Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fight to the Death

You know, there's something bracing about a fight to the death. The simplicity of it. The last two chess pieces on the board. The plot squeezed down to one option. The do or die of it. No hope for a stopgap. No "undo" on the menu. Just Batman and Bane. Peter Pan and Captain Hook. One scorpion, one wasp. High noon. 

It's a great way to wrap up a kung-fu movie. Perhaps the only way. Outside of fiction, though, the idea of a death match is morally repulsive. Even the quasi-fictional soap-opera world of pro wrestling resorts to virtual alternatives: loser leaves town, the luchador unmasked, hair versus hair, the sleeper hold, the piledriver. There are limits to the kinds of closure we tolerate as a civilized people, even in our violent entertainments.

Still, a fatal clincher provides the ultimate payoff in a battle between good and evil. On this point, modern storytelling often bunts. It's hard for modern audiences to accept a hero who unflinchingly deals a deathblow. Many fictional fights to the finish take the outcome out of the hands of the hero: the villain miscalculates, loses his balance, or arrogantly goes for broke, or there's the crocodile with the ticking clock in its gut. In the end,  Frankenstein blows himself up. The Nazis unleash upon themselves the destructive spirits in the lost Ark of the Covenant. Batman says, "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." The villain gets properly disposed of, yet the hero's hands stay clean.

My preference is for the good guy to deliver the deathblow, direct and unapologetic. Admittedly, such a finisher chills me to the bone, but the act has more punch than just leaving the villain to his own devices ... or to chance. I don't mind if the bad guy makes it easy for the good guy--insulting his mother, reaching for a weapon, killing off most of his own henchmen, arguing that the hero doesn't have the balls to finish him--but the deed belongs to the victor alone. (I even hate it when, in hair matches in wrestling, the victor doesn't scalp the loser for himself, but rather gives the job to a teammate, or, worse, a barber.)

I'm not a bloodthirsty guy. I don't even believe in absolute justice, which is one of the reasons I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't support capital punishment  also because I think corporate, rationalized killing is more sinister than the old blood-and-guts kind or even the stark raving crazy kind. I sympathize with the character Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in this exchange with an FBI agent:
Sonny: You'd like to kill me? Bet you would.
FBI: I wouldn't like to kill you. I would if I have to.
Sonny: It's your job, right? The guy who kills me ... I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it's his job.
Give me a crime of passion over a state-appointed assassin any day. But I do believe in poetic justice ... in fiction, in movies, in pro wrestling. Entertainment is supposed to fulfill our dark and guilty desires without the real-world consequences. The vengeance model of justice is seeded deep in our collective unconscious. "This time it's personal!" We find Dirty Harry justice more emotionally satisfying than the justice system, which is based strictly on evidence and court rules of procedure, not at all on what boils our blood. This is why vigilantism has been a popular Hollywood theme since the silent movie era. (Its first huge hit, 1915's The Birth of a Nation, helped revive the then basically defunct Ku Klux Klan ... so, yes, there are problems with this idea, even as fantasy.)

The pictures above are from various episodes, various seasons even, of the STARZ TV series Spartacus. Many of you will recognize them. I tried to watch the series early on and didn't like it. The early episodes of Season 1 look too much like a videogame, too much like a ripoff of 300. Then my officemate at work expressed surprise that I hadn't liked it, figuring, he said, it would be right up my alley. So I rented the DVDs of the first season again and watched a little further. By the third or fourth episode I was hooked. What was not to love? Full frontal nudity, butt fucking, violence, orgies, muscles, a gay love story, and Lucy Lawless! And the story of Roman social climbing, betrayal, vengeance, and male bonding was more sophisticated than expected. Now it's one of my favorite series. I own the Blu Ray set. It's far from The Sopranos, but it's better written, acted, and directed than a good 80% of the stuff on TV.

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