The system was broken. Of that much I was certain as I stared out the window watching Mr. Hendl’s class taking to the blacktop outside to play an afternoon game of kickball. It was sometime in the mid-eighties. I was something like eleven years old. And Mr. Wall, my teacher, was going on about something that had to do with Lewis and Clark. It was springtime, to be sure. There were birds and flowers and puffy clouds bursting all over the place outside my prison where I was doing time with Mr. Wall, a jailor notoriously renowned for never, ever, not once in the history of the schooldom having ever taken his fifth grade class out for kickball in the middle of the afternoon. One of the kids down on the playground , Lenny Glenman, a skinny freckle-plagued snot nose of a kid, looked up in my direction and we made eye contact. Even at such a distance he must’ve read tragedy in my face. He pointed and laughed. I’d been reprimanded twice already for this staring out the window. And so when I cried to Lenny, “Jerk!” almost against my will, the sentence came: “Mr. Christiana! You’ve just earned yourself after school detention,” I knew right then and there that the system was broken. How can some be so fortunate while some so miserable? I was a victim, no doubt about it. I swore right then and there not to be helpless anymore. I swore right then and there that I’d punch Lenny in the nose the next time I saw him, but more importantly, I swore to God above that I’d exact my revenge on Mr. Wall on the last day of school. Maybe I’d egg his car or dump ex-lax in his coffee or maybe something much worse. The last day of school was coming Mr. Wall, and there’s gonna be hell to pay.
The stakes, of course, are much higher for Paul Kersey in the 1974 film DEATH WISH, but the sentiment’s pretty much the same. In fact, the sentiment of revenge and vengeance is a universal one and has been a staple in human literature since the beginning of storytelling running a straight line from the films we’re covering this episode, through Shakespeare’s Hamlet, back to the myths of the ancients, and probably all the way to the origins of humanity when we sat around fires, drew crude pictures of animals in blood on the cave wall, while swearing, in grunting languages, to kill the damn woolly mammoth that trampled our Cro-Magnon pals.
Kersey, played by the finely mustachioed Charles Bronson, has as is woolly mammoth, the hoodlums of 1970s New York City. Here, it should be pointed out, the hoodlums are rendered with all the cartoonish seriousness of a Saturday morning Loony Tunes cartoon. But that doesn’t stop them from brutally murdering Kersey’s wife and raping his daughter, sending her into a catatonic state. Kersey, who in the opening passages, is drawn to be a conscientious objector and bleeding heart liberal with a sizeable empathy for the under-privileged classes, struggles greatly with his personal loss and is frustrated by an ineffective police force. Ultimately, he takes matters into his own hands. He takes to the streets and attempts to entrap muggers so he can retaliate against them, shoot them dead on the street.
That’s not much of a plot but it doesn’t have to be. Revenge tales have found their way into cheap literature because of their perfect compatibility of the three act structure in its simplest forms. And yes, works like the ancient myths and Hamlet and Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, as revered as they are now, were pulp for the masses of their respective time periods. There’s perhaps nothing as gratifying, in our imaginations anyway, of seeing injustices rectified and injuries repaid twofold and cinema, as the greatest provider of wish fulfillment, is the most perfect of all forms of storytelling for revenge tales. To a 1970s suburban American audience living under the tyranny of historically high crime rates, watching Bronson bypass the system and giving those filthy animals what they deserve must’ve felt pretty gratifying indeed. Hell, based on the film’s commercial success upon its release and its eventual status as a cult classic, this film must have been goddamned empowering to those terrified American audiences. The fact that the hero in the opening passages is a level headed, non-violent, reasonable member of society who was anti-gun, anti-violence, and underclass compassionate, must have made it seem all the more reasonable. And just maybe it even made a persuasive argument that vigilantism was a necessity in late 20th century America.
And so that’s where the fun stopped for me. I know that the onus falls ultimately on the viewer to determine the meaning of a film and its implications on his own life, that it’s up to us as sentient consumers of entertainment to decide what we do with the emotions left in us after a movie screening. But I also know that it’s cheap, lazy, and exploitative to capitalize on an audience’s collective fears in order to get their faces into a bucket of popcorn and then, once you have them there, to present only manipulatively simplistic arguments for vigilantism and revenge.
The consideration I’m about to give this film may be much too serious, admittedly, but the film takes itself seriously: It presents serious arguments and issues surrounding class and crime as its basis to subsequently present ridiculous solutions to those issues. Okay, to be fair, perhaps Michael Winner, the director of the film, truly sees vigilantism as a good solution to the crime problem and revenge in the form of physical violence as a good spiritual exercise. In that case, then Death Wish would simply be a dumb film and it deserves a pass without any more griping or even a second thought. It is what it is.
But I don’t think Michael Winner is so short-sighted. Nor do I think he or his film is dumb. The film was based on a novel of the same name by Brian Garfield and though I haven’t read it, from what I understand, the book has a more complex and nuanced representation of the reality of vigilantism and revenge and so, in the final analysis, the filmmakers made very conscious decisions to dumb down the story in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. They knew exactly what they were doing and why. So, irresponsible, cheap, and exploitative? Yes. Dumb? Absolutely not.
So the film, in my opinion, shouldn’t be disregarded as meaningless junk food cinema, and because the artists responsible for it made very intelligent and conscious storytelling decisions the issues it brings up deserve a minute of contemplation: It doesn’t take a genius to see the potential negative consequences of vigilantism such as presented in the film. For every citizen to be enforcer, judge, and jury would mean you or I could easily be shot for the pettiest of transgressions, or for nothing at all. It wouldn’t take long. If everyone is armed with a gun and believes that he’s entitled to a one man legal system, shit’s gonna get ugly quick. Look around you the next time you’re stuck in traffic or the next time you’re on line at a Wal-Mart or filling up your gas tank. Look at the people next to you. Imagine them with a gun and what might be running through their head when they’re deciding whether or not to point a gun at someone. You maybe for bumping into them at the checkout line. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? To have the dumb fucker who just cut you off so he can be first in line at the drive through to order a supersize meal, you want that dumb fuck to so easily have a weapon at his side and, worse, much worse, to have rattling around in his head, right next to his sense of entitlement, the righteous conviction that he can use that firearm whenever the hell he damn well pleases? Sure, you can fire back with the firearm at your own side, but do you want your existence to hinge on whether or not you’re a quicker draw than that fat anonymous slob shoving french fries into his face?
And let’s face it, if a complex and carefully designed legal system gets it wrong from time to time and convicts innocent people or sentences folks out of proportion with the crimes they’ve committed, don’t you think there’s a small chance that, say, the disgruntled check out clerk who forgot to take her happy pills one morning, might just might make an error in judgement and blow away someone who might not quite deserve it?
And as far as the price revenge takes out of your of your soul, since Michael Winner failed to bring it up, it doesn’t take all that much brain power to understand that once you’ve turned that corner and harm another simply because they’ve harmed you, then you’ve become the same type of animal as they, that, in effect, you’ve allowed yourself to be victimized by that same person twice: the first, okay, wasn’t your fault, they’ve hurt you bodily, but the second was your choice and you’ve now offered them your soul. That’s what it comes down to. You submitted to them. They possess you fully now. Why give someone that power over you? To save face? Ultimately, revenge is vanity and vanity is weakness. To rise above, to endure, though certainly less cinematic and much more difficult to resolve within, is the more heroic endeavor. To quote Dumas’ Monte Cristo: “Fool that I am that I did not tear out my heart the day I resolved to revenge myself.” From Madea, to Hamlet, to Monte Cristo, all the way to Dead Man’s Shoes, the film we’ll review later, we see that yes, tales of revenge can serve as low brow entertainment wish fulfillment of our darkest, most violent desires, but they can also be richer, more nuanced portrayals of those same dark urges, from which we can derive richer understanding of those urges and thus of ourselves.
Nothing close to that emerges in Death Wish. Whatever of that thematic sustenance was present in the novel has been surgically removed in the film, to the shame of the filmmakers.
Taking the high road, of course, won’t fix a broken system quickly, a system that, in 1970s New York City produced record numbers of violent crime. But, and I hate to resort to cliché here but it fits, two wrongs… well, you know the rest. Piling the crime of vigilantism on top of another crime only makes the system that much harder to fix. The answer, I humbly submit, is to fix a systemic problem at the systemic level, to assess the flaws of a system that produces citizens to resort to violent acts against one another, and as hard as it might be, to rectify the matter there. But that’s a question for another time, another film maybe.
Suffice it to say, I never did punch Lenny Glennman in the nose and I never egged Mr. Wall’s car on the last day of school. Nor did I dose his coffee with ex-lax. None of those things, I realize now, would’ve gotten me out on the blacktop playing kickball that exquisite spring afternoon.
But! not unlike the 1970’s American audiences watching Death Wish, imagining I took the law into my own hands, imagining I exacted my revenge on Glenman and Wall, watching those acts play out in the movie screen in my head… well, it helped me get through a rough day and that excruciating detention
Joseph Christiana January 2015