Filmmakers and audiences have thought about violence for as long as movies have existed, but lately the subject has been uncommonly affected by real-life events.
News of a Georgia school shooting arrived here during the Cannes Film Festival, where American moods were already sobered by the Littleton, Colo., tragedy. Given such events, it's small wonder that movies dealing with violence were scrutinized with special care by spectators.
One picture to plunge directly into this territory is Spike Lee's new drama, Summer of Sam, inspired by the infamous 1977 murders committed by a New York psychopath who used the name "Son of Sam" in his twisted letters to the tabloid press.
The killer is only a minor character in Mr. Lee's movie, which focuses less on lurid crimes than on the social hysteria they generate. Lee's villains include the sensationalistic mass media, for stirring up fears to boost their profits, and the xenophobic notions that prompt a witch hunt by the main characters, a group of Italian-American men who think the "44-caliber killer" might be huddled in their own Bronx neighborhood.
Also at issue is the overall moral climate of the middle 1970s. Lee pictures this as nearly anarchic, from the overt licentiousness of a Manhattan sex club to the belligerently sexist behavior of his male characters.
By exposing the paranoid aggressiveness bred by their sadly limited lives, and the way their self-serving ideas are reinforced by contemporary culture as a whole, Lee suggests deep links between the public and private aspects of ethical decay. He also paints a scathing portrait of a male-defined double standard that produces weird combinations of promiscuity and puritanism, with women always on the losing side of the equation.
"Summer of Sam" pulls no punches in displaying the dysfunction it attacks, and some Cannes viewers were surprised to see the Disney studio's Touchstone logo in the credits. It's a flawed movie, but it shows a major American filmmaker thinking hard about his society's penchant for mayhem.
The latest movie by Jim Jarmusch, another leader of American independent film, contains an exploration of violence that's harder to analyze in conventional terms. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai stars Forest Whitaker as an urban hit man who models his life on the sword-wielding warriors, placing his safety and survival at the service of a master who once saved his life.
On one level, "Ghost Dog" pays poetic tribute to the samurai code, punctuating the story with long passages of traditional wisdom. On another level, it's a hilarious spoof of old-fashioned samurai movies, turning the hero's "master" into a lowbrow Mafia thug and his "apprentice" into a little girl who hangs around the local ice-cream truck.
In keeping with its satirical elements, "Ghost Dog" includes a running series of excerpts from movie cartoons, all depicting gun violence in ways that make it appear foolish and grotesque. Yet while "Ghost Dog" is conceptually creative and cinematically graceful, it is oddly inconsistent in its ideas showing the stupidity of violence.
The Blair Witch Project, directed by newcomers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, is a fictional movie made to look and sound like a documentary. According to its premise, three film-school students hiked into a supposedly haunted forest to study the folklore surrounding the place, recording their discoveries on film and video. But they never returned, and what we see is the "authentic" footage they shot before their mysterious disappearance.
Much of "The Blair Witch Project" looks like cutting-room discards from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," with hard-to-decipher images that were allegedly shot by inexperienced students, and a soundtrack full of shrieks and mumbles. But precisely because the cameras rarely capture anything clearly, the results are different from the sort of explicit carnage usually seen in horror movies.
This is the film's most original element, and also its greatest weakness, since 90 minutes is much too long for such material to stay fresh and compelling. In any event, background lore related to "The Blair Witch Project" has achieved great popularity on the Internet even before the movie's release.
Perhaps the most radical rejection of violence seen at Cannes was in the new picture by David Lynch, who has built a flourishing career on mayhem-filled movies like "Blue Velvet" and his surrealistic "Twin Peaks" television show. The Straight Story astounded his admirers by spinning a fact-based story full of gentle touches, family values, and an idyllic view of the American heartland.
Richard Farnsworth plays an elderly Midwesterner who learns that his brother is ill and hops onto a slow-moving lawn mower tractor for a six-week voyage to his sibling's home. The story travels as gradually as the hero. What's extreme this time about Lynch's direction is the sweetness, compassion, and generosity of his vision - a daring contrast with his previous work, and a tantalizing hint that his enormous talent contains whole continents he's only started to explore.
*'The Blair Witch Project' opens July 16, and 'Summer of Sam' opens July 30. The other films will arrive later this year.