We are pruriently familiar with Bataille's account of the boy who responded to every coffin he saw with an erection, and we probably conclude that there is something unexpectedly tentacled and squirming in what he trawled up in the spreading net of his empathic capacities. But then, we might also consider that Walter Brennan’s cackle in the film Rio Bravo is safely categorisable, as a conditioned response, within the register of the inappropriately appropriate. He laughs at horrific events. And that's okay with us. This sort of dark humour is familiar. It is a recognisable reaction which we tolerate and also permit ourselves – even if we don't understand it. Boom! We laugh along with Walter. If the enemy snivels, if he should jump out of a burning building into a horse trough, if he gets shot in the arse, then we laugh all the more. Brennan’s character, Stumpy, is the shakespeareanly cheerful gaoler. He casually throws dynamite into a building occupied by the Burdette gang, and John Wayne detonates it by rifle fire. Boom! Hilarious!
On the other hand, for the infrequent cinema attendee it is disconcerting to hear that desensitised laughter within the auditorium which habitually greets explosions on the screen, particularly when this accompanies the gunning down of earmarked enemies. By means of the film director’s camera, and by implication down the barrel of the protagonist's gun, the function of screen killing is the progressive removal of obstructions before the appearance of the end credits.
Simplistic, violent dispatchings are the means by which an entertainment moves from its beginning to end. The omelette of cinematic satisfaction supposes the breaking of villainously egglike heads. Without such progressive internal simplification of narrative (which moves from complex scenario to last man standing) the medium of film remains in the hands of Rivette and Warhol, and may be cut only externally as a quantity of so many hours’ worth of screen time. The audience therefore is not only revelling in the violence, they are also laughing at the dynamic of film narrative in its representation of the best way with troublesome life problems (as this representation winds into the knots of their own everyday frustations).
Brennan’s cackle, ambivalent in meaning if affirmative in intent, appears at the threshold where the old Lawless West takes sides with the personalised authority figure who also happens to be working for the state. It articulates, above all, loyalty to the person of the chosen strong man.That the battle remains fundamentally at the level of the feud is important to a character like Stumpy (Brennan) because he could never identify with the rationale of the institutionalised police force. Stumpy stands at the border between independence and lawlessness, he is the early adopting illegalist of the legal code who hasn't given much thought to the consequences if the law should win out.
His, is the whoop of the living contradiction that is the individualist patriot. His trading-post habitus conceives the state in terms of a binding contract. He will sign his X for the nation state on the agreement that it leaves him alone. And it must leave him alone because he is its mythic, untouchable, old timer, its laughing Tiresias, the Maven of its particular national character. And in the auditorium too, the laughter functions as an affirmative identification with those who have the audacity to transgress the law as a means to affirm the law. The audience is in structural agreement with those who proceed by means of explosions and quips. Cinema, above all, has promoted the feral cop, the not-by-the-book commando, the by-his-own-rules sherrif who upholds the law on a whim, because he could choose otherwise. Brennan is henchman to the one who resolutely gets things done by simply getting on and doing them.
But then there is Adorno, who sits at the back and discerns a progressive decay in the function of death in society as it is recorded in the number of screen corpses, and also in the psychopathologic laughter it evokes:
So the experience of death is turned into that of the exchange of functionaries, and anything in the natural relationship to death that is not wholly absorbed into the social one is turned over to hygiene. In being seen as no more than the exit of a living creature from the social combine, death has been finally domesticated: dying merely confirms the absolute irrelevance of the natural organism in the face of the social absolute. If the culture industry anywhere bears witness to the changes in the organic composition of society, it is in the scarcely veiled admission of this state of affairs. Under its lens death begins to be comic. Certainly, the laughter that greets it in a certain genre of production is ambiguous.
There is certainly some feedback of representational reduction into the form taken by social consciousness... our desensitisation to media presentations is progressive and where this process is transferred from the fictional to the representation of social questions, it also elicits mass scale desensitised, and thus structurally approving, responses. It is reasonable to assume that the more we are conditioned to relax before the shock of fictional violence, the higher the threshold is set for expressing our disaproval of violence represented in the real world.
However, Adorno goes too far in correlating the vicious circle of laughter at cinematic violence to the prerequisite dehumanisation necessary for the conditioned acceptance of death camps. He can draw on no evidence that conventionally appropriate responses in the cinema, where death is a representation, also spreads into other contexts. Generally speaking, we are able to distinguish ethically between the screen (i.e. where we cannot act to change events) and that which is actually occurring in our presence.
Certainly, humans can also be systematically desensitised to actual violence... but the apparatus of separations between sensitisation and desensitisation within capitalised existence is not simply mapped out – in the relatively safe developed world we are habituated to destruction far away but are entirely unprepared for even minor outbreaks of violence close to home. The violence of our world has not involved us as much as it has pacified us. Now, we trustingly wait in line like domesticated livestock outside the slaughterhouse.
The instrumental rationale of capitalism dominates all aspects of social and cultural production but it is false to see this deterministic relation as productive of a uniform and totalised monoculture. The same productive relation creates an infinite variety of subjective responses. Walter Brennan’s cackle remains ambiguous, an inappropriate inversion, a fart of intractability. His is the embodiment of the old rascal’s refusal of introjection, and like Michel Simon’s Père Jules, he is the veteran of old campaigns, a surviving practitioner of the old ways are the best ways.
The cackle is an eruption at the mouth under the sign of the arse, it is akin in its scabrous impropriety to Verlaine and Rimbaud’s ‘cruel southern wind’ (Ont pleur, sous l'autan cruel qui les repousse). However, the ambivalence cannot be underplayed: this cackle, an explosive mark of excessive clannish loyalty, of comfort and belonging in dangerous company, might also accompany (we can easily imagine), and via the same pattern of identification with the strong man, the specatcle of a rape or a lynching. This ambivalence prevents it from ever escaping its basic enthralled relation to power, despite its irreverent form. The uneasy cinema-goer allows himself to laugh unselfconsciously in the dark. Then he reflects upon Walter Brennan, and what it is exactly that he is permitting himself to relax before.