(I offered five sets of my two volume story collection for sale last night. Little did I know I had so many old college chums lurking on the blog. I sold all the books and had some nice conversations to boot. Thanks.)
On Slate today Eric Lichtenfeld writes a memorable piece on vigilante movies. He gives space to Brian Garfield's dissastisfaction with the original Death Wish movie and then goes on to consider the form as a whole. For me the most interesting point is what he says about the way modern day westerns look at vigilantes. Ambiguously at best.
The seminal vigilante film of the era—or any era—is Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), based on Brian Garfield's novel. The movie immortalized Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an everyman who responds to the brutalization of his wife and daughter by obsessively smiting muggers and other "freaks" (as the credits bill his family's attackers). This is far from where Kersey began: a progressive raised to hate guns, and a wartime conscientious objector. Of course, Kersey's liberalism exists only so it can be corrected later. Liberals are similarly "reformed" in the new Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One, as well as in Vigilante, Death Wish 3, and The Enforcer, in which a cop's widow makes the point, "It's a war, isn't it? I guess I never really understood that."
This war is between the civilized and the savage—a conflict drawn from the Western. The period's vigilante films actually uphold the Western mythos more reliably than its Westerns do. The Wild Bunch, Ulzana's Raid, and others depict the Western as morally confused, even bankrupt. Meanwhile, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and similar action yarns ultimately embrace the gunfighter's moral clarity.
It's easy to imagine that in a post-9/11 America, vengeance occupies more of our national imagination than before. Maybe it does. But today's vigilante movies channel many of the same frustrations that their predecessors did. Today, as in the '70s, America faces economic, environmental, and energy-related crises. In both generations, Americans wrestle with political powerlessness, on fronts ranging from their own health care to the country's role on the global stage. (America's invasion of Iraq, unsanctioned by the U.N. and launched by a president happy to be seen as a "cowboy"—or more accurately, a gunfighter—could be seen as a vigilante war.) And both generations of Americans watch as the executive branch flouts its accountability to the public and to the law, proves unable to "win" an increasingly unpopular war, and refuses to acknowledge the reality of the war's downward spiral.
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