing, sound, color, texture, and the like) is always a handmaiden to the plot, which is to say the structure of the dramatic conflict. But I am certainly not saying that aesthetics is of NO importance.

There are many ways to have a good time and my sense of it is that Americans choose to have a good time at the movies in some very peculiar, self-destructive, and socially dysfunctional ways. We are in many ways a very sick society as evidenced in our popular films. Unfortunately, the rest of the world may not be much better off, since our films seem very popular in many other countries. But then sex and violence sell, even across language barriers, and placing sex and violence in melodramatic plots is the easiest (for writers) and currently most financially safe way to attract an audience. But I argue that films with tragic dramatic structure can compete financially when filmmakers use that structure. The reason they do not do so more often lies in the fact that most filmmakers who have made tragic dramatic films do not entirely realize what they are doing and therefore fail to duplicate it (as is the case with Scorsese in Shutter Island). Lifetime domestic receipts for Taxi Driver total $28,262,574; lifetime domestic receipts for Shutter Island total $128,012,934. Box office success does not prove the merit of a film, but this comparison surely illustrates that a psychological tragic drama like Shutter Island can compete financially in the marketplace with a psychological melodrama like Taxi Driver. In addition to this, Shutter Island is Scorsese’s top grossing film worldwide. Audiences will respond favorably to quality drama.

Returning for a moment to Taxi Driver, it’s worth remembering that the primary sensibilities behind
it–Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Robert DeNiro–were all in their early or mid-thirties when they
made it (Schrader was in his twenties when he wrote it). To me, this is a truly astonishing fact,
considering just how little wisdom or self-knowledge anyone really possesses at such a tender age, and
allowing (though Desilet won’t) how profoundly on the money the film is as an examination of male
violence and frustrated sexuality.

It’s perhaps not as astonishing as it seems. It’s one thing to paint a picture. It’s an entirely different
matter to understand what it is you are painting. This relates to my complaint about the film. It paints a
picture but does almost nothing in the way of providing a context through which to adequately
understand the meaning of the picture. And it is by no means certain Scorsese, Schrader, and DeNiro
fully understood what they were doing either. In fact, I believe they did not fully understand what they
were doing because if they did, they would not have made the film they did. They apparently wanted to
make a film against violence by exposing the destructive nature of male alienation. But if that was their
intent, they adopted the wrong structure. Perhaps Horsley understood the meaning of the picture, as
the makers wanted it to be understood, but that certainly does not entail that meaning is manifestly
obvious to the average viewer.

In this regard, no film is ever the same for any two viewers, as is manifestly evident with Greg and I, in this particular instance.

Yes, I have to say we have experienced this film very differently. I intensely dislike the film—probably
because I intensely dislike men who act out their internal conflicts and frustrations through violent
actions against others—even if some of these “others” appear to deserve what they get.

Again, I am not so concerned about “good, responsible filmmaking.” I am concerned about great drama
and whether and when violence can become part of great art. I have always had a strong sense that in
certain contexts the depiction of violence works to enhance the power and authenticity of a work of
dramatic art and in other contexts it fails miserably. And I set myself the task of attempting to
understand why this may be the case and what the differences are. I don’t know to what extent I have
succeeded but I do believe I have at least opened a door that sheds some light on this phenomenon.

I want to be moved by movies and not merely intellectually or philosophically validated by them. (This may well be unfair to Greg–I bet it is–but I can only respond to what he communicates via his writing.)

Ouch! Okay, my writing is admittedly very academic in texture. But I must also add that from another
angle this assessment of my approach to movie art seems remarkably tone deaf. The point of my
distinction between violence depicted in tragic drama and melodramatic drama consists of establishing
a frame from which it becomes possible to understand why some dramas involving violence are moving
and poignant while others are merely shocking. Being moved by movies is a phenomenon deeply
interesting to me and the films I find most interesting are the ones that move me. Melodramatic conflict
and violence may prove to be moving to some viewers in that it arouses emotions but, as I argue and I
believe demonstrate in Our Faith in Evil, melodrama cannot be emotionally cathartic in the sense of the
word as used by Aristotle. Therefore, films that qualify as versions of melodrama are not as moving as
films that qualify as tragic (in the sense in which I use the term in my book) and any catharsis felt to be
achieved by melodrama exists primarily and briefly in the psyche and not in the body as a physical
response. Shock value violence is not nearly as moving as cathartic violence.

I am pretty sure Desilet isn’t advocating these sorts of films (Gandhi, Philadelphia, 12 Years a
Slave), but, by having such clear-cut and minutely worked out criteria for what he deems a good
movie–and for more or less equating good with socially responsible–he risks falling into a similar

Okay, as I attempt to point out above, you are correct in being sure I am not a big fan of politically correct films hammering viewers with messages of social justice. But I do not believe, if read closely, I resemble advocates of “socially responsible” filmmaking. I’m not entirely sure what will faithfully qualify as “socially responsible” film. Instead, I am an advocate of great drama and great conflict and I think when violence is portrayed in drama it is done so most poignantly—and with less risk for propagandizing violence—through tragic dramatic structure. And I do not find an abundance of that kind of drama flooding the theaters around the country.

The similarity between Travis’ and Hinckley’s letters extends about as far as their both being letters….

This strikes me as unusually obtuse for Horsley. What counts as relevant for me in citing Foster lies not
in whether she exaggerates anything but in the mere fact that Hinckley contacted her and said what he
said in the letter to her. Hinckley’s messages to Foster, on their face, certainly suggest an obsession with
her. And the point is that Foster viewed the two letters as having similarities, as did those conducting
the trial. In light of these facts, to suggest the two letters have no substantial similarities flies in the face
of the highly relevant assessments of others closely involved in the case.

My impression based on everything he writes is that Desilet isn’t really that interested in Taxi Driver as a

This is true. Taxi Driver is a film holding little interest for me. I was more interested in Raging Bull and
spent much more time in Our Faith in Evil analyzing it and the parallels between it and another film
starring DeNiro titled This Boy’s Life.

He is interested rather in using the film as an example to support his argument for more social
awareness and responsibility in cinematic depictions of violence. As a result, somewhat tragically, he
critically undermines his whole thesis by choosing to rest it on the flimsiest of evidence.

I spend a little more time with Taxi Driver in Screens of Blood but still give it only passing mention
compared to the more extensive treatment of The Brave One. But I don’t think a film I only address
briefly in both books “critically undermines” my “whole thesis.”

And yet. . . At this point, having come this far (6000 words and counting), I might want to ask myself–for
the first time publicly in forty years, all credit due now to Desilet for getting me to this point–how
realistic is the ending of Taxi Driver? (See, Greg, what working on this piece and going all the way into
the corner for my once-favorite movie has brought to the surface!)

Okay, nice! This is the kind of comment that makes writers feel their writing actually lives in a world
beyond their own existence.

The morbid irony of the ending is far from subtle–it may even be overstated–and the indications that Travis’
“heroism” is motivated by loneliness, desperation, and impotent rage are far from ambiguous.

Really?? As I said a few passages above, you must not be watching the same late night television interviews of college students. America is teeming with folks for whom Scorsese’s “subtle” work in Taxi Driver likely passes over their heads as they proceed to give the film the most straightforward and simplistic of interpretations.

It’s true that Peckinpah felt, on sitting through one screening of The Wild Bunch, that he had failed to communicate what he had meant to with the film, because instead of feeling sick at the violence some viewers were finding it exhilarating. And it’s true he suffered as a result (though it didn’t stop him doing a gratuitous shoot ‘em up like The Getaway.)

Yes, and Harvey Weinstein said after Django Unchained that he was done with Tarantino’s violent films.
And then he proceeds to be an executive producer for The Hateful Eight. But Peckinpah’s failure to
understand the way in which his film might be misunderstood is par for the course for film directors.
Directors very often seem much more concerned in scratching the itch they have (to make a certain film)
rather than understanding what causes the itch and probing into that. If they would do that, many more
tragic dramas would get made and many fewer melodramas.

I imagine Scorsese had his own moments of doubt about Taxi Driver after the Hinckley affair (or even
before it). But the idea of somehow making a film for all people everywhere that will be of any actual
worth to anyone is, I think, naïve and baseless. Human experience and perception is far too diverse for

I agree with these last sentences and this is one reason I say that whatever the relation may be between
film and audiences, the effects of film—including the effects of film violence—are not causal effects.
Like language, film requires interpretation and, wherever interpretation operates, there will be
individual differences in responses. The business of analysis and critical review must take this into
account and attempt to anticipate the potentially likely interpretations and misinterpretations that may
arise from any given work of art.

[Responding to my breakdown of the Hinckley case.]

Okay, well this is where I believe Horsley goes off the rails into the murky terrain of conspiracy theory.
But rather than attempt to deconstruct his conspiracy theory indoctrination (for that task usually
amounts to a futile endeavor—people will believe what they need to believe), I would prefer to show
how it is irrelevant to all the considerations surrounding my judgments concerning Taxi Driver (more on
that below). Before doing that, however, I need to assure readers I am not one who refuses to traffic in
conspiracy theories. Not all conspiracy theories are equal and some are quite believable and compelling.
In particular, I’m thinking of the JFK assassination. I have studied it for many years and have had the
good fortune to be a small contributor to two of the best books available about how and why the JFK
assassination was indeed a conspiracy and who was responsible. When the evidence is there, I’m on
board with conspiracy theory. But when the evidence is not there, I’m not on board. And my criteria for
good evidence are very stringent. I don’t favor believing something is true just because it feels right or
serves to confirm pet preconceptions about how the world must be. When it comes to conspiracy, I’m
only interested in what can be shown to be the case, not conjecture and plausible believability.

It turns out I am familiar with all the theories surrounding the Bush family regarding the possible role
they played in helping Hitler gain power in Germany, involvement in various CIA plots to overthrow
governments, participation in a conspiracy to assassinate JFK, etc., etc. After each of the bullet points
listed above we can safely add this: non sequitur. However suggestive any of these facts may seem,
none of them individually or collectively add up to anything resembling evidence warranting the
conclusion that Hinckley was an agent of the CIA. Quite ordinary and mundane explanations exist to
account for all these facts in other ways short of the spin Horsley desires to place on them. As Carl Sagan
once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” There is no evidence here, which is not
the same as to say there is nothing here to suggest further investigation for the purpose of determining
whether evidence can be obtained to support a conspiracy theory. And I am fully aware of the potential
risks and difficulties in obtaining such evidence. Nevertheless, there is no point in adhering to conspiracy
narratives without sufficient evidence. If one believes strongly enough, go find the evidence. Otherwise
begone (but, still, exercise caution around the Bush family!). See below for further rebuttal of Horsley’s
claims about Hinckley.

So let’s return to the main point, which is that, based on the above evidence, Desilet’s primary
argument for the culpability of Taxi Driver is based on a set of evidence that he has failed to examine.
This leaves only his wholly unsupported–and I think insupportable– claims that the film is a
sensationalist melodrama about a narrowly drawn character that lacks any real conflict! Back to the
drawing board, Greg?

Nope. I still stand by my account, but with an important change in your wording: “the film is a
sensationalist psycho(melo)drama about a narrowly drawn character that lacks any real conflict.” The
conflict is internal, remains repressed, and is never brought adequately to light because Travis, like
LaMotta in Raging Bull, never confronts his shadow self and impotently allows his shadow self to drive
his actions. Travis’s shadow is boxing him while audiences wait with anticipation to see Travis emerge
and challenge the shadow. But we never see him. We see only the shadow persona project itself onto
the men killed in the final scenes. And many members of the audience will not even see these actions as
a result of projection– projection of a defiled shadow self onto others found worthy of elimination.
Instead, as I have suggested above, they may see a man who had seemingly become confused (for
unclear reasons) find himself, rise to the occasion in a crisis, and come out the hero. Many audience
members may, like Hinckley for example—regardless of whether you see Hinckley as a tool of the CIA or
as a more self-directed agent—see Travis as someone who struggles navigating life in New York City due
to his social ineptness, which he finally overcomes with courage and heroic actions.

The bottom line is that Hinckley viewed the film many times, was obsessed by it, and allowed it to
trigger violent actions. Horsley’s theory that the film may have been used by the CIA to influence
Hinckley to act is extraordinarily far-fetched given the fact Hinckley unquestionably suffers from several
psychological disorders. His behavior, consequently, remained at the time highly unpredictable. If the
Bush driven CIA had attempted to use him, the success of that plan would have depended on already
existing inclinations in Hinckley to do what they wanted him to do. In which case, everything others and
I propose about Hinckley and his motives remains in place. His shooting of Reagan was clearly a copycat
crime. Whether the shooting was a conspiracy with another shooter involved is, in my view, irrelevant to
the analysis of Hinckley and his relation to the film Taxi Driver.

In both of my books on film I have claimed violent films conforming to a structure of highly polarized
conflict with one side portrayed as defiled, corrupt, or demonic—do not cause violent responses.
Instead, they provide and promote a template of conflict structure easily admired by and therefore
imitated by marginalized viewers who lack the critical awareness to question the appropriateness of this
polarized template for conflict situations in their own lives. I have also suggested filmmakers need to be
aware of this possibility and consider adjusting their scripts accordingly—first and foremost for the sake
of creating more powerful and emotionally engaging cathartic art and, secondly, for the sake of reducing
the potential risks for inadvertently promoting violence. Given such considerations, what good reasons
might exist for not following my advice?

As a counterpoint to Desilet’s calling of John Hinckley to testify before the jury–a testimony I consider worthless–I call myself, a writer whose awareness of and sensitivity to violence has been immeasurably deepened as a result of repeat viewings of Taxi Driver–as I hope this current piece will show.

Yes, but you cannot show the effects that would occur if Taxi Driver, and many other films of similar dramatic structure, were to have been constructed as tragic drama in the sense of the term “tragic” I have described in my two books on film. Perhaps if you had seen a version of Taxi Driver along the lines of conflict structure I advocate you would have been even more “immeasurably deepened” in the quality of your sensitivity to violence. Currently, melodramatic structure thoroughly dominates popular film and television but, for all you know, a shift that would create the dominance of tragic form could also create a wave of great art that would transform American culture in such a way that conflict and violence are viewed differently and structured differently among the general population. I believe it is important to understand that levels of violence in America are directly tied to how Americans predominantly choose to resolve conflict. Men especially are trained by our culture to see violent resolution of obdurate conflicts as the preferred means of resolution. Gun culture in this country is a direct reflection of that. Toy guns are still among the most popular toys for young boys. To suppose that people do not have the power to change predominant cultural patterns with respect to violence is, I think, wrongheaded. And I cannot imagine Horsley believes this. Am I advocating some form of pacifism? No, I do not advocate passive response to violence in my books. I advocate the use of violence when it is necessary to stop violence with the caveat that such use of violence not be conducted with the attitude George Gerbner refers to as “happy violence.” No need for celebration when conducting it and no need for celebration afterwards. The use of violence to stop violence is a sad and tragic affair and ought always to be portrayed and understood in that way—for the sake of 1) a better, more emotionally powerful, dramatic experience and 2) consequently, a stronger influence away from viewing, violence as a preferred means of conflict resolution.

Imagery and narratives that have to do with intrapersonal violence are obviously of less fundamental relevance to most people, when compared to the question of how men and women relate to one another, and what they can
reasonably expect out of those relations.

I disagree here. Any cultural routines or entertainments promoting or exacerbating deadly violence call out for much more urgent response and adjustment than those relating to the values surrounding mating practices. In fact, domestic abuse in the form of deadly violence, most often seen in instances of men killing wives or girlfriends, is most likely exacerbated by the cultural messages sent to men by way of gun laws and depictions of conflict resolution praising and celebrating men who use violence to resolve conflicts and to assert their “rights.” Horsley’s priorities are not in order here.

I do not “write about violent movies as presumably the most accountable for a negative inception of values.” Instead, I find only violence portrayed in the context of melodramatically structured movies to be risking more than is necessary for conducting financially successful filmmaking. If I am right about the pernicious effects of melodramatic violence in structuring people’s attitudes about conflict resolution, then it may well be the low hanging fruit that, astonishingly, has not been “picked” or “picked on” by a sufficient number of critics.

It’s ironic to compare this with my own motive for writing The Blood Poets, for which I chose to focus on violence in movies because all my favorite movies were–and pretty much still are–violent, making this the easiest and most logical way to follow my passion.

As can be seen from my books, especially Screens of Blood, some of my favorite films are also extremely violent. But I attempt to point out significant differences between various violent films regarding the way in which the violence is contextualized. And I believe these differences are of great importance individually and culturally.

And, as I will go on to argue, I think that Desilet’s analytical approach to movies is, in part at least, a way for him to buffer the visceral power of movies and so protect himself from being moved by them.

The best way I can dispute this notion is to again emphasize that I believe dramas structured tragically are far more moving than dramas structured melodramatically. So, from my point of view, if Horsley wants to defend melodramatic violence, he is in essence defending less moving and emotionally stirring dramas. This strikes me as very ironic.

When he reviles Silence of the Lambs, for example, he relies heavily on quotes from my own critical drubbing of the movie in The Blood Poets, quotes that don’t seem to add much to his actual thesis. Mostly, he just seems to enjoy how mercilessly I trash the film, and to want to let my words express his feelings for him.

No, since Horsley makes several points regarding the film I felt were significant and with which I agreed, I saw no reason not to cite him extensively. But my analysis of the film, and visceral response to its themes, goes considerably beyond his in several respects, which are glossed over in his comments here.

For example, I note how he appears to misunderstand the significance of audiences’ emotional responses to the ending and I address the claims that the film counts as a strong pro-feminist statement (due to Jodie Foster’s starring role), as Cynthia Freeland argues, by showing how it in fact counts more as a reinforcement of patriarchal values whereby Foster inadvertently (I presume) functions as the titillating female interest in an entirely male-oriented fantasy fest.

Simply put, Desilet’s approach to movies is itself antagonal rather than synagonal.

No, I do not advocate for the “impurity” of melodrama or the exclusion, elimination, or censorship of melodramatic structures. I argue instead for an immunization against these structures whereby their force and influence on cultural orientations toward managing conflict are muted and overpowered by stronger influences. For discussion of this view, see chapters 14 and 16 of Our Faith in Evil and especially pages 161 and 203.

Once there, Batman’s “goodness” is seen as being mirrored by–even giving rise to–the Joker’s “evil,” and we are given pulp melodrama with tragic poetry at its secret sticky center.

If Horsley is going to cite the Batman/Joker confrontations as examples of his point, he must at least address my critique of one of the star instances of this kind of drama in The Dark Knight, which I discuss at length in Screens of Blood (pages 50-60). In this discussion, I explain my reservations with this kind of film, which provide rebuttal to Horsley’s remarks above, which argue for a way of categorizing the conflict very much in contrast with how I see it.

Desilet seems to want to prescribe an external model to adhere to, one which anyone who wishes to assume the deadly mantle of self-expression would be wise to learn the rules of before daring to put pen to paper or brush to canvas. A rather Platonic sort of Republic looms darkly on Desilet’s horizon.

What good is philosophy if it cannot show us a different way that may also potentially count as a better way?

I do NOT believe in knowing and preaching “right ways to think, perceive, feel, and act to others.” I believe in the possibility of better ways than may currently be routine within cultural beliefs and practices. Philosophy can indeed help us to find different ways as well as help determine whether they constitute “better” ways. We are all philosophers and critics whether we want to be or not. It isn’t possible to live without having a philosophy of life, which is to say a set of beliefs, no matter how buried or unconscious, about what counts as beneficial and valuable to self and society. Granting as much, the only question remains: How fulfilling a life do you want to live? And answering that question depends on how competent a philosopher and an engager of life you can become.

Desilet’s position overall isn’t to require more stalwart or upstanding characters in movies, then, but more awareness, caution, and responsibility from filmmakers, critics, and audiences.

If by “stalwart and upstanding” you mean characters who eventually engage the conflict the narrative moves toward, then yes I do require more such characters. This need not mean that these “stalwart” characters must eventually triumph in the end. The main protagonist, as in Shutter Island, may ultimately engage in the conflict and confront the other side, but end up losing the battle by failing to integrate the two competing sides of the self. And, in some of the most emotionally gripping cases, viewers are not even sure which side they need to be on.

The question is, would he know it if he saw it?

That is indeed the question! What counts as “better” in film and in life and why? I would like to think I would know it if I saw it, but that must be decided by others.

Does Desilet really believe the Scorsese who made Shutter Island (which he thinks “may be Scorsese’s finest film”) is a more self-aware, responsible, and reliable communicator than the Scorsese who made Taxi Driver? Incredible as it seems, he does believe this, and so I can only conclude that he is either oblivious or indifferent to the aesthetic qualities of both films.

No, I don’t believe Scorsese has grown much as a filmmaker and artist between Taxi Driver and Shutter
Island (as one of the commentators to Horsley’s “Critical Divide Part II,” Thomas Fink, has forcefully
insisted). As I say in my discussion of Shutter Island, I think Scorsese read Dennis Lehane’s novel and
experienced it as powerful, likely without fully understanding the structural differences between it and
films he has made such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Scorsese was drawn to this story, as many people
are, due to its tragic dimensions and its emotional intensity. The movie follows the book very closely and
the power of the film is entirely Lehane’s doing with merely a very competent cinematic assist from
Scorsese. Both Taxi Driver and Shutter Island feature troubled, psychopathological protagonists and
their internal conflict. But Shutter Island develops the internal conflict so that the protagonist, with the
prodding participation of contrapuntal characters, necessarily confronts his shadow self in an
extraordinary battle where viewers see clearly the all too human circumstances and forces pushing his
shadow self and his repressed self to confront each other in full consciousness. Consequently, the
shadow self loses its demonic or defiled nature and becomes human, thereby exposing and explicitly
portraying the internal conflict as tragic rather than melodramatic in nature. And in this way Shutter
Island succeeds, in my opinion and in my experience, in being much more emotionally powerful and
cathartic than Taxi Driver. I was reduced to tears in the final scenes of Shutter Island whereas I felt only
distaste and disgust following the final scenes of Taxi Driver, likely because at no point in Travis’s
experience does he have insight into himself and he ends by appearing content with himself. Whereas in
Shutter Island Andrew/Teddy gains self-awareness, as his two selves fully confront each other, and then,
succumbing again to traumatic shock, he runs away from this confrontation, with tragic outcome.

Well, I just once again argued that Shutter Island is a better film than Taxi Driver and, once again, gave
reasons for that belief. So, yes, I am perhaps a perverse person if not some kind of fanatic. Or . . . maybe
not. I’ve read Horsley’s reasons and am not persuaded by them. I do believe, as he says, that the film
was a landmark experience for him but I see this as occurring because he was able to project into the
film the key parts of the internal story that were left out in Scorsese’s filmmaking. He turned this film
into a tragic drama even though it quite obviously lacks the criteria for tragic drama. My case on this
point is made for me, despite Horsley’s CIA backstory for Hinckley, by Hinckley’s reaction to the film. If
the film were actually the tragic drama Horsley experienced it to be, Hinckley’s reaction to it would not, I
would argue, have been what it was. If Taxi Driver had been constructed more in line with the
structuring of the internal conflict as presented in Shutter Island, Hinckley would likely have experienced
it quite differently. This is the main point of Our Faith in Evil. If our faith in evil, our faith in a defiled and
demented shadow part of ourselves and our world, is challenged and undermined in forms of mass
entertainment, then the potential for the continued success of the melodramatic template governing
human relations and conflicts is greatly diminished and the impulse to celebrate revenge violence is
significantly crippled.

This is the very essence of tragedy. Indirectly, Desilet’s thesis–which he will go on to use to try and discredit Taxi Driver–is here helping me to understand–and deepen–my already profound admiration for the film. Irony upon irony!

As I say above, you experienced the film as tragic drama by filling in some blanks. The film itself, through its dialogue and images, does not clearly lead viewers to experience it the same way you did/do. And this is why it cannot be a great film. It is far too open to alternative interpretation and, in fact, invites interpretations opposed to yours.

a defender of purity who has created an arbitrary arrangement (his thesis) that can only establish itself by identifying all impure elements–those dastardly movies inspiring copycat crimes!–and marking them for elimination.

Again, I think a closer reading of chapters 14 and 16 in Our Faith in Evil would dispel any notions that I want to mark for elimination dastardly melodramatic movies. We need to live with all kinds of art but we do not need to acknowledge or mistake lesser art for great art. Because, as Horsley well knows, films are such powerful propaganda we need to know what we are doing to ourselves when we make and watch them. Granted, this “knowing” may never be complete and full and reliable but we cannot therefore give up critical activity and submit to a relativism that says one thing is as good as another. Humans are not suitable to live with such casual relativism in entertainment consumption (i.e., cultural programming) because it could prove deadly to the point of extinction.

A line or two later he adds for good measure “All violence is tragic.” Unlike his praise for Shutter Island, I find these sentiments admirable and I have no desire to question them as sentiments. Desilet seems confident no one else will either: he offers no arguments to back his statements up, as if taking it as a given that all civilized, sophisticated minds will naturally agree.

It has the form of an ontological pronouncement but I left it at that because the task of thoroughly defending it would require another book. I did not have the wherewithal to even start down that road and so left the matter to the judgment and, hopefully, like sentiments of readers.

This would then imply that justice as a concept–the black irony of it!–is a form of violence against our inherent natures.

Quite so, and one of my philosophical mentors, Jacques Derrida, would agree wholeheartedly. There is no escape from violence in one form or another. And since all violence is tragic, by my reckoning, then life itself is tragic. And I do believe it is important to see life as tragic rather than melodramatic—as many Christian interpretations of life would have it. The melodramatic world is a Manichean world in which the art of living is reduced to the art of finding sources of corruption and destroying them—even if this means destroying other people.

In other words, physical violence is believed by some cultures–including let’s face it our own–to be a means to a spiritual end. This is something Desilet addresses directly, disparagingly, in his analysis of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (at the end of Evil).

No, what I disparage in Gibson’s Passion is the way in which the film beats the viewer over the head with the notion of humanity’s sinful and defiled nature, which thereby provides the rationale for what language theorist and literary critic Kenneth Burke calls “self-mortification”—the need to cleanse the self of imagined impurities by way of physical torture. “Victimization” is then understood, in this way of thinking, as the projection of the defiled nature of the self onto others, who then become scapegoats. This way of thinking about human nature, as a defiled nature, is explored and criticized in Our Faith in Evil.

The possibility that The Matrix might be a form of fantasy that transcends realism–and that the violence might also have a transcendental quality–does not reach his synagonal radar; or if it does, it is only to be electrified instantly out of existence.

No, this notion definitely reached my radar, but I rejected it because I don’t have any more faith in
transcendence than I do in evil. Both are concepts that depend for their existence on false notions of
purity that give rise to false notions of radical impurity and corruption that beg for deadly violence as a
remedy. As Richard Slotkin has argued, there can be no genuine “regeneration through violence” (read
this as “transcendence through violence”). Such uses of violence, even and sometimes especially fantasy
violence, amount to a fools errand. Violence in the attempt to transcend or purify anything only
succeeds in further destroying what it tries to purify. I think there may be a logic to this assessment of
transcendence that extends beyond mere opinion. But—I hasten to add—I don’t believe this implies
that violence to overcome abusive violence is illegitimate. But this counter violence is not something to
be celebrated and glorified to the point of dominating screen time in movies for the entertainment of
audiences. Instead, it is something to be experienced tragically, in the manner I cite Sam Keen as
expressing: “And when we must fight, it must not be as holy warriors but as deeply repentant men and
women who are caught in the tragic conflicts of a history that we have not yet had the vision, the will, or
the courage to change.” (page 163).

Reaching the bottom, after all, is the only way of pushing back to the surface.

But there is no “bottom,” no ground, to these matters and if we wait to get to the bottom we will never
reach a point of entertaining any alternative ways of being in the world. There is only a continuous
“going under” and then the leap (and not necessarily a random leap) of taking a risk to embrace change
of one sort or another—just as our ancestors did when crossing the oceans and prairies in search of a
better life.

That’s how I did it anyhow.

How do you know you reached the bottom??? And what would count as the surface???

Desilet more or less excludes all personal testimony from his analyses. He rarely if ever talks about how a given depiction of violence effects his consciousness or nervous system. Without this as the baseline for his arguments, they tend to float weightlessly inside a theoretical vacuum. They are “all academic.”

You are correct here. My writing style is academic. Writing in the “I” mode was trained out of me by the
process of learning to write academic journal articles that could actually get published (where the use of
the personal pronoun is tantamount to career suicide). I finally mastered this form and have published
almost exclusively in academic arenas and publications. This could well be one reason I find Horsley’s
writing style so refreshing and genuine. Having said that, I do believe emotions and personal values and sentiments can come through in honest academic writing on important subjects. But this honesty and
self-disclosure is definitely frowned on and muted in academic forums.

In Seen and Not Seen, I more or less conclude that all movies, all art, affects our development at a cost.

We agree on this.

It’s also possible that this tendency in myself, by being strengthened (even today I own a Travis-style army jacket that I feel quite cool wearing), increased my alienation from myself (and hence from others), and that this could have indirectly allowed for anger and violence to fester within me.

Okay, wow, this seems like a considerable concession.

There is simply no way to know how and why our development unfolds and precisely what the exact relationship is between external influences and internal changes.

I agree there is no way ever to be certain in our knowledge of what has produced particular influences
and changes but I do believe it’s possible to make substantial guesses that count as informed and
educated guesses and to advance reasons and evidence to support these guesses—the sum total of
which may add up, for particular persons, to persuasive and compelling argument. At least that’s what
rhetoricians believe, and I count myself as one.

To this end, I am endeavoring to lend him my eyes. Isn’t that what friends are for?

You have opened me up to see the film more broadly. It’s very true, I think, that we each saw a different
film. For reasons yet to be fully understood, I saw a film that disappointed me and you saw a film that
transfixed and transformed you. This is the really fascinating thing about film. Nevertheless, I do NOT
want to grant that all critical understanding of film is essentially subjective and therefore highly
individual. Otherwise, there is very little left to talk about concerning the evaluation of art. I believe it is
possible to argue that films do function like propaganda and advertising and, though the effects of films
are not entirely predictable, these effects are nevertheless generally assessable regarding the overall
wave of influence they can be counted on to generate. Evaluating films is not a science but an art. And,
like all art, interpretation is required. And, wherever interpretation reigns, any and all conclusions are a
matter of persuasion. What one person can persuade another to endorse and how that may be done is,
of course, a complicated process—one in which what is included in the list of what counts as compelling
evidence may itself become another art form to submit to persuasion. This is the case also concerning
the issue of conspiracy theories, for example. What some people take for evidence others find to be
rank speculation. Agreement is a very hard thing to coerce and it may be the case that no evidence is
ultimately coercive. And this state of affairs makes arguments regarding the quality of art especially
fraught with difficulty.

Desilet’s misplaced optimism smacks to me of a lack of awareness regarding the nature of public intuitions, which, in my opinion are never about serving the collective good but only about serving themselves. Perhaps a similar sort of naiveté is behind his unthinking trust in the mainstream media narrative surrounding the shooting of Ronald Reagan?

Well, no. I agree with you here about the Academy and awards. It’s best to put no stock in them at all. They are mostly for entertainment—with the parade of celebrities down the red carpet, the interviews, the opening comedy monologue, and the stars making jokes while presenting the awards, etc.—but not sober assessment of films. The reason I mention the Academy and its assessments at all when discussing certain films arises from the desire to point out just how wrong the Academy and like institutions can be and how surprising it is in those few cases when they actually get it right (in my humble opinion). When they get it right I feel like celebrating. But that has not happened very often. Also, I mention the Academy’s actions when I sense they have made awards to a film that should not only fail to receive any awards but instead be held up to wholesale scorn.

But does Desilet seriously believe that Shutter Island has succeeded where Taxi Driver has failed? Does he think it has been effective in introducing new human values and interpretations that will have a ripple-down effect on social structures? If so, he is deluded, though I don’t think it’s any great cause for regret or frustration on his part.

It’s hard to judge the “success” of a film in terms of its social and cultural effects. Considerable time must pass before such assessments can be adequately made. Over time certain films rise to the top that would be expected not to. For example, films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. When they first came out they were not valued nearly to the extent they are now. And they continue to have social and cultural effects that would have been hard to predict at their inception. The lasting presence of Taxi Driver in lists of great films contradicts my assessment of it, but there may be reasons for that transcending the merits of the film narrative. For example, Robert DeNiro and Jodie Foster went on to become screen icons and fans of these two celebrities certainly help to keep the film alive in television screenings and internet streamings. When DeNiro and Foster fade from memory, I rather doubt Taxi
Driver will continue to generate the attention it has generated thus far. Shutter Island had mixed reviews among critics and whether it will disappear into the oblivion of forgotten film relics remains to be seen. I believe it merits continued examination and screenings and, if my claims about its tragic dramatic structure and the quality of such structures are accurate, it ought to gain some momentum over time, just as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has. But only time will tell.

The agent of the Republic is tipping his hand here. Desilet’s goal has been to educate us in order to immunize us to the nefarious indoctrination methods of the dominant culture.

“Educate” is too loaded a word. I would prefer “persuade,” with the full understanding that I could be wrong and am open to rebuttal. In other words, I’m entering a conversation about the nature of quality film and television and am advancing opinions backed by reasons that I provide, which are always exposed to the possibility of better reasons that would contradict my claims. But, yes, immunization rather than censorship emerges as my recommended prescription for whatever may be regarded as unhealthy forms of indoctrination or propaganda.

This open skepticism obviously includes–in fact is especially honed for–Hollywood and the probability that my own aesthetic response-ability has been sabotaged from an early age. (Cf. Seen and Not Seen.)

I’m open to these possibilities as well regarding my own “sacred” views. But I’m hard-core enough in the direction of honesty that I would abandon these views were I to find good reasons to do so. And I will admit that Horsley has caused me to dig very deeply into my assessment of Taxi Driver, but so far I am able to still see merit in my critique of it and will see if what I say persuades anyone else. I acknowledge the film is sufficiently ambiguous to accommodate other experiences and interpretations but I do not see my assessment of it as one that can be ruled out as, say, simply absurd.

Oddly enough, this would also serve as a concise encapsulation of the film Desilet disparages, The Godfather, and of the tragedy of Michael Corleone. Yet somehow, Desilet is entirely unmoved by that tragedy–at least until he imagines it for another character, in another movie (one he gets to create).

No, there is a significant difference between my imagined sequel to Match Point and The Godfather. Michael Corleone never arrives at a reckoning between his former pre-criminal self and his evolved criminal and shadow self. He slips past himself at every opportunity for reckoning just as Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle do. Viewers never see an awakening and a confrontation between conflicting selves, where one self recognizes and takes the full measure of the other. These films take viewers to ringside but do not proceed to the fight. In this sense, the real conflict never occurs, creating, at the end, a sudden enormous vacuum of anticipation. This experience is memorably disturbing but ultimately lacking in the depth and pathos that would arise from the experience of witnessing the full confrontation these films have been moving toward but pull back from. Instead, viewers witness an endless procession of acts of violence and a trail of victims. But victims cannot serve as contrapuntal characters sufficient to challenge the protagonist’s shadow self just as the repressed self continues to be too weak and undeveloped to rise to the level of confrontation. Consequently, films of this structure count as noir melodrama showing the anti-hero on a sliding trajectory leaving a swathe of victims behind on the downward spiral. Films of this kind may count as intense portraiture with loads of attention-grabbing shock value violence but ultimately end as unsatisfying drama because the conflict the events prepare viewers for never arrives. Only the violent effects of the conflict arrive.

My imagined sequel to Match Point, described in the Afterword of Screens of Blood, proposes the continuation of the journey to ringside, the moment of reckoning between selves. In the original film, Chris has a close encounter with full confrontation when the ghosts of characters he has killed come back to speak to him and he must answer them. But he buries the part of himself represented by these characters and the guilt they would have him feel and refuses to listen to the self that would have him become accountable. In any sequel to Match Point, other characters will only count as more victims unless one or more of them serve to bring about a full confrontation within the competing selves in Chris Wilton. Short of this, the sequel would simply extend the chase, the shadow boxing Chris conducts with himself whenever he senses the rise of opposition within himself.

Having read both his books in the space of a week and I think more or less grokked the difference between antagonal and synagonal dramatic structure (melodrama and tragedy) as contexts for cinematic violence, the fact remains that I would be hard-pressed to guess which movies and TV shows meet with the Desilet stamp of approval. (He admires The Sopranos and The Wire but dismisses Deadwood with a single line.) At this point, I would probably feel safest picking movies a) that don’t have any special place in my heart; and b) that aren’t recognized as movie classics. But beyond that, I would have no real clue. This is because, while his analytic system seems to be well worked out and more or less coherent, his application of it remains entirely gnomic, unpredictable, and almost willfully perverse. 

It may appear this way because there may be some confusion about what I am describing as contrapuntal characters and the role they play in the protagonist’s journey. If other characters only serve as victims of one sort or another, exposing the conflict in the protagonist and dramatizing it, then they do not serve in a contrapuntal role. Contrapuntal characters must stand beyond victim status and be of sufficient strength and stature in the life of the protagonist to pose as a serious block or challenge to the protagonist’s shadow side and all the shadow’s rationalizations and escape strategies. In other words, the contrapuntal character, no matter how represented on the screen (whether with another actor or an alter ego of the same actor) must be a worthy opponent.

In the end, I am left wondering if Gregory Desilet is only happy when he gets to go after the biggest game. Perhaps he is the Captain Ahab of film reviewers, so attached to his harpoon that everything has started to look like an evil-incarnating white whale?

Everything”?? Come on now, let’s be fair. I spend more pages in Screens of Blood discussing films and
television series, many of which are quite popular, I find to be exceptionally good than I do those that are worthy of scorn. And I would bet that were Horsley to attempt to apply my supposedly loose set of criteria to dramas, he and I would find agreement in most cases.

More to the point perhaps, the real breakthrough that needs to occur is in our psyche and soul, not in our external life (though that will invariably follow), and surely it is here that the deepest layers of conflict, whether tragic or restorative, unfold?

Yes, I agree. But I believe this break or breakthrough must be in some way overtly dramatized, otherwise the conflict towards which the dramatic action moves remains ahead, un-enacted, or, to borrow one of Horsley’s terms “unseen.” Viewers are left with feelings akin to coitus interruptus.

I can only deduce that Desilet’s sympathy for the damned is highly conditional (i.e., nonexistent).

I have sympathy for the damned only if they have done the necessary work, only if they have gone through the fire of self-realization, to confront that part of themselves strong enough to present a genuine conflict of equals, an authentic challenge to the deepest layer of the shadow self and its motives and rationalizations. Only when this kind of dénouement arrives can I have sympathy for the damned. It could be argued that in Godfather III Michael Corleone arrives at this dénouement, but I believe a good case can be made that he also falls short of it or that the film fails to adequately dramatize it—instead spending too much screen time recording shock-value murders.

For whatever reason, ironically, his own orientation seems to be more for external, worldly struggles (for socially identifiable manifestations of conflict) than for internal or spiritual ones.

No, I just want the internal struggle to be adequately dramatized. This does not occur by simply portraying a string of victims.

Its power stems from the claustrophobia of being immersed in Travis’ world, both inner and outer, with no relief besides that of our own conscience, that is to say, our conscious critical awareness.

I agree with you here, but this is part of the problem I have with the film. Just as viewers do not really know, given what is presented in the film, what Woody Allen thinks of Chris Wilton, we do not really know what Martin Scorsese thinks of Travis Bickle. Similarly, viewers do not know what to make of Wilton and Bickle. As Horsley says, we find no relief “besides that of our own conscience.” This is certainly one way to make drama, but it leaves the drama unfinished and leaves viewers free to interpret the film in ways that could very well obviate the intentions of the filmmakers and in fact result in interpretations the opposite of what may be desired. If this is the case, can it really be said that such films are well-made and great dramatic productions? I don’t think so. I doubt that Horsley wants to sign on to such a view either. And, again, if Horsley believes Taxi Driver is not wide open to alternative
interpretations other than the charitable one he assigns to it, then I believe he exhibits a naiveté overly convenient for his approach to the film.

This is what makes a work truly personal, as Taxi Driver is personal, compared to the impersonality of countless comparable works (like Shutter Island and other films Desilet admires, for reasons I have been unable to fathom).

I really do not see this “impersonality” in Shutter Island. It reached me on a very personal level for many reasons, some of which I mention at the end of my chapter on this film in Screens of Blood. The reading of a sense of “impersonality” in a film could well be a very subjective, personal response to any film by any particular individual for reasons having to do with particular experiences in their past life trajectory. So I am not very confident that any sense of “impersonality” detected by Horsley ought to be given extensive credibility when assessing the merits of a given film. Here, again, it is worth noting that I believe much can be said about films and their merits or lack thereof that exceeds the boundaries of purely subjective assessments, personal reactions, and individual tastes. But the judgment of “impersonality” strikes me as particularly subjective and would need to be more extensively argued in
order for me to give such judgment credibility.

The work in question then depicts a becoming conscious of inner conflict within the awareness of the people who
have created it–as in the case of Schrader, Scorsese, and DeNiro’s shared revelation of male alienation in
Taxi Driver. This can then be transmitted to a viewer or reader.

But not as reliably or as effectively as when adequately dramatized in the context of a fully developed conflict confrontation, as I have attempted to argue.

The trouble is, while dismissing some of the greatest works of American cinema (go Greg!), Desilet offers in their place films like Book of Eli or Shutter Island–films so undistinguished that all I remember about them is that I have seen them.

Okay, I’m not sure the extent to which I’m prepared to go to bat for these films beyond what I’ve already said about them in my book, but I cannot side with the verdict that they are “undistinguished.” For me, they are extremely haunting and it’s hard to imagine they would not have some palpable measure of that haunting quality for others. But now, after what you say, I’m prepared to imagine that.

For Desilet, movies are apparently a means and not an end, and the end he has in mind is some sort of utopia of “nonviolent competition” where film art doesn’t so much represent life–complete with human neuroses–as some idealized goal of what life ought to be.

No, as I mentioned above, I do not believe there can be any escape from violence. Violence lies at the root of everything about life, competition included. Instead, I advocate increased cultural awareness of the ways in which we humans program ourselves for more violence than is necessary in life, especially deadly violence. Deadly violence definitely qualifies as something human communities can do much more to reduce.

While Desilet is right, I think, in emphasizing the ways in which popular media acts as a form of soft propaganda and cultural indoctrination, even as a subtle form of violence, if his solution is to serve up a kinder, gentler sort of propaganda, then I am left with the amateur’s refrain as my only riposte: “I don’t know about synagonal art, Greg (or justice), but I know what I like.” I think I’ll stick with my spaghetti westerns.

Hold on here. Synagonal drama—tragic drama—cannot count as “soft propaganda.” Soft propaganda precisely describes melodrama. Tragic drama, as Nietzsche argued, is not for the weak-hearted. Tragic drama—done well—wrings the living emotional wadding out of any viewer with a pulse. Tragic drama thoroughly illustrates the tragic quality of life and if that realization counts as “soft propaganda” then I don’t believe Horsley and I can be living in the same world.

Perhaps we can finally return to the point we started, and know it at last? Because what divide is more worth bridging than the divide between the world and the soul?

I do believe our struggle is synagonal. I do not sense you have demonized me nor, I hope, have I demonized you. Our differences are revealing and instructive and you, Jasun Horsley, are a worthy opposition. And although I have defended my views here I don’t want to give the impression I’m an immovable object. The exchange herein gives me much more to think about in relation to film, drama, art, and life. The exploration goes on. And I intend to continue posing questions to my own views as well as inviting questions from others. Understanding and evaluating film is every bit as complex and difficult as understanding life. There is always much to think on and re-think. Onward we go, destination unknown.

3 thoughts on “My Dinner with Desilet

  1. Just a little comic relief . Haliarious stand up comic, Tom segura telling a joke about a rumor his dad made up haha. Tommy lee jones amazing actor tho, loved the holmesman which he directed and acted in. And no country of course. Saw that movie pictured above with Samuel L, was really good don’t even remember the name of it. Tommy lee jones and Samuel l Jackson can talk and make drinking tap water really interesting , doesn’t hurt to have the lyrics written by cormac McCarthy haha.

  2. I saw the whole film: My Dinner with Desilet, with “a very competent cinematic assist from Scorsese.”

    But I noticed that Greg had a tendency to speak for viewers other than himself to whom he ascribes reactions that are consistent with his arguments. Perhaps this is a function of the impersonality that academic writing apparently demands, although I’ve been seeing more widespread use of the first person in academic writing of late, but it is also a way to insulate himself from a posteriori insight that Jasun seems to have provided him by ferreting him out in his a priori hideaway. There is a danger that the theory-tail may wag the movie-dog. But, to his credit, Greg acknowledges that danger and, since I haven’t read either of his books, only these online exchanges, I give him the benefit of the doubt.

    One thing is clear, Greg is not a relativist and his approach to film criticism is prescriptive with the purpose of being socially ameliorative in how a society handles the resolution of conflict. I agree with his approach and find his ideas about the deleterious effects of melodrama in this regard to be worth pondering. So it may be unfair for me to note the following:

    Imagine films, along with mass entertainment, were to suddenly disappear in the US. We’d still be left with guns, toy guns and assault weapons, a Manichean foreign policy, and a ruthless, heartless, violent capitalism–can there be any other kind? The level of violence would scarcely be diminished in the absence of mass entertainment. It’s easier to create tragic drama, but not from an artistic point of view, of course, than it is to effect political and social change in the US, partly for a reason that Greg mentions, the general obtuseness of America and especially its young, the clueless college students that he mentions and whom he teaches. It’s good that he desires to effect change even if only in a small way by attempting to persuade audiences and filmmakers to be more aware of the dangers of violence contextualized in melodrama, but I suspect he’s slashing at a hydra’s head. Such films as constituting a cultural programming that “could prove deadly to the point of extinction” pale before the global juggernaut of mass extinction of species, pollution, and climate change.

    In a future dinner I’d like to see “violence” defined and the inherent tragedy of life discussed. Miguel de Unamuno wrote a book called The Tragic Sense of Life which I haven’t read but maybe I’ll get the waiter to leave a copy of it on the table. Finally, I question the idea that humans are inherently violent, this question by way of a nod toward the work on hunter-gatherers by anthropologists.

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