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Lust for revenge

Like all of us, I'm living under a death sentence. Not to sound alarmist, but to quote Woody Allen in "Love and Death": "Isn't all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o'clock tomorrow morning." Looking on the bright side of death, I think in some ways it must be nice to have such certainty. But we live in perpetual uncertainty and doubt (see "No Country for Old Men"). My own awareness of the prospect of my demise ranges between roughly five years and five seconds, according to fluctuations in the health of my heart. I've gotten close enough to peer over the threshold (and in one case, lost my grip and fell into the void for, I'm told, about 10 or 15 minutes). My point is, I don't see death as an abstraction but a... vividly imminent possibility, depending on the situation.

(Neuroscientists say it may take the human brain 20-30 years or of development to really begin to fathom the concept anyway -- to some extent we tend to feel, and behave, as if we are immortal before that. I think my brain "knew" somewhat earlier.)

My adventures in mortality are absolutely nothing, however, compared to what some of my friends and acquaintances have been through. People have asked me if my near-death (temporary-death?) experience in 2000 gave me a new perspective on life and I have to say... no. I've been preoccupied with death ever since I was old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of what that was. It used to make me a little dizzy thinking about an infinity of nonexistence, like the one I didn't experience before I was born, but I don't find anything disturbing or frightening about that. Hey, it happens to everybody. Dying is easy; living is hard.*

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What I'm trying to get at, in my characteristically circuitous way, is this: Last week, when I had to make two separate overnight trips to the hospital (short: cardiomyopathy & arrhythmia) and I spent some time daydreaming in bed, ruminating on the meaning of it all as I looked over some of the Sight & Sound poll results, I had a mini-epiphany about revenge movies. I've never much cared for, or about, them and I think I've realized why: the very idea of "revenge" seems morally absurd to me and not terribly interesting as conflict or drama. In other words: I have no scores to "settle" before I bite the big one, or any illusions that such a thing is even possible. In the face of death, such considerations seem comparatively trivial. I suppose that's a good thing in the long run; perhaps I'm less likely to feel I must express my disapproval of a government or a culture by strapping on a bomb and trying to take a bunch of Them (The Other) with me when I go.

Let me explain a bit: Yes, the revenge plot is older than god and twice as angry. (That's the Old Testament Judeo-Christian god** I'm talking about there: the omniscient, all-powerful deity who's always throwing temper tantrums and wreaking vengeance on those of his creations who he feels have wronged him -- along with hundreds or millions of innocents. Is that punishment, or vengeance, or justice? You decide.) Anyway, the reason I mention it is because of the commonly cited biblical phrase, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21: 24 and elsewhere), which has been interpreted to justify retribution, and to argue for proportionateness (as in, "let the punishment fit the crime," which goes back at least to The Code of Hammurabi).

I've always thought that the genius behind the Roman Catholic ritual of confession was to reduce morality to accounting. You commit such-and-such a sin, you confess, you're assigned a certain number of prayers to say, and your balance sheet is zeroed out. This is brilliant beyond belief (which is one reason, perhaps, I've never actually been able to believe in it). And that applies to revenge: I don't believe morality is mathematics.

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On the simplest level, revenge stories have an undeniable, built-in dramatic and emotional appeal: We lust for the catharsis of seeing someone who is wronged "get back" at whoever committed the sin against them (this presupposes that such person or persons can be identified); and we want dramatic equilibrium restored because, well, the neatness freak in all of us compulsively hankers for symmetry and balance. And things are ever so much nicer and cleaner that way.

Of course, some of the greatest movies ever made have been built to run on the revenge chassis. There are so many variations on the simple formula, some of which act as cautionary tales about victims who become so consumed by their quest for righteous vindication that they become functionally or literally (though not necessarily irreversibly) insane -- sometimes destroying themselves and anyone in their path. (Ripped-from-the-headlines stories of serial killers and mass murderers sometimes fall into this category, with the killer striking out in fear and hatred at sacrificial victims, whether carefully chosen or indiscriminate). Others focus on the extra-legal means vigilantes employ to achieve catharsis when they "take the law into their own hands" and become the dispensers of street-lustice. And others are just straight-out revenge fantasies, in which the protagonist vanquishes the villains.

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Quentin Tarantino favors the latter kind in his "Kill Bill" movies and "Inglourious Basterds" -- movies I shamelessly enjoy, and which he characterizes first and foremost as "fun" and "cool." They may seem at times as if they are cautionary tales, but they're not. They are about full-blooded vengeance. Don't go looking for shades of gray. You go to Tarantino for bold, rip-roaring cinematic thrills, not so much for moral nuance. His own ambivalence is expressed in the different ways he has described the climactic scene, depending on the audience he's speaking to, in interviews, from:

For the last 30 years, all the movies coming out about World War II, whether it be feature films or TV movies... lots of TV movies... they really focus on the Holocaust and the victims of World War II. That has been the diet for the last 30 years. But even during the war, when they were actually fighting the war, and even during the '60s, you know, with the guys-on-a-mission movies, there was no crime in telling a thrilling story. You didn't feel like an idiot, for example, when you said, 'I had FUN watching "The Great Escape," ' even though Nazis mow down and kill people. I have a great time watching that movie. It's very entertaining. And that doesn't make my movie better or worse, but it's something that has been lost in the last 30 years of the telling.

to:

The metaphor is not lost, you know, in that, via these film prints and via her cinema, Shosanna is intending to put the Nazis in an oven and create her own final solution.

to:

I set up scenes and I jerk you off to have a climax. And in this movie I jerked you off and I fucked with the climax... At some point those Nazi uniforms went away and they were people being burned alive. I think that's part of the thing that fucks with the catharsis. And that's a good thing.

to (regarding one of his favorite movies, "The Dirty Dozen"):

... they create their own oven for the Nazis. And not just the Nazis: their wives, their girlfriends, all the collaborating-with-the-enemy bitches that are hanging out with them. They pile up those grenades and they douse them with gasoline, creating their own napalm, and they just burn 'em. [laughs] I mean, it's pretty fucked up!

to: "I was too brutal to Nazis?"

Sure, Shoshanna may go a little crazy in plotting her revenge for her family, but her laughing visage is part of her schtick to terrify the nazis before she massacres them. She works it all out well in advance and never loses sight of her goal. Which is to kill nazis. (And, perhaps, with the help of Aldo Raine and his basterds, to end WW II.) Note that during the theater inferno scene the crowd is seen anonymously, mostly in long shots from above (only Hitler and Goebbels share a two-shot when they're machine-gunned); no mini-dramas of individuals trying to escape; no close-ups, and hardly any faces, of the victims are seen -- only those of the avengers, who stand above like Old Testament gods striking down upon them "with great vengeance and furious anger," as somebody from another Tarantino movie once said. If you believe for a moment that you're supposed to feel pity when watching the nazis go up in smoke, as they laugh at the deaths of Allied soldiers in the film they're watching, I think you're seering a movie that isn't there. This plays as a pretty straight-ahead "eye for an eye" tragi-comedy, right down to the final branding and scalping.

You'll find a few revenge-fueled movies on QT's 2012 Sight & Sound directors poll list of best/favorite films, including: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (Sergio Leone, 1966), "Rolling Thunder" (John Flynn, 1977) -- and you could make a case for "Carrie" (Brian De Palma, 1976), "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and maybe even the ritual sacrifice of "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) as semi-ambiguous revenge movies, too. (I know people, and I'm sure you do as well, who believe Travis Bickle and Col. Kurtz are heroes -- and who take the newspaper clippings on Travis's wall at face value.)

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I generally just don't get much satisfaction from revenge pictures. Yes, I can get caught up in them (how can you resist if, like me, you're a sucker for storytelling?), but they usually strike me as hollow, formulaic exercises. I grew up in the era of Nixonian "law and order," "Dirty Harry" (1971, a good movie) and "Death Wish" (1974, a not-so-good movie) so the urban ugliness and paranoia was compelling, but in most cases, once these movies were over, they felt to me like empty experiences, wastes of time. My alcoholic redneck father and I used to have furious political arguments when I was a kid (I've earned my lefty stripes) about gun control and capital punishment and other issues. He used to say: "Do you mean to tell me right now if someone came in here right now and killed your mother and your sister and your dog, you wouldn't want to kill them?" Well, of course I would -- I'd do it in a heartbeat and feel no guilt -- but that's hardly the point. There's self-defense, there's premeditated murder, and there's state-sanctioned execution. Different things, with different moral and legal considerations. (I used to be in favor of gun control; now I think that Americans have clearly shown that they prefer to live in a society where it's easy for individuals with high-powered weapons to shoot lots of others in seconds. To most, that's just a little downside of preserving the Second Amendment. "Well-regulated militia" and originalist muskets be damned, they need their automatic weapons in case we should be invaded by furriners or the federal government someday. I just wish they could understand that the First Amendment works the same way, only words don't usually kill or maim quite like bullets and bombs do.)

Now, maybe run-of-the-mill revenge and/or vigilante movies (especially the exploitation pictures) aren't necessarily intended to evoke complex feelings or provide insights into human psychology or behavior. Some do, some don't. It's a wildly mixed assortment of art and exploitation and everything in-between: "Hamlet," "The Searchers," "The Virgin Spring," "Hang ,'em High," "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," "Joe," "Walking Tall," "Billy Jack," "The Last House on the Left," "I Spit on Your Grave," "Coffy," "Sudden Impact," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the Rambo movies, "Commando," "Johnny Handsome," "Braveheart," "The Crow," "Unforgiven," "Memento," "Leon: The Professional," "Gladiator," "The Brave One," "Munich," "The Punisher," "Mystic River," "Payback," "Man on Fire," "Quantum of Solace," "Taken," "Haywire," all manner of superhero movies, and countless others.

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The drama of so many stripped-down revenge pictures is simplistic and the execution rote, perhaps because the desire for revenge, in the protagonist and the audience, is almost autonomic. And some filmmakers just don't want to muck things up with nuance. So, sure, if you tap me under my kneecap with a rubber hammer, my leg's gonna kick. But I don't get any particular satisfaction out of that. It doesn't mean anything except that my nervous reflexes are working. I don't tend to wast time and energy fantasizing or plotting "revenge" (I'm fortunate enough that I don't think anyone has intentionally done me serious harm, though I may not know about it!). If someone messes with me, I either confront them about it or, if that fails, cut 'em loose if they seem intractable and unforgivable. There's no time to waste being around petty, malicious people, even if they are (or were) your friends. We're better off going our separate ways. (No, this isn't about anyone in particular; it's just something I've been thinking about -- especially after this week's "Louie" with Marc Maron.)

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I don't want to sound preachy, but I find forgiveness to be one of the most moving themes in art, and one of the most difficult to pull off in movies. It's complicated. If you forgive someone, you may not have solid reasons, because it's a feeling, not a logical decision or a quid pro quo transaction. You may not even consciously choose it. You just realize that you haven't forgotten, but you can forgive, and there's no sense in burning a hole in your stomach over it. If someone else has to decide to forgive you; you don't have any control over it. And even if you are forgiven, what does that mean? What about a person who receives forgiveness but doesn't seek it -- either because he/she is guilty but doesn't admit to any wrongdoing, doesn't know he/she's culpable, or just doesn't care? I don't believe it's possible to "make up" for sins (repentance and reparation is about the best anyone can do), or that anyone can redeem anyone else's sins (can you tell I'm not a Christian?). I feel the same way about revenge. It's true that Travis Bickle helped rescue Iris from the clutches of Sport the pimp, and took out a number of sleazy criminals in the process. But then what? (I should make it clear that I think "Taxi Driver" is a great film in part because it leaves you morally anguished and twisted up inside. We recognize the Travis in all of us and, if we're sane, it terrifies us when we find ourselves thinking: "Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum from the streets.")

We had a good discussion recently about superheroes and sacrificial redeemers and I mentioned a Christian reading of "Marvel's The Avengers" that I'd seen, which raised the question, for me, "whether it is morally possible for someone (even a superhuman, or combination of human/divine being) to actually redeem a person." In the same way, I question whether it is morally possible to "get even" with someone who has wronged you or someone you care about. As they always say in the movies, "It won't bring her back." Settling the score, so to speak, doesn't solve anything. It might make you feel better, at least in the short-term. Or it might not.

What are some revenge movies that work for you, and why?

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- - - - -

* A little aside: In the hospital I was interviewed by an RN who was required to ask me a bunch of questions, including one about organ donation. I have always been an enthusiastic organ donor -- what's mine is yours, particularly if I won't be needing it anymore -- but I mentioned that I wasn't sure if my guts would be much good to anybody. He said he often interviews people in their 80s and 90s who feel the same way, and that he sometimes jokes that they could at least volunteer for one of those experiments where they leave your body in the woods to see how long it takes to decompose. Personally, I thought that was funny (and, seriously, I said I'd happily authorize such use of my carcass), but agreed with him that it probably wasn't appropriate to joke about that with just anybody who might be facing an imminent demise.

** Or the Roman, Greek and other anthropomorphized pagan gods on whom the Abrahamic gods were based.

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