If there was ever a master image for the sprawling, chaotic, flawed cinema-masterpiece called the Twentieth Century it might be Harold and Esther Edgerton’s infamous stop-action photograph of the bullet tearing through the apple.
Everything in the composition of this reality suggests the ecstasies and horrors of our age. The apple is perfect, unblemished, a freak of nature or a gift courtesy of touch-up photography; the stem protrudes toward us in cliché; the apple is located in space and locked down onto a metallic base; the bullet moves through the flesh with gorgeous, awe-inspiring absoluteness, its efficiency nearly erotic; the shot is composed with unerring accuracy, the stop-action freeze telling us that we've located reality’s on-off switch in this century, that we can now peer at and evaluate that which we could only hitherto imagine (quaint myths, Before Photography); the bullet drags our perspective toward the left frame with fierce but ballet-like dexterity, toward a future celebrated with might. The natural world is pinned down, found out, our machinations plowing through it like a freeway. There’s some dignity in the Apple as Victim.
This is an alternate Zapruder film: the genetically-perfected fruit, the blown innards soft and cottony. Violence staged, then perfected. Intrusion as Art.
I had both the fortune and the misfortune of growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.. When I lived there in the 1980s the city reigned as the Murder Capital Of The Nation. It was national news (I think we’d dethroned Detroit) and it was kind of embarrassing, and scary: nearly everyday I drove down the same streets feared and lamented in editorials and news reports.
In a macabre burst of curiosity I found myself drawn to the notion of being surrounded by so much violence and death. I was venturing into the city from the suburbs to visit my girlfriend, who was attending George Washington University, or for afternoons in the museums and long nights in the bars, but I still felt nearly tattooed by the rising tide of violence in that city (an urban eruption nearly entirely in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants). What was shocking was the anonymity. Not only were there few faces on the evening news with which to sympathize, there were hardly any “people,” period: I was amazed at the rising number of corpses, discovered by the metropolitan police in abandoned warehouses or apartment buildings, that couldn't be identified.
One summer I began a running body-count in the Washington Post. Each morning I looked in the paper for an account of last night’s murders: I never doubted that there wouldn’t be one. The fatalities rose exponentially with the humidity and by late-July the murder reports were pushed to the back of the Metro Section, especially if the discovered body or bodies could not be identified. A fifth of a column would be devoted to the news, maximum. Some mornings I read about as many as a dozen bodies which had been littered about the city overnight, victims of homicides. They were found in back seats of torched cars, in rodent-infested abandoned buildings, in needle-strewn parks, in dumpsters. I had lost count by the time September, and college, arrived.
One morning, possessed by youthful righteousness, or simply childish naivete, my obsession with loud violence got the better of me: a news item reported that a young woman had been murdered by a male intruder. What was conspicuous about this account was that it printed the address of the building where the death occurred. I was used to a generic location, such as the “3000 block of so-and-so street.” The specificity of the address tapped me on the shoulder; this death had a tactile quality to it, integrity as something real. I could locate it.
I drove to the building the next afternoon, either on my way in or out of the city, I can't remember. I vividly recall my heart beating up through my neck as I approached the particular block of Rhode Island Avenue. What was I afraid of? That the murderer still lurked? Come on, Bonomo. As far as I knew he hadn't been apprehended, but the possibility of a loose cannon felt quite remote. It didn’t take me long to name that what I feared most was my unnatural, natural drift toward a kind of seamy documenting.
All a part of human nature, I told myself as I parked across the street. It had taken me a little while to locate the building; though the address was specific, the block of buildings was generic. Eventually I zoned in on a very narrow, pale-red brick apartment building squeezed between two larger, squatter buildings. There couldn’t have been more than half-a-dozen rooms inside. I sat in my car and stared at that facade. What was I expecting? What, really, was I doing here? Pushing away explicit guesses of the murder’s details, I imagined through which shadowy window of which room the murder could have been witnessed; I wondered on the time of death, and on what could have been happening in the adjacent rooms…. The building looked calm, unperturbed. And what was most melancholic to me was the fact that, indeed, nothing looked any different. Different than what? Than what I imagined it looked like before this one in three hundred murders occurred? The traffic streamed past me efficiently, in its purpose and sudden, high-minded resolve mocking my affected impulse to obtain humane knowledge about an anonymous event that I had no business lurking around. I suddenly felt sick, and started my car. I drove on, entering the traffic. I wouldn’t be able to locate that building now if given a dozen chances.
My obsession for locating violence was really about my obsession for space, for geometric proof that the world exists in its niceties and its grimness. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space:
These virtues of shelter are so simple, so deeply rooted in our unconscious that they may be recaptured through mere mention, rather than through minute description. Here the nuance bespeaks the color. A poet’s word, because it strikes true, moves the very depths of our being.
I can barely reproduce that building on Rhode Island Avenue in my memory, but it remains in me, emblematic. An emblem for what?
Scorsese, forced often to defend the presence and the explicitness of the violence in his films, shows us his hands: he's simply reacting to, and then documenting, the world. He once described an eerily daily event to Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis:
I just took a cab on 57th Street, we’re about to make a turn on Eighth Avenue, and three Puerto Rican guys are beating each other up over the cab. Over it—from my side, onto the hood, onto the other side. Now, this is just normal—to the point where the cabbie and myself, not a word. We don't say anything. He just makes his right turn and we move on.
The violence in Washington D.C. had become for me so ordinary and routine that I'd wondered if placing myself in context would make any kind of difference. It didn’t. We usually drive on. But that building, that master image, represents a particular summer to me, one hot summer when I tried to locate myself in a space dulled by such rote violence that it barely existed. I rub my eyes.
Taxi Driver poster via The Movie Snob. The King of Comedy soundtrack cover via The Band. Edgerton Bullet Photo via Teacher's Amusement Center.