Speaking of Charles Bronson movies, and stuff:
In November of last year, Soft Skull Press initiated a series called "Deep Focus," a series of sort-of monographs precisely not in the style of the much and justly revered BFI Classics series; editor Sean Howe is commissioning terrific writers to treat films that are not necessarily, let's say, universally acknowledged as being great, or even good and good for ya. To wit, the first two books of the series look at John Carpenter's 1988 They Live and Michael Winner's 1974 Death Wish. I know, some of you are saying right now, "Why these are hardly controversial choices as far as noteworthy cinema is concerned," and I'm with you, but we are not really in the mainstream on this. That said, both books are damn fine, provocative, revelatory and engaging "reads," as they say. The one on They Live is by Jonathan Lethem, the novelist behind the likes of Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, who writes beautifully on film in any context and who was kind enough, a decade ago, to contribute a wonderful essay to a collection of pieces on the Star Wars films that I edited. The one on Death Wish is by Christopher Sorrentino, also a novelist (Sound on Sound, Trance) and recently the editor of his late father Gilbert Sorrentino's last book, The Abyss of Human Illusion. Christopher doesn't just examine the film itself in his book; he provides an acerbic view of the near-hysterical critical dismissals it received in its day (the reaction of then-New-York-Times film critic Vincent Canby gets close examination) and grapples with the notion of whether a fictional film can convey something of the reality of the place in which it's set/shot.
Sean Howe very kindly put me in touch with Christopher, and we decided it would be perhaps instructive to conduct a brief interview via e-mail. I asked four questions; those and Christopher's answers are below.
Some Came Running: So when, precisely, did you begin developing that chip on your shoulder with respect to poor dead Vincent Canby?
Christopher Sorrentino: It's not Canby, per se. But given that he was the chief critic at the Times, which with NPR is sort of ground zero for middle American cultural striving, one of his reviews can give you a really good view of the received wisdom that prevails at any given time. If you go back and look over his reviews, you can set your watch by them: a movie hyped as an "important" film gets respectful treatment, even if Canby has some mild reservations; most of the rest find Canby either enjoying them or not, usually for totally arbitrary reasons; and every now and then he sinks his teeth into a film coded as "trash" that he can savage with impunity, like Death Wish. And it may well be that Death Wish is trash, but that doesn't necessarily make it less interesting than one of Hollywood's prestige productions (I am guessing, for example, that Death Wish is a more enduring, and no more schlockily exploitative, movie than Lenny, which appeared the same year and was nominated for six Oscars, and was accorded a thoughtful, if ultimately negative, review by Canby). And the Death Wish review, and the follow-up feature article he wrote about it, really show you the symbiosis that took place as Canby and the choir to whom he was preaching regarded each other in a state of unanimity. He writes about it as if it's an unearthed artifact used in some primitive ritual, totally unselfconsciously referring to its audience as if it's something quite apart from his good Masterpiece Theater-loving readership. It's a bad film, Bronson is a bad actor, its politics are right-wing, it has a bad effect on its audience, it's "irresponsible." There are a thousand ways that you can eviscerate a movie, but as soon as you say that it's a threat to public morals my Geiger counter starts clicking.
Some Came Running: It seems you simultaneously embrace and reject the entire notion of the so-called "New York" movie, claiming that (and correct me if I misrepresent you) no location-shot picture, regardless of how accurate, can ever convey what the city was "really like" at the time it was shot. For all that, you have a pretty deep knowledge of New-York-shot pictures. I myself find that such ostensible grade-Z pictures as Lustig's Maniac pay off big time in terms of, for lack of a better phrase, Proustian rush, summoning my own private nostalgia for the mud and making the actual materials of such a film all the more resonant. For as much as you deny that...perhaps...as a component in Death Wish, do you truly believe yourself immune to such a response?
Christopher Sorrentino: I actually respond really viscerally to that stuff. I have a permanent soft spot for relatively obscure (and probably not so good) films like Jenny, The Hot Rock, and Queens Logic because of the madeleine effect they induce, each of them having been shot partly on location near where I grew up. And of course there are thousands of brilliant Hollywood films that are "New Yorkish" -- i.e., The Thin Man. But what I was talking about, and what I probably wasn't absolutely explicit about in the book, is the almost bullying "atmosphere" that passes for filmmaking in some movies. Friedkin is a master of that, and The French Connection is one example I use in the book. He keeps telling you that you can't criticize the film, it's "really like this." But it isn't, and even if it were (which it isn't), I don't think the viewer's apprehension that "this is really like that" is the highest of aesthetic experiences. It ranks pretty low, for me. It's like junior art. "Real" can't be the point. We already have real.
Which brings me to a guy like Lustig, and by commodious vicus, to Death Wish. Lustig clearly couldn't have cared less about either reality or about being criticized. Maniac has got to be among the most un-real movies ever made. I wonder if Manny Farber ever saw it, because that's a termite film if ever there was one. For Lustig, New York was a cheap and expedient tool. If Lustig had been living in New Haven, Maniac would have been shot there. It's the almost incidental look of the New York in a movie like that which intrigues me, and that's what gets me about Death Wish, too. There are maybe a total of five exterior shots in that movie that scream, "Look! The New Babylon!" It's very anonymous looking. Nothing in it has a social or economic "reason," it just is. There are bad people and Charles Bronson kills them. We remember it as a movie that depicted New York as a hellhole, but that's just our filling in a blank that Winner leaves for us. When that movie came out, we "knew," mostly from a lot of other movies, how dirty, how sleazy, how crime ridden, how ethnic, how not white New York was. Winner didn't have to do a thing. Where he does—the Times Square diner scene, with the prostitutes and the two black men who end up attacking Bronson—it's awful and klutzy.
Some Came Running: I am largely in sympathy with you concerning your impatience, or seeming impatience, with forces that call for a certain kind of "social responsibility" in the arts. Not that I don't think an artist ought to adopt such a perspective if he or she so wishes, but the notion that a sense of "social responsibility" is a necessary component to art strikes me as...dumb. As does, too, the liberal tsk-tsking that greets a picture such as Death Wish. I think your view of the material, or of such material, is a little different than my own. I have often championed what the critic Robert Benayoun calls "authentic sadistic" cinema, films that, in his words, partake in an "atmosphere of perdition." I don't know if you have any truck with this slightly Surrealist view, but in any event, if you did, would you slot Death Wish into this ostensible category? If so why, and if not, why not?
Christopher Sorrentino: It's completely dumb. Especially since, of all the Eternal Verities of the Human Condition, "social responsibility" is the most protean. If we were to catalog the social responsibility of all existing works of art solely on the basis of the community standards existing at the time of their creation, Deep Throat would end up being a more socially responsible work than Jude the Obscure. So we can't consider such things—I mean at all—when evaluating art; and if you try to make a work of art whose defining virtue is its virtuousness, then good luck: it's not going to stick. About nine million Stanley Kramer movies have demonstrated that to my complete satisfaction. I have to admit that I'm not familiar with Benayoun's work or the context he's referring to, but I will take as a sort of distant analogue Jean Genet's concept of the beauty of evil. In those terms I don't think so. I might be inclined to say that the film's relationship to both virtue and vice is a negative one; that in adapting Brian Garfield's novel, Wendell Mayes and Michael Winner emptied it of its Stanley Kramer-ish, "vigilantism is bad," content without quite substituting "vigilantism is good." I do think that the film celebrates the idea of having a motivating force in one's life, and that it doesn't matter what that is. Everybody else in the film begins to look faintly stupid in comparison to Bronson, with their chatter, their armchair moralizing, their politicking, their bureaucratic hassles. Bronson still has to deal with all that, but it's made clear that it's not his real life any more. He's become a man with a secret mission. The Eco epigraph I use [at the book's opening] sort of sums it up: that we hope that "from the slough of [our] actual personality" some Superman can emerge to redeem our "mediocre existence."
The film does screw it up; it introduces some smart cop into the scenario who catches Bronson and makes him stop, but I think the film is joyous, in a strange way. Bronson realizes that who and what he had been has become irrelevant, and he locates his relevance in something taboo. In a weird way, it's a classic '70s movie: it's a portrayal of discovering one's freedom in the aftermath of adversity.
Some Came Running: Are there any examples in contemporary cinema of work that contains the particular kind of charge that Death Wish did/does? If not, why do you think that's the case?
Christopher Sorrentino: I would have to think really hard about what transgression means anymore. Maybe not "transgression," because to the extent that Death Wish was a transgressive movie, its sins were interpreted politically. There was a bumper crop of transgression back then, but as long as the work could be interpreted as being consistent with the supercilious or paternalistic centrist liberalism that's often characterized Hollywood's prestigious films that deal with social issues, transgression was kind of OK. All in all, with Death Wish, a perfect set of conditions obtained: not only did it fly in the face of those centrist liberal conceits, but it was a basically shoddy movie, based on a pulp novel, directed by a journeyman, and starring second-rank actors. Plus it was funded with real money, and released to big first-run movie houses -- so reviewers had to pay attention to it. If it had been a B movie or a grindhouse kind of feature, it would have vanished without a trace. You could even take it a step further and suggest that if the reviewing establishment had been at all serious about really, truly loathing Death Wish to the bottom of its collective heart, it would have ignored it. But it couldn't. A certain algebra existed. Dave Hickey makes the point that "the raw investment of attention, positive or negative, qualifies certain works of art as 'players' in the discourse. So, even though it may appear to you that nearly everyone hates Jeff Koons's work, the critical point is that people take the time and effort to hate it, publicly and at length, and this investment of attention effectively endows Koons's work with more importance than the work of those artists whose work we like, but not enough to get excited about." I might suggest that there's a sneaky quid pro quo here; that emphatically hating something for grandstanding reasons is a more personally profitable venture for a commentator than reasonably taking the measure of something. Now, I can't really think of a recent movie that's lit a fire under both the reviewers and a mass audience. I think everything's too demographically and technologically atomized nowadays. There is no way you'll ever have to see one of the Saw or Hostel films even if your kid is playing it on the computer across the room. If you're willing to take an example from an industry that still just dumps its product indiscriminately into the marketplace, though, how about Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones?