Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

by Alexander "Mondo Gandhi" Kraft

There is a particular breed of hippie pacifist that argues one should never resort to violence under any circumstances, even to protect oneself from immediate harm. Most people, however, think such a notion is ridiculous. But a belief that violence is, at times, acceptable (people flinch when you put it in those terms, but it’s what almost everyone believes) is actually a far more intellectually treacherous position, right or wrong. What is the difference between killing someone who is pointing a gun at your head and killing someone who is denying you food? What if they’re pointing a gun at your wife’s head, or at a random stranger? Does revenge have an ethical justification? The hippie has an easy answer to these questions: “It’s bad, don’t do it.” It’s nice not to have to think about difficult questions. But alas, we in the violence-sometimes-good camp often don’t think enough about these questions either. Far too often, in fact. I’m not going to interrogate every question and assumption about violence and revenge in this article. Just a couple. I’m going to work under the assumption that rapists deserve to be tortured and killed. And I’ll further grant that it’s okay to be made happy (entertained?) by notions and depictions of said righteous violence. I am, however, going to question whether this is what is happening in I Spit on Your Grave.

At this point, you’ve watched, read, or watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. If not, you’re the only one. Go watch it and then come back – not for my sake, just so you know what everyone else is talking about tomorrow in the break room. Okay? So let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Our shocked, half-turned away “Ooooh!”s when Lisbeth kicked a dildo up her probation officer’s ass camouflaged cheers. There were giggles beneath our empathetic teeth-sucking as she tattooed him. When she was beating a sadistic serial killer with a golf club and later watching him burn to death, the omitted conclusion to our whispers of “Oh shit” was “…that’s awesome!” Likewise, as we watch Jennifer in I Spit on Your Grave hang, dismember (heh) and axe her rapists to death, we do so with white knuckles: the white knuckles of a roller-coaster. But it’s okay. Relax. It feels like a guilty pleasure, but it’s not. Besides being fictional people, they’re fictional rapists. It’s totally okay to enjoy seeing rapists get their comeuppance. I promise.

To illustrate this, imagine watching only the latter half of I Spit on Your Grave. Jennifer stalks the woods around her rural home brutally murdering some dudes she apparently knows. That’s the bad kind of violence. Not just the hippies, but even the most bloodthirsty Rambo-ass motherfuckers will tell you that it probably isn’t cool to root for her under these circumstances. Likewise, a highlights reel of Lisbeth brutalizing Swedish dudes, if shown to the last white person on earth who hasn’t already been exposed to some iteration of the story, would (should) evoke only a kind of “yuck” response: who is this chick, and what exactly is her problem?

But wait a minute. Would it? Or would we still get violence boners from it? I’ve seen Guinea Pig and Cannibal Holocaust and Faces of Death and all the other like exploitation films. They’re around. People watch them. Are we simply lying to ourselves about how just this kind of “morally justified” violence porn is? After all, to authorize our enjoyment of this brutal revenge, we just sat through scenes of brutal rape. While we were “tsk-tsk”ing and shaking our heads at it, we were still watching it, weren’t we? Were we, dare I say, entertained? This is the troubling point about this kind of film, the central critical question: are we being entertained by violent justice or just violence?

This isn’t a revolutionary question to ask about I Spit on Your Grave. It’s the question that makes the film controversial, and still worth writing about thirty-plus years later. The rape scenes are brutal, explicit, and loooooong. So long. From a technical standpoint, this film is another Easy Rider or 2001. A viewer can get up and make a pot of coffee, and when he sits back down, Jennifer will still be getting raped or walking shell-shocked through the woods or crying or whatever. A huge portion of the time spent watching I Spit on Your Grave is spent watching Jennifer being abused. Speaking only about the proportion of the film spent on various subjects, it’s really more of a rape film than it is a revenge film.

But it could be argued, and one would imagine that the director (Meir Zarchi, if you’re interested) would in fact argue, that in order to access the visceral satisfaction of violent justice, we have to have something to be outraged about. That antecedent crime is what authorizes us to be entertained by the subsequent revenge. Even if we allow ourselves to be entertained by gratuitous and unjust violence, it’s a different kind of entertainment than the emotional satiety of justified violence – a satiety only accessible by having seen the unjust violence to begin with. Dizzying, I know.

So here we are, watching a movie where a guy gets his johnson removed and being entertained by it. That’s fine. What’s problematic is that we’re also watching a movie where a chick gets raped for forty minutes and being entertained by it. That is to say, having watched the movie, were we to be asked “Was it entertaining?” the answer would be “Yes”. And that “Yes” refers to an experience that includes 40 minutes of violent rape. Of course, we may qualify that “Yes” with references to the rape scenes being “uncomfortable” or “difficult to watch,” but we still consumed it as part of an entertainment product that we found satisfying overall. I know I did, anyway. It’s problematic at the least to assume that I am, at all cognitive levels, being entertained by the “good” sexual violence and condemning the “bad” sexual violence, and efficiently distinguishing between the two, all while they are dovetailed together into a single entertainment unit.

It bears repeating that this is hardly a novel critique of I Spit on Your Grave. Even back when it bore the more threatening (empowered?) title Day of the Woman, people were troubled by the possibility that it was just an excuse to slap a veneer of respectability over rape porn. Why are we - or, okay, why am I - still talking about it? Well, besides the fact that this is a revenge/exploitation blog, I’m talking about it because everyone is watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as far as this critique is concerned, they are functionally identical. If exploitative depictions of sexual violence are necessary to tell the narrative of empowerment in I Spit on Your Grave, then they are likewise for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, if I Spit on Your Grave is unforgivable rape porn, then, I hate to break it to you, so is Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a much more complex plot, much shorter (if no less shocking) depictions of gratuitous sexual violence, and a sort of half-baked vaguely populist theme of rich people thinking they can do whatever they want. But one of the many things it does is to depict sexual violence (aww shucks) so that we can be entertained by revenge violence (hooray!). Just like I Spit on your Grave. So if I Spit on your Grave is in murky ethical territory, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is its next-door neighbor in there. Which is relevant, because everyone is watching it. If it’s dangerous, it’s a danger that everyone is being exposed to.

This is where I’m supposed to give some kind of alternative, or recommendation for action. Ugh.

The shotgun-at-a-knife-fight answer is not to depict rape in entertainment at all. Then there’s no problem anymore, right? Well, unfortunately, we live in late-stage capitalist consumerville. We all get to choose what we see, and nobody is going to choose to see anything that isn’t entertaining in some way (see Network [1976]). And it’s almost too obvious to bother saying that if people don’t see something, they don’t know it exists, and that the more they see it, the more prevalent or important it seems. In other words, entertainment is (like it or not) a window on the world, and the world includes sexual violence. To simply not depict sexual violence is as irresponsible as to not depict racism: it masks the reality and prevalence of the problem, makes it invisible – thereby facilitating it. It’s just putting our fingers in our ears and closing our eyes. So we have to depict it, and we have to depict it in entertainment, or nobody will see. But it’s excruciatingly difficult to pick apart the distinction between depicting rape in entertainment and depicting rape as entertainment. If it’s even possible.

Can being genuinely, legitimately horrified be a form of entertainment? Perhaps. We go on roller-coasters and listen to talk radio and read about the Holocaust in our spare time. Why? Does experiencing these powerful negative emotions willfully and on our own terms allow us to practice dealing with them for when we encounter them “in the wild”? Are we merely getting off on the adrenaline rush? For whatever reason, it seems that intentionally subjecting oneself to what we normally classify as “negative” emotions can be “entertaining.” Perhaps we shouldn’t abandon the idea of being entertained by sexual violence, but rather be cautious not to depict it in such proximity to “approvable” violence. Or not, whatever. I’m going to go watch The Night Porter.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Brave One (2007)

by Tommy "The Snide One" Pluck

People who are strangers to guns imbue them with a quality not unlike the One Ring from Tolkien. They seduce you, they lure you, their power leads you to do things civilized people just don't do. Personally, I think if the seduction is in the eye of the beholder, forbidden fruit is always seductive. I was raised with guns in the house, and was taught to respect, not fear, them. Rather like a chainsaw, or any other tool you wouldn't play with unless you have limbs to spare. In Neil Jordan's The Brave One, he tries to sell gun ownership and vigilantism to the NPR crowd. A noble effort. More liberals should own guns, but not to feel empowered.

I like Jodie Foster quite a bit, as well as Neil Jordan, but despite the film's attempt at an intellectual look at vengeance in civilized society, it is entirely wish fulfillment, fantasy, and liberal feel-good fantasy at that. The movie has a bit of split-personality, which I can relate to; I consider myself politically liberal in social matters, but I am also a gun owner who strongly supports 2nd Amendment rights. The movie should be tailored for me to enjoy, but it didn't ring true.

Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a radio celebrity, which gives her a unique forum to talk about crime in the city, justice, and vigilantism. She and her fiancé (Naveen Andrews, Sayid from Lost) are attacked by three racist, tattooed thugs in Central Park, in a chilling and masterfully filmed sequence. They do not shy away from depicting the helplessness and horror of witnessing a brutal attack on a loved one.

To me, it felt like a story written for the NPR crowd. I felt like I was being pandered to. It felt too neat to me. But maybe I was expecting too much. An enlightened liberal talk show host avenging a hate crime committed by neo-Nazis just seemed all too tailored to Jodie's audience, but perhaps that is the point, to get an audience who wouldn't watch Charles Bronson in Death Wish to cheer Jodi on. The problem is that everything comes too easily. Even the gun, which she buys legally. In New York City, where gun ownership is forbidden. Right.

In Death Wish, Paul Kersey vomits the first time he dispatches a mugger, shivering as he aims the pistol. He's only empowered much later, after the sickness passes. Jodie's tale felt more like it was about the lure of the firearm's power; at the gun shop, she seems like a fat kid in a bakery. In Death Wish, Kersey's wife is murdered but he never finds the killers; instead he metes out random justice and strikes fear into criminals who never know if a watching bystander might pull out a nickel-plated revolver and kill them. In The Brave One, she hunts them down with little trouble, despite the police being helpless to stop them.

The film portrays Foster's seduction by firearm deftly, but then goes awry by making her vengeance all too easy, both physically and morally. It gives her no guilt, no hard choices to make, leaving the film a compelling thriller, but not much else. I found it fun, but empty. We want her to succeed, but she pays nothing for it. Vengeance almost always comes at a price. Erica Bain slips into the night with a little nod from the police. It works well as catharsis, but not much else. If Mr. Jordan wanted this to lure us into cheering for a raw act of revenge, he needs an ending that shows us baring our fangs in the mirror.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Horseman (2008)

by Andrew "8 mm" Nette

The Horseman is about the transformation of a balding 44-year-old small businessman into a killing machine as he tracks down the men he holds responsible for the death of his daughter. She died after participating in a hardcore porn film, a videocassette of which mysteriously appears in his post one day.

This 2008 Australian film, which only got local release in 2010, taps into a rich vein of movies about tightly wound white men who’ve played by the rules all their lives but finally snap over one injustice (perceived or real) against them too many.

It immediately reminded me of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which featured a conservative mid-west businessman (played by George C. Scott) who ventures into the sordid LA underworld to look for his run-away daughter now making porn movies.

But although both films are about men taking justice into their own hands when the police prove ineffectual, The Horseman is a very different beast to its 1979 counterpart.

The Horseman opens with the central character, Christian, a pest exterminator, beating up a man with a crowbar. After extracting a few answers, Christian douses the man's house in petrol and sets it on fire, presumably with his victim still inside, changing from his work clothes as it burns in the background.

Christian spends the rest of the film traveling up and down the Queensland coast, his journey interspersed with memories of his daughter as a child, locating the men connected with the movie. Each encounter gives him just enough information to move to the next.

He confronts and for the most part kills the men he comes into contact with, including the distributor, the cameraman, and the actors. There is genuine ambivalence in his first decision to kill, but it quickly becomes easier and his methods get more and more extreme. This is fueled by the fact that virtually none of the men are repentant. One even taunts that Jessie, the daughter, came to the shoot of her own free will. It’s the one thing Christian absolutely does not want to hear.

The only break in the killing occurs when Christian reluctantly picks up Alice, a young runaway, to whom he can be the sort of father figure his biological daughter rejected. The film, populated by an almost completely Queensland cast, was shot by first time Australian director Steven Kastrissios on a budget of eighty grand. Not too shabby an effort in anyone’s books.

Reviewers singled out the violence for particular criticism. There’s certainly no shortage of it; knives, pliers and a blowtorch are some of the weapons of choice. There are a lot of fight scenes, some of them unnecessarily drawn out.

That said, the film is well shot and Kastrissios gets good performances from his unknowns, particularly Peter Marshall. As Christian, he brings the required everyman quality and look to the role, although his rapid transformation into a cold-blooded super-killer able to hold his own against hardened criminals undermines this authenticity.

The contrast with Hardcore's Jake Van Dorn, couldn't be greater. Van Dorn’s violent side emerges gradually and the results are mild compared to Christian’s killing spree. Van Dorn hires a cheap private eye, Andy (another fantastic performance by Peter Boyle), to find his daughter after she goes missing on a church retreat in California. Reluctantly, Van Dorn makes the decision to enter the world of pornography by masquerading as a porn producer casting actors in order to get close to his daughter. At the conclusion of Hardcore, the daughter willingly accompanies her father home.

Even if Christian’s daughter were alive, you get the feeling there'd be no such happy ending. Christian doesn’t really want to understand what his daughter did; he just wants to punish the people he holds responsible.

The DVD extras on The Horseman contain a couple of deleted scenes that would have added a lot to the film. This includes a confrontation between Jessie and Christian in which she taunts him over the affair with his secretary that presumably led to the dissolution of his marriage, and threatens to move out. There's a palpable sense the daughter is already involved with the men who will eventually contribute to her death.

The two films have a number of other interesting differences.

It’s been a while since I watched Hardcore, but I vividly remember the scene where the PI, Andy, in an attempt to explain to his client what has happened, takes Van Dorn to a sleazy porn theatre screening the film with his daughter in it.

It’s a throwback to the time when you had to physically go into a cinema to watch a porn film rather than just click three times on your computer mouse. These days, anyone with a hand-held camera and some willing participants can make porn and load it onto the web.

The setting for Schrader's film is the sleazy world of theatres, sex shops and peep shows that used to inhabit the inner urban sections of many cities. The danger in The Horseman lies in the outer suburbs and the bush along the Queensland coast, home to pockets of entrenched disadvantage and one of the most casualised workforces in the Australia.

Indeed, it's easy to see Christian as one of the army of independent contractors who flourished over the decade of conservative rule in Australia before being hit hard by the financial crisis in 2007. His wife has left him, business probably sucks, he’s got mortgage stress up to the back teeth and his daughter hates him.

Perhaps this was part of the point Kastrissios was trying to make. If so, he doesn't quite get there.

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne writer. His blog,, focuses on crime fiction and film, particularly from Asia and Australia.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

by Garrett "Señor Mysterioso" Cook

What makes a movie a perfect revenge movie? Is it the best scenes of violence? The most passion in the vigilante? The biggest transgression performed against someone? The most elaborate triumph over those that wronged them? I don’t know. But I have a good idea what, for me, makes a perfect horror movie. Intriguing acts of violence, atmosphere, macabre beauty, good performances and a sense of fun present in even the bleakest of circumstances. And to a certain extent for me, answers. I do not believe one should stop engaging their brain when people start getting killed. This is absurd. Some poor fictional son of a bitch just died, the least you can do is think about why. So, if you walk away from a horror movie without having to think about or feel or know something you didn’t before, you’ve gotten a bum deal, no matter how many bare breasts, exploding heads or ghastly makeups you’ve seen. The Abominable Doctor Phibes might not be the perfect revenge movie, but for me at least, it’s the perfect horror movie about revenge.

From the first moments, this movie is spellbinding. A beautiful swan of a woman and a black clad man dance together in a weird steampunk ballroom to the music of mechanized musicians. They place a cage in a box, and the film transitions into this man and this woman loading it into his bizarre car. They lower said cage into a sleeping man’s bedroom. The cage is full of bats, which claw and bite him to death. Your first thought is probably “Wow, that’s really fucking cool. These two freaks just killed a man with a bunch of bats.” The second thought will probably be “What kind of crazy sadist would use a bunch of bats to kill somebody in their sleep? What kind of asshole does that?” If you watch horror movies, you’ve seen Jason slamming a sleeping bag full of two sex-crazed teenagers that are only slightly less mentally deficient than he is into a tree, Leatherface chainsawing hippies, Ichi the Killer kick-slashing a man in half. But this is methodical, weird and pretty damn cruel. This is the sort of shit Batman and Daredevil have to put the kibosh on. This isn’t just killing, this is supervillainy. Strange and flamboyant beyond even the typical machinations of this movie’s star, the great Vincent Price.

And that’s only the start of this violent, garish pulp mystery, which has something unusual at its core. When you first get to see a skullfaced Price putting his Vincent Price face on one piece at a time, then sitting down to play his organ, he becomes likeable, a real person who has built an unreal world with unreal rules around himself. Suddenly, seeing this man who has a false face he has to put on one piece at a time to go out and commit absurd crimes, you start wondering what it is that moves somebody so vulnerable and so weird to do this. And this comic villain, who seemed at first a combination of Fu Manchu and the Phantom of the Opera, has you convinced that whatever reason he has for exsanguinating Terry-Thomas has to be a good one.

Things get even more muddled when you look at the police detective who’s tracking down this perfectly charming but eccentric vigilante. Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard is awkward, a little slow on the uptake, a kind of British Keystone cop. He’s perfectly likeable, but you know from the moment you see him that he’ll always be one step behind and Phibes probably won’t be prevented from committing any more of these strange, artistic ritual murderers, which are inspired by the Ten Plagues of Egypt. It’s as if the film knows that you don’t want Phibes to get caught. Sure you might worry a little for Joseph Cotten and his son, who are on the hit list, but the movie seems to have decided from the beginning that Phibes is at least partially in the right.

Why? Because Phibes lost the woman he loved. And even though he still has a gorgeous assistant who will do anything for him and whose origin is never explained at all, he cannot get over this. Nine surgeons were working on his wife and as far as Phibes is concerned, nine surgeons failed. And nine surgeons are going to pay. Phibes saw these men playing God as doctors do, and so Phibes has decided to play God himself. We can feel his loss, feel the heat of his vengeance and understand that this man’s rituals are just to make sense out of life and to make up for the nonintervention of the God that didn’t help him. Ten plagues to bring down the system that oppressed him by taking from him the only person that mattered to him, like a surrogate Moses, empowered by a god in his head.

Voltaire said, “If God didn’t exist, then it would be necessary to invent him.” Phibes does just that, with locusts, with rats, hail and a brass unicorn thrown out of a car (they can’t all be great ideas). And Phibes tests the institutions that couldn’t save his wife. If these doctors were any good, they could save each other’s lives (particularly Joseph Cotten); if the police were worth their salt, they could prevent the murder. We want our doctors and police to be capable of protecting us, we want them to do their jobs and we want to know why they fail when they do. But making the world unsafe in order to do this makes him part of the reason why we need doctors and policemen in the first place. This is not a perfect revenge movie because the revenge is not perfectly justified, our perceptions are warped, our reasoning for accepting or not accepting the justification is an emotional one and an irrational drive.

A sad lonely man working for a higher law wants to know why society failed him. If he weren’t so damn weird and hideous and violent, he could be Batman; if his logic didn’t fall apart quickly, he wouldn’t be anything like Fu Manchu or Jigsaw from the Saw movies. Revenge movies make revenge make sense. Horror movies show us how our world is warped, unsafe and frightening. You can lose the ones you love and be turned into something rotten (literally in the case of the cadaverous Phibes), you can be something rotten and your rationale can still be perfectly sensible to regular human beings. Revenge is thus both sensible and scary in the context of this movie. This perfectly shot, campily acted, perfectly violent, perfectly exciting, perfect horror movie.

(Please visit Garrett Cook's Amazon page here.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

by Tommy "Suitcase Stuffer" Pluck

Revenge is a dish best served cold, the Sicilians say. Meaning the longer one waits before meting it out, the more sweet it is. Spilt blood ages into a fine whisky with a smooth burn, preferable to a fresh cup of icy, sanguine gazpacho. This is because revenge is not justice, no matter how we'd like it to be so. It is about staunching wounds that cannot heal. The dead cannot be truly avenged; they are lost to us, and revenge is our heart lashing out to ease its pain. There is a cathartic satisfaction, when we see a wronged man get his revenge, or the doer of a foul deed slapped with his comeuppance. In fiction, it feels especially good. In reality, each act of vengeance deserves another, sometimes spawning blood feuds that last generations, or even centuries, as in the Balkans. The first blow landed is long forgotten.

Most films skirt this and grant us the primal joy of revenge as their main meal. One exception is the excellent Dead Man's Shoes, directed by Shane Meadows (This Is England). The revenge story may owe its roots to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo and Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," but in Britain everything must stand comparison to 1971's seminal Get Carter. Dead Man's Shoes, written by and starring Paddy Considine (In America; also one of the dick cops in Hot Fuzz) plays out like a grainy, arty version of the Michael Caine classic, where a man comes back to town to avenge his wronged brother. Here the brother is Anthony, a mentally retarded young man who was first mocked, then abused by local small-time toughs.

Paddy plays Richard, an ex-soldier who returns home a bit unhinged. When he learns what his brother endured in his absence, we watch his anger build as he first taunts the toughs, then plays scary pranks. He begins breaking into their homes for his pranks, or stalking outside in a gas mask, reminiscent of Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask. Soon the pot is bubbling over, and he unleashes an atavistic fury that disturbed and nauseated most critics. Shane Meadows's genius lies in how he draws us in with these mild hints at genre conventions, and then pulls the rug out from us. First, revenge, then slasher, and finally we come to a bleak realization that changes things just enough to imbue the whole tragic tale with a crushing, tragic sense of guilt.

We see the past abuse of Anthony in grainy, home-movie style flashbacks; this reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, another revenge flick that used flashbacks to great effect. The abuse of a mentally challenged boy is quite hard to take. Toby Kebbell (RocknRolla) does such a great job that I wanted to turn it off. The thugs toy with him, making him think they are friends, when he is really just a plaything. When we finally see the final act and motivation for Richard's revenge, the story uses the immense emotional power it has built with brutal scenes and flips it to show us a big brother's soul-breaking guilt. As in The Limey, the avenger decides that what he really wants and what he thought he wanted are two very different things. The films have two wildly different endings, but the realization is the same. Avengers pay for their act by carrying guilt for the rest of their lives, and the audience-pleasing catharsis that comes with dispatching their enemies isn't enough to soothe the life-long agony that drives them to it in the first place: that they weren't there to prevent the wrongs dealt to their loved ones.

Dead Man's Shoes was dismissed as a slasher flick by the New York Times and many other reviewers, because it never flinches. Justice is not served. The hero does terrible things, and there is no happy ending. This is noir, there are no easy wins, and Richard knows he can never make things right. So he makes things wrong, to ease his own pain.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fighting Back (1982)

by Alec “I’m scared, where the fuck’s my .38?” Cizak

The early 1980s had to be confusing as hell for anyone old enough to give a shit about the social and political climate. I was in grade school. I gave a shit about KISS, Star Wars, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I gave a shit about saving money from my paper route to buy comic books. I read Daredevil before Ben Affleck made that title totally cool (hohoho…). My introduction to The Punisher was through Daredevil. Right after the shocking issue where Elektra gets a sai shoved through her belly, Frank Miller decided to do some propaganda work for the flowering “War on Drugs.” Created by Nixon, this moronic attempt to engage in combat with inanimate pharmaceuticals was cultivated to deadly perfection by Reagan and then that skeletal, evil fuck George H.W. Bush. But I’m digressing. Don’t watch. Anyway, The Punisher was Marvel Comics' answer to the Hollywood genre involving avenging madmen armed and ready to exterminate the punks of the world. Or, at least, the punks in inner-city America.

Whoops. Weren’t those punks generally non-white? Herein lurks the great debate about Charlie Bronson and Clint Eastwood and even our good buddy Travis Bickle. Were these guys committing righteous, vigilante murder in the name of justice and security (of the middle class, but pretend you didn’t read that), or were they just a bunch of crusty old crackers gunning down brown and black people to remind the minorities that Whitey was still around? By 1980, the sentiment among left-wing critics and scholars was that these movies projected a “reactionary” conservative fantasy to an impotent, right-wing fan base (see Bobby Kolker’s book Cinema of Loneliness for the politely articulated version of this theory). As the indulgences of the 1970s came under scrutiny in the 1980s, motion pictures struggled to reflect the left-leaning sympathies of the majority of the artists working in Hollywood while satisfying the recuperated conservative sentiment ushered in with the election of Ronald Reagan. The business folks in Hollywood were in the process of wrestling control back from the directors so that the “bottom line” could once again be given its proper respect and that pesky concept of “art” in American movies could be shown the proverbial door once and for all. It was in this schizophrenic environment that Lewis Teague’s Fighting Back was created.

This is a film that is just as confused as society was in 1982. Lewis Teague had to have some leftist leanings considering he directed Alligator, which was scripted by that commie fuck John Sayles (who made the greatest goddamn independent film of the 1980s, Matewan). Fighting Back is a vigilante movie that wants very badly to be an intelligent, self-conscious examination of the genre it represents. Sort of like a Scream for Dirty Harry movies. Fighting Back is better than Scream, however, because its critique is not spotlighted by piss-your-pants-clever dialogue. It is like The Manchurian Candidate, an unconscious assassin. The film satirizes reactionary sentiments, even the election of Ronald Reagan, without ever letting its core fan base realize that their murderous fantasies are being mocked.

I believe a clue to understanding how this bizarre film got made can be found in the writing credits. David Z. Goodman, who wrote Straw Dogs and Logan’s Run, is clearly the brains of the two screenwriters. His partner is Tom Hedley, the vapid genius behind Flashdance and Hard to Hold, Rick Springfield’s edgy counterpunch to Prince’s Purple Rain (Prince’s film was released a month after Hard to Hold, but one suspects some insider information compelled the producers of Hard to Hold to get their film in theaters first and with good reason; once Purple Rain was released, nobody gave a shit about the Rick Springfield movie. But I digress. I’m attending a support group so save your lectures).

Fighting Back begins like any other honky avenger movie—an old man is moving away from tough Philadelphia to go live in Colorado where, apparently, there are no criminals. It’s a metaphor for “white flight,” if you’re really paying attention. On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who thinks John Cage should compose a symphony of NASCAR engines revving to the tune of “Freebird,” this opening scene will rather suggest a great tragedy that needs to be fixed by a short, bad-ass white dude with a gun. John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) will answer the call. He and his wife Lisa (Patti LuPone) stay behind despite concerns over the state of the neighborhood. Lisa witnesses a pimp reprimanding one of his female employees. She makes hubby pull over so that she may admonish the pimp. Even the hooker, however, feels like the middle class woman should mind her own “fucking business.” After Lisa throws ice on the pimp, a car chase ensues. John D’Angelo crashes his cracker station wagon and his pregnant wife is injured. He pulls a gun on the pimp and our not-so-subtle racist agenda takes flight.

By sheer coincidence, the kind that occurs only in the movies, John’s mother and son witness a robbery just a day or so later. The thugs cut off the mother’s ring finger in order to get her wedding ring. Lewis Teague’s camera never flinches as this poor old woman has finger snipped off. It’s pure manipulation to hook the more emotional members of the audience, the ones who pay smarmy no-talent fucks like Jeff Foxworthy to entertain them by belittling them, into going along with whatever crazy shit the gun-toting John D’Angelo comes up with.

Someone in the production, however, understood that one of the main critiques of the old vigilante movies was that a lone man taking on the criminal element in a city or a neighborhood was pure, conservative fantasy. John D’Angelo doesn’t simply take up arms on his own. He creates a neighborhood patrol of pissed-off, (mostly) Italian guys and one black dude for token purposes. We get the usual nonsense about the cops being ineffective. Our riled contempt for law enforcement and other bureaucracies is quelled when the very police officer John chastises for being “chicken” joins the neighborhood watch. The cop rides along with him when they engage in community enhancing activities such as rousting a bar with the most diverse clientele I’ve ever seen. Again, we are rocked by the film’s overt contradictions: when the neighborhood patrol wanders into the bar to raise hell, the patrons—black, white, Hispanic—are all getting along just fine. It’s an incredibly peaceful and idealistic vision of an inner-city America where everyone gets trashed together without qualms over ethnic differences. In marches the neighborhood patrol who promptly turn it into a giant, violent professional wrestling venue. The question starts to form in the mind of a thinking audience:

Who are the bad guys again?

The movie addresses its obvious racial contradictions with the help of big, bad Yaphet Kotto. John D’Angelo pleads that they are on the same side. Washington, Kotto’s character, drops the most telling line in the movie—“We got nothing in common… I’m trying to help the poor.” Ah, here is the Lewis Teague that directed Alligator. The movie makes no effort to hide its awareness that white vigilantes shooting black people does not constitute benevolent community action. Washington calls D’Angelo a racist and, for all intents and purposes, the movie should end right there. It would have been just the right length for a violent ABC Afterschool Special.

No such luck. D’Angelo continues his campaign against the "punks" who are dealing drugs and panhandling in the local park. Lest Latinos feel left out, he chases a Hispanic-looking purse snatcher down and hangs him on a hook for the Pabst Blue Ribbon crowd to ogle and ridicule. Eventually he gets the attention of local politicians. In a surprisingly cynical move, the movie suggests the suits and ties aren’t so much concerned about a vigilante roaming the streets and getting angrier with every run-in with those pesky minorities, no, the politicians are worried that John D’Angelo will garner enough attention to threaten them in the next election. Their worries are not misplaced, either. The opposition party approaches D’Angelo and suggests he run against the incumbent. The lovers of small government that dictates what you can and can’t do with your own body see a working class hero getting a chance to bring his psychotic vision of minority-bashing to public office. Those of us with a broader view of post-World War II America understand that Lewis Teague and his screenwriters are making a sly reference to the building up and electing of the man who would do everything he could to restore pre-civil rights America—Ronald Reagan.

Fighting Back ends on a bleak note. The night John D’Angelo is elected to public office, he murders the pimp who pissed him off in the beginning of the film. The Rambo crowd breathes a sigh of relief and the more adept viewer realizes Teague is telling the future, when black neighborhoods would be decimated by crack and violence. Maybe it’s a stretch to propose that Fighting Back is a sly, early critique of Reagan’s America. But the film contains too many contradicting ideologies to be completely unaware of its schizophrenic agenda. Then again, maybe I’m just reaching. Without a lot of complex deconstruction, this movie is just a piece of shit. I’d like to believe the time I spent watching it and taking notes was not wasted.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

by Jimmy "We love you when you're mad!" Callaway

Everything’s gonna be great.

When I was younger, I never believed this. But you go through some shit, you come out on the other side of it, and then you’ve got that experience, so you know that everything will be fine, even if it won’t be sometimes.

I think knowing this may be the nerds’ greatest revenge, one that in itself gives the rest of the asshole jocks and face-men out there the experience to learn that the world is not as decisively split as it is in a football game. But that’s a more meta-interpretation, one that actually gets explored a bit in one of this flick’s mostly unwatchable sequels. As this film stands on its own, I’m including it here with the revenge flicks rather than the fucking or drinking movies, because moreso than its conceptual progenitor, National Lampoon’s Animal House—which as I’ve written before is more about garnering revenge by living wellRevenge of the Nerds deals with a more direct approach, but only when living well starts to get your ass stomped. By that logic, this movie should be called Justice of the Nerds, but that’s not nearly as catchy a title. So let’s see if we can’t suss out the difference between justice and revenge herein.

For openers, though, I’ve always had a little bit of a problem with the setting of this film, but I think I’ve more or less hammered it out for myself with this viewing. My own college experience was not what I’d have called typical—I was a bit older than most of the student body, I was a transfer student from community college, and I went to a commuter school. So my version of campus life was pretty far removed from what I would have then termed “normal.” Like so much else about my culture and surroundings, I gleaned my concept of normality in this regard from TV and movies: college is just like high school, except there’s far less adult-supervision.

So in Revenge of the Nerds, the social-caste system that is in place—jocks up here, nerds down here—just seems silly to me. Maybe that’s how things went at San Diego State, but I wouldn’t have known because I was only on campus for classes, having already established my own autonomous social life. If a buncha jocks had begun chanting “Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!” at me, I woulda just rolled my eyes. Plus, I also live in the post-ironic early 21st century wherein nerdiness is actually not as socially polarizing as it used to be, and is even something a lot of girls are into (a fact which still delightfully surprises me each time I realize it).

But watching this flick now, I think this clinging to high-school tradition might be what makes the movie work. The Alpha Beta fraternity is made up by a buncha guys who have always been on top in their little world, and they (nor I, even) certainly see no reason to change that. But as the film opens, the nerds who are the targets of their abuse don’t really give a shit. It’s a bummer that they have to live in the gym and that Betty Childs sets Lewis and Gilbert up to be hazed by the ABs. But whatever. Lewis, armed with his eternal optimism, takes it all in stride. The guy is a Zen master up there with Eric Stratton and Jeffrey Lebowski.

So the nerds roll with the punches, and really, everything is going fine. They find and fix up a sweet pad, they party with the Omega Mus, they’re up for possible sponsorship by the national fraternity organization, Lambda Lambda Lambda. But the Alpha Betas are relentless in keeping the nerds in their place—the caste system must remain intact or the house of cards these fuckheads live in will go up in flames as much as their actual house did. And it is at this point that the Buddha-like attitude of the future Tri-Lambs briefly takes a back seat to that coldest dish of all: revenge.

There are technically only two acts of revenge enacted by the nerds in this movie. Firstly, they run a panty raid on the Pi Delta Pis and install surveillance cameras in their sorority house in order to make sure they’re all mostly naked at all times. Then they spike the football players’ jocks with liquid heat. Both of these pranks have two things in common: they utilize the nerds’ grasp of science and technology, and they target their enemies where they live; namely, their groins. Since these frat-brats so often utilize nothing more than the lizard part of their brains, this method of attack only makes sense. It’s a battle of brains against brawn, and brains have got brawn on the ropes.

Once their revenge has been enacted, the nerds officially become Tri-Lambs, but from here on in, their actions are simply a matter of justice. In order to have any kind of a say in how they are officially treated, on what their official status is, the Tri-Lambs need to win the homecoming carnival. Stan Gable and his corrupt Greek council are still utilizing their power to oppress the nerds and keep them down at the level of untouchables. The Alpha Betas lighting a flaming “NERDS” sign on the Tri-Lambs front lawn is certainly not an accidental analogue to the KKK and their tactics of fear, no moreso than the nerds being part of a predominantly black fraternal organization is to be read as coincidental. It may seem disrespectful to associate this group of merely socially awkward white kids with the civil rights movement, but truly, while any of us are oppressed, none of us are free.

First up, we have the quasi-athletic portion of the homecoming competition, a kind of frat Olympics. The Alpha Betas are definitely gonna take these events overall since they often involve athleticism, but this doesn’t mean that brains are completely without recourse. Take the tricycle race for instance. Twenty laps around the course, with each lap completed requiring a beer to be chugged. Physical exertion combined with binge drinking sounds like something any Alpha Beta should be able to handle in his sleep, right? But since the nerds have made-up science on their side, this event goes to them. Same with the javelin throw: the nerds use their brains to give them the edge the Alphas would normally own. Granted, the Alphas come out of this phase on top, but even when they win, they lose, as with the tug-o’-war: “You win,” says Wormser, with the unsaid addendum to that being, “You also look like the buncha assholes you really are.”

But with the charity fundraiser, even Stan can see the writing is on the wall. Sure, a Pi kissing booth should be a dead lock for them, but the Tri-Lambs are able to up them by selling pictures of Betty’s ass instead (thanks again, technology!). And then here’s where my only real problem with Revenge of the Nerds brings itself to bear:

Lewis Skolnick is a rapist.

I really wish there were a way around it. The peeping-tom cameras I can chalk up to revenge, and like I say, they came in handy in the fight for nerd justice. But dude, penetration without consent is just that, even if it seems Lewis just went down on Betty as opposed to engaging in actual vaginal sex (though I’m still confused as to how he could do that without removing his knock-off Vader mask). Betty consented to receiving oral sex from Stan Gable, her boyfriend, not from anyone else. The fact that she was totally into it after the fact not only doesn’t change anything, but makes it that much creepier. Not to sound like an old lady, but I shudder to think of the college boys who may have somehow coerced an otherwise unwilling partner into sex, keeping their fingers crossed that their mad doin’-it skills would get them off the hook a posteriori (a little Latin humor there). If I can be perfectly frank, I consider myself an especially cunning linguist, but I still wouldn’t roll those bones. “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?”, indeed.

Ugh. All right, shake it off, we’ve still got the dénouement to get to. So now the nerds are ahead, and all that remains before they wield ultimate campus power is the comedy/sketch show. This one was over before it started. The Tri-Lambs have already proven themselves to be far more creative and imaginative than the Alphas (Gilbert is able to knock together a little 8-bit computer cartoon with just a few strokes of the keyboard; Lewis designed and built a robot that can peel the panties off an Omega Mu at ten paces). I will grant you that their actual little rap song is super lame, even by 1984 standards. But within the film, are you kidding me? You’re gonna put that old traditional jock drag act up against an original song and performance with a goddamn CoCo? No, you’re not.

And so, beaten at their own game, the Alpha Betas turn to violence, first destroying the Tri-Lamb house and then beating Gilbert up. And even though Bernie Casey (Bernie fuckin’ Casey!) and the other Tri-Lamb brothers show up to see to it that Coach John Goodman and the other thick-necks don’t go any further, their threat of violence is only implied, only in the interest of seeing justice done. Gilbert and his brothers still rely on their words, their own conscientious actions (except for the rape-y bits), and what they prove to be the basic decency of most people to see their cause win out. And win out it does. If you don’t get chills from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of “We Are the Champions,” consult your family physician as you are most likely dead.

Animal House is destructive, where Revenge of the Nerds is constructive. This is merely an observation, not a judgment, since both result in a happy ending and both look like they’d be a lotta fun. The boys from Delta House, when they were up against it, sought to destroy the homecoming carnival and, by extension, the bullshit class system it represents. The Tri-Lambs want to change the system from within. If they have to smudge some moral boundaries here and there to do it, they will, but essentially, they remain true to their sense of fair play and good times for all, and they still manage to show the beautiful people that there are a lot more of us than there are of you.

And it’s gonna be a great year.