There’s something about real-life violence on TV that’s difficult to look away from; the way audiences wince or cheer or boo at a particularly brutal tackle in football, or fistfight in ice hockey. A video showing the Lawrence Taylor tackle that broke Joe Theismann’s leg and ended his football career – titled, simply, with the typo of “Joe Theisman” – has over two million views on YouTube. A certain strand of science fiction films take this particular kind of violence – brutal, unstimulated, and, most importantly, caught on camera – and turn it into the rule instead of the exception.
Across Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), Elio Petri’s The Tenth Victim (1965), and Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), violence is broadcast and voraciously consumed as a way to fill a void. Audiences aren’t shocked by how ubiquitous violence has become; instead, it becomes a mirror of both these audiences, and the worlds that they live in. These are worlds that feel precariously close to our own; from the slapstick excess of Jackass to the brutality of televised political violence, these retro-futures are teetering on the edge of prophecy.
Death Race 2000 most explicitly draws out the comparison between ultra-violence and the mentality of sports. The Transcontinental Road Race, a tool of both mass entertainment and political pacification in the wake of the “World Crash of 79,” which led to mass unrest, and the recreation of the United States as a totalitarian regime. The five drivers who race their way across the country in the year 2000 are all equipped with larger-than-life personas, and high-powered cars that fit the roles that they play – -including central character Frankenstein, played by David Carradine, as well as actual neo-nazi persona Matilda the Hun – that fits somewhere between professional wrestling, and a murderous episode of Wacky Races.
Violence is currency in the Road Race; killing pedestrians nets racers extra points, and more fervent and adoring coverage from Bruce. Everyone in an America that’s become defined by the Road Race wants to contribute to the blood spilled in its name; from hospitals putting their geriatric patients in the path of passing cars, to the president of the St. Louis chapter of the Frankenstein fan club letting herself get run over to, in Frankenstein’s words, show him that she loved him.
The thrilling, deeply commercial enterprise of violence is also seen in The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri’s high-camp exploration of a world in which murder has been legalized and turned into not only entertainment, but a lucrative career path for those who are willing to put their lives on the line in the name of entertainment. Like Death Race, The Tenth Victim is a film that stresses the idea that violence is an integral part of human psychology, an itch that it simply needs to scratch.
An announcer offers the morbid pearl of wisdom that “if The Big Hunt had existed in 1940, Hitler would certainly have become a member and there wouldn’t have been a Second World War.” Here, violence is in bed with capitalism: every Hunt survived means money, fame, and sponsorship deals. As Hunter Caroline (Ursula Andress) pursues her victim Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a romance blossoms between them, which seems to offer some kind of alternative to the violent, manufactured world around them.
Standing in stark contrast to the capitalist excesses of both The Tenth Victim’s “big hunt”, and the populist entertainment of Death Race, is 1980’s Death Watch. The film’s title refers to a popular reality TV show in which audiences – whose world is now devoid of almost all diseases –watch a woman as she slowly succumbs to an illness. In the world of Death Watch, the terminal diagnosis of Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) becomes a TV event, something that the people simply have to see; so much so that TV cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) – who has had a camera implanted into his eye, with everything he sees becoming footage – follows and secretly films her.
The audiences in these films’ respective worlds, obsessed with the spectacles put in front of them, all lose themselves in the violence because it offers something: it fills a void. Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton), the producer of the eponymous Death Watch attempts to court Katherine into appearing on the show in two years. Firstly, by saying that she’s about to become a celebrity, but then by appealing to something more existential in her. Vincent tells her that “We need it. Tragedy. To be close to death… we miss the real thing.” But that question of realness, of morbid verisimilitude, is one that seems almost impossible to answer.
This reaches out beyond the screen, and reflections of it can be seen in how everyday this kind of violent spectacle has become in our own lives; reality TV has always been constructed, and the Death Watch of the film is no different.
The doctor who diagnoses Katherine is colluding with TV network NTV, not only allowing them in to film Katherine receiving her diagnosis, but is also giving her medicine that will, rather than ease her pain, make her increasingly more sick. It’s clear that what these audiences want is to see violence in front of them, rendered as real as possible, even if the reality of that violence has to suffer from it.
There’s irony here, in Vincent saying that we miss “the real thing,” while also offering something unreal because it makes for better spectacle, a better story, as if the camera’s themselves confer meaning. The tension between real and fake is one of the ways in which this kind of spectacle feels so prescient. Whether its something as simple as a quote-unquote provocative comedian producing material that’s designed to offend; to the ways in which YouTubers stage and mediate violence – from Paige Ginn’s fall videos to Logan Paul’s video ‘We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest’ – we are confronted by something that exists in that uneasy space between “the real thing” and manufactured entertainment.
In The Tenth Victim, when Caroline holds Marcello at gunpoint, more than able to kill him and claim her bounty – a pile of money, and a sponsorship from a tea company – he offers a telling riposte: “don’t kill me Caroline. Without television, wouldn’t it be meaningless?” The presence of the camera is what makes Hunters and Victims, and The Big Hunt itself, matter. Spectacle itself is what creates meaning; whether its Roddy’s all-seeing eye, or the camera crew that follow Caroline to Rome. It captures a dark psychology about these worlds; about not only a continued necessity for violence, but the voracious appetite that people have for it.
These spectacles are embedded into the DNA – cultural, political – of the worlds that they exist in. The glee with which Death Race announcer Junior Bruce shouts the ever-increasing points totals of the Transcontinental drivers (killing civilians offers bonus points) is a mirror of the audience that he keeps enraptured – if people didn’t love The Race so much, they wouldn’t be so willing to offer themselves up in its name. The Race becomes, as Bruce puts it, “a symbol of everything we hold dear. Our American way of life. Sure it’s violent but that’s why we love it: VIOLENCE VIOLENCE VIOLENCE.”
But this has always been part of, not just an American way of life, but a global one. The cast of characters in Death Race, somewhere between a cultural time machine and a group of pro-wrestlers, capture images of violence and subjugation throughout history. They run the gauntlet from those the historical cosplay of figures based on Nero or Calamity Jane, to Neo-Nazi Matilda, and Frankenstein himself.
By bringing together these images from throughout history, Death Race makes it clear that this appetite for violence has been ingrained in mankind since time immemorial – a voiceover alongside the film’s end credits argues that “murder was invented before Man even began to think. The historical archetypes that headline The Race fit like a glove around the hand of Death Race, a sign that, while the way people hunger for violence remains the same, the method of how that hunger is sated is what changes.
Both Death Race and The Tenth Victim explicitly situate themselves in the 21st century – the former in the year 2000, the latter in 2079 – and now, somewhere in between the two, violence and spectacle seem even more entwined. It isn’t about politics or sponsorship, but about how quotidian images of violence have become; how violence caught on camera is violence given meaning.
The irony shared by all three of these films is that the idea that making violence into a spectacle – into entertainment – somehow serves as a safety valve on the more morbid impulses of mankind, when in reality, it allows people to ask for it in ways that become increasingly visceral. When Caroline draws blood for the first time in The Tenth Victim, she does it in public – as a Victim, her Hunter chases her to The Masoch Club, with go-go dancing girls dressed like Austin Powers Fembots. As the unsuspecting crowd witness her turning the tables and killing her hunter, the club owner is giddy to tell his patrons that they saw “a genuine victim and a genuine murder before your very eyes.”
The word and meaning of “genuine” lingers heavily here; this isn’t a murder that was produced or hurried along, but simply one person taking the life of another – to rapturous applause. The Masoch club itself is slick and sterile in its design; all sexless chrome; the civilization that birthed The Big Hunt exists feels empty, violence pumping like blood through its veins, a mirror of the violent foundation that its built on – a hyper-capitalist society propped up by dead bodies.
In these films, violence – whether it’s a Hunter in The Tenth Victim, or Katherine’s illness – has become a kind of labor; something that’s able to maximize profit and power for networks, corporations, or politicians. This is even more true for those who are the victims of it; Katherine being followed without her consent, patients in a care home run over for the good of The Race, with life becoming increasingly disposable for the sake of profit and entertainment.
Death Watch – always bleak, gray, and raining – functions like a mirror to how its world views violence, what it becomes when it invites death in to fill that void. When Roddy finally watches some of the show that he’s been recording, walking into a pub near Land’s End, as patrons look on, enraptured by Katherine’s descent into illness, he begins to break down. He throws away the light that he carries – if his camera-eye is closed for too long, he’ll go blind – choosing blindness instead of a world where looking is unable to be broken away from violence.
Marcello argues that the camera is what would give his death meaning; and in a final coup, an intimate conversation between him and Catherine is stripped away – their room revealed to be a set, a camera crew surrounding them. He says that to be killed this way would be a “stupendous death.” What might have been a private moment between him and Catherine is rendered public spectacle – echoed in Death Watch, with Vincent questioning whether or not private things exist anymore when everything, even death, has become a product for public consumption.
That’s what happens across this cinematic trinity; death is consumed with an unmatched hunger – by viewers, sponsors, political leaders – remaking the world in its own image. An image that’s beamed endlessly through TV screens and roaming cameras, with blindness as the only way to escape it. The bleak, final irony of this is that the specter of violence is inescapable – Roddy choosing blindness doesn’t mean that shows like Death Watch will no longer be produced; just like Marcello and Caroline trying to run away together isn’t the end of The Big Hunt. The relationship these societies, and ours, have with violence is too elemental to shake off.
It isn’t just violence itself that gets people as animated as Junior Bruce in Death Race, but what that violence is for, and who it serves. The parallels between the gunfights in The Big Hunt – shot as playful, almost flirtatious in the film’s opening sequence – and the millions of views that videos of Theismann’s leg break have racked up is one thing, but the meaning given to this violence is what makes it echo through time. The idea of “the real thing” is slipping further away; forever mediated, only given meaning through cameras that have become increasingly, unavoidably present.