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Paranoia, They Destroy Ya: Death Sentence vs. The Brave One, or Jodie Foster's Continuing Relevance to the Presidency

Posted by Charles Reece, February 8, 2008 12:50pm | Post a Comment
Given Hillary Clinton’s history of backing neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as an imperialist context could actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda has been a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy.  -- Stephen Zunes, Sexism, the Women’s Vote and Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy
These promises of morality, protection, and recognition of harm are false promises. The criminal justice apparatus is about order and its reproduction, and about maintaining the existing hierarchy of status and privilege, and only incidentally about crime or morality or the safety of individual citizens and their communities. It operates most effectively at
the level of the symbolic, by naming individual offenders as morally defective, and using them as scapegoats, and only incidentally as a useful tool for community security, although at times it is the only and the most appropriate social institution available. -- Diane L. Martin, Retributivism Revisited: A Reconsideration of Feminist Criminal Law Reform Strategies

At a time when Spider-Man still had some aesthetic worth, being drawn by the great Steve Ditko, New York was on its way to becoming a dangerous city, giving the super-powered vigilante something to do, presumedly on a daily basis.  However, looking at the crime stats for NYC in 1965, one finds that only 3% of its inhabitants experienced any sort of crime for that year.  With a population of 18 million, it's no wonder that there was rarely a cop around as the Vulture was flying off with his ill-gotten loot.  Now, if you're one lone webslinger, even with the aid of your trusty spider-sense, it ain't very likely that you'll be fortunate enough to come across a crime as it's occurring even on a monthly basis, much less a daily one.  Thus, we have one of the central absurd conceits of the vigilante sub-genre (with radiated powers or merely a stock of ammo): always being in the right place at the right time.

It's just that sort of absurdity Daniel Clowes satirizes in his parodic take on Spidey, The Death-Ray.  Upon discovering his superpowers after smoking his first cigarette, Andy is coaxed into fighting crime by his pal Louie.  The only problem is that there's no superpowered villains with whom to have one of those Kirby-inspired splash pages.  With the aid of his evaporating deathray gun, Andy does the only thing left to him, erasing the schoolyard bully, the older sister's obnoxious boyfriend, and the everyday litterer.  With great power comes the blasé acceptance of its use.

Using the same basic plot as Lee and Ditko's origin for Spidey, director Michael Winner and writer Wendell Mayes's DEATH WISH replaces spider powers with the hand gun and the death of Uncle Ben with the murder of the hero's wife and the rape of his daughter for a more versimilitudinous milieu.  As his daughter lies in a vegetative state, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) asks his pansy aka typically liberal son-in-law if all there is to do when faced with violent crime is hide in fear.  Sure, the son-in-law replies, it's called being civilized.  Well, just like Peter Parker, Kersey will have none of that.  With his newly acquired gun (which inexplicably uses bullets that can't be traced), he patrols all the most obvious places where crime takes place: convenience stores, subways and Central Park.  And, being the sine qua non of the vengeance morality play, there are ne'er do wells at every corner.  "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," as Travis Bickle will say a couple years later.  Of course, it wasn't until the appearance of Frank Castle, the Punisher, in a 1974 issue of SPIDER-MAN (same year as DEATH WISH), that the superhero vigilante was made to face his grittier, more "realistic," counterpart.  Spidey wouldn't kill, but following the likes of Paul Kersey, the Punisher certainly would.  The conflict appears to be a way of setting up a contrast between good vigilantism and the bad kind, thereby keeping the morality of superheroes acceptable to a readership growing up, say, some time after the Renaissance.

In order to keep Kersey a hero and this right-wing fantasy more palatable to a liberal -- or, really, any morally modern audience, his actions are always reactions, brought on, like in a Western, by the villain drawing first.  Kersey starts off as a conscientious objector in the Korean War, but keeping with the old adage that a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged, he begins to see the value in Deuteronomy's "an eye for an eye."  Thus we have the narrative template for the vigilante sub-genre established, with its complementary theory of justice, retributivism (an equivalent amount of punishment for the crime), firmly in place.  There are many problems with retributivism, chief among them being it's a moral code without a real concern for any practical benefits to society.  It's simply a matter of doing what's right in abstracto, regardless of whether the punishment itself might have more long-lasting deleterious effects than the individual crimes themselves.  Little wonder, then, why the vigilante film or the superhero comic is rooted in machismo; societal concern sounds too much like feminine caring.

Trying to further liberalize antediluvian morality by feminizing it, we get Neil Jordan's THE BRAVE ONE, which proves to be little more than DEATH WISH with Jodie Foster's Erica Bain replacing Bronson's Paul Kersey.   Certainly Foster's face maps a wider emotive geography that Bronson's, who  looks like some sculpted artifact from a simpler, more decisive time.  Getting art (power) house Jordan to direct the film was an attempt to bestow gravitas to what would have otherwise been dismissed by most critics as little more than a generic reiteration of a well-worn cliché.  And one doesn't have to guess at the motives of the producers, Susan Downey says as much in the documentary that comes with the film on dvd.  Both director and star are there to help deepen the emotional understanding of vengeance.  As Downey tells us, the original script by father-son writing duo, Roderick and Bruce Taylor, was too much a straightforward genre piece, only with a woman protagonist.  Brought on, in part, by Foster's insistence, Cynthia Mort revised the script, making the hero an NPR talkshow host, often speaking in a voiceover (for those who couldn't quite appreciate the message behind .Bronson's granite gaze).  The intended difference in vigilantes here supposedly being that Foster’s is one who takes on the full emotional and moral weight of her decisions (as NPR reporters sound like they're doing when reporting a story), where Bronson’s was just a force to be reckoned with.  Just look at the posters: Bronson is a man of determination and action, Foster a woman of regret and doubt.  I don't remember Bronson touching his hair once in any of the five DEATH WISHes.  Nor does he cry, which Foster does in abundance.

But these are superficial differences, taken as meritorious by a reductio ad absurdist identity politics.  By merely replacing the speaker of an argument with another speaker belonging to a neglected group, the argument is assumed to take on a different meaning, as if there's something intrinsic to that group which will just naturally affect the argument's outcome.  Having a woman willing to strap on a bomb doesn't say much about women's rights, only how little the ideology cares about gender equality.  One has but to think of Ira Hayes in this regard.  He was "equal" only so long as he served the purpose of perpetuating the American ideal within the context of WWII.  Once he returned home, and his "Indian-ness" began to re-surface, the ideology had little use for him.  Otherness is of value to an ideology only if it can be used to perpetuate that ideology.  With better cinematography and acting, THE BRAVE ONE uses the feminine body to make exactly the same points as DEATH WISH.  Like Kersey, Bain has a perfect life in Manhattan, is a devout liberal, loses a loved one in a violent act, acquires a gun,  proceeds to haunt the same locales waiting for Them to draw first, and then gets help from a cop in order to get away with it.  The substitution of Foster and the effeminate connotation of an arthouse take on the vengeance sub-genre are nothing more than rhetorical affectations to help reassert the continuing appeal of retributivism.  If THE BRAVE ONE suggests anything not already in its predecessor, it's only that technology qua gun is the great equalizer.

The feminist intent of THE BRAVE ONE wasn't lost on some critics.  Writing in Film Comment (Vol. 43, No. 5), Amy Taubin contrasts it to the "male fantasy" of MS. 45 and DEATH WISH, along with the latter's "righteous vigilantism."  Contrary to the film's being a near point for point remake of DEATH WISH, she chooses to compare it more favorably with the more critically respectable TAXI DRIVER.  Odd, since Travis Bickle is pretty much off from the beginning of his story, whereas Paul Kersey is, despite Bronson's lack of nuance, shown to go through the same transformation brought on by the power of the gun Foster evinces: from passive liberal to angel of vengeance.  If the superficially feminist tricks -- artiness and emotional NPR-employed woman protagonist -- can get a feminist critic to buy into the morality of DEATH WISH's plot (Taubin even challenges critics of THELMA & LOUISE to not be more outraged by THE BRAVE ONE), it's doubtful that she'd find James Wan's testosterone-fueled sequel, DEATH SENTENCE, any more feminist than the Bronson flick.  But, in its focus on the familial and social effects of vengeance, violence begetting violence, it is less masculinist than THE BRAVE ONE, despite its hyper-stylized violence and muscular tit for tat.

As Brian Garfield says, he wrote DEATH SENTENCE "as a sort of penance for the movie version of DEATH WISH."  The film (which was written by Garfield and Ian Jeffers) stays fairly true to his intent, even though it plays to the stylistic demands of the contemporary action spectacle, with tribally tattooed bald bad guys who look more like villains from THE CROW than any street gang in the real world.  Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a happy insurance salesman with a great family until son number 1 is macheted down as part of a gang ritual.  Unlike with the two previous films, the killer is caught, but due to the nature of legal bureaucracy, he clearly isn't going to get his just deserts.  Thus, Nick refuses to testify against him, deciding instead to follow him home to exact what he feels is a more justified retribution.  Unlike Paul and Erica, he's made to pay for his revenge.  The gang discovers his identity and -- in what's surely the worst use of a pop song in cinema's history -- takes out his entire family including Nick himself -- concluding with a spiraling overhead shot of their lifeless bodies to the tune of some 90s WB-warbler about lost love.  Nick survives, says a few words of regret to his other son, now in a vegetative state (along with skulls, tomatoes prove a good excuse for monologues), shaves his head (hardly a nuanced sign of parity between him and the villain), acquires an arsenal from the gang leader's dad (eccentrically played by John Goodman and alluding to the violent upbringing at the base of the villain's worldview), and goes on to exact more retribution.

The most intriguing contrast between the three films is the moral conscience supplied by the cop role.  Each film has a cop who takes a special interest in the case of the vigilante hero:  DEATH WISH has Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), a detective who is told by the Commissioner to let Paul go free due to the political ramifications of trying a guy who's had the effect of reducing crime in New York.  THE BRAVE ONE has Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who lets Erica go after killing the final bad guy involved in her rape and the murder of her fiancé, not because of bureaucracy, but because he sympathizes with her position.  He even goes so far as to let her shoot him in the arm and arrange the murder to look like it was a defense killing in the line of duty!  And, finally, DEATH SENTENCE has Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler), who knows why the gang is after Nick and tries to get him to stop the violent cycle by opening up to her.  Tyler has a thankless role, functioning more as a "don't do that"/"see I told you so" version of the chorus in a Greek tragedy.  Yet, hers is the only role that really focuses this type of story on the familial and social damage that results from a retributivist world view -- hardly surprising that a woman was cast for it.  The character points to the realworld problem of implementing retributivism, rather than merely arguing its abstracted points in a fantasy setting.  Her outlook is confirmed as Nick sits mano a mano with the gang leader at the end of the film, both bleeding to death; whether or not the villain deserved to die becomes irrelevant, when the cost to Nick was so high in making his point. 

Substituting a woman who displays stereotypically feminine cues (e.g., crying and general emoting) into what's a particularly masculine subgenre of Action is insufficient by that fact alone for a feminist critique.  Despite Jodie Foster's claim (in the aforementioned making-of documentary) that her character is in the wrong, the BRAVE ONE demonstrates such a substitution might actually serve as an insidious attempt to broaden the appeal of a socially destructive moral philosophy, selling Old World moralism to today's wouldbe feminists.  Only Erica Bain gets away with her killing because the cop comes to feel her actions are justified.  At least, Paul Kersey's guardian detective is forced by bureaucracy to let him go, in spite of the detective's protestations.  Stylistically, both of these films are more realistic than Spider-Man, but ironically neither is as concerned with the real world as the near superheroic DEATH SENTENCE (with its implausible action sequences and Wolverine-healing abilities of its protagonist).  It manages to be both more honest about the fantastic nature of the subgenre and what vigilantism means in a realworld context.  Even more ironic that such a critique -- which I suggest is connotative of, or at least more consistent with feminism -- should come from a director most notable as the successful popularizer of what many call "torture porn."  The delicate physiognomy of Jodie Foster proves less feminist than beefy men duking it out.

Regarding the potential attractiveness of retributivism to women when it comes to the personalized violence directed at family members, it’s worth quoting at length feminist legal theorist, Diane Martin, on how that philosophy can actually demean the battered wife even further: 

The essential destructiveness of retribution-based acknowledgement of harm is particularly clear when one considers the situation of the battered wife who wants the violence to stop but who does not wish, or cannot afford (or both), to end the relationship. The criminalization approach that has become the official norm of responses to battering pits her against her spouse in a contest that individualizes and depoliticizes spousal violence, and threatens her family in fundamental ways. An immediate threat is posed by her partner’s inevitable loss of employment if the substantial prison terms called for are imposed.  A feminist response should not be to say to this woman, “You are mistaken in your opinion of the harms that may be done to you by the criminal process. You are mistaken in choosing family integrity over the integrity of the justice system. You are mistaken in relying upon your own opinion about how to deal with your situation and not that of the police or the prosecutor or the counsellor or the expert.”  These are patronizing and presumptuous attitudes that also alienate women who might benefit from discussing them further and that drive women away from the resources and help they might need. -- p. 184-5
Following Foster's lachrymose attempt at rebranding the vigilante film by a few months, we got Hillary Clinton's attempt to repackage her Thatcherite masculinity to bourgeois women voters in the New Hampshire primary.  And judging by the exit polls, the ploy worked, Clinton took back the support of women she'd lost to Obama in the Iowa primary.  The detrimental effects on Iraqi women entailed by her support for the imperialist doctrine behind the current war seems to hold considerably less cachet for middle-class women voters than her looking like them and showing that she can act just like they feel they would under the grueling demands of a presidential campaign.  Were her tears genuine?  Who cares?  Her use of BET's Ben Johnson and her husband in playing crass identity politics against Obama makes their spontaneity dubious.  Even if they were real, they function as little more than a mask for what she actually represents.  Feminist support for the one true feminist in the race, Dennis Kucinich, unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, and he dropped out.   Should Hillary Clinton’s lead hold and she goes on to make the final bid for the presidency, we’ll be left with a choice between two candidates who supported a foreign policy agenda of vengeance that now makes Kissinger’s realpolitik look as feminist as DEATH SENTENCE.

Relevant Tags

Brave One (1), Hillary Clinton (4), Ideology (7), Death-ray (2), Otherness (4), Ira Hayes (1), Jodie Foster (5), Comic Book Criticism (10), Cinema Criticism (32), Dvd Criticism (26), Charles Bronson (3), Vigilantism (1), Retributivism (3), Feminism (15), Superheroes (7), Death Wish (2), Death Sentence (1), Daniel Clowes (7), Identity Politics (2)