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January 27, 2011

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Brian

Cool interview, Glenn-- sounds like a really interesting book. And thanks for mentioning the series-- I love those kinds of film monographs, but hadn't heard of that particular series. And thanks for commissioning that wonderful STAR WARS piece from Lethem all those years ago-- your reminder of it makes me want to put it on my class syllabus this semester (we're starting with the first SW film).

warren oates

Yeah, very cool. Any interview that convincingly compares DEATH WISH to Littell the younger's Holocaust horror art novel THE KINDLY ONES has me at hello. This kind of thing is exactly why we all keep clicking on SCR.

lipranzer

Dear Mr. Sorrentino,

Here's my problem with your thesis (at least, it should be said, as described in this interview; I haven't read your book yet, and you could very well be glossing over points here that you cover in much more detail in the book); I have no problem whatsoever with revenge movies. POINT BLANK, the original GET CARTER, THE CROW (which is also arguably a ghost story), THE LIMEY, Tarantino's KILL BILL movies, all of them are movies I love, and to varying degrees, all of them contain the brutishness you seem to like DEATH WISH for. But they all have one thing in common; the characters in all of those movies operate outside the law. So I judge the movies strictly on their merits (or, in the case of the remakes of POINT BLANK and GET CARTER, the lack thereof). But what DEATH WISH does is blame the whole mess on the "goddamn permissive liberals" that caused Bronson's family to be killed, and explains his actions afterwards. Don't you think that's just as much pandering as the Stanley Kramer sensibilities you and the interviewer mock? (And just for the record, I agree many, if not all, of his movies were too preachy, and no, movies don't have an obligation to be "socially responsible)

On the other hand, I do love QUEENS LOGIC.

bill

Fantastic interview. Sorrentino's point about DEATH WISH fitting in quite well with the tradition of transgressive/outsider filmmaking in the 70s, but running into trouble by deviating from the accepted political line, is an excellent one that I'd never even considered.

Unfortunately, lipranzer has a point, too. There's stuff in DEATH WISH that is clearly calculated to prick the liberals in the audience in a way that might be considered preachy, or "shocking" (the line about black muggers springs to mind). Of course, I'm of the opinion that what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and you can point to any number of widely accepted films from that era that aim to prick the other side, and do so just as clumsily or in a way just as knuckleheaded as DEATH WISH, but it's still a fair point. DEATH WISH is not a subtle film, and had it walked a line closer to MANIAC, while maintaining the same, I don't know, sensibilities, I guess, then I think it would have gotten under people's skin in a much more effective way. Although I guess then it would almost be TAXI DRIVER, but maybe you get my point anyway.

Also, DEATH WISH does "screw it up" as Sorrentino says, though I don't blame the introduction of the cop character (who's played by Vincent Gardenia anyway, so it can't possibly be a complete wash), but rather the folk hero status of Bronson's character. Not that it's not a logical road to go down, but it's in that arena that DEATH WISH seems to preach.

And I really, really want to read THE KINDLY ONES, even moreso now.

bill

Damn it, I meant to mention, just as an aside, and having watched DEATH WISH again recently, and coincidentally, that Bronson does some very good work in the early parts of the film. Particularly when he goes to the hospital after hearing about the assault on his wife and daughter. Look at him in that scene again: he does a great job of playing the panic just beneath his skin.

Robert Cashill

In DEATH WISH Bronson finds his purpose and gets his gun in Tucson, which should have been enough to launch a thousand thumbsuckers.

That Fuzzy Bastard

This contempt for any notion of social responsibility in film strikes me as a lazy piece of complacency, only possible because in our present society, people with values relatively close to the mainstream are the only ones with the financial wherewithal to make and distribute movies. DEATH WISH's "you dumb liberals" preaching is obnoxious, but no one thinks the makers, or viewers, of DEATH WISH were about to bring back lynching. If you were watching the latest Hutu-directed epic about the perfidy of the Tutsis---or just a real, actual, non-Bronson-targeted black person watching BIRTH OF A NATION in a theater in Texas and pondering how the hell you were going to get your kids out of town before sunset---that comfy love of transgression would vanish real quick-like.

Glenn Kenny

@ That Fuzzy Bastard: It's always funny how the proponents of the "socially responsible" always cite negative examples, e.g., "Birth of a Nation," and very rarely give a name of a work that might inspire more Films They'd Like To See. Now is it just me, or is that because most "socially responsible" films are so preachy and boring that they make you wanna shoot yourself, or puke blood, or what have you? I know I'm putting the question snarkily, but, um, tough; unless you can convince me otherwise, I'm going to believe that you'd prefer that every film made from hereon in be some combination of "Sounder" and "Half Nelson." (Speaking of puking blood.) There's also the fact that "socially responsible" really is in the eye of the maker/beholder, as in, for instance, "I Am Cuba." Also, TFB, I'll bet five dollars that you were entirely okay with Kalefa Sanneh's championing of Toby Keith, who actually DOES, as far as I can tell, wanna bring back lynching.

bill

"or just a real, actual, non-Bronson-targeted black person watching BIRTH OF A NATION in a theater in Texas and pondering how the hell you were going to get your kids out of town before sunset"

That seems like a very odd construction. What era are we talking about? Is this happening in 1915, or now?

And the point isn't that films can't be irresponsible, but that using social responsibility as an aesthetic measure is lazy, and blinkered. Which isn't to say I've never done it myself, but it's aiming pretty low.

James Keepnews

I've always been surprised by Vincent Canby's enduring reputation among critics (e.g. Amy Taubin), since he's always struck me as the textbook definition of fuddy-duddy since I was a teenager, and not just because of his dismissals of George Romero (though he tended to refer to his films as "garbage," not "trash" -- inadvertant praise?). Perhaps I've missed some come-to-bury takedowns by others, and I'd love to read them. I mean, could you think of anything LESS descriptive of HEAVEN'S GATE than "a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room"? I'm sure that I cannot.

That said, great Herbie Hancock soundtrack notwithstanding, my beef with the uber-manipulative DEATH WISH (the film -- haven't read the book) is not its, >ahem<, liberal-pricking than its lynch-mob enabling. The thieves/rapists are so loathsome and the deck so stacked against them and in favor of copycat hardhat "Joes" taking the law into their own hands, the resolution of Bronson's liberal character into a retributive force right out of the Old Testament (albeit differently weaponized) becomes less a function of narrative than of form. Any sop to anti-vigilantism given by others in the script comes across like Alan Colmes on Fox News -- "oh, Jesus, do we really have to let this pansy talk sense to us?" It is, pace Devo and conceivably others, a triumph of the will.

bill

I feel like this is exactly what Sorrentino was talking about, though. DEATH WISH enabled no lynch mobs that I'm aware of, but because its stance, such as it is, is not in line with, as Sorrentino says, the centrist-liberal line of the era (and now), you guys find much more to pick at, on moral grounds, than you would for something like -- not to bring this up again, but it's an easy example -- BONNIE & CLYDE.

That Fuzzy Bastard

I'll take the low-hanging fruit first: Bill, my example was indeed intended to invoke the audience for BIRTH when it first came out, inspiring the return of the Klan and a whole lotta murder. Duh. My point being that relishing a film for its transgression of liberal values is only possible because those values are so completely triumphant that you can't actually imagine them being transgressed. It's complacency masquerading as daring.

@ Glenn: I'm quite happy to say that social responsibility is more a negative than a positive virtue. That is, no artist is obliged to deliver "a positive message", but you are indeed obliged not to be actively evil. Y'know as if you were a person---you don't actually have to do missionary work, but you should refrain from yelling "ching-chong-Chinaman" every time you see a Vietnamese person on the subway. I understand, you like the surrealists, transgression, Fleurs de mal, Lester Bangs, Huysmans, blah blah. But even Bangs eventually acknowledged that it's not nearly as fun to talk up evil when you think evil might actually jump out of the screen.

Oh, and you just lost that $5. Sanneh enjoyment of Keith was, imho, one more example of relishing the Bedlamites, condescending to Keith, his audiences, and the ever-present and always possible shadow that it can indeed happen here. . Paypal?

bill

@TFB - Well, for a guy who often comes in here demanding civility from our host, you get no points for it yourself. And saying that a film is only able to transgress "completely triumphant" liberal values because you can't imagine them being transgressed is nonsensical.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ James: Well yeah, that's how the structure works. It very enthusiastically wants you to regard the liberal anti-vigilantist as an Alan Colmes, and to feel in your heart that shooting the darkies what look at you funny is the only solution. Not, of course, that the makers of DEATH WISH actually want you to do that! No, heavens no. Like Glenn Beck---now there's a guy who probably truly loves DEATH WISH, diner scene and all---it wants you to feel deeply that white power murder sprees are the best solution, but then only to sit in your room, grumbling that the damned liberals won't do what has to be done to save this country. An unsatisfiable desire is evoked, so you'll happily shell out for the sequels that provide the only outlet for the feelings that have been engendered. If someone was actually inspired to vigilantism by DEATH WISH, pace Bill's recent comment, the makers would furiously deny that they intended to say anything at all.

bill

When was the last time you even saw DEATH WISH? Do you remember the race of those who assault/murder Bronson's wife and daughter? Or of the first mugger he kills? This "white power" bullshit betrays a deep ignorance of the film you're arguing so vehemently against.

bill

"If someone was actually inspired to vigilantism by DEATH WISH, pace Bill's recent comment, the makers would furiously deny that they intended to say anything at all."

If...that's my favorite word in that whole sentence.

James Keepnews

I won't comment on Fuzz' decorum here, since he's all Rimbaud and transgressive and whatever...

I kid -- these are interesting responses. Bill, I do get Mr. Fuzzy's point in re: complacency vs. daring, though I think he overstates that here. This did come out in Nixon's law-and-order, McGovern-trouncing, post-DIRTY HARRY America after all, and the paranoid style in "someone's got to say it" knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) right-wing media sure didn't start with Fox News. The film's vibe, for me at least, comes off as far more as luxuriating in an atavistic, reactionary complacency than in anything as progressive as "daring".

Also, BONNIE is a good parry, and I'd say it's precisely because of the problematic morality at play in that film that makes it a richer work than DW. Better writing and acting, too (along that line, WEHT the Oscar-nominated Mr. Pollard?). There is the not-inconsiderable fact that Bonnie and Clyde were viewed as folk heroes in the depths of the Depression and that would have to be duly represented in any film about them. And yes, we regularly love our outlaws. Yet, as shocking as the denouement remains, there is the implicit indictment of the state's terror while at the same time a very Old Testament sense that these lovebirds lived by the tommy-gun, and thus...Briefly, BONNIE & CLYDE does nuance, whereas I'm racking my brain trying to think of any nuance whatsoever in any of Michael Winner's films. Not THE NIGHTCOMERS, though Stephanie Beacham (speaking of WEHT) does gamely attempt to close the gap.

bill

Well, I don't remember a great deal of nuance in B&C, but I won't rehash that whole thing again other than to say that "we love our outlaws" is a rather disturbing truth that I sure as hell got dissected more by those who love those outlaws. DEATH WISH is, quite simply, a film for people who do NOT love their outlaws, and if the filmmakers aren't going to be held responsible for any (non-existent) killing sprees inspired by B&C (who murdered a good dozen or more civilians and cops before the state "terrorized" them), then why should we demand that Winner take the stand for the (non-existent) rampant vigilantism brought about by DEATH WISH? It's a stacked deck.

Which is more TFB's point than yours, James, but through your left-wing (emphasis on "bleeding-heart commie") lens you're still praising B&C for being a better made film than DEATH WISH, giving the aesthetics the prize of place, which is also, unless I'm misreading him, Sorrentino's point.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ James: Heavens---I'm arguing *against* Rimbaud and transgression! I think a love of transgression is a symptom of complacency! Is that not clear? As for decorum, well, are we really arguing for playing nice in our movie thoughts on Glenn Kenny's comments board?

@ Bill: Actually, I think B&C is a dippy piece of piffle more or less for the same reasons you object to it---the contrast between B&C and BADLANDS is the difference between being a movie-mad dipshit and being an artist in the world. But in B&C's (limited) defense, the extensive back-projection, silent-film gags, and other old-Hollywood references at least establish that this story is happening only and entirely in movieland, while DEATH WISH's location photography and ripped-from-the-headlines chatter screams "you can't handle this truth!" with every frame

As for my "if"---well, that's sort of my whole point. DEATH WISH is a terribly preachy film that inspired no one to action, and it's ineffectuality is pretty much its only virtue.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Bill: Ah, sorry, only now saw your other comment. I gave up on calling for civility at least a year ago, and have come to accept that it can be kinda fun to just let it rip. I suppose my "duh" was gratuitous, but my point seemed pretty obvious.

On the larger issue: I'm not saying a film can only transgress liberal values because one can't imagine them being transgressed. That would indeed be nonsensical. I'm saying what I wrote---that the *enjoyment* one takes in watching a film transgress triumphant liberal values (i.e. "the government should have a more-or-less monopoly on violence") is a product of the complete triumph of those values. Watching Tom Cruise in jewface in a contemporary Hollywood movie is funny precisely because no one thinks TROPIC THUNDER will inspire pogroms. This strikes me as lazy and complacent, especially as the Weberian ideal of people not gunning down those who bug them seems ever-more unstable.

Oh, and yes, there are indeed white crooks throughout DEATH WISH---the filmmakers are at least that savvy. But given the thick atmosphere of racial paranoia that hangs over every appearance by a black character, it strikes me as the same sort of cop-out that Scorcese (understandably) made when he altered Schrader's script to make all Travis' victims white.

James Keepnews

Um, yes, Fuzz, it was clear, where one imagines my humor was not. Of course, I never want to offend Glenn, old ladies, bunnies or Lester Bangs, because, pace Lloyd Llewellyn, I'm a pussy. I do agree BADLANDS FTW, where BONNIE gets the prize of place. Or show. Or worse.

Bill, I guess you mean ""we love our outlaws" is a rather disturbing truth that I sure as hell WISH got dissected more by those who love those outlaws" (emphasis mine, and hopefully "WISH", not "DEATH"). Isn't that, to generalize indefensibly, 33% of the "research" coming out of media studies?

As for: "DEATH WISH is, quite simply, a film for people who do NOT love their outlaws" -- is that so? You hate Kersey the outlaw? I'm suggesting that would not be a common response to the film. It's also hard to know how else to assess these works without invoking aesthetics as something, well, prized. I prize socio-politics, but can't imagine I feel much better about those invoked by DEATH WISH just because there was not a rash of mass, lynch-mob-fueled copycat vigilantism in resonse to its release.

This is nuance, maybe?

bill

@TFB - Your "if" doesn't really play like your whole point. That sentence very clearly states that Michael Winner would behave like a coward should anyone take him literally. I mean, that's what you said.

And DEATH WISH does have its preachy moments. I said that before even you did. But you're still hammering on the idea of social responsibility in films, and taking DEATH WISH to task for being "actively evil", when all the film is about is the frustration law-abiding citizens, particularly those in big cities in the 70s, felt due to being victimized by violent criminals. Your stance is the same as those claiming TRUE GRIT is pro-death penalty, or that any revenge film is. You're being extremely literal in your approach to these kinds of films.

As for why someone might enjoy a film like DEATH WISH, and that being tied to the triumph of the values being criticized in the film...er, so what? I might not want a rise in vigilantism, but I might understand the drive to blow off steam by seeing it in a movie. I don't know, man, drink some tea, relax, do whatever.

And not all of Bickle's victims are white. The ones at the end are, but they're not his only victims. The armed robber in the convenience store, with Victor Argo, is black.

bill

@James - Yes, I left out a "wish". Well spotted. And even if the good folks at "media studies" are handling it, I don't see them around here, so blithely tossing out "well, we love our outlaws" as a defense of BONNIE & CLYDE isn't really enough.

And yes, Kersey is an outlaw in DEATH WISH. I think you see what I'm saying, linked to my response to TFB -- Kersey is not threatening law-abiding citizens, but in the fiction of the movie serving as a bit of catharsis for those who live in the real world, which means "not in movies".

James Keepnews

Yep, socio-politics also occur "not in movies" -- perhaps you see my point?

And with that in mind, I meant BOTH DW and B&C when I wrote "And yes, we regularly love our outlaws" -- regularly, not always. And insofar as I was making a distinction between the perceived morality of two films, the second of which you brought, I wasn't aware I was supposed to be defending BONNIE, or that, presumably with the other points I made, that one point in isolation wasn't enough. Still, it's nice to know those who live on the planet Earth could get the catharsis from DEATH WISH that eluded me, Fuzz and very possibly one or two others -- since I only live in movies, evidently, I'll defer to your (and, of course, Gurdjieff's) expertise where the "real world" is concerned.

bill

I made no claim to having expertise in the real world, or more than you, in any case. All I meant was that Sorrentino's (remember him?) point about "real" being a pretty unambitious aim in art is one I agree with, and all the hand-wringing about morality in DEATH WISH seems to be a product of attributing realism as a primary goal of the film.

And before you say anything, yes, my arguments against B&C aren't really any different. I've acknowledged that. I'm just trying to hold that film accountable on the same grounds as some are holding DEATH WISH.

If you're not defending B&C, then fair enough, but your point about outlaw love struck me as something that one merely had to accept.

bill

@TFB - And another thing. Aren't you trying to have it both ways? On the one hand, you claim DEATH WISH either has or supports a "white power" agenda, then you only acknowledge the various white criminals in the film (including the three worst) when it's pointed out to you, calling it a "savvy" move by the filmmakers. Then you call the inclusion of those characters as a cop-out (on par with the not-really cop-out in TAXI DRIVER). DEATH WISH could have never won with you, at least racially. The black criminals represent a racist attitude, and the white criminals represent a cop-out.

Scott

I think this "Deep Focus" series is a really cool idea. I read Jonathan Lethem's book last year, and it totally made me want to go back and watch a film I never thought I'd ever see again, let alone reflect on.

I usually have this irrational skepticism about fiction writers who write about film. It just seems that in every interview I read where novelists are asked to list their favorite movies, they come up with really pedestrian, unadventurous choices. I remember Joyce Carol Oates said her favorite movies included "Boys Don't Cry" and "Monster". And, in this Time interview between the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy, (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1673269,00.html) CM extols the greatness of "Five Easy Pieces", while declaiming against "exotic foreign films". But I realize that's not fair, and Lethem's highly persuasive and knowledgable book proves that.

Anyway, thanks for this fantastic interview. Great, probing questions and extremely thoughtful answers. I'll definitely check this book out. I find it really interesting that Sorrentino cites Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones" as a rare contemporary example (from another medium) of a work that contains the incendiary charge of something like "Death Wish". I absolutely loathed that book, but it's definitely one of the most transgressive novels to be released under the banner of pedigreed literary fiction in a long time.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Bill: I suppose I am having it both ways a bit with DW. But the atmosphere of racial animosity is so thick every time someone of another race is on screen, it's hard to avoid. As for relieving the frustrations of law-abiding city dwellers---ah, well, see, that's the problem! If the movie really does intend to have some real-world impact, albeit only cathartic, then we kinda have to engage with what that impact is, how it's intended, and what it leaves out. Like I said before, part of what is so irritating about DW (as opposed to a more expressionist portrait of urban decay like THE WARRIORS) is the ways its grubby location-heavy realism and dueling-speeches dialogue demands to be engaged as the harsh truth, even as its admirers insist that it's gauche to treat it as having any relation to reality.

Glenn Kenny

@ TFB: Oh well. Paypal it is, then; send your info to the e-mail address on the "About" page. How do I know you're telling the truth? Well, I don't, but that you manage to, um, both refudiate Sanneh AND imply a defense of Toby Keith (who, as far as I'm concerned, has earned a lot worse than condescension) constitutes a feat of sophistry well worth five bucks!

(Incidentally: transgressive, moi? That might reflect my taste in art, or something, but as far as "lifestyle" choices are concerned, I'm as bourgeois as they come, and proud of it. As we're not likely to see the pansexual non-patriarchal socialist utopia of Robin Wood's dreams in our lifetime, I'll have more of that delicious Dalmatia fig spread, please.)

Interesting and potentially disquieting tidbits about "Taxi Driver," gleaned from the long-disappeared Criterion laserdisc commentary, "Scorsese on Scorsese," the supplements from the Sony DVD, or some combination thereof: one of Schrader's drafts of the script had Travis Bickle ONLY killing blacks or Hispanics, and both the producers and Scorsese said, maybe that's not such a great idea. Does this mean Schrader was/is racist, or that he was just crafting TOO CLOSE a homage to "The Searchers?" Also, when Harvey Keitel was "researching" Sport, he had a devil of a time finding a white pimp to follow around, and eventually just gave up.

warren oates

@GK, off-topic, but this puts me in mind of other TAXI DRIVER supplements I'm half-remembering wherein it is disclosed that Keitel lobbied hard to play Sport because, well, obviously, "actors love to play pimps." I've somehow merged this in my mind with an American Cinematheque Q&A with Millard Kaufman, writer of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, who asserted that it was the producers' idea to give the protagonist only one arm because "actors love to play cripples." And it worked, as soon as they lopped that arm off Spencer Tracy signed on. So who's going to be the first one to write the role no actor could resist: the crippled pimp. Bonus points if he's mentally retarded too. Though, of course, he shouldn't go full retard.

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