Thursday, April 29, 2010

Renegade April: Hasty Wrap-Up

Renegade April: A month of upstarts and discontents, confronting the systems that enforce an oppressive status quo. Granted, not all these films are about evil kings or villainous law enforcement; to the contrary, many of them portray an opportunistic rebel in the face of a fairly benign order. Even so, sometimes it takes a desperate act of defiance to define yourself, and the renegade will follow through, even if it means going to war with a shadow.

Within this space, I've followed the traditional renegades of history and myth: Robin of Locksley (who will inevitable return next month in Scott's adaptation), Taketori Washizu (channeling MacBeth, Shakespearean king-slayer extraordinaire), and Perseus, human champion rising against the wrath of Mount Olympus. This was an escalating sequence, with heroes opposing first the local law enforcement, then the national monarch, and then the Gods themselves, those capricious and unscrupulous patriarchs of the Greek legends.

After this, I watched four late 60's / early 70's films of crime and pursuit: Bullitt, The Getaway, Easy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde. Among these were two Steve McQueen vehicles (pun lol), two stories of star-crossed lovers on the run from the law, and two controversial and iconic 60's masterpieces. McQueen is the epitome of a brooding loner, struggling for his freedom against the constraints of a law-abiding world; Billy and Wyatt are cowboys on metal horses, birds above the fray, bypassers bearing witness to our degenerate world. Clyde Barrows and Bonnie Parker are the Jack and Diane of the public enemy era, restless and dangerous in the suffocating years of the Depression.

To all of these characters -- Bonnie and Clyde, Doc and Carol, Bullitt, Billy, and Wyatt -- vehicles represent space and mobility, the means to escape from personal oppression. They are all on the run, both from the law, and from the abstraction that the law embodies, and their engines seem to emancipate them from the everyday bullshit that has made them so volatile. To the criminal, the road is the only true home. Bullitt is the least dependent upon his vehicle as his gateway to freedom, but even with him, you can see and understand the connection he feels to that automobile, the force of his true nature that kicks in when he swerves around a San Francisco block.

The other two movies in this month's Renegade ouvere weren't about opposing a system, so much as they were about raging against a morally-degenerate world. Kick-Ass brought us Dave, Damon, and Mindy, normal(ish) humans who decided to stand up to the criminal element of their version of New York City. Lady Snowblood - final movie of the month - was about Yuki, daughter of the netherworld, born and trained to destroy four petty criminals carrying the bad karma of rape, enslavement, and murder. These were renegades against a rotten world, the vigilant scythe cutting away the dead appendages of a hateful world.

It seems strange, perhaps, that both of these two final films had revenge as such a strong theme. Dave was ineffectual... the true spirits of death were Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, and their quest was built on hatred for a particular criminal, rather than on a principle of moral order. The same is true of Yuki, who was assigned not with restoring moral balance, but with exacting bloody revenge on the people responsible for her mother's misfortunes. Big Daddy and Yuki were assassins, more than crusaders, interested primarily in the bloody act of murder. Justice was just a welcome side-effect.

Of course, revenge is a sort of karmic force, the embodiment of a person's sins coming back to destroy their perpetrator. These offenders may be protected by the law and the civil order, but that's why we need the blade of the outsider to step in and take action. The Renegade is the outward sign of a cosmic process: in this world born of Manga and comic books, it's the process of good stepping aside for a moment, knowing that evil will punish itself.

This was a month of ass-kicking, show-stopping, mold-breaking rebellion, the epic acts of defiance on behalf of the freedom-loving human race. It was a great month of movies. Tune in soon for next month's cinematic theme.


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - Robin of Locksley
Throne of Blood - Taketori Washizu / MacBeth
Clash of the Titans - Perseus
Bullitt - Frank Bullitt
The Getaway - Doc and Carol McCoy
Kick-Ass - Dave Lizewski, Damon and Mindy Macready
Easy Rider - Billy and Wyatt
Bonnie and Clyde - Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows
Lady Snowblood - Yuki / Lady Snowblood

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Renegade April: Shurayukihime / Lady Snowblood (1973)

Lady Snowblood: Yuki, born in a womens’ prison in 1870’s Japan, inherits a cursed legacy: her father was murdered in a set-up by some village crooks, and her mother was raped and ultimately enslaved to them. Yuki’s mother landed in prison after double-crossing her keepers, and there, she pronounces Yuki’s destiny: to be released from prison and carry out a mission of vengeance that her mother couldn’t complete. Yuki is placed in the care of a local warrior priest, who hones her into a weapon. She enlists the help of a bandit leader, and begins searching out the murderers of her mother’s husband, slipping into their lives one by one and dispatching them. She carries a wagasa (Japenese paper umbrella) concealing her sword, and she always wears a white robe, presumably for purity. She is a creature of absolute purpose.

If you’ve heard people talking about Tarantino being annoyingly derivative, and you don’t know what they’re talking about, then it’s time for you to see Lady Snowblood. The Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) quote from Lady Snowblood so mercilessly, it makes me think maybe Tarantino spent his whole youth watching and rewatching this one film. O-ren Ishii is a visual copy of Yuki, and Yuki’s drive for revenge is echoed by both O-Ren Ishii’s backstory and the Bride’s own wrathful mission. Lady Snowblood didn’t have Tarantino’s postmodern audacity or massive cinematic ambition, but it tells a more streamlined story with those samurai tropes. As a member of the younger generation, I don’t think I was able to appreciate them until I saw them in Yuki’s tale.

If you want to understand the spirit of Lady Snowblood, you shouldn't compare it to Kill Bill, but rather to a more recent movie that also inherits its spirit. This is Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), whose protagonist, Lee Geum-Ja, is kindred spirit to Yuki. This movie references some of the same elements: the show-downs in falling snow, the prison community as support and sanctuary. However, unlike The Bride, Geum-Ja is a quiet, determined murderer, not interested in confrontation or spectacle. Whether it's the way she was played, or the way she was written, The Bride is always putting herself on display, stepping into the center of a party, announcing her presence, and initiating a whirlwind of destruction. Yuki and Geum-Ja, on the other hand, are characters who linger in the background, gathering resources and waiting for the right moment to strike.

For Yuki, this dangerous lifestyle isn't just a hobby... it's her nature, given to her at birth and carried to the grave. Like her blade, she was forged for a single use, a purpose that's not even her own... as her mother proclaims over the newborn, she was born for vengeance. She never seems to question this directive, even in the flashbacks we see of her youth: her assigned mission is instilled in her by her guardian, and all of her training guides her toward it. This purpose, inherited from a higher authority, is revenge for an injustice perpetrated upon a man she's never met and a woman whom she wouldn't have recognized.

Yuki's sword-carrying wagasa is an apt metaphor for her own nature as a character. She is fashioned and sculpted as a courtesan, and time after time her enemies simply dismiss her as a helpless woman. In some cases, it allows her to dispatch them; in other cases (as with Matsuemon's henchmen) it almost gets them into trouble, and they're only saved by her lack of interest in killing them.

One of the great accomplishments of Lady Snowblood is that it condenses so much story into a 90-minute runtime. This becomes apparently whenever you read a synopsis online… they spend two paragraphs describing the backstory, and then seem to notice that they haven’t even started describing the main plotline of the movie yet. Despite the extensive narrative ground that Lady Snowblood covers, it never feels rushed; each fragment of personal history seems to fall into place, and each of Yuki’s actions is given its time to unfold.

Within this broken but strong narrative line, we encounter a number of micro-stories: the tale of Yuki’s father’s death and her mother’s road to prison, her mother’s wrath-fueled desire to have a child, Yuki’s difficult young life as she’s honed into a weapon of revenge, and the small, troubling snapshot of Banzo’s relationship with his daughter, fraught as it is with self-abuse and denial. These are all stories of broken families and hardships inflicted by sin, and what emerges is a sense that Yuki has entered a world of misfortune, endlessly perpetrated by the original crimes of the four villains: their cruel dishonesty to the peasants of a small town, their murder of an innocent schoolteacher and his son, and their rape and enslavement of his wife. These heartless acts have, in effect, opened a Pandora’s box of troubles, from Sanyo’s imprisonment to Gishiro’s criminal network (no doubt initially funded by the money swindled out of the peasants). This world contains Ashio, alienated by his father’s unscrupulous activity, and Kobue, Banzo’s daughter, working as a prostitute to support her degenerate father.

These troubles form a small, irresolvable Gordian knot (I know this is the second mythological reference in about three sentences… sorry) entangled by the parents and binding their children: Kobue to a life of dishonesty and prostitution, and Ashio to alienation and resentment of his father, who he has supposedly abandoned, but who still seems to hold a place of authority for him. Thus, the revenge tale of Lady Snowblood is wrapped around a family saga of sin and redemption, and only Yuki, born and raised with the express purpose of exacting vengeance, is able to release all the bonds of misfortune by ending the lives of the sinners. She is the sword that cuts the knot, abandoning redemption for retribution and catalyzing the martyrdom of the children for their parents’ mistakes.

Yuki is a renegade, in a sense. She’s the x-factor that none of her adversaries were able to prepare for, and she’s the razor’s edge that cuts through the poisonous legacy of the previous generation. However, in a broader sense, she is pre-ordained, a pure mechanism for karmic redemption, only human as an afterthought. Her inherited wrath and unflinching, inhuman sense of purpose are her markers of rebellion, not against norms or government, but against the established order, rotten to the core, which finally needs to be cut off.

How did a director turn something so sweeping into such a lucid, concise film? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly an accomplishment of filmmaking, reaching beyond the interesting tricks and into the much more complex realms of pacing, layering, and implication.

Renegade Profile

Daughter of a family destroyed by corruption; born with the sole purpose of carrying out bloody (like, SUPER-bloody) vengeance upon the criminals who murdered her father and enslaved her mother, she follows her netherworldly nature and hunts down her targets relentlessly

  • Murder in the first degree (4 counts)
  • Murder in the second degree (like, 50 counts)
  • Consorting with known fugitives
  • Carrying a concealed weapon without a permit

Friday, April 23, 2010

Renegade April: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Is Bonnie and Clyde (1967) a gangster film with a love subplot? Or is it a romance with a violent streak? It certainly creates a space to ask this question, and thus precedes a long line of murderous romances: Badlands, Wild at Heart, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, among others. What's amazing about Bonnie and Clyde - aside from its unflinching approach to on-screen violence - is the fact that the film has the feeling of a relationship, rather than a getaway (unlike The Getaway, also discussed this month). The tone of the film, driven by excitement, uncertainty, danger, and complete abandon to the dictates of the moment, is easier to understand as a representation of young love than of criminal psychology.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had the kind of mutual devotion that's standard-issue with first love. They meet in a Romeo and Juliet sort of stage, him trying to steal her car while she calls out to him from a window: Thus Clyde serenades Bonnie with crime, and Bonnie, bored and sheltered with her elderly mother, can't help but listen. In these initial scenes, Clyde seems dormant, with a confidence that still needs to be activated. He's recently-paroled and hasn't started really pushing his boundaries, and with Bonnie, he's a stallion, rather than a devoted partner, his primary goal being acquisition. To this end, he creates an idealized image of Bonnie, and then he spends all his energy making inane attempts to impress her. He's effective in these methods, just as he's effective as a bank robber, managing through sheer audacity to sneak into Bonnie's quiet little world and steal her heart and her life from it.

In his reflection on the movie (written as a defense of his own negative review), Bosley Crowther struggles a bit with what he sees as the movie's central theme:

"I gather that what most of these people [appreciative fans and critics] feel the picture conveys is a sense of the pathos of youngsters who don't really know what violence is until they are suddenly plunged into it -- who recklessly play with fire without a care or a thought of what they're doing until they're fatally burned. The moral would be that violence is an abstract and unconsidered thing in the minds of most careless, flagrant rebels. When it becomes concrete, it's too late." (Crowther Sept 1967)

Now, Crowther doesn't feel this reading justifies what he sees as the movie's shortcomings. Perhaps he would have been more convinced if he had seen the connection between this capricious violence and the other emotional anchor for the film, the theme of capricious love. In fact, Clyde in particular seems reasonably well-informed about the potential consequences of violence, even urging Bonnie to leave him when they murder a bystander in one of their bank robberies. He also makes an unsuccessful attempt to hide out to avoid entangling his brother... he knows they'll be put in danger, and perhaps become consigned to lives of crime and paranoia. Unfortunately, the ties of love and family pull them all into the same impossible situation together.

On the other hand, Clyde and Bonnie seem fully unprepared for the roller-coaster emotions of love. The film has the sense of giddiness and narcissism that comes with adolescent romance, and one of the driving forces in the movie is the chemistry between the suave Beatty and the beautiful Dunaway. It's a rapid heartbeat kind of film, imbued with surprising emotional dynamics, layered over situations that are surprisingly typical of rom-coms. The conversation between Bonnie and Clyde in a diner, right toward the beginning, is reminiscent of the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989), when the characters are first negotiating their feelings about one another. In between heists and murders and escapes, there's also a couple tense, tender scenes of intimacy, and two "meeting the family" scenes, exploring the complexity of inter-familial relationships.

It turns out that Bonnie and Clyde have to face some difficult realities as their love develops. Clyde has to deal with Bonnie's occasional outbursts, her animosity toward Blanche, her wish to visit her mother, and her fantasies about returning to a normal life. Bonnie has to deal with much more concrete problems from Clyde, who didn't always know how to back up his big talk; he also dismisses her need for privacy and intimacy, and occasionally berates her in front of his brother. It seems that, to adapt the words of Mr. Crowther, love is "an abstract and unconsidered thing" in the minds of these careless, flagrant romantics.

Bonnie and Clyde is often spoken of alongside Easy Rider (1969), another recent Renegade April subject. After all, both were late 60's movies about a pair of criminals on the run, both were experimental and self-conscious movies, and both ended in sudden tragedy. That said, it's just as interesting to note the difference between Bonnie and Clyde, the public enemy outlaws resurrected in Arthur Penn's film, and Billy and Wyatt, the motorcyclist drug-dealers of Easy Rider. Wyatt and Billy were unapologetic loners, true outsiders taking a detached journey through the Southern United States. Bonnie and Clyde, by contrast, were aggressively active. They were citizens of the nation, drumming up public opinion, seeking notoriety, and proclaiming their identities wherever they went.

Needless to say, these represent opposite sides of the coin of rebellion. There's a massive gulf between the way of the gun and the way of the dove, but as characters like Billy and Wyatt discovered (along with real people like Martin Luther King), even the peaceful, enlightenment-seeking stoner's road leads to self-destruction when it's paved through an entirely unsympathetic world. And for Bonnie and Clyde, at least this difficult path was under love's streetlight, and at least they made a mark on the goddamn world, going out with their guns blazing.

Am I celebrating violence? I guess it kind of sounds like it... but as I said before, with Bonnie and Clyde, the celebration of violence goes hand-in-hand with the celebration of love. For these two, whose relationship was dogged by predictions of death ("I'll bring flowers to their graves," says an old man), misguided rage and burning romance are part of the same flickering passion, always doomed to be extinguished.

At least Bonnie and Clyde never had to look at each other over a campfire and say, "We blew it."

Renegade Profile

Young woman falls in love at first sight with a charismatic bank robber, and together they embark on a wave of historically-inaccurate heists, eventually dragging some extended family along with them; like all great killing sprees, their journey hurtles toward the inevitable brick wall of society
  • Murder
  • Armed robbery
  • Carrying firearms without a permit
  • Super-disorderly conduct
  • Resisting arrest
  • Reckless driving

Other literature worth checking out:

Bonnie and Clyde in Ebert's Great Movies on Bonnie and Clyde

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Renegade April: Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider (1969) is a stream of consciousness of a movie, a directionless journey along the highway to what seems like a pretty arbitrary destination. My entry on the film is going to sound a bit like that, too... after 24 hours of reflection, I can't find any strong thematic thread to follow through the film, so I'll have to settle for a rambling sequence of loosely-connected observations. Oh, well... it's a blog. It doesn't always have to gel.

Easy Rider can be sort of tracked according to drug experiences. It starts with a sale of cocaine, which the protagonists only snort to verify its quality. They use this money to begin a journey from LA to New Orleans, hoping to get there before Mardi Gras. The film moves through the landscape, and eventually we get to the scene about marijuana, which is their drug of choice, and which marks the mid-point of their journey. Finally, after both beautiful and terrifying experiences on the highway, they reach New Orleans and conclude their road trip with a tab of LSD, which informs their experience of Mardi Gras. Coke is a fitting drug to get them started, since it's a kick-start drug, a classic all-nighter stimulant. You could almost argue that the three drugs provide moods markers for their journey, as well as convenient chronological landmarks.

Wyatt and Billy represent something that might seem unfamiliar to younger viewers, and that I didn't fully understand until I read Ebert's Great Movies entry on the film. They represent an old form of patriotism that's entirely at odds with the prevailing stereotype of 60's youth: the patriotism of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and a return to the land, totally at odds with urbane Europeanism and neoconservative flag-waving. They are subversives, and yet Wyatt bears the American flag, on both his jacket and his bike. This is what progressivism used to look like: a proud movement, rich with imagination, secure in its identity (even allowing for the nationalistic aspect), and opposed to conservative establishments of racism, puritanism, and social obligation.

Like the nation they represent, with all its turmoil and discontent, Wyatt and Billy are internally contradictory. At the ranch in Arizona, the wheels of their bikes are compared to horseshoes... and yet, we know that their bikes are mechanical, industrial, decoratively modified, and fueled by the great industries: steel, oil, and gas. Their moods are enhanced by artificial versions of the chemicals that run through all of our brains. They are not luddites or primitives: they're borne away from the social machine by machines, which are the very products that the machine creates. And yet, they are consigned to being creatures of the wilderness, turned away from hotels, coasting on empty roads through deserts and valleys. They are mechanical elementals, rippling bodies augmented by metal contraptions. They are both the culmination and the rejection of modern humanity.

George points out that to the people of the South and Southwest, Wyatt and Billy represent freedom, fetishized and unattainable, that the common citizen experiences only as an illusion. They find this freedom in their transitional space, the blank slate of this open landscape, shot in deep focus like the Old West in a John Ford picture (i.e. The Searchers, another film where an outsider wanders the world looking for something he may no longer even want). But as demonstrated by their bodies and their bikes, their commitment to "living off the land" when they come from the sprawling Hollywood wasteland of LA, and their divisive affect on the locals, Wyatt and Billy are not a cohesive force of resistance to the world they travel through. Rather, they find this freedom in contradiction, in the volatility that comes from a constant process of inner turmoil and transition. The beautiful thing they represent comes at the cost of their own consistency and stability.

George, too, discovers his inner uncertainty, smoking his first joint and going on about the infiltration of the world by extraterrestrials. He seems to have the most intense experience of "true freedom," because for him, this freedom was just a fantasy before he came into contact with the Riders. Riding behind Wyatt, he spreads his arms and flies along the highway, feeling himself being borne up and away from his frustrating lifestyle in Vegas. It's clear that he always had the seeds of rebellion inside him, and as he awakens, he also gains a special insight into Wyatt and Billy's situation. He's the one who finally articulates their relationship with the world, and warns them of the dangers they invite by being free.

There's a phase shift that happens around George, but it's hard to pinpoint. One way of looking at it is that the plot goes through three phases: one before George arrives, one oriented around his company, and one after his death. In the first phase, which seems to last until Billy and Wyatt reach the commune, the tension in the plot largely revolves around money: acquiring it, hiding it, and developing paranoia about preserving it. However, this disappears completely once Wyatt and Billy experience the commune and then proceed to Vegas, where they find George. This phase of the movie becomes a story of Billy and Wyatt's relationship with American consciousness, from the stand taken at the commune to the struggle with the local boys in Morganza. The climax of this phase is George's speech about freedom and the dangers of individualism, which is a lesson he soon teaches by example. After George's death, the focus changes yet again, and becomes about pure experience: the wild night in New Orleans is the keystone, the sensual climax to the characters' journey.

You could try a lot of ways to explain this. Maybe it's a movement from self-preservation, into an encounter with the world, and finally into participation in that world, via sex and revelry and LSD. Here at the end, even Wyatt, the sagely biker, lets go of his reservations. Was this New Orleans the final destination that Wyatt and Billy were hoping for? Was this long journey intended to end in an escapist orgy? It doesn't seem like it, given Wyatt's pithy observation over the final bonfire of the film.

Wyatt and Billy were rebels because they refused to be cohesive. They were renegades in a world where even the subversives were addicted to stability, and their permanent state of transition offered both a fantasy and a threat to the people whose paths they crossed. They failed and were offered up as a sacrifice, an apology for the naive dreams of their generation; but death wasn't their failure. Their failure, if my reading is right, is that they reached their destination. George made them the guardians of real freedom, the living spirit of the 60's, and when they reached New Orleans and submitted their spirits to contentment, they let that flame go out. In the throes of their unapologetic pursuit, they were invincible, able to withstand the physical and spiritual blows of a hostile world, but after they reached the end of the line in New Orleans, they met their deaths on a highway that would no longer sustain them.

Renegade Profile

Two bikers sell a bunch of cocaine, and then set out across the Southwest toward New Orleans, hoping to get there before Mardi Gras; along the way, they learn what it means to be an outsider in a nation that both idealizes and despises you.
  • Purchase and sale of controlled substances
  • Parading without a permit
  • Loitering, trespassing on public property
  • Speeding, reckless driving
Some other Easy Rider links:

The Easy Rider road map on Slate
A long summary and analysis of Easy Rider on FilmSite

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Renegade April: Kick-Ass (2010)

My review of Kick-Ass can be found at BlogCritics. It's lukewarm, but that doesn't stop me from digging some interesting themes out of the psychedelic storyline. Below, a meditation on Kick-Ass in terms of exhibitionism and representation, and how they undermine the more obvious message of "superheroism" splashed across the movie's surface.

Kick-Ass's motives: an exhibitionist spectacle, disguised as a noble pursuit. There's an undeniable tension between Dave Lizewski's speeches about truly wanting to help people, and his implied lust for fame and public recognition. Like most desires for attention, this initially stems from Dave's sense of his own invisibility. At the beginning of Kick-Ass, there are certain indicators of this invisibility, most notably the ability of the hot chicks on either side of his locker to talk right through him. He also mentions that among his friends, he's "not even the funny one," exhibiting some minor jealousy for Marty's sarcastic charisma. He spends a significant amount of time playing Star Wars Kid in front of a mirror in his room, and it looks like fun... in fact, it's a very honest alternative to the "training montage" that would normally represent the character's development. It shows us a kid who feels below notice, and who would like to find a way to represent himself.

This "exhibition" theme develops significantly during the first half of the film. After his requisite beat-down by a couple street thugs, Dave is willing to sacrifice his own personal public image in order to protect his Kick-Ass persona, going so far as to strip naked before emergency services arrive. This sacrifice is actually wide-ranging: Katie, his crush, takes the cue from the strange circumstances of his rescue and assumes he's gay, rendering Dave Lizewski invisible sexually, as well as socially. Kick-Ass the costumed hero, on the other hand, is highly visible, drawing a massive following on MySpace and a world-record number of hits on YouTube. The green wet-suit is a dramatic, self-conscious representation, a personality built from the ground up with "looking cool" as a primary motivation. Lizewski / Kick-Ass isn't lying about his desire to help people, but his exhibitionist impulse is plain, especially in his debut speech to an entourage of thugs in a diner parking lot, where he can't, in good conscience, explain his motivations without pointing out "all those people watching." Here, it becomes clear: for Kick-Ass, altruism is tied into public image, and "doing good" and "looking good" are rooted in common soil. And while Kick-Ass's public image thrives, Dave becomes less and less visible, eventually confessing his despair at not having anybody he can talk to. We, the audience, become his only confidantes, at least until he unmasks himself in Katie's bedroom.

It's a stretch, but it's even worth considering that Kick-Ass's first fight, when he's beaten and stabbed by a pair of thugs, is such a failure because there's nobody there to watch. Maybe the presence of an audience would have empowered Kick-Ass enough to avoid those punches and that knife blade. In the drug dealer's apartment, Kick-Ass is an abject failure, and it's worth noting that this apartment is a secret lair, far away from snooping cell-phone cameras, where none of the thugs even know who he is (really? After becoming a world-renowned viral personality?) Can Kick-Ass ever be victorious without making a spectacle of himself? Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't happen in this movie.

In fact, Kick-Ass's image gets so big that it starts to get away from him. He gets noticed by some bad people... as one hapless impersonator discovers... and when Big Daddy and Hit-Girl start taking out Frankie's mafioso, Kick-Ass is automatically blamed, being the superhero with the visibility. For his character, the most interesting moment isn't a stupid-ass scene with a bazooka. Rather, it's a tense torture scene broadcast live on the web, in which Frankie, stereotypical crime boss extraordinaire, uses Kick-Ass's visibility as a way to reinforce his own power structure. If Kick-Ass is an idea, born in the throes of the capricious public sphere, then Frank D'Amico knows that the only way to kill an idea is in its birthplace (yes, The Internet is the Mount Doom of Kick-Ass)... the only place where an image can be killed is in plain sight.

If Kick-Ass is motivated by an ambiguous mix of image-mongering and altruism, Red Mist is a fair mirror image (being red instead of green should be your first clue). He, too, is struggling with issues of invisibility, being protected from his peers by a big-ass bodyguard, and being generally dismissed and ignored by his father, the crime boss. He compensates by creating a tricked-out, self-involved, action-figure-worthy persona and making himself as visible as possible, ostensibly as a way to draw Kick-Ass's gaze... though he obviously doesn't mind the attention from a voyeuristic public eye, either. However, for him, the image-mongering is mixed with a healthy dose of family loyalty and betrayal, the counterpoint to Kick-Ass's altruism.

In terms of motivation, Kick-Ass also contrasts with Big Daddy / Damon and Hit-Girl / Mindy, who are driven by rage and resentment over their wife/mother's death. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl don't feel the need to draw attention to themselves, so they can stay in the background while Kick-Ass distracts the rest of the world. The film makes some specific nods to their clandestine nature: they have multiple safe-houses, they mock Kick-Ass when he asks how to contact them, and they "kill" security cameras when they drop in on their targets. This is obviously a good idea, because as it turns out, Big-Daddy's appearance on Red Mist's teddy bear camera is what turns him into a target. However inept Red Mist is as a villain, he turns out to be good at capturing the image of a ghost. The eventual result is that Big Daddy is tied up, placed in front of a webcam, and becomes completely helpless; Hit-Girl has to take out the lights so she can do her standard fuck-shit-up routine. Their visibility is their weakness, and they can only get shit done from the shadows.

Despite Damon and Mindy's lack of narcissism, they have selfish motives for their supposedly heroic quest. Their revenge fantasy, as common as it is in action movies and superhero comics, isn't much more noble than Kick-Ass's exhibitionism -- Damon's fixation is obsessive enough that he sacrifices his daughter's mental health and livelihood to the cause, and although the movie doesn't call him out as being an abusive monster, it's not an unfair judgment to make about his character.

So beyond all the themes of self-representation, image, and narcissism, what does this say about being a superhero? Maybe it says that to do this kind of work -- to dress up in something ridiculous with the intention of staging a violent confrontation with evil forces -- you have to have some other issues going on. You have to be desperate for validation, like Kick-Ass and Red Mist, or you have to be nursing a poisonous agenda, like Damon / Big Daddy... or you have to be the victim of such an agenda, like Mindy / Hit-Girl. You have to be doing it for the cameras, or for the image in the panel of a comic book, or just for the picture-show in your own head. If you're just a good kid, a Peter Parker with a heart of gold, you probably won't be interested in kicking any ass. You'll probably use your super-strength to help people out of emergency situations. You'll probably pick a real global problem and become an advocate for it. You won't cut peoples' legs off and shit.

Being a Renegade looks cool, though. And as Kick-Ass discovers, when he finally lets his real identity and his superhero persona intersect... at least it can get you laid.

Renegade Profile

A kid with a love for comic books decides to rebel against his mundane life and become a masked avenger, and after getting fucked up once or twice, he stumbles upon worldwide Internet fame and inspires a spate of superheroes committed to bringing down a New York City crime boss.
  • Destruction of property
  • Manslaughter
  • Assault, Second-degree murder
  • Fornication

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Renegade April: The Getaway (1972), contextualized with No Country for Old Men (2007)

I wrote a post not too long ago about the loss of the father in the revisionist Western, and in that post, I discussed the work of Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) and Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men). At the time, I'd seen the Coen Brothers film of No Country, but I'd been more concerned with the general narrative of that story, rather than its particular imagery... I was, after all, discussing the Western as a genre charting the loss of romantic ideals. It was all about the general thematic treatment.

I didn't realize, at the time, that the connection between Peckinpah and No Country reaches much deeper into specifics. But this week I saw The Getaway as part of Renegade April, and as a follow-up to Steve McQueen’s other iconic movie, Bullitt. The visual and tonal similarities to No Country for Old Men were striking, and the movie was mesmerizing for many of the same reasons as its 2007 Oscar-winning brother: its starkness, its cynicism, the feeling of many destructive agents slowly and inevitably converging... and the power of a desperate scenario to lay bare the crisis of cruelty and vulnerability at the heart of a man's soul.

The Getaway is a film about Doc McCoy and his wife Carol, two seasoned professional criminals, who negotiate Doc's release from prison by offering to help carry out a high-stakes bank robbery in the Texas desert. The robbery goes off with some complications, but Doc and his partners are successful at procuring the money; it's only when he goes to meet his client that he discovers he's being double-crossed by one of his partners, and set up by the boss himself. Doc and Carol finally set out across Texas toward Mexico, hoping to reach safety before they're caught either by the law, by the hit squad sent to recover their loot, or by the treacherous partner who continues his vengeful pursuit.

Aside from the fact that The Getaway is about a resourceful maverick carrying a pile of money and attracting a world of hostility, there are myriad other connections to No Country for Old Men. Both films have a climactic scene of pursuit and destruction in an old hotel, passing through doorways and up and down old stairs. Both films' action takes place at rest stops over a long, desperate flight through an unforgiving Texas landscape. Both films center on conflicted, heroic, but foolhardy males, carried through their trials by their love for a woman. Both films end with the wisdom received from an old local, speaking with the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of small, difficult struggles. No Country for Old Men even has a poster with the words "There are no clean getaways," which may well be a nod to Peckinpah's film.

Steve McQueen's Doc is firmly in the spirit of Llewellyn Moss, the protagonist of No Country: he's a seasoned survivor with a bag of money, breathlessly fleeing an army of brutal pursuers. Like Moss, Doc is a man defined by his hardships: prison was for Doc what the Vietnam War was for Moss. Doc is also a specialist, a go-to guy for bank heists, and he's tortured by the demands of love: his wife, Carol, knows the game as well as he does, and she knows that sometimes she has to be cruel to him in order to save him. Doc and Carol's troubled relationship is among the greatest distinguishing features of The Getaway, run through as it is with tenderness and hesitation, jealousy, competition, and perverse loyalty.

Doc is a double-renegade: he's on the run from the law, but he's also a pariah within his own criminal underworld, being the victim of two separate betrayals. The immediate dangers are the guns of the criminals following him, and these are frustratingly relentless, finally catching up with him in a hotel in El Paso. However, McCoy and his wife are also running from the law, a larger, more elusive enemy. Though "the law" isn't embodied in the form of a particular sheriff or detective (there's no Tom Bell to be found), it follows Doc and Carol everywhere in the form of Doc's face in newspapers and on television screens... perhaps even more unsettling than the literal faces of Rudy and the mob hitmen. Doc and Carol's greatest allies are the less informed local folk, who still see Doc as a stranger, and don't understand that he's a threat to anyone.

Notwithstanding the benign cooperation of townspeople, Doc and Carol are passing through a truly damaged world. Rudy, the Mexican back-up man turned vengeful pursuer, is a lens for the world's dysfunction, revealing it by activating it. The way he destroys Fran and Harold Clinton is the hint of tragedy that sets the whole story on edge; Fran's willingness to betray her husband for Rudy is sickening, and the emasculation and humiliation of Harold is so disheartening that his eventual suicide comes almost as a relief. Rudy is a rather inept version of Anton Chigurh -- not a force of nature, but still a destructive mechanism, revealing the fragile nature of orderly arrangements by unraveling them: first the heist, and then the Clintons' marriage.

In a certain way, it seems that Doc and Carol aren't fighting against the underworld per se, or even against the inescapable hand of the law, but against a world of false order, a world that's always on the verge of betrayal and abandonment. This instability manifests as deals-gone-bad, as treacherous partners, as the ubiquitous presence of the law, and as marriages and lives always ready to collapse under the pressure of danger and anxiety. Doc's survival mechanism is that he sees these double-crosses coming, time after time -- he pre-empts Rudy's attempted murder, he drives away from a drive-thru restaurant before any cops arrive, he notices the suspicious behavior of the El Paso hotel-keeper, and time and time again, he shows himself able to act ahead of his enemies, who, as it turns out, are absolutely everywhere.

In this untrustworthy world, Doc's only reliable companion is his wife, Carol, and even she has to betray him in order to save him. This catch-22, the treachery at the rotten heart of The Getaway, threatens to destroy their relationship, and I think we, Doc's audience, know that this will be the end of both of them. They are, after all, two residents of a brutally hostile world, and they seem to survive for each others' sake. I would conjecture that the whole web of conflict in The Getaway is built upon this single, central tension between Doc and Carol, and that's what makes them protagonists, despite their lawlessness and their brutality.

And the resolution of this central conflict is what makes The Getaway finally different from No Country for Old Men... and possibly from its source material, Jim Thompson's novel, which I understand ended differently. If Doc and Carol had abandoned one another, they would have succumbed to the nihilism of a broken universe, and the film would have been an exercise in hopelessness. This is, in a certain way, the bottom line of No Country, which is indeed an amoral tale: the unchecked destructive forces of a changing world are not going to let you off the hook. Doc and Carol, on the other hand, are able to save themselves by sticking together, and by hinging their resistance to a cruel world on the optimism of their love.

And like Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men, so an old man in The Getaway sums up the implied spirit of a broken world, when he urges Doc and Carol to settle down and get married. In the Coen Brothers' wasteland of Texas, there's no mercy waiting at the end of the line... in Peckinpah and McQueen's Texas, there's hope on the horizon, as long as you fight against the throes of this destructive world.

Doc and Carol McCoy

Specialist bank robber couple, using parole as an opportunity to complete a major heist, which turns out to be disastrous; this results in their flight from both the law and the criminal underworld, with only a bag of stolen cash and each other to count on

Murder (self-defense)
Armed robbery
Resisting arrest
Parole violation
Destruction of public and private property

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Renegade April: Bullitt (1968), the iconic Steve McQueen

This week, as part of a vast two-film series starring Renegade extraordinaire Steve McQueen, I saw Bullitt, a 1968 cop movie famous for its pioneering maverick cop and its epic chase scene. The plot is a bit loose, following Lieutenant Frank Bullitt as he’s tasked with protecting a witness for a Senate subcommittee hearing. He loses this witness to an assassin almost immediately, through some mysterious treachery, and as he follows up to uncover details of the murder, he gradually garners the hostility of higher-level superiors. He flaunts their escalating opposition in order to find the murderer and discover the true nature of the witness’s involvement in the high-profile case.

Frank Bullitt is basically the coat-rack upon which director Peter Yates hangs every other aspect of this movie – the brooding atmosphere, the other characters’ roles and performances, the central chase scene, every narrative thread. And Frank Bullitt is an on-screen embodiment of McQueen’s manly charisma, drawing the whole cinematic experience into his gravitational field. McQueen was a reformed hoodlum and California drifter who loved cars and motorcycles. He played tough guys because he knew how to be one, and he brought this authenticity to Frank Bullitt, the maverick cop of San Francisco, in particular.

Yes, Steve McQueen, the "king of cool," is a paragon of manliness. Frank Bullitt is the role he's cut out to play; it's clear why he's built a reputation on this type of character. To my eyes, he seems to occupy a space between James Dean and Daniel Craig, with the tacit strength of character that middle-aged men tend to consolidate, but also with an attitude of youthful resistance, less snide than the postmodern rebellion gestated by generation X... a coolness that seems less "coached" and more learned, and understood.

And it's interesting to note: Bullitt is gruff and driven, but not so impenetrable as some of his successor "maverick cops" (Dirty Harry, I'm looking at you). This is how McQueen reminds me of James Dean... even as he plays Frank Bullitt as a prickly loner, he also gives him some glimmers of uncertainty, a foothold for the audience's empathy. It's subtle, but it's there -- like when his captain asks to speak to him on the phone, and Frank just hangs up, or when Senator Chalmers confronts him about signing off on his professional failure, and Frank just refuses and walks past silently. He doesn't respond with the confrontational retort so common to modern "heroic" resistance; rather, he just pushes past, intent on staying the course, unwilling to let go of what seems like a hopeless debacle. Modern heroes always seem sure that they're doing exactly what's justified and appropriate in any situation. McQueen is headstrong, but he's clearly a man who understands consequences, which makes him a little more real.

This vulnerability is the deepest thread of characterization in Bullitt, the most important element keeping Frank Bullitt from just being a brooding cop superhero. My own observation, above, that Bullitt is conflicted about his insubordination is certainly arguable -- it's possible that he was just as heroically flawless as King Leonidas or the T-1000. But Frank's tortured soul reveals itself in other ways, as well, keeping him up at night and infecting his relationship with his two-dimensional trophy girlfriend. In fact, sleeplessness is a subtle but undeniable theme in Bullitt: Frank is roused from an obviously inadequate sleep at the beginning of the film, and at the end, his anxiety prevents him from going back to that bed after a long night of pursuit. The one time he does seem to be getting a good sleep, the phone rings, informing him that something on his case has gone awry. This is where his police work dogs him most tenaciously... in bed, as he's trying to rest.

And this theme is the exclamation point on the deeper significance of Bullitt's character: he can't find peace. Or, perhaps more accurately, he can't accept it. From lead to lead, he's pursued by discouragement, and by death, reaching out for each bystander he encounters. But with a problem set before him, he can't stop shaking it and working at it until he unravels it, even under pressure from his own agency: let it go, they say. But for Frank, it's a mild obsession, perhaps an emotional symptom of job-induced insomnia. He's a cop akin to some more recent danger junkies... like Katherine Bigelow's Sgt. William James, who's probably having these same kinds of sleepless nights.

This brings us back to his role as a renegade, which, in Frank's case, isn't any kind of personal statement. Frank is a rebel because he's fixated on the problem he's been given, which, at times, doesn't even seem to be clearly articulated... is he trying to protect a witness? Foil a hitman? Recover testimony? Whatever the nature of the entanglement, Frank has to work it out completely, even if it's at the expense of his own sanity, and he's willing to fight against both the mob and his own superiors in order to do it. He's not an ideologue or a teenager throwing a tantrum... he's just a man who needs to take care of a bit of business, and he'll go it alone if he has to.

Frank Bullitt

Insubordinate cop, tasked by a politician with protecting a key witness, who gets embroiled in a case of theft, assassination, and mistaken identity, who has to fight his own superiors in order to go the distance.
  • Insubordination
  • Justifiable homicide
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Destruction of property (both public and private)
  • Speeding, various other traffic offenses

Further reading on Steve McQueen and Bullitt:
Steven Santos at The Fine Cut on McQueen's Persona in Bullitt and Enemy of the People)
Steve McQueen "5 for the Day" at The House Next Door
The Cooler: "Bullitt Points" on Steve McQueen, including some thoughts on Bullitt, and an excellent blurb from the poster
A Google Map of the awesome, awesomely inconsistent car chase

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Renegade April: Clash of the Titans (2010) reaction and reflection

NOTE: Minor spoilers to follow, especially in the second half of the post, which is a discussion of the way the movie's themes play out in various plot developments.

Remember back at the beginning, when I discussed movies, I would often take up the causes of badly-reviewed, popcorn-munching films and unravel interesting elements within them? I've spent more time lately on classic cinema and art film, which makes me happy and all, but now I have to go back to that original Benefit of the Doubt tradition and unpack some meaning in a truly silly, indulgent, pop-culture piece of cinema fluff. Why? Because I insisted on seeing Clash of the Titans for Renegade April.

Now, granted, Clash of the Titans, released last weekend and starring Sam Worthington, Gemma Arterton, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and a bunch of other beautiful women and scruffy dudes, has a lot of history. First, there's the cinema history of being based on a previous ridiculous action film, released in 1981. Critics like New York Post's Kyle Smith point out that if you're going to do a trashy remake, what better to remake than a trashy original like Davis's stop-motion monster masterpiece? Second, there's the fact that it's based on mythological figures and actual folkloric references, however loosely. Third, there's the blog-wide controversy about the artificial 3D treatment, which caused an uproar among technical purists, dismissiveness among critics, and which probably doesn't really warrant that much discussion, except to say, "Do you think we can spare another three bucks per ticket for bad 3D?"

I'd furnish a plot summary, but that's probably not necessary, considering the two millennia of synopses and spoilers that are out there. Also, I'd critique Sam Worthington as an action star, but I think it's a bit superfluous, considering this movie wasn't written or filmed in a way that it could be acted well. Instead, I'm going to talk about the interesting tension between institution and subject, highlighted in the narrative conflict between godly brothers and a demigod son.

First, I'd like to point out what I liked about Clash of the Titans. It wasn't the drama, and it definitely wasn't the pacing. The effects themselves were only passable, with their imperfections obscured by the hyperstylization (lens flares, massive color-correction, post-production atmospherics). Among the monsters, Medusa was the least impressive, because she had to be built on an actual human face and body, so her slithering looked exceptionally artificial and computer-generated. She would have benefited greatly from having been designed around costuming and make-up effects, rather than completely built on some designer's desktop.

Medusa also had one of the least creative creature designs. It surprises me that every time Medusa is rendered on-screen, she's designed as a beautiful woman, and then tweaked to look dangerous. If I'm not mistaken, the character from folklore would turn men to stone because she was so ugly, which provides the thematic counterpoint with her lost youthful beauty. You can justify her sinister beauty by appealing to continuity from her former self, but this renders her power of ossification a mere magic trick. Meanwhile, female oracles -- women known for their mysterious wisdom -- are allowed to be disgusting-looking, like the Stygian Sisters. Action movies have this classic problem: any female adversary has to be beautiful, perhaps because this is the only way men are able to see women as powerful. This makes movies like Charlize Therzon's Monster especially subversive.

Okay, sub-digression over. It's safe to say that Clash is accomplished, at least as a monster movie... its creature designs had an antediluvian malevolence to them, alluding to the Great Old Ones and Tolkien's Balrog, and they escalated beautifully throughout the movie: from giant scorpions to gruesomely deformed sister witches, to a fight with Medusa, a quiet, explosive evil creature that provides a landmark in the journey -- and from there to the Kraken, a triumph of scale and incomprehensible shape and movement, like Matt Reeves' Cloverfield, a monster that was so strange and massive that you could never get the full picture of it. After the Kraken, the banishment of Hades to the underworld is just a formality... the destruction of the Kraken was the real hard work.

Still, it the subplot (or maybe meta-plot) with Hades and Zeus that makes for the most interesting fodder for reflection, after all the action has played out. As simple as Clash seems to be, it's easy to forget that it encompasses at least two intersection conflicts. First, there's the explicit conflict between Olympus and Earth, in which Perseus becomes a pivotal figure after Hades kills his family; this is basically a battle of armament and brute force, as Perseus and the Olympians each harness their "greatest weapon" and face off against one another. Second, there's the undercurrent of conflict between brothers Hades and Zeus, which seems to have a lot more intrigue involved. It's worth noting that in this meta-conflict, Perseus isn't a great hero primed to change the universe. If anything, he's a weapon that his father ultimately uses against his upstart brother Hades.

Hades helps incite the war against the humans, and he uses it as an excuse to persuade Zeus to empower him: unleashing the Kraken is also unleashing Hades, because the Kraken, a force powerful enough to kill the Titans, is explicitly aligned with Hades. Once Zeus allows this force to be unleashed, he'll be subject to its power, and Hades can depose him as ruler of the gods. Hades has a great plan, but he seems to set it off at the wrong time: Perseus, being a champion among the humans, is positioned to shut down the whole Kraken arms-race before it gets too big for Zeus to handle.

There are some real Godly politics here. Zeus and Hades are both part of a rather incohesive governing council, but they have very different philosophies. Hades is rather fascistic, using intimidation and militarism to inspire fear and loyalty in the populace. He's the enforcer, and it's worth noting that he suppresses free speech rather ruthlessly, showing up any time anyone badmouths the Olympians. Zeus, on the other hand, depends on the love and worship and loyalty of the humans (which still sounds a little totalitarian, but better than the "regime of terror" alternative). Zeus is told repeatedly that he has "too much love" for the humans, which is something that you might expect to hear Thomas Hobbes say to Barack Obama. In this sense -- the sense that Zeus tolerates conflict, struggles with the demands of power, and assimilates difference into his worldview -- Zeus represents a more modern social democracy than Hades, for whom fear and obedience are the only successful outcomes.

The more flexible and conflicted worldview would presumably be the more vulnerable one, and I think this is the assumption Hades makes about Zeus. However, it's clear that in Clash, Zeus is not easily undermined. In fact, he seems to get the jump on Hades, empowering Perseus ahead of time and giving him the means to disrupt the Krak-attack. When you haven't fully grasped the intersecting conflicts of Clash of the Titans, this is a strange moment, when Perseus discovers a magic sword provided by the gods without any explanation. He represents the humans, right? At war with those same gods? Why would he be getting gifts of war? Perseus assumes it's a trap, but he doesn't realize: his subversion, his resistance to the powers-that-be, are actually a gift to those very Olympians. Perseus can be assimilated, his aggression directed, in invisible skirmishes that he's not even aware of. Zeus the diplomat, willing to extend an open hand even to those who claim to be his enemies, is the one who's capable of harnessing this power.

This echoes another great myth, more modern than the Greeks' stories: the myth of Star Wars (episodes IV to VI, that is). Luke, the hero, is fighting a personal war of self-discovery and vengeance, battling on behalf of his dead family, and in support of a political machine ("the Republic"). However, as a professor once pointed out to me, he's also being used as a tool in a higher-level war, the war between the force and the dark side. As episodes I to III make clear, the previous story, in which Palpatine, Yoda, and Obi-Wan are the major players, encompasses the later story, the personal struggle between Luke and Lord Vader. The deposed champions, Yoda and Obi-Wan, may love Luke as a person, but they don't make any effort to save him from a life of struggle and responsibility -- rather, like any great political ideologues, they train him to fight, and they aim him like an arrow at their enemies.

So in Clash, the question of the great cosmic revolution -- humans versus gods -- is generally left open. Conceivably, the gods could be deposed by Perseus and the newly-invigorated Greek armies. That statue of Zeus is still destroyed, after all. However, the gods have gotten rid of their immediate problem, Hades' attempted coup. Further, by consolidating their power, destroying the Kraken, and making allies with Perseus, they've presumably protected themselves against revolution for the time being. They did it without totally destroying Argos or murdering anyone's children, royal or demigod. That's good diplomacy, right there.

So was Perseus really much of a renegade? Yes, he was, as long as you allow for the outlaw to be considered an integral part of the institutional structure that he opposes. This is the paradox of postmodern power: the only way to keep from being destroyed by subversion is to embrace it. Perseus is the revolutionary, the god-killer, who is ultimately pardoned and adopted as an ally against far more sinister hostility. He's still no government agent, preferring to return to a life of fishing, but he's discovered a path that's parallel to that of the gods he opposes. And so, as always, the renegade becomes an integral part of the health of the society, which must become more open and adaptable as it faces up to its own internal contradictions.

Renegade Profile

Demigod adopted son of a fisherman who take up a personal quest for revenge; eventually, he's adopted as a symbol of human resistance to the Gods, and ultimately, he becomes a pivotal factor in the wars of the gods against one another
  • Heresy
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Destruction of property
  • Draft-dodging
  • Animal cruelty

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Renegade April: Throne of Blood

Along with Robin Hood, one of the other infamous renegades of Western literature is a Scottish general, seized with pride and ambition, who decides to murder his king and take his place on the throne. This is Shakespeare's Macbeth, treasonous war hero, and he's unique among this month's renegade characters in that he's not a noble outlaw, but rather a figure of treachery, chaos, and self-destruction. He's been played on film by Sam Worthington, among others, but that's not the version I bothered with... the Macbeth I saw was Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

It's worth looking at what it might mean to be a "renegade" for Kurosawa in Japan, as opposed to Shakespeare in Scotland. Going back through the Elizabethan viewpoint on the feudal system, obviously the hierarchies are strong, and loyalty to kin is a powerful force. However, presumably, even in this ancient era of Western history, the importance of individualism and self-reliance was already forming... Shakespeare's time was, after all, the age of exploration and mercantilism, shortly following the Protestant reformation and the progressive rule of King Henry VIII (aka Jonathan Rhys Myers).

Displaced into feudal Japan, Macbeth has extra punctuation on the themes of loyalty and honor. Nobody was more bound to their lord than the samurai, the great retainer of ancient Japan, who staked his life on his service to his lord. There's no way to quantify the difference between the Eastern and Western sensibilities, but it's fair to assume that for Washizu, this inner conflict is deeply-rooted. The Great Lord isn't just at the top of a political ladder -- he's a focal point for the society's ideology, its spirituality, and its whole familial structure... and themes of disgrace shudder under the surface of the whole bloody affair, from the haunted death-chamber of Fujimaki ("this is dog's blood") to the unsettling ambivalence of Washizu's soldiers, whose loyalties are tested in the final minutes of his short reign.

The politics of Throne of Blood are sweeping, and Washizu's inner conflict is severe -- however, it doesn't have the stormy turmoil of Macbeth, partly because we never hear any soliloquies from the treasonous main character. In fact, Throne of Blood simply doesn't feel as violent as Macbeth, despite a great deal of viciousness, assassination, and warfare. It feels more harmonious, as a whole, than the bard's masterpiece, and to what extent this is an effect of the Noh influence, I can't say. To my uneducated eyes, it's the result of rhythm and tone, and to a presence that infects the setting from the forest journey onward: the presence of the evil spirit, puppetmaster to Washizu's intrigue and anxiety.

In accordance, the whole film seems obtuse and haunted (as opposed to fierce and uncontrollable, as Macbeth felt in the reading). The presence of that forest spirit hangs over the affair, speaking through animals and manifesting as different sorts of presences at different times: the chilling echo of a traitor in a bloody chamber, the sad, silent ghost of a friend betrayed, late to a lords' dinner. Even in the minimalist ballets of implied intrigue and control between lord and lady Washizu, there's something watching. Perhaps it's us, the omniscent eye, giving a perilous meaning to the events that unfold. I'd give this theory a chance: perhaps the viewers are the evil spirit, and our expectation is driving the plot's sinister, inevitable machinations. Perhaps fate is not so much predestined by Washizu's personality, nor enforced by the invisible hand of the kami, but rather propelled by our own demands for bloody resolution. This feeling of order and inevitability, the dark clouds of fate gathering from the moment the prophecy is uttered, is partly because of a lack of soliloquy, but it's probably more because every scene of Throne of Blood is so perfectly constructed, and so pregnant with meaning.

Indeed, one of the contextual effects lacking in Throne of Blood, that gives it such a sense of purpose, is an indication of an everyday life outside the intrigues of the main characters. The castle, the North Garrison, and even the fields at times... the sites for conversation, routine, and employment... frequently seem empty, providing sparse stages purpose-built for putting ambition and uncertainty on display. Has anyone noticed that when the other castle-dwellers are shown, they always seem to be loitering, sitting in one place, gazing around a courtyard, barely conversant? They don't seem to be at home in their own residences, and like us, they seem to be waiting for some sudden development, some turn of fortune or deferred sign of fate. The peasants outside are less "folk" and more like ghosts of everyday life, just crossing into this mysterious spirit-world for a moment when the Great Lord rides past them through the field. Perhaps in Throne of Blood, the characters have already crossed into the spirit world, so they all feel like unwelcome guests, in a hurry to do their violent duties and get the hell out.

And in the midst of this haunted feudal Japan, we have a great deal of action that ultimately seems to center on Washizu, victim of the voices around him. He is the transgressor, the scapegoat for the sin of disloyalty, which is a fire lit within him by an evil forest spirit, and then fanned by a scheming spouse. He supplies the fuel for this inevitable flame to burn him to ashes, and when he finally falls, it's at the hands of his own army, assembled from his victims' soldiers -- a roundabout method of suicide, for sure, but still, in a certain way, it's death by his own hand.

I wish I had more original analysis to provide, but one of the triumphs of Throne of Blood is the fact that so much of the film is felt, rather than sensed, understood, and deconstructed. Other critics have talked about the use of editing to create confusion, or the narrative symmetry of the film, layered over visual symmetry in a number of important scenes, or about the lines of force (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal) that signal shifts in tone and temprament. However, these factors are fairly insignificant in comparison with the whole effect, which is vast, empty, and uneasy. This is a rare occasion where it's hard for me to analyze the experience, which is so intuitive and complex, so I'll leave you with a recommendation to go see this film if you haven't, and if you have, maybe even see it again.

And I'll also leave you with Washizu's Renegade Profile, in accordance with our monthly theme.

Renegade Profile

Hot-shot general who, under the influence of an evil spirit and a scheming wife, makes an unscrupulous grab for power, discovers the political and psychological consequences of being too ambitious
  • High treason
  • First-degree murder
  • Consorting with evil spirits

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Renegade April: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

If you take the Renegade (“heroic outsider”) back past the beginning of film and into the endless void of literature and storytelling, you find that the paradigm case – the alpha and the omega of the archetype – is Robin Hood, the green-clad arrow-firing legend of the English countryside. Luckily, you don’t have to be a cultural historian PhD to talk a little about how this narrative has shaped up, because it’s come up a number of times in recent years. In fact, the topic is especially timely right now, because Ridley Scott is releasing the latest revisionist Robin Hood blockbuster in May. Crowe will probably be the definitive Robin of Locksley in the eyes of an emerging generation, so they’ll know Sherwood Forest as a dark, gritty place and Robin Hood as a wartime leader against the armies of the crown, appropriated by the villainous sheriff. However, Crowe will never be my Robin Hood… my Robin Hood will be the one that appeared on-screen in 1991, the Prince of Thieves, played by Kevin Costner.

Since I started poking around movie blogs and film forums, I’ve discovered a lot of ire directed at this particular adaptation of the Locksley legend. I can’t relate, even in the most clinical critical way… I loved Costner as Lord Robin when I was a boy, and rewatching the film for Renegade April, it still holds up as a down-to-Earth medieval adventure story and a loving portrait of the infamous outlaw, speckled as it was with occasional cheesiness. I mean, I love Lord of the Rings as much as the next guy, but since when did medieval action movies have to be nine hours long? Since when did they require two battlefronts of opposing armies, running at one another and clashing on an open field? I tried to watch Excalibur recently, and I couldn’t get through more than half an hour, with the muddled pacing, the laughable delivery of key lines, and the honest but futile attempts to muster up fascinating effect-driven magic spells. Yet, rewatching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I found it was still the fantastic film I remember.

So why all the hate? I’ve seen a few broad claims: first, that Kevin Costner was simply the wrong guy to be Robin Hood. I’ll address that more at length, below. Second, I’m constantly seeing the complaint that Kevin Costner couldn’t “hold an English accent,” which… and I hate to make unqualified statements of critical judgment, but… is a dumbass reason to discount the performance. There’s no such thing as an “authentic” Crusades-era British accent any more, and if anyone had one, I’m sure they would need to be subtitled. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Kevin Costner spoke in a nondescript American accent so that a strained enunciation wouldn’t get in the way of his character portrayal. It’s sad that I even have to defend against this claim. I’d defend against other complaints that critics have thrown around, but honestly, I haven’t seen any that are specific enough to warrant addressing.

I think, really, Prince of Thieves was a victim of certain circumstances surrounding its release. First of all, it was attached to one of the most catchy, sappy songs ever written (I don’t think that’s a hyperbole), and it’s very difficult to think about the movie without getting the song stuck in your head. The romance aspect of Prince of Thieves is actually fairly minimal; there’s no sex scene, tender or otherwise, and the central romantic relationship often consists of Robin Hood being a smart-ass and Marian making fun of him. Unfortunately, the sap has seeped too deep into the perception of the film, and now it’s infected.

The other historical circumstance that brought down Prince of Thieves was the subsequent release of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which is one of the few parodies to become more culturally relevant than its target. This is certainly understandable… Men in Tights is an amazing film, possibly Mel Brooks best work, and strikes with pinpoint precision. At no less than 5 or 6 moments in the first half of Prince of Thieves, I had to stifle laughter, because I remembered the corresponding moments in Men in Tights: the removal of Locksley castle, the river-crossing, and Ahchoo’s various remarks to Blinkin and Robin Hood. In fact, I think the criticism mentioned above, re: the accent, may have come directly from Men in Tights, when Cary Elwes said to Prince John (and the camera), “Because unlike some Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.” Attention, Mel Brooks: you made a masterpiece. However, I rather pity Prince of Thieves for having to live in the shadow of its parody.

Parodies aside... I'd like to go ahead and talk about that (overly?)-serious 1991 version of Robin Hood. I'd like to talk about why it will always be my favorite.

The core question of this analysis: is Kevin Costner appropriate, or indeed even qualified, for the part he plays in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? He’s bracketed by the likes of Russell Crowe (2010), Cary Elwes (1993), Sean Connery (1976), and Errol Flynn (1938). There are some others in there (I’m lookin’ at you, Virgins of Sherwood Forest) but the ones cited here are the primary portrayals, methinks. Even Connery is a dubious addition to the list… sure, he’s well-known, but his Robin Hood film appears to be a bit lightweight. At any rate, you can always find the true precedent for a popular image by tracing its parodies, and the consensual image of Robin Hood is obviously Errol Flynn, subsequently parodied in Men in Tights and Shrek (among others, I’m sure). As the dancing, balletic hero of traditional melodrama, Flynn is a perfect poster-boy, but since the 30’s, we’ve started to demand a bit of a grittier and more realistic quasi-historical world.

Enter Crowe and Costner. These are two wildly different visions of a medieval hero, with Costner making the transition from old melodramatic fantasy, and Crowe carving an alarming new model of muscle and anger and mud-soaked angst. If we were playing NetHack (or WoW, or D&D, or whatever… how old are you?) then Costner’s character class would be “Rogue,” whereas Crowe’s would be “Barbarian.” Costner would have the advantages of speed and agility, exemplified by his swinging from ropes, stabbing with knives, and firing quicker than Will Scarlet can throw a knife. I can’t really see Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood outrunning his foes, or engaging in a spritely sword-fight. He’s kind of a brute, isn’t he?

And despite protests, I still see two figures in Costner that make him a fantastic Robin of Locksley – much better than he was as Mariner in Waterworld. The first is this “Roguish” thing I mentioned just now. In Prince of Thieves, Robin is charismatic, allowing him to be a leader, following from his confidence and the life experience he has from the crusades… but he’s also a smart-ass, which is what qualifies him to be a thief, a classic trickster figure, a true subversive. Costner has always had one of the best smirks in the business, and his lines in Prince of Thieves bring out his boyishness, as when he’s asked to turn around and present himself to Marian, and he asks, “Am I to dance next?” … or when his companion, Azeem, says of a river, “In my dreams alone have I imagined such a place,” and Robin replies,Then imagine a way to cross it.” I know, he’s no Juno, but he can deliver dry sarcasm with the best of them.

Then, Costner balances a second persona with the first, and this balancing act may be what drove critics like Ebert to say things like, “What bothered me was that the filmmakers never found the right tone for Costner to use, no matter what his accent.” This second persona is the father figure, which is another role that Costner plays well, alongside his adolescent self. Costner’s fatherly tone comes through most in his sentimental moments… and yes, there are a lot of these… and in his confident authority dealing with individuals, like Wolf, Friar Tuck, and Will. Again, I quote Ebert, who says that Costner is “a thoughtful, civilized, socially responsible Robin Hood,” which reflects an inner peace that we understand comes from the character’s trials in the crusades. Calm and paternal and earth-bound: I may be mistaken, but I think this is how many of see our own fathers, and Costner plays it well.

This fatherly tone is the greatest departure from the old tights-and-singing characterization of Robin Hood, and it made this version a bit alarming for some. However, it’s important to the thematic backbone of this version of the tale, which is romanticized, but tilted toward realism. This strong paternal instinct is what prompts Robin to start taking care of the displaced peasants of Nottingham, his altruism touched with the slightest bit of chauvinism. It’s a tone that also links this particular Robin Hood strongly to two themes that have always been with the hero, but that haven’t necessarily been capitalized upon so much: the theme of the father’s death, which is an overpowering force in Prince of Thieves, and the theme of loyalty to his king. Robin is a loyal subject, but clearly he sees King Richard as a father figure to his country, and strongly respects him and defends his authority, like a good eldest son. His personality throughout Prince of Thieves is defined by a willingness to step in and take the reins, first temporarily as steward to the kingdom, and then permanently as husband to Marian, and presumably as father to some kids.

I’ll speculate a little here: I doubt Crowe will manage either of the qualities that Costner brought to bear. He doesn’t have the face or the manner to be sarcastic… his confidence is heavy and self-possessed, more fitting for a Roman general. He also doesn’t really have the warmth to be fatherly, which is why, in Gladiator, it makes sense that we never even see him with his family. As a military-father-in-absentia turned vengeful force of nature, he’s great… but can a band of the disenfranchised trust him to build a community? Perhaps they won’t need to, if Ridley Scott focuses on Robin Hood as a master of guerrilla warfare and a great battlefield strategist. And from the trailers, it looks like this may be what happens.

However, I’ll always think of Robin Hood as Costner’s character, “thoughtful, civilized, and socially responsible,” with his attendant ambiguity and introspection. For earlier viewers, Robin had to be a dancing, joyous forest minstrel, and for later viewers, he will have to be a brutal medieval warrior rising from the Earth. For me, he’s a smarmy, lithe, forest-dwelling romantic who will be remembered for much worse movies, when he should be remembered for this one.

Renegade Profile

Outlawed by acting law enforcement; appropriates "criminal" identity in order to defend locals and protect true king's rule
  • Robbery
  • Theft
  • Resisting Arrest
  • Incitement / Conspiracy
  • First-degree murder
  • Probably second-degree murder