Crime and its Representation in Cinema: Part 1
Crime, Vulnerable Citizens and the State
Crime films are not all ‘who dunnits’ or macho gangster films such as Guy Ritchie’s efforts. Many films that represent crime are examining how states can either specifically criminalise a class of people – women in the case of The Circle and Vera Drake (see below), or else the state can fail its citizens through negligence and allowing crime to exist against those in a weker position in society.
There are some films which include crime issues (primarily against children) as a part of the messages and values which the preferred readings of the films are intending to convey. An aspect which is worthy of discussion is in regard to how much crime might be ‘glamorized’ in parts of the media. Below I summarise ways in which the representation of crime can be understood as a critique of states or political systems going beyond the often harrowing circumstances of the individuals actually being represented.
Monsoon Wedding is by a woman director (Mira Nair) and is dealing with crime against children at the level where those who a child should be able to trust most are, either perpetrating the abuse, or are thinking about sweeping it under the carpet.
It is worth remembering that the father of the family is actually a Judge! As part of a preferred reading the father as a representative of the legal system the Judge’s role functions as an allegory (standing in for) the state of India as a whole. What Mira Nair the director seems to be suggesting is that the state of India is not doing enough to protect its children within the family.
This film differs from the one’s below as the narrative clearly brings things back to a state of equilibrium (remember your Todorov here). There are of course other issues concerning women in the film such as power and women in society and the concept of the arranged marriage which challenges western notions of romantic love. Here you could compare the film with notions of romance as represented by Bridget Jones’ Diary especially if you are studying women in film. (More on the social construction of romance another time).
When we come to look at Lilya 4-ever by the male director Lukas Moodysson we see not only neglect and then abandonment of Lilya which leaves her exposed and vulnerable to the flourishing people trafficking trade. A trade which has been very profitable for ruthless criminals since the collapse of the Soviet Union (now Russia) and those countries which were allied to it. (Please also note there is a video interview with Moodysson on this BBC page).
Moodysson is clearly going beyond the crisis of the indvididual Liya and is criticising the Russian state for being unable to look after its most vulnerable citizens. But this criticism goes beyond Russia to Western countries themselves, for it is as though they have been turning a blind eye to – and even profiting by – the exploitation especially of children and women in these countries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was a collapse in most of the key benchmarks of citizenship. People who were used to high levels of social citizenship (health, housing, employment, education and pensions) now found that they had to survive on their own. Many turned to criminal activities of which people trafficking and the sex trade has been an important one.
The representation of children within the media often functions as an allegory (stands in for) of innocence and vulnerability. In Moodysson’s film there is an indirect critique of the West (which Sweden stands for). Although Western citizens in general were pleased that the Soviet Union which had been seen as a military threat and as a repressive regime because its citizens had few political rights there was little attention paid to the social rights of these same citizens once the political regime (communism) had gone.
People’s life savings became worthless as the old Rouble collapsed against international currencies so Western companies moved into the old Soviet Union and brought up companies on the cheap. The ending of the film here is deliberately ambiguous. We have been shown the full alternative which Lilya would face if she didn’t recognise the danger. The audience is given hope at the end because she recognises that geographically fruit picking in Sweden in the middle of winter is impossible.
The short UNICEF appeal which was shown with Lilya forever shows just how prevalent in real life this kind of people trafficking is. It is something which also existed in an organised way in Victorian Britain. Both films show how far social reality is away from the concept of ‘not kicking people when they are down’ instead people are kicked a lot when they are vulnerable.
Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louise is also by a male director Ridley Scott. There is a separate article about how this film subverts the typically male sub-genre of the ‘Road Movie’. Here I wish to link it to the theme of the State and the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens.
The narrative event which upsets the equilibrium and drives the film is the attempted rape scene at the drive by bar and the subsequent shooting of the perpetrator who would only stop when a gun was literally held to his head. As it is usually the state and its representatives the police who have the power of lawmaking the fact that some citizens are forced to protect themselves by extreme means shows that in terms of sexual violence against women the state isn’t taking its responsibilities seriously. As an audience we are given the point of view of the women to elicit our sympathy. This initial critique becomes explained indirectly throughout the film for one of the women has had such dreadful experiences in one state that she refused to drive into it despite the fact that it is the quickest means of escape.
The role of Harvey Keitel as a policeman is to try and convince them that they will be able to get justice. The women refuse to believe that this is possible. Eventually they are trapped by the police and the film ends with them driving into space off the edge of the Grand Canyon. They are not allowed to escape over the border (apparently a production decision influenced by testing out different endings on sample audiences).
Whilst for many the ending was unsatisfactory as the women are seen to be punished many sexist attitudes are parodied (think of the lorry-driver). Cinematically the gloomy domestic interiors – compared with the free space of the road – also stand in for the repression of women within southern American society and it seems to be the Deep South that is being criticised here for its regressive attitudes towards women which in the past have been supported by the law.
Keitel represents ‘new man’, more understanding in his attitudes to women’s rights. The fact that the original rapist and characters like the lorry driver can view women only as sex objects is a critique of the real power structures present within those states for they can be seen to legitimate the grossly sexist attitudes. In this film the Todorov standard narrative structure isn’t used. The ending isn’t a return to equilibrium as far as those women were concerned although we could argue that as far as sexist southern society was concerned it did bring equilibrium and served to reinforce the status quo.
Crime doesn’t have to be a case of glamorization. Its representation can act as a critique of the state through the actions and events which happen to an individual. Other films to see which can develop your views on this can include City of God set in the Favelas of Brazil. The Circle shows how the theocratic state contrives to make criminals out of women in a very specific way.
Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake shows how working class women broke the law by arranging and carrying out illegal abortions whilst those women who were better off managed to manipulate the system although they were of course exploited. Again the state here is contriving to oppress its women citizens. There are of course many different crime genres and this article is only dealing with some aspects. Gangster and Heist (caper films) may represent entirely different aspects of life. Remember too, what counts as a crime depends to a great extent on where you are and how you are positioned in life. Democracy and politics are about renegotiating these boundaries. Media output is able to help or hinder this process.