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"Passionate Detachment": Technologies of Vision and Violence in American Cinema, 1967 - 1974


My dissertation explores the emergence of graphic, corporeal violence in American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s in order to ground an approach for seeing cinematic brutality today. In particular, I turn to three technologies--multiple-speed montage, squibs and artificial blood, and freeze frames--that make possible the iterative, explicit, and protracted spectacles of violence for which Hollywood filmmaking after the Production Code is known. Doing so, I move the form and logic of screen violence to the center of my investigation. An evident orientation, perhaps, but one surprisingly overlooked by the leading literature, which frequently appeals to narrative structure or authorial intent to lend significance to what it otherwise deems senseless, sadistic excesses.

Refuting these claims, my project uncovers the unremarked logics and complex pleasures that inhere in the formal construction of violence itself. More than mere tools, I argue, the aforementioned technologies also function as figures that speak to the era's broader preoccupation with demonstrative violence. This is the age of Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, after all, events that stoked public distrust for perceptible appearances and found Americans across the political spectrum demanding, however, paradoxically, visual--and increasingly violent--demonstrations of more authentic realities. Multiple-speed montage, squibs and artificial blood, and freeze frames crystallize this passion, leaning on cinema's indexical capacity for documentation to upend everyday visibility with evidentiary force. As figures, these technologies not only give shape to fantasies of authenticity that characterize this moment, but also permit one to trace the violent political blind spots that unwittingly obstruct these visions. For this reason, I contend, my approach to multiple-speed montage, squibs and artificial blood, and freeze frames affords a heretofore unacknowledged critical position. Marked by what I call "passionate detachment," this position appreciates the fervor for disclosure that animates these visions of violence at the same time that it recognizes the frequently gendered and racialized relations of power from which their promises of authenticity derive. In all, the project unites cinematic and sociocultural histories of film violence to rethink both conventional accounts of cinematic indexicality and the place of sadism in theories of spectatorial pleasure.

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