David Bordwell (2002) has described contemporary mainstream cinema as a cinema of intensified continuity. When we combine Bordwell's analysis with that of recent cognitive work on attention, especially with work on edit blindness, we discover some intriguing results. For example, the increased rate of cutting in contemporary cinema serves to keep our attention continually aroused, but, at the same time, that which arouses our attention—the increased number of cuts—becomes decreasingly visible. That is, the greater the number of cuts made in the services of continuity editing, the less we are able to spot them. If, while watching contemporary mainstream cinema, the attention of viewers is aroused but viewers are decreasingly capable of spotting the reasons why this is so (i.e., the cuts themselves), then does this also serve to make contemporary mainstream cinema “post-ideological,” because it concerns itself only with “intensified” experiences? Or, as this article argues, does the sheer speed of contemporary mainstream cinema renew the need for the ideological critique of films?
Do films that challenge us to turn away from the screen as a result of their depictions of violence raise issues about the ethics not of regarding the pain of others, but of watching films as a whole? Drawing on Stanley Cavell's notion of revulsion, recent investigations into “extreme“ cinema and, Antonin Artaud's concept of a “theater of cruelty,“ this article argues that watching violence on screen is not necessarily a negative and voyeuristic exercise, but that it can be good for viewers to see graphic violence on screen. This is not simply a question of viewing onscreen violence per se. What also is important is that the filmmakers adopt a set of stylistic techniques that are defined here as “cruel.“ Films (typically art house films) that adopt these techniques encourage viewers not to view violence for entertainment, but rather they encourage viewers to understand the potential in all humans to commit such acts. Such an understanding in turn forces us to lead our lives in an ethical fashion, whereby we do not unthinkingly follow a moral code, but rather choose and take responsibility for what we do. Furthermore, it encourages an “ethical“ mode of film spectatorship in general: we watch films to learn not just voyeuristically about others, but also about what we ourselves could become.