Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Mom, a man just died."

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Homer are watching a McBain movie and cheering on McBain as he kills one enemy after another. Wanting to join in, Marge quips, after watching McBain snap a man's neck as he hurtles through the sky in a jet, "Now that's what I call breakneck speed!" She is only able to savor her quip momentarily as Bart turns to her and scolds, "Mom, a man just died."

Similarly, in the deleted scenes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, friends of anonymous henchmen, killed in the movie without a thought, mourn the death of their friends, husbands and fathers.

The joke in both, of course, is that the onscreen death of a faceless, nameless character in an action movie is suddenly given the kind of weight and thoughtful consideration normally reserved for a central character, one in which the audience cares for deeply. And the joke of my movie-watching life, as I grow ever older, is that I give random, nameless and faceless deaths onscreen the same kind of consideration The Simpsons and Austin Powers did as a clever ironic statement, only with me, there's no irony.

It's actually not all that new, having started years ago, but has grown increasingly worse as I get older. It first manifested itself in childhood as I wondered about this or that person being killed by the likes of James Bond and wondering, briefly, fleetingly, "What's his story?"

The first time it ever truly took hold of me was during the viewing of a perfectly wretched catastrophe of a movie, Nothing but Trouble. It was the mid-nineties, I was up late flipping through the channels and on HBO there was this movie, written and directed by Dan Aykroyd, and I quickly realized it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen. Needless to say, I kept watching. Like the driver slowing down to see how bad the carnage is alongside the road after a traffic accident, I wanted to see just how deep into the abyss of badness this movie would plunge.

Early on some hot shots in a sports car get pulled over by the lone police officer in town, John Candy. They're snorting coke and have plenty of drugs and it's implied they deal. They've got two women with them and they're armed. Candy arrests them and brings them before the horrifying town judge/dictator, played by Dan Aykroyd, who summarily executes them. They are sent onto a treadmill/ride into a shredder. This is played as a joke.

Okay, time for some personal background, for both me and Dan. For my part, I have a sister who got heavily involved in drugs in her twenties and thirties. When I say heavily, I don't mean she smoked some pot like you or I did in college or had the occasional hash brownies. No. I mean she was addicted to all manner of drugs, particularly cocaine, and unlike addicts you may have known, my sister married a drug dealer and was pursued, surveilled and eventually arrested by the F.B.I. After turning evidence and being released she sunk into alcoholism and eventually, unable to hold down a job, moved back in with my parents. The drugs she did had severe physical repercussions and now she suffers from brain seizures but there is a plus side to all this: She completely cleaned herself up. She's been sober now for more than eleven years, and while she still lives with my parents thanks to her neurological condition, she is drug-free and helping out my elderly parents as they get older and their health declines.


Now for Dan. He was close friends with John Belushi and despises drug use and drug dealers. Thanks to Cathy Evelyn Smith serving up a too potent speedball, his friend John Belushi lost his life. While she served time for this on manslaughter charges, it can never bring Belushi back. His life is gone, forever. Dan Aykroyd hates dealers. I get that and I sympathize. And I understand, that's where the scene comes from. It comes from the anger and hatred he holds for people who deal in death, at least in some cases.

But when I watched that scene, all I could think of was, "Those two women, why'd they get killed? Because they made the wrong choice? Lots of people make perfectly horrific choices and recover, grow up and turn themselves around. They chose to be with these loser drug dealers, like my sister did. I don't think they deserve to die for that."

Now, I know, it's all a little heavy for a throwaway scene in a perfectly rotten movie and perhaps you're thinking, "Greg, geez, come on, lighten up!" And you're right because I'm saying it too, which is why I'm writing this piece in the first place. Because what started in Nothing but Trouble has continued and I repeatedly find myself asking, even of several supposedly "bad" characters, "That person just died, doesn't anyone care?"

And to be sure this is all perfectly understood, I'm NOT talking about central characters or major supporting characters or even minor supporting characters. That's NOT what I'm talking about. With those you DO feel something and often are meant to. I'm talking about characters that the writer, director and actors want to be nameless and faceless. The characters of whom the audience is completely indifferent. Characters played by actors you will never know and whose credit listings are along the lines of "Man #3." I'm talking about THOSE characters. More often than not, lately, their onscreen deaths really bother me.

The most recent example of this came in the movie Kick-Ass, which came to theatres already swirling in controversy over the language and violence dispensed by the eleven year old character Hit Girl, played by then 13 year-old Chloƫ Moretz. The movie (from the comic book of the same name) deals with ordinary people taking on the personas of super heroes in the real world, a world filled with violence and danger. There is no "cartoon" violence in the movie. Blood flies, guts spill. It is exceptionally violent and while some critics, most notably Roger Ebert, found it morally offensive, I did not, unless you count the death of a certain nameless, faceless character. Then maybe I do but for the reasons I've outlined here, not because Kick-Ass is any different in this respect than any other action movie. It's just that in Kick-Ass, it seems more real and, thus, more impactful.

The death to which I'm referring is particularly troublesome for me because of another important plot line set up by the film. Here's the setup: Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a New York teenager who decides to become a superhero named Kick-Ass. Among his first assignments is to help out a girl he long been secretly in love with, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). She's been mixed up with a guy she wants to stop seeing and asks Kick-Ass to get that message to him. Kick-Ass goes to see the guy, Rasul (Kofi Natei) who is in an apartment with several other unsavory characters and they all appear to be drug-dealers. Kick-Ass is grabbed by them and about to be killed when eleven year old Hit Girl shows up and proceeds to viciously slaughter all of them with a mounted hunting knife. Finally, she turns her attention to the lone female in the apartment who breaks a bottle to try and defend herself before running to the door. She then tries to get it open, terrified, until Hit Girl pulls the knife mount apart, revealing another knife inside, and proceeds to skewer the poor girl before pulling the blades out and casually walking away as her lifeless body falls to the floor.




Ha, ha! She hooked up with the wrong people and now will never have a chance to learn from that and grow as a person because an 11-year-old girl decided it was time for her to die, never to experience life again. Ha, ha! Oh man, that shit is funny, huh?

Okay, it's not that funny but could be depending on your point of view, I guess. The problem with this scene is that the whole reason Kick-Ass is taking on Rasul in the first place is because Katie, the good girl of the movie, was mixed up with him! In other words, the movie is flippantly killing off one girl with Rasul, treating it as a joke that it believes the audience will follow along for the ride because, after all, she's mixed up with a drug dealer, so let her die! But wait! Katie was too! The whole thing feels more like bullshit Hollywood moralizing than anything else.

It's the same bizarre duality Hollywood has exhibited for years: Film folks get mixed up in drugs but portray people mixed up in drugs as evil. Film folks enjoy unimaginable wealth but often portray the wealthy as evil. Film folks sleep with a great many people and... well, you get the picture. There's a lot of projection going on in Hollywood, and not just the kind where reels get changed.

Of course, let's be honest: We've all laughed at people getting killed in films. As referenced earlier, the Bond films have made an artform out of turning a nameless character's death into a joke. One of the more famous examples comes from the beginning of Goldfinger in which Bond electrocutes a man in a bathtub and walks away shaking his head saying, "Shocking." This guy, whoever he was, was clearly in the business of killing people and, frankly, I don't care what happens to him. Likewise for the dealers in Kick-Ass. They are, we can assume, physically dangerous men who have killed and will kill again. It's the girl I have problems killing. The girl who, like Katie, hooked up with someone bad but unlike Katie, wasn't smart enough to unhook herself in time. Had I been the director, I would have had her get the door open and flee. We'd never see her again and leave the theatre thinking, perhaps, she turned her life around after that terrifying incident. Despite all the violence, mayhem and bloodshed in that scene, it is only her death that bothers me and I think it was a mistake to leave it in.

But lest we think this is some new trend in movies or that my dismay is reserved only for the female cohorts of drug dealers, I should say it's been going on since the beginning of cinema. In the film Heaven Can Wait, not the 1978 Warren Beatty film but the 1943 Don Ameche film, the lead character played by Don Ameche is speaking with Satan, played by the great Laird Cregar. As Ameche speaks with an elderly woman (assigned to Hell in the afterlife) Cregar bores of her and presses a button that opens a trap door releasing her to her eternal torment with a blood-curdling scream. After this I couldn't focus on anything else in the movie. All I could think was, "Right now, at this moment, she's being tortured, brutalized and tormented. This will go on forever and why? Because she was a gossip?" That's what's implied: She will be physically tortured for eternity because she was a busybody. And her release into Hell by Cregar is played as a joke. Had Lubitsch made her a rapist or a murderer or a gangster or, fuck, anything but a gossip I would have taken to the joke better. But by making her so innocuous, the joke was given an unfortunate weight, a weight that works against comedy. Well, for weirdos like me who focus on this kind of thing.

For the most part, this is all reserved for moments where a person's death is played off as a joke in a reasonably realistic way. That is, Rowan Atkinson backing off of the cliff in Hot Shots, Part Deux is played so ridiculously that the only thing to do is laugh since no one in the movie feels real in any way, and isn't meant to. But when the guy with the fancy swordwork gets casually shot by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think, "Damn, it's over for him now. He's dead." Of course, I laugh at the scene anyway, just like I'm supposed to, probably because Spielberg is skilled enough to keep just enough distance from it to make it work. The death isn't terrifying (like the woman sucked down to her torment screaming in Heaven Can Wait) or bloodthirsty (like the drug moll in Kick-Ass) and the swordsman isn't in closeup when it happens. But it doesn't mean I still don't think about it, if only for a moment.

A part of me is utterly annoyed with myself for these new found feelings of empathy for faceless extras in the movies but another part of me thinks it's perfectly normal and I'm happy I don't have a cold, mechanical reaction to anyone's death onscreen. I'm well into middle-age, have children on their way out the door and into their own lives and a lovely wife with whom I look forward to growing old. If that means I spend a little more time thinking about life in a way that makes casual onscreen death seem unnerving, so be it. It's not going to kill me.