Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Once you know who the bad guys are, what are your choices?

I'm interested in American movies. Trapped methane may be blowing holes in the Siberian tundra, but if Brendan Gleason or Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a new movie, I'm there, and with almost no critical awareness. I read perceptively, I think, because I also write. But I've never made a film, even on my phone, or taken a film class, and I don't plan to. I don't pay attention to who directs a movie, or what the lighting is like or where the camera had to be to get a particular shot. In my local multiplex and in front of a Netflix menu, I'm just looking for stories that tell me something. I'm Jane Q. Public.

It's not that I don't have preferences, even standards. Car chases aren't high on my list of favorite things because they're boring. If I can't see the actors' faces during a sex scene, if I can't gauge the characters' investment, then my mind wanders pretty fast.

Until a year or two ago, I was terribly sensitive to violence on the screen. But I'm angrier now than I used to be, and sometimes I seek out bloody films. When the victims are women and children (as is increasingly the case), I'm gratified when the bad guys get blown away or gored by bulls or decapitated by giant robots. I might cover my eyes for a few crucial seconds, but I don't rush to the bathroom like I used to. I stay put, and I think, hmmm . . . what has happened to me? Why am I enjoying this?

A couple of weekends ago I went to see The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, on Friday night, and dragged my husband back to the multiplex the next morning to see A Walk among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson. As movie reviewers everywhere have pointed out, these two films are nearly identical.

In both films, an aging enforcer tries to resist being drawn into fights. But the bad guys are so bad, the victims so defenseless and brutally used, that the enforcer finally steps forward. No one else is going to stand up for those who are already dead or those in imminent danger.

In The Equalizer, Denzel's character  promised his late wife that he'd give up violence. He now lives a quite life managing a store resembling Home Depot. Something isn't right with him, though, because he can't sleep. He spends the wee hours in a diner reading Hemingway and chatting with other regulars, one of whom is a very young prostitute who ends up in the hospital, beaten almost to death. Denzel makes short work--mass murder takes him exactly 19 seconds--of those responsible, a local ring of drug-dealing pimps. A CIA connection tells him the men he's killed are a tiny branch of . . . wait for it . . . the Russian Mafia, popular bad guys in movies these days. Denzel pulls that tree up by its roots. Although he tells the young prostitute that she can be anything she wants, including a famous singer, Denzel himself returns to being what we used to call a vigilante, mainly, he says, because he can.

In A Walk among the Tombstones, Neeson's character helps a bereaved husband whose wife has been kidnapped, killed and chopped up, despite the fact that he paid a ransom for her. It turns out that the husband is a drug dealer, as are other victims' husbands and fathers. Neeson has to figure out what the connection is between their business and the kidnappings. It isn't the obvious one, a rival enterprise, but something a bit more surprising. The bad guys turn out to be what TV news anchors like to call mentally disturbed individuals, in this case two very scary men. As Neeson hunts them down, he also protects a young friend and sets him on a path to realizing his artistic talents. Neeson knows well what his own talents are and has every intention of continuing to use them.

The Equalizer is a simpler, less interesting movie than A Walk among the Tombstones, and more violent as well. But both give us loners who take matters into their own hands. American films are chock full of these figures. The prototype may be Gary Cooper in High Noon. In their worlds, the institutions that ought to bring down the bad guys are either incompetent or corrupt or immobilized by fear. If these lone crusaders don't do it, no one will.

I've been thinking a lot about . . . uprisings (trying to use a word here that won't set an NSA computer dinging).  It may be too late to do anything at all about the survival of life above single-cell levels on earth, but if we can bring ourselves to act--it's a lot healthier than passivity--we ought to begin by putting aside what we learned in Sunday School or at our therapists' offices: do unto others, forgiveness is always better than anger, every one of us is both good and evil.

Because at this point, it's pretty clear that a few people on earth have a big lead on the rest of us when it comes to evil. They've done and continue to do pornographic damage in Alberta and the Gulf of Mexico. They're emptying aquifers and cutting down forests and fishing out the oceans and writing off the poor of the world.  Any possible renewal of the old social contract that might require them to take the tiniest bit of responsibility for someone else causes them to cascade cash onto their lobbyists.

But let us not be loners. We'd do better to take these bad guys on together, given that no one I know has Denzel's purported skills. If the CEOs and chairmen of the board see themselves as special and apart, surely we ought to move in another direction and see ourselves as fellow creatures, empower each other to act, even to do violence if that is the only thing that will work.