Friday, March 22, 2013
Vengeance is Mine
I feel slightly ambivalent about revenge. I mostly see it as a hollow pursuit–an often physical act of destruction falsely signified as a positive act of fulfillment. At its core, vengeance doesn't really correspond to a corporeal reality in-and-of-itself. It's more an idea than a reality. It's a belief that a spiteful action you are taking is laden with more meaning than it actually possesses. It's an illusion, really, producing no substance in-itself. This is why I find OLDBOY so ultimately effective. It's a film about dueling notions of vengeance with no clear winners and only the hollowness of Pyrrhic victories. It isn't a revenge fantasy, but a revenge nightmare.
But I also understand that revenge can manifest itself as raw emotional truth for someone. To the parents from IN THE BEDROOM, I'm not sure the rational voice telling them that killing the man who murdered their son in cold blood and yet walks free is ultimately a shallow act would be much consolation to them. In fact, it isn't. They've mulled over the idea of living concurrently with this man and they find it unimaginable. When the father gets revenge, I can't necessarily say that I blame him or that his action is meaningless. Their son is still dead and will never come back, but the smiling, careless face of his murderer will also never come back to remind them of what they've lost. I'm not saying their vengeance is ideal, but that I understand it, and I think the film does too, without glorifying it. This is also not a revenge fantasy, but depiction of revenge as a unfortunate surrogate for emotional justice. It is revenge taken painfully but efficiently–there is nothing gleeful about it.
I've mentioned this before, but in purely theoretical terms, I find violence and retribution repugnant. But if backed into a corner and/or flung face-to-face with the reality of someone I love being hurt, I can't necessarily say I'd be the pacifist I want to be in my heart. I don't know. Thankfully, I haven't been put in that situation. I'm at least enough of a pragmatist to realize that there is nuance to every reality and that vengeance, like everything else, is never purely one thing. To me, it would be too simple to say it is merely 'wrong.' Running with this idea, I suppose I like my revenge films to treat vengeance complexly–to engage in a reflexive conversation with their actions instead of driving one point or another home. This isn't to say this is the only type of revenge cinema I like, but the kind that challenges and speaks to me the most.
There are at least a few distinct types of revenge cinema. There's the post-DEATH WISH revenge fantasy film where vengeance is taken as a sort of macho, exuberant romp. There's the purely moral revenge film that tries to remind us that two wrongs don't make a right. And then there is the ambiguous revenge film–the one that seems to honestly portray the emotional desire for revenge while not shying away from its consequences. I've found merit and enjoyment in all three types. Tarantino and Leone have created some of the best seemingly guiltless revenge fantasies. The old Hollywood system was full of great moral tales on the pitfalls of vengeance. And it was even full of complex ones where vengeance wasn't just denounced but held up to the light and inspected earnestly (THE BIG HEAT and PURSUED are two great examples that come to mind). I've enjoyed all types of films dealing with vengeance. And I don't actually believe that a filmmaker has to take a moral stance against vengeance, or that he/she should feel always compelled to portray it in all its complexity. I personally think the revenge films that have meant the most to me (or had the greatest impact) are the ones that have made me question my perhaps baser desires instead of granting me an easy release or instant emotional fix. But this isn't to say I haven't dug plenty of films that are less introspective in their use of violence to solve vendettas (e.g. DOGVILLE).
I can't be sure if our fascination with vengeance on screen directly impacts our promotion of violence in this country (The United States' loving relationship with violence at this point is just a giant clusterfuck). I will say that it is interesting how easily we qualify violence based on the notion of revenge in this country. Random violence is seen as always wrong because unmotivated violence makes us feel like we are vulnerable as potential victims to said violence. But violence that is attached to revenge is seen as appropriate because it puts us in the place of the aggressor and we feel powerful or in control. We hate the idea of being attacked, but we love the idea of getting payback. Therefore, violence is acceptable in one instance, deplorable in another. This sort of relative stance on violence works its way into our film watching. We hate to see the violence of villains in horror films or torture porn (because we imagine ourselves as the victims), but we cheer for the violence that is done back to them at the end of the movie (because we imagine ourselves as the righteous inflicters of the violence). It's interesting how differently we treat violence, depending on the motivation we ascribe to it.
One quick final thought: the film IRREVERSIBLE, whatever you think its merits or lack thereof, is actually quite moral in its stance on vengeance. I can't exactly say I endorse this film or what it represents, but it's hardly the exploitative, immoral piece of thoughtless art you might all imagine. By opening the film with an act of vengeance, and an obscenely brutal act at that, any potential glory and emotional triumph derived from it is striped bare. Towards the end of the film, when we see the horrific rape that set off the violence in the beginning of the film, we feel helpless. There is no emotional payoff for us to look forward too. All we are left with is the idea that violence destroys and that its carnage is, indeed, irreversible.
Anyway, that's all I got for now. What are some of the rest of y'alls thoughts? Thanks for getting the ball rollin', Brando.