OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 2.1 | March 1999

ISSN 1522-211X


The Spitfire Grill: Nonviolence as Social Power

By Ellen W. Gorsevski

Our non-violence is as yet a mixed affair. It limps. Nevertheless, it is there and it continues to work like a leaven in a silent and invisible way, least understood by most. It is the only way.

- Mohandas Gandhi(1)

In A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930 to 1980, Robert Ray highlights the notion that violence in film is continually reaffirmed "as the only possible solution" to conflict (146). Ray cites the increasing progression of films' depictions of violence in American film history, noting that in later films, "violence . . . far exceeded" what would have transpired in a similar plot in an earlier film (172). Ray attributes to "Right" wing ideologies the use of 'violence as a solution' to conflicts; Ray shows how "Left" movies such as Taxi Driver are "corrections" of this ideological vision (358-359). To my mind, it is troubling to relegate the issue of violence in film to a notch on an ideological continuum from left to right or even to genre status, such as film noir. It is dissatisfying to people who support democratic ideals to view violence in film from a perspective that warps the possibility for social regeneration while it excludes critical perspectives that perceive violence in a nontraditional light.

Rediscovering Nonviolence

Films that feature overt violence, such as Westerns, film noir, Mafia films, war films, constitute a "genre," as do films that lack so much violence, like romantic comedies. But critics and Hollywood moguls alike seem blinded by what they deem as a gender oriented subject matter. Movies that feature human interest stories that downplay or omit overt violence are given the pejorative term, "women's movies." But there are plenty of stories that minimize (or even lack) overt depictions of violence that escape this sobriquet. Such films feature the ways that ordinary people overcome systematic, totalizing structures of violence by employing creative, nonviolent solutions to the problems in their lives. In the clearly "men-viewer" oriented range of films in this nonviolent category, I would include films such as Dead Poets Society and Hoop Dreams to the more obviously nonviolent, Gandhi, and Cry Freedom.(2)

It is significant that the stories in these films feature what seems to be a human desire to handle social conflict--from the large scale to the interpersonal--by reducing the possibility and occurrence of violence to happen. Filmic story lines that feature nonviolence reveal the strategy in the nonviolent method as a type of maximized cost-benefits analysis: how can the protagonist(s) of the plot overcome the problem without, or with minimal, violence or damage to the plot's villains and protagonists alike? Although there are countless films that present this perspective, unfortunately few critics recognize nonviolence as a theory, and as a form of rhetoric, social resistance, and political power.

The same perspective holds in Hollywood. For example, in commenting upon his work on the screenplay for Richard Attenborough, John Briley writes that he had initially viewed Gandhi's "non-violent philosophy . . . as benign, but unrealistic"; but over the course of the project, Briley came to see nonviolence as "indeed a tough and formidable political tool, something the world should be more aware of and could benefit from" (Briley 4). Briley's first impressions of nonviolence are common in Hollywood, for he notes that "no studio would finance Gandhi. It was shot with private money and only purchased for distribution after it had been finished" (12). Similarly, critically acclaimed, and at least moderately financially successful films with nonviolent themes like Ulee's Gold, Hoop Dreams and The Spitfire Grill were independently made and financed, only later to be bought for major Hollywood distribution.

By following the Hollywood distribution lines, as well as traditional and conservative perspectives on film criticism, film critics may be failing to see larger issues at work in the rhetoric of the films. Critics may also be missing why movie viewers pay to see certain films over and over again in video format. I would qualify my point on conservative perspectives by noting that such critical perspectives as those provided by postmodern or poststructural film criticism, or critical explorations of race, class, or gender issues are heuristic, but the fact remains that they all issue from what to me is a clearly nonviolent goal: to use scholarship to reveal social inequalities and how persuasive structures in film and/or society perpetuates such structures. It is important to distinguish between these traditional modes of film criticism and a fundamentally nonviolent mode of analysis. The difference is that nonviolence is (as a world view, philosophy, core motive and means to understanding rhetoric and the world around us) largely what drives the other forms of criticism. These forms of analysis, however, seldom cite nonviolence why they often misunderstand it in theory and in practice.

The result of this misunderstanding is that traditional modes of film criticism tend to overemphasize the symptoms of structural violence in their critiques. A focus on symptoms renders the social situation as more rigid than it is. As a consequence of such theoretical rigidity, the problems film critics study are viewed as being more hopeless than they actually might be. While nonviolence is certainly neither a panacea nor a Pollyanna world view, its characteristic hope for humankind does starkly contrast with existing approaches to the study of film. Traditional theoretical constructs can sometimes lead to an overly narrow way of understanding the rhetorical workings in film. These constructs even support cynicism in popular film reviews as well as in academic criticism. Ray's book, for instance, is immensely wise and helpful, but viewing the use of violence in film from a strictly ideological and historical perspective limits our range of possibilities for understanding its ramifications.

By the same token, the use of Freudian theory leads to contradictory conclusions in feminist film criticism. For example, in Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much, Modleski brings to light insightful visions of Hitchcock's presentation of women in his films. Unfortunately, the "patriarchal" theories of Freud that she uses tend to constrain and drown the critical voice at moments when a creative feminist theory might better explain the 'unfoldingness' of a given scene. Likewise, the use of Freudian theory in generic film criticism, such as that found in Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, only perpetuates a constraining world view of human beings as primarily aggressive and sexual beings, rather than as primarily, creative, human beings. These theoretical constraints simply mirror the general social beliefs and structures that perpetuate the myriad forms of structural violence around us.

It is difficult to theorize human forms of resistance to social and structural violence and persuasion while cooperating with, and perpetuating, the very violent structures that exist through the theories we use and validate. Although the identification of social violence using critical frameworks is certainly an important means to understanding social violence and its causes, it seems to me that nonviolence in theory and practice offers the added satisfaction of finding concrete means or paths out of our conundrums, beyond simply labeling or categorizing and complaining about them.

Therefore, the film criticism that I present in this paper attempts to circumvent, to the greatest degree possible, this sort of theoretical rut. My goal is to break the repeated cycle of structural violence that is perpetuated through the use of theories that are embedded with the very violence that they claim to expose. By breaking this cycle, I hope to create just one of many possible new visions for understanding the rhetoric of film. Through a careful reading of the rhetoric surrounding the film, The Spitfire Grill, I would like to illustrate that there is much nonviolence at work in this film in particular. I would also like to illustrate how our conventional, theory driven world views and culture can taint film criticism, revealing the bias that violence in the world is the only reality.

I reason that Hollywood has been, and is responding, to a significant block of cinematic viewers who desire to see films that focus on how ordinary people use nonviolent strategies to overcome and transcend obstacles presented by an Orwellian, Kafka-like bureaucracy and social structure that entails a quiet, deadening violence. Popular movie themes in the films just mentioned indicate that film makers and movie-goers alike are interested in stories that show how people deal with issues such as the uncertainties of life in corporate and bureaucratic settings, domestic abuse, poverty, social and economic inequalities, and lack of opportunities. People are similarly interested in seeing films that show characters who devise ways of dealing with conflict other than through using shoot-outs or explosions.

What I propose to show in this paper is that applying nonviolent theory to film criticism presents a useful new perspective. Nonviolent theory, properly applied and understood, can be a more hopeful and humane way to theorize how human persuasion operates in film. A nonviolent attitude invokes empathy, identification, and the acceptance that human beings can broach conflict in ways that can often exclude guns and violence whereas a more traditional theoretical perspective (Marxism, for instance) might actually call for their use. What Griffin and Foss have identified as an "invitational rhetoric" (2-17) comes closer to what is operating in the myriad films that display nonviolent themes. Invitational rhetoric, while a new twist on rhetoric, actually harkens back to the paideia of Isocrates, a vision of community and influence exerted in the public sphere for the good of all. Nonviolent rhetoric operates in this Isocratean tradition.(3)

If we dismiss nonviolence as Briley at first did, as "benign, but unrealistic," we are missing out on a potentially creative, insightful, and heuristic critical tool. By approaching film criticism with a solid understanding of nonviolent theory and practice, we may be able to (1) move beyond the shortcomings of using overly rigid theories and simplistic categorizations of gender, class, and genre in film; (2) observe at the base how oppression operates, and is perpetuated; and, even more important, (3) observe how we can move beyond simply identifying and bemoaning categories of oppression (such as misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and so forth) to actually discovering and appreciating creative means to overcoming such problems and the conflicts that arise from oppressive, and violent social structures.

What I see as the beauty of nonviolence is that its very interdisciplinarity lends itself as a creative and potentially unifying force for critics from many perspectives to find reasons to listen to one another and build upon one another's theories. So while a nonviolent world view embraces an "invitational rhetoric," it likewise accepts Foucault's belief that power is not "exercised in a naked manner" but is instead "operating in much more complex, relationally-situated ways" (Nakayama and Krizek 296). As I shall show, theories of nonviolence better enable us to comprehend the complexity and hidden qualities of social power as it exists in our culture today.

Nonviolent Cooperation

In order to create a better society, if we try to use scholarship to do so, we must cooperate. Nonviolence requires cooperation. Its benefits are creative sharing and a kind of rhetorical invention that promotes understanding and insight. As shown by the growing scholarship in the field of conflict and mediation, of which nonviolent theory is part and parcel, we can see that human conflict and its resolution is not necessarily a mysterious process. It can be broken down into steps. Problems can be taken apart in light of theories that provide helpful means to resolving the problems. By the same token, understanding and incorporating nonviolent theory to film criticism can be considered as a meaningful way to solve theoretical problems, and transcend artificial borders of disciplinary theoretical constructs or perspectives. Nonviolence is like a Burkean "unifying perspective," which is not to say that it is not without its paradoxes, inconsistencies, and theoretical self-contradictions, but it does present a helpful way to look at rhetorical texts and it offers a means for critics to draw more openly from various perspectives without appearing to betray one disciplinary paradigm.

A Nonviolent Reading of Film

Returning to my subject matter of the film, The Spitfire Grill, instead of calling the film a "woman's movie" I can call it a film that features characters--men and women--who are grappling with issues of structural violence. I propose to use nonviolence as a critical tool for understanding, at least in part, why the film was received--positively and negatively--as it was. Following a brief overview of the critics' reviews, I shall explain what nonviolence is, define what structural violence is, distinguish nonviolence from pacifism, and illustrate how nonviolence can be an effective means to overcome the structural violence inherent in many cultures and world views.

The primary focus here is not looking at the film from the individualistic perspective, but rather from a nonviolent perspective that is collectivistic, that observes the plausibility of the interplay among the characters and events in the film. I make no claims that that this is an exclusively "nonviolent" film; to label it as such would be misleading. Instead, I only wish to show that the film does feature many elements that lend themselves to a nonviolent critique, which is the purpose this essay. In short, as a critic, I apply nonviolence to a contextualized and interrelational reading of the critics' interpretations of the film as opposed to a close reading of the film as a text itself. Briefly, I use nonviolent theory to read the film and other critics' perceptions of the film. By contextualized, I mean to examine critical commentaries as they fit into the film itself and to the cultural morés called upon enthymematically. By interrelational, I mean to show how and why many reviewers reject the "reality" of the film's nonviolent portrayal of characters as a collective organism; I posit that these reviewers prefer to see human beings as discrete, individualized people. In short, I theorize via nonviolence--what Briley concludes is a "tough and formidable political tool, something the world should be more aware of and could benefit from" (4).

The Difference Between Nonviolence and Pacifism

. . . who cannot protect [one]self or [one's] nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death, may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor (36).

- Mohandas Gandhi

To avoid the confusion of pacifism with strategic nonviolence, I will at the outset distinguish pacifism from nonviolence. Nonviolence is to be distinguished from the general ideology of pacifism because whereas pacifism advocates the rather nebulous goal of peace for society, nonviolence recognizes the situational and contextual requirements and methods for broaching conflict while promoting peace.(4) Robert Holmes writes:

A commitment to nonviolence will be unqualified if the nonviolentist renounces the use of violence in any circumstances whatsoever; it will be qualified otherwise. The Jains were unqualified nonviolentists. Gandhi, on the other hand, said that although nonviolence is always preferable, if the choice between cowardice and violence, one might better use violence. Some pacifists likewise have only a qualified commitment to nonviolence; for pacifism, strictly, is the renunciation of (and opposition to) war [specifically], not all violence. Though many pacifists are nonviolentists as well, many are not. And some people subscribe to nonviolence only because they believe it is effective and do not rule out the use of violence in principle. Still others view nonviolence merely as a tactic, to be used in certain specific circumstances and not in others (2).

Holmes summarizes the distinction between pacifism and nonviolence in noting that a pacifist may not approve of nonviolence, while a nonviolent activist may not be a pacifist. While pacifism relates specifically to a view that denounces going to war and war making, pacifism may still cooperate with, and exist within, a warring nation. On the other hand, nonviolence takes into account the violence that occurs on various levels from the interpersonal to the international, and proposes specific measures for handling immediate conflict so as to reduce or prevent a greater future conflict.

Nonviolence is equipped to deal with the seemingly invisible, structural violence that occurs in the range between the conversation between two people to an exchange in international diplomacy. As Holmes indicates, a pacifist may also espouse nonviolence, but in general, nonviolence does not need to address issues about "war." Instead, nonviolence centers on conflict, and proposes means to avoid or reduce, as much as possible, violence in human conflicts. Also, as Holmes concedes that one finds in Gandhi's theories of nonviolent action, in the absence of all other desirable nonviolent alternatives, the "nonviolentist," as he terms the nonviolent activist, may need to resort to individual acts of violence in order to overcome the all-encompassing violence of the oppressor. Such violence must always be seen as a last resort, and most successful programs of nonviolent direct action do not require the use of violence at all.

In observing how films have represented individual acts of last-resort violence (or qualified nonviolence), two examples are illustrative. In Miracle on 34th Street, there is the scene where the usually very compassionate, gentle Kris Kringle (Santa Claus) acts with violence. Kringle, indignant over the company psychologist's cruel mistreatment of one employee (Kringle's friend), takes his cane and raps the uncaring doctor on the head. In The Sound of Music, there is the scene in which two nuns from Maria's convent help the Von Trapp family to escape the Nazis and exit the country via sabotage. The scene shows the nuns holding wiring they have ripped from the engine of the Nazis' car. Thus they have prevented the soldiers from chasing the family.

The fact that these scenes in film work so well, and are understood by the viewer as examples of permissible violence (hence qualified nonviolence), reveal our intuitive understanding and appreciation for nonviolent behavior in everyday life. By the sardonic expressions of mirth and guilt the film viewer observes on the faces of the nuns, we see that what they have done is "wrong" in a technical sense, but in a situational and contextual sense, what the nuns have done is perfectly consistent with their nonviolent mission to support the word of God and His purpose here on earth. By the same token, the usually peace and goodwill bearing Santa Claus becoming uncharacteristically angry is instructive. Out of context, it would be hard to understand why a benevolent mythic figure would use violence, but in the situation, the viewer is invited to observe with satisfaction the unmasking of the inappropriate behavior of the doctor. Kringle is understandably upset at the abuse of people and power manifested through the corporate doctor, who Kringle raps on the head. Kringle's use of violence is qualified because the viewer sees that the doctor is unhurt, aside from his pride. Also, in a later scene, the viewer sees the doctor's abusive use of his position revealed before the courtroom, thus Kringle's act is shown to be consistent with Santa Claus's general mission of bringing joy and happiness to children and adults alike in an increasingly stressful life that is often tinged with structural violence.

These two scenes illustrate qualified nonviolence. For nonviolence to appear convincing, one does not even need to know what nonviolence is in a pure sense. It is convincing because the viewer is invited to recognize that human beings are to a great extent fundamentally peaceful, amiable, and cooperative creatures, albeit ones that must face conflict. These scenes show characteristically nonviolent people using qualified violence. Thus a film that does contain violence can still be categorized as a generally nonviolent film. By the same token, just because people are polite or appear "nice" to one another, does by no means indicate that a film is nonviolent. Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, for example, is full of the beauty and accouterments of the rich, and the polite pleasantries of people obsessed with etiquette. On a surface level, the film may be seen as lacking violence because there are no beatings, rapes, or gory murders to witness. Yet The Age of Innocence reveals perfectly the hidden, structural violence and its devastating effects on the lives of people trapped in a suffocating class system during the Victorian era.(5)

On the opposite end of types of films, nonviolent theory can be usefully applied to the critical analysis of films with largely bloody, violent content. As Neil Postman and others have posited, we may, indeed, be amusing ourselves to death; nonviolent theory offers a means to understanding how and why. While pacifism deals exclusively with opposing war, nonviolence may or may not deal with war. Nonviolence, in dire circumstances, may even be violent. But it is not especially useful to label a film as violent or nonviolent, pacifist or bellicose; to do so is to set up a false dichotomy. Nonviolent theory presumes that violence and conflict are inevitable aspects in human life and society; however, nonviolent theory maintains that this violence is not a human being's sole make-up, but rather the result of artificial social pressures, since humans are deemed benign. Moreover, nonviolence asserts that anyone can transcend violence by invoking what is more attuned to what humans are, that is, amiable, cooperative, and intelligent. I am merely suggesting that it can be productive to employ nonviolent theory to film analysis and criticism, just as feminists find it useful to employ feminist theory to film, or as deconstructionists find it useful to use new theories in appraising, analyzing, and understanding the rhetoric at work in film.

Critics' Reviews

Human dignity is best preserved not by developing the capacity to deal destruction but by refusing to retaliate. If it is possible to train millions in the black art of violence, which is the law of the . . . [irrational], it is more possible to train them in the white art of non-violence, which is the law of regenerate man (65). - Mohandas Gandhi

The critics' reviews of The Spitfire Grill generally fall into three groups. First, there are those critics who outright panned the film, citing poor acting and an overly "sentimental" plot. Next, there are the mixed reviews; critics generally liked some aspect of the film, such as the cinematography, but disliked the acting or the theme, which many critics deemed too oriented toward women viewers. Last, there were critics who liked the film, citing solid acting, a refreshingly quirky and quiet filmic look at small-town America. Beyond these three groups, though, the reviewers shared a few opinions on specific aspects of the film or its production.

Shared Themes

Across the board, film critics offered four key observations about the film. One observation common to most reviews, regardless of whether not the critics liked the film, was that the film "was financed by an order of Roman Catholic priests" (Rottenberg 126). The second point that reviewers made much of was that the film contains "themes of redemption and forgiveness" (Rottenberg 126). Third, reviewers remarked that the film's plot centered on "empowering female bonding" (Sight and Sound 64). Fourth, reviewers made it clear that this was the director's first foray into major motion picture directing (Klady 65).

According to the film's reviewers, the film's themes center around "human values" (Sight and Sound 64). Rita Kempley calls it a film "about the power of goodwill in the face of nasty community gossip" (F1). John Petrakis says that the film "teaches us lessons about life, love and matters of the heart and soul"; further, he says it "reminds us how sacrifice can still play a role in our daily lives and how resurrection is not restricted to the pages of our family Bibles" (D4). Other similar descriptions are that the film is "chock full of spiritual uplift: it features redemption, martyrdom . . ." (Rafferty 93); the film has "small-town values" (Dauphin 45); "this story . . . conveys any number of messages about the power of forgiveness and the true meaning of resurrection" (Petrakis D4).

The female bonding that critics found central to their interpretation of the film reminded them of 'sleeper' films such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Gas, Food, Lodging," among other 'women's flicks' (Klady 65). Travers called the film one of two "movies about women opening . . . in one macho summer" (69). Terry Lawson calls it "the next 'woman's movie' . . . [that] brings together women of variant ages, personalities and backgrounds for the purpose of showing us what they all share" while filling the bill of Hollywood moguls' search for profitable "movies about women relating to other women" (G9).

Writing about director Zlotoff's major motion picture debut, one critic said that he "overstates his intent with long dialogues when simple action would suffice"; yet, on the other hand, "to Zlotoff's credit, he eschews pat, happy endings" (Klady 65). Another critic states that "Zlotoff's feature-film debut" is "noteworthy in its attempt to turn back the clock" (Simon 94). Others felt that the picture ultimately fell short of its aims: "Narratively, this dramatic balancing act requires a far more skilled craftsman [than Zlotoff] . . . ." (Klady 65).

Bad Reviews

Having looked at themes common to all of the film's reviews, I now summarize representative remarks from critics' reviews that were specifically disapproving of the film. Critics commonly remarked that the acting in the film was poor. Dauphin writes that the film is a "sappy mess" and that as Percy, Alison Elliott "only has two notes here: dreamy" or hardened (45-50). Rafferty writes that Ellen Burstyn, as Hannah, "struggles with her wretchedly written role, and for most of the picture you're not so much persuaded by her performance as simply grateful she's not Shirley MacLaine" (93). He also contends that the actors' renditions of the Maine accent were unconvincing (Rafferty 93).

Another common criticism is that the theme and the plot of the film are overly sentimental. "We're meant to be awed by the spectacle of all this human potential being realized, but the spiritual landscape of 'The Spitfire Grill' looks phony and remote, like retouched mountains on a picture postcard" (Rafferty, 93). Travers writes that the film "sells human values like a preacher who thinks he can win a soul for every tear he jerks" (69). Dauphin states that Zlotoff "favors the cloying look and feel of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation" (50). Bruce Williamson calls the film a "sloshy little drama" that only won the 1996 Sundance Film Festival's audience award because there at the Festival "filmgoers often get swept up in schmaltz"; he adds that the film is rife with "gobs of sentimentality" (28). Kemply complains that the "essay-writing contest" that is so central to the plot "gives rise to a corny, feel-good sequence in which Gilead archetypes (from kids in bike helmets to older folks in porch chairs) cheerfully help Hannah read through the huge pile of raffle application letters" (F1).

Mixed Reviews

The mixed reviews included remarks such as the fact that the film seemed to mean well. Some reviewers liked the plot and not the acting, whereas for other critics the reverse was true. Terrence Rafferty states that the actor Alison Elliott, whom he finds it important to label as "a former model," brings "a lack of technique [that] makes her seem . . . refreshingly natural"; however, Rafferty finds the other aspects of the film "solemnly berserk" (93). Leonard Klady likewise writes, "The emotionally charged material is abetted by a strong cast, but the familiarity of the subject matter limits the picture to niche audiences;" he also says Zlotoff "has devised a complex tale that tends to bog down as he attempts to weave together its many plot strands" (65). Typical of the mixed and negative reviews, Simon notes that "some things are hard to believe" (90). In contrast, the reviewers who were able to suspend their disbelief tended to like the film on all counts.

Positive Reviews

There were plenty of reviews that were positive. Overall, these critics characterized the film favorably as "a pleasantly picturesque fable" (Rottenberg, 126); "a distinctive and affecting film" (Sight and Sound, 64); "a stray, eager-to-please puppy that has wandered into your yard--virtually impossible to kick out" (Simon 95); "always appealing" (Kempley F1); a "good allegory" (Petrakis D4); and "heartwarming" (Williamson 28). The rationales behind the positive reviews centered on the film's solid acting cast and interesting, modern spin on what would otherwise be considered as simply retro, that is, wholesome, "mainstream fare Hollywood made in the 50s" (Sight and Sound 64).

The reviewers who liked the film cited solid acting. John Simon avers that the film's plot "hinges on . . . likable performances" of a "good acting company" (95). With Ellen Burstyn as Hannah, the matriarchal figure in the plot, the film's cast of characters was deemed convincing. The performance of Alison Elliot as the protagonist, Percy, was called "mesmerizing" (Rottenberg, 126). As "ex-con Percy," Elliot's performance is "a rare mix of enigma and blue-collar grit, [and] suggests real star potential" (Sight and Sound 64). Klady writes that Elliot performs well in "a daunting role layered with natural smarts, youthful energy and painful regret; she weathers the mood shifts with aplomb and grace" (65). Also, Marcia Gay Harden as Shelby was praised as "excellent . . . thanks to Harden's ability to suffer silently, she becomes the moral center of the story" (Petrakis D4). Similarly, says Lawson, "Watching Harden cast off her [character, Shelby's] cloak of self-contempt is almost worth a repeat visit" in what would be an otherwise "predictable" character slot (G9). Such superb acting and plot turns help make the film refreshing for viewers who are willing to set aside cynicism if only for 117 minutes, and may be one alternative explanation for the film's (1996) Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.

Aside from good acting, critics stated that the major strength of the plot was its real-world origins from three different news items; one about a restaurant being raffled off because the owner could not find a buyer; another about convicts operating a state tourist call-in center; a third about the poor in the rural Eastern states (Sight and Sound 64). The Sight and Sound reviewer believes that such "'small' details with big implications imbue the film with a low-key ironic awareness which lifts it clear of sentimentality" and, further, that "this is no idealized rural idyll defined by the gaze of privileged city-dwellers" (64). Likewise, Kemply maintains the film's "mystical qualities are wonderfully offset by subtle, restrained humor" (F1).

Perhaps in counterbalance, the plot's realistic overtones are tempered by the visuals, which are painterly in quality. Favorable reviews often cited the "stunning naturalistic camerawork" (Sight and Sound, 64). The film was described as featuring "a grey-white winter range of colors for the surroundings and a generally dark, earthy palette inspired by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth" (Sight and Sound, 64). Kempley asserts that "There's a warm, almost Capraesque glow" to the film (F1). So, we see that for some viewers, the film was a 'success' in the rhetorical sense, while for others it was a mixed bag, and still others felt it was a 'failure' and unbelievable. What can account for such a disparity among viewers? Would it be fair to cite the film's so-called 'woman centeredness' or its 'niche' orientation as the reason for this disparity in the film's reception? I have reason to believe that much more is at work in this film, which leads me to point to an understanding of nonviolence and structural violence as a way to comprehend the film's "believability" factor.

Next I will also provide a brief, working definition of what structural violence is. In addition, I will show how nonviolence in 'real-life' situations--and thus, in 'reel-life' ones as well--can be an effective means to surmount structural violence.

Structural Violence

We have all--rulers and ruled--been living so long in a stifling, unnatural atmosphere that we might well feel in the beginning that we have lost the lungs for breathing the invigorating . . . [air] of freedom (59). - Mohandas Gandhi

In this section of the essay structural violence will be defined and shown to be integral to the plot of The Spitfire Grill. Zlotoff wrote the script from the starting point of three real news stories. Two of the news stories--the one about rural poverty and the one about prison inmates being used as travel agents--are fine instances of structural violence at work. Johan Galtung defines violence as "the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is . . . [it] is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance" (9-10). This emphasis on the gap between the "potential and the actual" shows that, as with nonviolence, violence too occurs in the contingent, mobile realm of rhetoric.

Galtung lists many types of violence, ranging from the physical to the psychological. He shows how interpersonal violence is deemed "material" while structural violence is less visible (10-11). Like Pepinsky's understanding of crime, Galtung's research proves that much violence "is structural" that is, it is "built into structures" and thus seems invisible (11). The danger of this invisibility, according to Galtung, is that it then appears 'the natural state of affairs,' and, even worse, that our "ethical systems . . . will easily fail to capture structural violence in . . . [our safety] nets" so that we focus on overt or personal violence, such as "murder," while "ignorance" may be more socially detrimental (11). Structural violence operates, exists, and is perpetuated in a rhetorical manner:

. . . it is not strange that attention has been focused more on personal than structural violence. Personal violence shows. The object of personal violence perceives the violence, usually, and may complain--the object of structural violence may be persuaded not to perceive this at all. . . . Structural violence is silent, it does not show--it is essentially static. . . . Thus a research emphasis on the reduction of personal violence at the expense of a tacit or open neglect of research on structural violence leads . . . to acceptance of [hierarchically based] 'law and order' societies (emphasis added) (12-13).

Galtung explains how structural violence is made to seem a normal part of social order, when in actuality it functions to warp that order and prevent human beings from reaching their highest possible levels of self actualization and social contribution.

Let's turn to specific examples of structural violence. There are the systems of economic maldistribution that engender poverty, like that represented by the character of Percy in the film. There are systems that perpetuate the construction and political use of prisons in the economy, like the tourist office inside the prison of the film's opening scene. These scenes reveal the tacit cultural acceptance, through structural violence, of things that might otherwise seem off kilter or even bizarre. Thus structural violence is made manifest through the material functions in our social order, while simultaneously being hidden through rhetorical means.

The structural violence of poverty is hidden by the word poverty itself, which connotes a lack of means. Through a structurally violent lense of discourse, poverty appears to be a kind of weakness that society can attribute to the person who experiences it; in the Burkean sense, such terms are deflections of a reality that could be changed but that seems fixed. The structural violence of roles, such as that of housewife as personified by the character of Shelby, exemplify how language and rhetoric is implicated in creating this invisible reality where society quietly sanctions the stunting of a human being's emotional, intellectual, social growth. It is the very stunting with which this film is most concerned, and which is shown to be offset through nonviolence, as I shall show in the following reading of the film.

The Issue of 'Believability' in Nonviolence and Violence

Perceptions are perceptions of our body, feelings, mind, nature, and society . . . Perception should be free from emotions and ignorance, free from illusions. . . . Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge . . . .The technique is to release . . . to transcend (146). - Thich Nhat Hanh

In this section of this essay, I will offer my interpretation of the critics' reviews and an explanation of the pertinent tenets of nonviolence as they relate to a critical rendering of The Spitfire Grill. Without waffling, I can posit that the three camps of critics were right about the film's being good, so-so, and bad. By and large, I believe that the critics who found the film annoying did so for two key reasons. First, the film's reviewers dismissed the artistic value of the sentimental as being too 'womanly' or feminine. Second, the film was deemed bad in large measure because the reviewers rejected the premise that people can become empowered nonviolently. This is not to say that the film is perfect.(6) But what I do wish to illustrate through this analysis is how critics perpetuate twin individualistic, structurally violent world views: first, violence is seen as "natural" in society, and therefore it is acceptable. Second, nonviolent behavior is deemed as not only unrealistic, but as unproductive. Further, I posit that if these "popular" film critics do it, it must also, at least to some degree, filter into academic treatments of film criticism and theory, which is what I hope to offset.

If a film has "gobs of sentimentality," as The Spitfire Grill was condemned for having, it does not necessarily mean that it is a poorly conceived, filmed, or acted work of art; but such a film is dismissed for snobbish artistic reasons. In Cinema and Sentiment, Charles Affron writes that "Art works that create an overtly emotional response in a wide readership are rated inferior to those that engage and inspire the refined critical, intellectual activities of a selective readership" (1). But Affron asserts that an "inferior" rating ignores the fact that such films remain influential "meaning-generating" forms of rhetoric (1). Affron traces the particularly affective form of film from its origins in Renaissance art (especially painting) to later forms in theater and novels, to classic films such as It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, A Place in the Sun, The Merry Widow, to more contemporary films such as the first and second Godfather films. Affron asserts that the epithet of "woman's film" being synonymous with "tearjerker" is actually "ambiguous and inaccurate. It suggests that such a film is only about women or that it appeals only to women. Neither is true" (16). Affron's book illustrates the generic transcendence of the affective in generating meaning in myriad kinds of films and film plots.

With regard to the negative reviewers' claims that The Spitfire Grill just had too much going on to be believable, Affron's research points to the effectiveness of exactly this mode of unreasonable reason. "Many sentimental narratives," says Affron, "tend to generate improbabilities in proportion to the strength of the feelings they express" (23). The "emotional engagement" is set in place by the paradox that in these "narratives the very activity of fiction making becomes so expressive that it reflects a measure of incompatibility between feeling and necessity, between emotion and logic" (23). Affron very sensibly reminds critics that while "we may snicker at . . . [the teary scene's] excessive familiarity; we may object to their manipulatory power," nonetheless "the way they are designed to produce almost automatic reactions in viewers . . . we cannot deny that power's existence or afford to overlook its sources in the medium's capacity for infusing us with the anguish of loss and the joy of fulfillment" (34-35). Affron explains how the affective aids in audience identification and bonding, even in spite of what might be considered as unrealistic renderings of individual scenes or plots in their entirety. So there is power of sentiment and feeling in moving audiences (irrespective of gender or plot design).

Second, the most crucial reason that I believe contributed in large part to the film's negative reviews was the simple fact that people in contemporary society often dismiss nonviolence as a viable means to dealing with social conflict. Decades ago, Gandhi recognized this mindset; he wrote that "It is a bad outlook for the world if the spirit of violence takes hold of the mass mind. Ultimately it destroys" us all (30). Today, Jamil Salmi, a professor of educational planning, has documented the phenomenon of how violence "takes hold" and is naturalized in modern democratic societies.

Salmi has determined that the process of naturalizing violence occurs mainly through the institutional presentation of violence in a superficial manner. Through presenting violence out of proportion, through trivializing it, and through excessive individualization, our understanding of violent acts dims (1-9). Salmi writes that our understanding of violence is warped because any sense of interconnectedness is lost in "individual factors" so that "the possibility of a causal link between the violence observed and the surrounding social structure is systematically dismissed" (8). Salmi's research indicates that a nonviolent perspective that values human rights is continually quashed, along with the socially redeeming possibilities it entails.

So, when seen from a skeptical person's point of view, overcoming injustices through teamwork, cooperation, creativity, and sacrifice would indeed appear to be "corny" and "phony." Nonviolence is a perspective that is based upon a totally different world view than that belonging to those of us who espouse the modern, scientific, Darwinian tradition. For our modern, scientific world view, hate is considered an innate, thus "natural" aggression, and, as in Freud, sexuality is posited as the defining motive for human action. To the contrary, a nonviolent world view is based in the assumption (religious or atheistic) that the most fundamental human tendency is that of love.

In his groundbreaking essay, "The New Litany of 'Innate Depravity,' or Original Sin Revisited," Ashley Montagu takes issue with the notion that humans are fundamentally aggressive beings. Montagu writes that by blaming our human fallibilities on our supposed "natural inheritance" or "innate aggressiveness" we are really just opting for the easy way out, and we are thus "absolved from any responsibilities" for "juvenile delinquency, crime, rape, murder, arson, and war, not to mention every other form of violence" (11-12). Instead of seeing people as self centered or inherently violent, Montagu, like Kenneth Burke, Alfie Kohn, and others, believes that humans are characterized by "cooperation," and have been, "throughout the five million or so years of [hu]man's evolution . . . or else there would be no human beings today" (17). (7) Moreover, Montagu cites the importance of rhetoric in our socialization to believe that social ills merely 'exist', through no fault of our own; he maintains that we learn this cynical world view from sources ranging from Darwin's theories to popular literature (such as Golding's novel Lord of the Flies).(8) The issue of human nurture, or its lack caused by contradictory or dysfunctional social norms, is at the heart of The Spitfire Grill.

Like Montagu, criminologist Harold Pepinsky supports the notion that violence and crime in society are only viewed from a status quo perspective, which further perpetuates social problems by ignoring their sources. Pepinsky writes that prevailing norms about social justice ignore "the dynamics of a hierarchical social structure that allow[s] some people to gain wealth, power, position, and legitimization by impoverishing and killing others" (4). Our modern world view, according to Pepinsky, is such that "Violence is instinctively perceived to be a symptom of social illness, of death and decay"(6), whereas his research leads him to conclude that in reality violence is simply the result of the simple fact of "power over others" (8); " . . . domination--power over others--is the fundamental cause of crime and criminality" (9). He writes that "crime is a politically arbitrary subset of violence" (7), which obfuscates power as the base cause for violence. His research indicates that "those who victimize more often and more seriously are those who are less closely supervised, who command greater resources, and who have greater capacity to resist detection and punishment" (8). He concludes that "murder" really occurs in corporate board rooms (14), and even in the "office of the President" (9) (8), and less so on the mean streets, the latter being the scapegoat for the politics of the former. Pepinsky maintains that the Darwinian, naturalizing perspective further perpetuates the illusion that certain social groups, such as minorities or the poor, are inherently stupid, lazy, violent, and otherwise socially undesirable and problematic.

Hegemonic Positions of the Critics

Because Percy is an ex-con, the issues of "nature" versus "nurture" and of crime and criminality bear on her role in The Spitfire Grill. She is a "criminal" just released from prison, so some townspeople regard her with suspicion and mistrust, like the film viewer who sides with the "innate depravity" side of the "nature" versus "nurture" debate, or the viewer who regards her as being from a poor, rural background imputing to her traits of stupidity, laziness, uselessness, or violence. However, other characters in the film, such as Shelby or Joe, just as the film's reviewers who liked the film, take the nonviolent perspective, that "crime is a disease like any other malady and is a product of the prevalent social system" (Gandhi 49). Thus Percy is given a second chance in life, to redeem herself--not once, but several times in the course of the film.

Perhaps it appears here that I am putting words in the mouths of the reviewers, who may have more serious problems with the film for its ample use of sentimentality. But the recurring commentary among the reviewers that the film's plot was patently unbelievable centers most on the nonviolent acts of the characters in the film. It is not that I wish to disagree with these reviewers, again, in light of their prevailing world views, it is important to add that these reviewers are totally "correct" in their assessment of the "unreal" nature, hence "unbelievability" of the film. All I aim to show here is how such distaste for the "unreality" of nonviolence is culturally based, rather than based in particularly insightful readings of the film.

Moreover, in light of the mixed and positive reviews of the film, it appears that some film critics found the plot realistic enough. Thus in bold relief I hope to illustrate how this issue of the film critic's "taste" runs deeper than a simple like or dislike. The rhetorical stakes of critical tastes are higher than that. My point is that the negative reviews stem at least in part from the cultural logic that renders nonviolence untenable. Rather than being hostile to these film critics, I assert they are perfectly correct in their assessments in light of their world views. But I do maintain that there is another perspective that is just as valid, and, in a different way, as logical, as theirs. Thus I assert that the positive reviews to some degree reflect the viewers' ability to suspend the Darwinian, dog-eat-dog logic. The good reviews also indicate some viewers' tacit understanding of nonviolent human behavior.

From a nonviolent perspective, hatred is believed to be a learned trait, and as such, it may be unlearned or overturned through love; whereas the opposing world view, which is exemplified, for example, in the theories of Darwin, Marx, or Freud, accepts our "animal" side as superseding our "rational" side. In contrast, nonviolence presupposes that, as Thomas Merton writes, "human society is naturally nonviolent" (44). Of this tendency, Gandhi wrote: "All society is held together by nonviolence . . . as the earth is held in her position by gravitation. . . .What is happening today is disregard of the law of non-violence and enthronement of violence as if it were an eternal law" (44). Thus whereas the modern citizen is trained to see violence as a routine part of everyday life, other traditions enable us to see that we can use compassion and nonviolence to overcome conflict and violence.

To a critic schooled in the logic of violence as "eternal law," the possibility of "kids in bicycle helmets" helping do the raffle-contest reading certainly appears not only unrealistic, but "cloying" like a "Hallmark" production. For when violence rules, society separates into hierarchies which Pepinsky's research, among others, has shown are both undesirable and avoidable. Hierarchies create artificial social boundaries: children are confined to schools; adults to corporations; the elderly to nursing homes; the poor to welfare projects or prisons. Of course, in this kind of hierarchy, it would be impossible for children, adults, and the elderly to join together in reading raffle letters in a contest organized by an ex-convict.

But in the decidedly affective realm of the idyllic small town, Gilead, where the story takes place, the film creates an atmosphere of possibilities of all sorts, including removing artificially constructed social boundaries and structures. In this sort of nonviolent world, people are accepted as beings in flux, ever in process. These beings are fully in the realm of rhetoric because they are in the realm of the contingent, the probable. The Sight and Sound reviewer writes:

In a lesser film, Percy would go through a hard but finally rewarding struggle to win the townspeople's hearts, but here the process is more complex. Instead, in a town where the postmistress regards any mail arriving from beyond the state borders as a sign of criminal activity, support for the ex-con newcomer is rare and stays that way throughout (64).

The complexity of the film signals the nonviolent approach to understanding conflict. While conflict is considered an inevitable part of life, the nonviolent orientation opts for creative solutions that transgress artificial borders placed by hierarchies; nonviolence encompasses suffering, forgiveness, sacrifice, and people giving other people the benefit of the doubt. Nonviolence accepts youth and aging as processes that are rhetorical, but not necessarily as limiting. Nonviolence proposes actions for otherwise powerless people, especially women and children. Moreover, in a rural setting where hierarchies may be more malleable, why couldn't an adult entrust a letter to an eight-year old, or to an eighty-year-old, to ponder the letter's merit?

As film viewers in the modern, scientific perspective, so many of us have been trained to suspend our disbelief at the sight of massive violence in the name of "realism" that illustrates our "innate depravity." Note, for example, the critical acclaim and box office receipts of Pulp Fiction or Fargo, and the so-called "comedies" To Die For and Get Shorty. But when nonviolent themes appear in an overtly affective plot, we have been socialized to promptly reject it as impossible, improbable, or "preachy" and "sappy." To be sure, sustaining an illusion matters in film; illusion is needed for a film to appear "realistic." But what makes the over-the-top use of non-stop violence or profanity in film seem "real," or "funny," while its lack seems "phony" and "remote"? What is it in the viewer's or film critic's "taste" that causes these rote reactions? Take for instance, the comments of this reviewer:

Some things here are hard to believe. Why does the supposedly rich quarry remain unexploited? Why would the rest of the country know about the essay contest so much earlier than Gilead? How can a whole town participate in adjudicating it? Why would the hermit in the forest remain unknown to all but Hannah and Percy? (Simon 90).

In view of these comments, it is important to acknowledge the viewer's willingness (or unwillingness) to participate in an illusion--one which is necessary to make the film seem more "real." There are plenty of logical answers to these questions, which the positive reviews indicate that viewers had no problem supplying. The lack of corporate interest in the quarry could be attributed to tax structures or other disincentives to expand the town's rock quarry. Regarding the town being the last to know about the raffle, fewer people in rural small towns subscribe to major city newspapers, which is where Jolene placed the ad for the raffle contest. From a collectivistic orientation, there is no real reason why a whole town could not adjudicate a contest. Many corporations today use collectivistic work teams with greater productivity than individuals had formerly been achieving working on projects alone--why could not a similar principle be fruitful for a raffle contest? In addition, the existence of the hermit exemplifies that homelessness is easily ignored in towns both large and small, where the homeless are often characterized as lazy or criminal.

In another representative negative review, the critic was displeased with the "myriad personal dilemmas" in the plot, including "Percy's dark past, Hannah's grief for . . . [a lost son], and a mysterious, unseen woodsman . . ." (Rafferty 93). Here again, the plot shows the interconnectedness of people who live and work in close proximity. Do we not learn about each other's personal lives when we live and work together? From a disconnected, competitive person's perspective, perhaps we do not. Rafferty's reading makes sense. But from an interconnected, compassionate view, other readings are not only possible, they are probable. Indeed, the favorable reviews covered the bonds as if they were natural. Kempley writes, "Percy forms a much closer bond with Shelby" and, in general, "the movie weaves a pleasing tapestry of fantasy and humor, with strong performances. . ." (F1). The difference between opinions in these readings forms a pattern that appears to make sense in light of differing attitudes toward social power and possibilities.

What I am highlighting here is not that the negative reviewers' found the film distasteful not only for its ample use of emotion, but also that their dislike clusters around the film's obvious portrayal of nonviolent social actions. I am merely pointing out the very clear pattern that many critics' "taste" finds the portrayal of violence in film as "natural," but the portrayal of nonviolent social action is seen as unnatural, or, as one critic put it, "completely contrived" (Lawson G9). The interconnectedness of people that is characteristic of nonviolence is dismissed while violence is viewed as normal. There are social and cultural reasons why this occurs.

Salmi has documented how "standard analyses of violence are . . . trivialized presentations in that the phenomena studied are seen as mere occasional disturbances" (7). In this way, violence in media is trivialized because "there is hardly any attempt to look for explanations and causes, for links and patterns" and the end result is "trivializing the meaning and impact of the event" (7). Violence in film is thus reported as trivial to the film's general import, to the film's rhetoric and aura of realism. Conversely, in a film that is sentimental and features nonviolence, those features are reported as crucial to the film's being rated as inferior, unrealistic, and, in short, a bad movie.

This is not to say that nonviolent themes necessarily make a movie a good movie, or that violence makes a bad movie. I do, however, want to indicate that film criticism is very tightly bound to the customary world views of the critic, which can cause the critic to overlook or downplay important elements in the film's composition. Take, for instance, Guthmann's remark that film viewers should never "abandon our suspicion" of films based upon "the assumption that humility" is a "purifying quality that ought to be nurtured in this cold, overinformed world" (D3). When the preferred reading of film in general is shown to be open to violent themes and immediately "suspicious" of compassionate or nonviolent ones, the film's reviews (positive, so-so, and negative) make more sense. Salmi's work opens up a space for us to note how academic and popular discussions of film invite "attitudes and statements that are out of phase with the reality of the phenomena observed" (4). Specifically, he has found that reporting in the media is a significant factor in the warping of our world view to accommodate and perpetuate violations of human rights and the dismissal of nonviolent perspectives (11-13).

Whereas Salmi's work shows that many of us in modern society are frequently biased to accept violence and reject nonviolent, human rights orientations, Affron's research demonstrates that many audiences--regardless of gender--are indeed willing to participate in plots featuring the affective play of possibilities, even in filmic alternatives to violence. Affron shows how viewers actively participate in the "illusion" of emotions of love, in the Platonic sense. There is also the Greek concept of storge, which refers to a love that is a caring and enduring bond that does not require sexual activity; Freudian (ultra)sexuality is thus rendered null. Viewers are able to be drawn into an affective realm in which they confirm their hopes, maybe even beliefs, that nonviolence is a viable way to deal with human conflict.


Non-violence is the greatest and most active force in the world. One cannot be passively non-violent. . . . One person who can express [active non-violence] in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of humanity (44). - Mohandas Gandhi

This analysis began by showing the predominantly accepting orientation that rhetoric and film critics hold for the idea that human beings are characterized by "innate aggression" and violence. Violence in society, as mirrored by violence in film, is seen as a "realistic" depiction of "criminal" activity, and of a kind of Darwinian natural order. I offered nonviolent theories that tend to debunk, or at least challenge, the idea that humans are characterized solely by aggression or sexuality; or that hatred and violence are our most fundamental, "natural" human tendencies. I have also illustrated how it is likely that the critical reading of the film, disguised in a rhetoric of "taste," can be influenced by the viewer's perspectives and world view. Supported by Salmi's media research revealing that modern views of reality are warped to privilege violence as "normal," I have drawn a connection between the positive and negative reviews of the film, and their relationships to the world views held by the critics producing their respective commentaries. I also showed how nonviolent theory allows us to look at crime from a human rights perspective. From the nonviolent view, crime arises from inequalities in power, rather than from some "innate depravity" in people who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged. I have inferred that negative readings of the film can be, at least in part, attributed to a rejection of the nonviolent perspective, while positive readings support it.

Contrary to popular misconceptions of a kind of unrealistic, utopian nonviolence; in actual nonviolent theory and practice, the nonviolent theorist or actor does not exclude the reality of violence or conflict, but rather she or he embraces dealing with the conflict. The nonviolent goal, however, is to reduce any ultimate violence through the use of creative ideas, disarming surprise, humor, telling of the truth, and, on a more serious end of the scale, through the use of self-sacrifice.(10) Theorists of nonviolent action recognize that there is a proper context for its success, and democracy is both a precondition and an end goal. Yet despite the careful documenting of the many successes of nonviolent action,(11) advocates of the "innate aggression" theories of human behavior ignore or dismiss nonviolent perspectives. Disbelievers of nonviolence are eschewing useful critical tools or means to understanding rhetoric. Either giving or not lending credence to nonviolence results in the way the texts such as film work to influence how we perceive what is "realistic" or what is, as one film critic put it, "solemnly berserk." The simple reason for this reliance upon a world view that "might makes right" or "might is natural" is that it is easier for a critic to remain within the structurally violent theoretical world in which he or she resides; it is difficult to buck the system. Status quo theories about aggression constitute a kind of self-sustaining micro-climate for the critic, one which is difficult to escape because it does superficially appear to nourish the critical mind.

The film The Spitfire Grill, in its modest way, shows how people can cooperate to fight both structural violence and personal violence. The film invites the viewer to acknowledge that life entails conflict, struggle, and pain. But the moral of the story is that there is, indeed, "a balm" to heal wounds and create the possibilities for handling and reducing conflict and for improving society. Nonviolence engenders humor and good will; it takes the opponent by surprise; it is disarming without the need for using arms. Forgiveness and understanding, and the ultimate act of self-sacrifice if need be, show that nonviolent resistance works to manage conflict, and to bolster democratic society.

Works Cited

Charles Affron, Cinema and Sentiment. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

Robert Arnett, "Gandhi: A screenplay review," Creative Screenwriting 3 (1996): 13-15.

Erik Bauer, "On 'The Spitfire Grill': Interview with Lee David Zlotoff," Creative Screenwriting 3 (1996): 55- 60.

John Briley, "On 'Gandhi' and 'Cry Freedom': Two Pivotal Scripts in my life," Creative Screenwriting 3 (1996): 3-12.

Stephen Browne. "Encountering Angelina Grimké: Violence, identity, and the creation of radical community," Quarterly Journal of Speech 82 (1996): 55-73.

Norman Clark, "The critical servant: an Isocratean contribution to critical rhetoric." Quarterly Journal of Speech 82 (1996): 111-124.

Gary Dauphin, "The Spitfire Grill," Village Voice 27 Aug. 1996: 45-50.

Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin, "Beyond persuasion: a proposal for an invitational rhetoric," Communication Monographs 62 (1995): 2-17.

Johan Galtung, "Violence and Peace," A Reader in Peace Studies, eds. Paul Smoker, Ruth Davies, and Barbara Munske (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990): 9-14.

Edward Guthmann, "Sweetness Is Artificial In 'The Spitfire Grill'," San Francisco Chronicle, 23 Aug. 1996: D3.

Thich N. Hanh, "Feelings and Perceptions," in Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, ed. by Robert L. Holmes (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990): 144-146.

Robert L. Holmes, "General Introduction," in Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, ed. by Robert L. Holmes (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990): 1-9.

Deson How, "'The Spitfire Grill's' Pleasant Service," Washington Post 6 Sep. 1996: F1.

Leonard Klady, "Film Reviews: 'Care of the Spitfire Grill' Directed by Lee David Zlotoff." Variety Jan. 1996: 65.

Terry Lawson, "'Spitfire Grill' Serves Up More Female Bonding," Detroit News & Free Press, 25 Aug. 1996: G9.

C.O. Sylvester Mawson, ed. Roget's thesaurus of the English language in dictionary form. (New York: The New Home Library, 1942).

Ashley Montagu, "The New Litany of "innate Depravity,' or Original Sin Revisited," A Peace Reader: Essential Readings on War, Justice, Non-Violence, and World Order, eds. Joseph Fahey and Richard Armstrong (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1992) 5-18.

Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek, "Whiteness: a strategic rhetoric," Quarterly Journal of Speech 81 (1995): 291-309.

Kent Ono and John Sloop, "The Critique of Vernacular Discourse," Communication Monographs 62 (1995): 19-46.

Harold Pepinsky. The Geometry of Violence and Democracy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

John Petrakis, "'Spitfire Grill' Serves Up Solid Writing, Superior Acting," Chicago Tribune, 23 Aug. 1996: D4.

Beth Powell. "One out of three homeless is a vet," Centre Daily Times, 9 Nov. 1997, 6A.

Terrence Rafferty. "The Spitfire Grill." New Yorker Sept.1996: 93.

Josh Rottenberg. "The Spitfire Grill." Premiere 10 (1997): 126.

Jamil Salmi. Violence and Democratic Society: Approaches to Human Rights. (London: Zed Books, 1993).

John Simon. "New Directors." National Review 48 (1996): 94-95.

"The Spitfire Grill." Sight and Sound 7 (1997): 63.

Peter Travers. "Girls Town: The Spitfire Grill." Rolling Stone Sept. 1996: 69.

Bruce Williamson. "Movies: The Spitfire Grill directed by Lee David Zlotoff." Playboy Oct. 1996: 28.


1. In this essay, all quotes from Gandhi that appear under headings are from the book Gandhi on Non-Violence.

2. That these films may not have reached as "mass" an audience as others is a red herring; Ono and Sloop have reminded critics of the value of not focusing exclusively on mass media or rhetoric that is intended for the largest audience (39).

3. Norman Clark believes the Isocratean tradition is a way to share power with the audience; it is a "service" oriented rhetoric (112-113). Clark has called to critics to fulfill their "duty . . . for the public good and train their own minds so as to help their fellow [people]" (113). This means, at least in part, critics must look for ways to overcome stultifying critical and theoretical perspectives that have placed unnecessary constraints upon our abilities "to help" people.

4. Holmes further identifies nonviolence as being qualified or unqualified, indicating the shades of commitment that one has in dealing with violence in every day life:

What is nonviolence? To answer this requires looking beyond a few specific acts on specific occasions; it requires considering how people would act under various kinds of circumstances, and why. Particularly relevant here are circumstances in which most people are confronted with violence. Most of us are nonviolent most of the time; this is as true of those who approve of the use of violence in some circumstances as of those who do not…. to understand nonviolence requires understanding something of the nature of violence. For a commitment to nonviolence… involves the renunciation of violence. . . [and] may assume the form of nonresistance, passive resistance, or nonviolent direct action… Rosa Parks' act [of refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person] was an act of passive resistance. It was a refusal to comply with a directive, hence a refusal to acquiece in the requirements of an unjust system. . .

So in addition to renouncing violence of either a physical or a psychological sort (or both), the nonviolentist must be prepared to offer some account of how one responds to the violence or wrongdoing of others (1-2). Thus Holmes reveals the range of options and views that exist in various nonviolent philosophies from Buddhism, to Christianity, to Jainanism, and so on.

5. Gandhi worked throughout his career to discredit the cultural obsession, in India in particular, but worldwide in general, with the class system. Gandhi felt that artificial social hierarchies constituted a vile form of violence. Today nonviolent theorists such as Johan Galtung recognize such violence under the rubric of structural violence.

6. I myself would rate The Spitfire Grill as a "B+" movie. Nor is the rhetoric in the film entirely unproblematic. As it operates on some levels as a rhetorical appeal for mercy and nonviolence, it is by no means flawless.

7. Kohn reiterates the fact that "communication is improved through cooperation," which depends upon the key nonviolent aggregates of sensitivity, other-orientation, and trust (150). Kohn, A. No contest: The case against competition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).

8. Montagu states that

What, in fact, such writers do, in addition to perpetrating their wholly erroneous interpretation of human nature, is to divert attention from the real sources of [hu]man's aggression and destructiveness, namely, the many false and contradictory values by which, in an overcrowded, highly competitive, dehumanized, threatening world, he so disoperatively attempts to live. It is not [hu]man's nature, but his nurture, in such a world, that requires our attention (17).

Thus we see that the canonical Western texts have deep influences on our cultural outlook toward life and violence. Only by questioning the validity of the rhetoric in these texts can we begin to uncover a socially empowering, nonviolent perspective.

9. "The greatest criminality is found in positions of wealth and power" concludes Pepinsky (9).

10. The latter, as the ultimate, last resort of nonviolence in action is conducted in the name of "liberty and democracy," for in this context self-sacrifice is deemed "no less brave . . . than violent resistance . . . because it will give life" to the many through the taking of the life of only the few (Gandhi, 47).

11. See, for example: A. Ruth Fry, ed. Victories Without Violence: True Stories Of Ordinary People Coming Through Dangerous Situations Without Using Physical Force. (Santa Fe: Ocean Tree Books, 1986); and Louise Hawkley and James C. Juhnke, eds. Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace. (Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1993).

Ellen W. Gorsevski is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State Univ. in the Dept. of Speech Communication, specializing in Rhetoric and Nonviolence; she also teaches at Washington State University in the Depts. of English and Communication.