Friday, September 18, 2009

Blood Simple

I remember the exact moment that I stopped liking violent movies. It was while watching Pulp Fiction, the second week it came out. The film had already generated a lot of buzz among my friends, and I loved--or thought I loved--films with a lot of explosions, shooting, and witty banter just before someone got whacked. Did I tell you I have four younger brothers? And that they're all serious recreational hockey-baseball-soccer-basketball players? I grew up in a locker room, essentially. I can swear like a sailor when the need arises, and I always scorned "girly" stuff, like pop music, nail polish, the color pink, and drinks that don't burn going down.

All that, of course, was before I became someone's mom.

But when I saw Pulp Fiction, I was still years from motherhood. I was okay with the opening scenes, and laughed at the repartee between Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, pictured above in character) as they carried out a hit on some teenage drug dealers. But even then, I was feeling a little uneasy. There was something different about this film--different from, say, the Hong Kong action films I liked, where no one was asking me to identify with the bad guys. Here, the audience was supposed to like these two thugs. And yeah, they were likable. I mean, John Travolta. Before he went all Scientology, he was funny and adorable, playing dumb-but-sensitive Italian-American greaser types. I have relatives like that, so what's not to like? And Samuel L. Jackson is such a good actor, and had such good lines as the "intellectual" hit man, you had to sort of admire him. So I went with it, until the famous pawn-shop rape scene. Jules and Vincent weren't in that scene, but I'm sure those of you who've seen the film remember it. It's really violent and disturbing. And funny. I remember feeling very weird, though--not so much at what was going on onscreen, but at what was happening in the theater. People were laughing hysterically. All of a sudden it was just like Sartre described it when he wrote about "existential nausea." I felt totally alienated from the other movie-goers. I wasn't laughing, and I just didn't want to be sitting there in the dark surrounded by people who thought that scene was a riot. I got through the rest of the movie, but that was the beginning of the end of my "tough-chick" taste in films. Romantic comedies, here I come.

All that came back to me as I was re-reading the murder scene in Act 1. Because these two hit men are funny, too. Like Jules and Vincent, they have quasi-philosophical discussions. And like all of Will's lower-class comedians, they tend to take things literally. When they arrive at the prison to dispatch Clarence on Richard's order, Brackenbury (the lieutenant of the Tower) is surprised to see them. He asks the First Murderer (they don't get names) "how cam'st thou hither?" He means, "how did you get in here? It's a prison." Murderer 1, pretending to understand the question as "by what means did you travel here," answers: "I came hither on my legs." We saw this same sort of thing between Petruccio and his servant Grumio in Taming; willfully taking expressions literally is a kind of low-level rebellion against the upper classes that almost all these stock "clowns" indulge in.

Brackenbury, realizing quickly what's going on, points to the sleeping Clarence and throws them the keys, refusing to get involved. The two murderers then engage in a little banter about whether or not to kill Clarence as he sleeps:

2nd Murderer: What, shall I stab him as he sleeps?
1st Murderer: No. He'll say 'twas done cowardly, when he wakes.
2nd: Why, he shall never wake until the great judgement day.
1st: Why, then he'll say we stabbed him sleeping.
2nd: The urging of that word "judgement" hath bred a kind of remorse in me.
1st: What, art thou afraid?
2nd: Not to kill him, having a warrant, but to be damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me.

Murderer 1 then argues with 2, and 2 decides to count to 20, in the hope that the "prick of conscience" will go away.

1st: How does thou feel thyself now?
2nd: Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
1st: Remember our reward, when the deed's done.
2nd: 'Swounds, he dies. I had forgot the reward.
1st: Where's thy conscience now?
2nd: O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
1st: When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.

This exchange could have taken place in any modern film; these two are the ancestors of all the bungling criminals that are so popular in Coen Brothers or Tarantino movies. Films like Fargo and Pulp Fiction often called "postmodern" owing to their slippery notions of morality, but this sort of character has been around a long time. And it is funny when Murderer 2 has to count to 20, or admits he'd "forgot the reward," and later, when Murderer 1 catches the conscience virus and balks as well. The conversation shifts between vaguely philosophical musings about the nature of guilt to practical discussion of where to throw the body afterward. Before they can carry out any of it, however, Clarence wakes up and proceeds to argue for his life in legal terms, claiming that they can't kill him, because he's an innocent man:

...What is my offence?
Where is the evidence that doth accuse me?
What lawful quest have given their verdict up
Unto the frowning judge, or who pronounced
The bitter sentence of poor Clarence's death?
Before I be convict by course of law,
To threaten me with death is most unlawful.
I charge you, as you hope to have redemption
By Christ's dear blood, shed for our grievous sins,
That you depart and lay no hands on me.
The deed you undertake is damnable.

Clarence calls upon both earthly and divine law to protect him, but the murderers counter that the King is the law, and he's the one who wants the deed done. Clarence gives them a little Sunday school lesson, pointing out that God rules over all other kings:

Erroneous vassals, the great King of Kings
Hath in the table of his law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder. Will you then
Spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man's?
Take heed, for he holds vengeance in his hand
To hurl upon their heads that break his law.

I don't know if you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction when Jules quotes the Old Testament Ezekiel--"and they will know that I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon them." Jules invokes the biblical text to give some moral stature to an immoral act; Clarence invokes the commandment against murder to save his life. The murderers, however, are having none of it:

2nd: And that same vengeance doth he hurl on thee,
For false forswearing, and for murder too.
Thou didst receive the sacrament to fight
In quarrel of the house of Lancaster.

The killer reminds Clarence that he's done murder, too, and broke an oath to God when he took communion and swore to fight for Henry's cause against his brothers.

1st: And, like a traitor to the name of God
Didst break that vow, and with thy treacherous blade
Unripped'st the bowels of thy sov'reign's son.
2nd: Whom thou wast sworn to cherish and defend.
1st: How cans't thou urge God's dreadful law to us,
when thou hast broke it in such dear degree?

These are potent legal arguments indeed--at least from the standpoint of Old Testament law, which Clarence invoked in his own defense just a few lines previously. The New Testament urges mercy, the Old Testament (Old Covenant), justice. Clarence, out-argued, then switches his strategy, insisting that he did it out of love and loyalty to his brother. He doesn't believe either of his brothers would have ordered his death. The murderers insist that Edward did so (this is what Richard told them). Desperate, Clarence promises the murderers that if they go directly to Richard, he will pay them more than Edward offered. The killers seem, for a moment, to feel sorry for him:

2nd: You are deceived. Your brother Gloucester hates you.
Clarence: O, no,he loves me, and holds me dear. Go you to him from me.
1st: Aye, so we will.

This is one of those funny/uncomfortable moments. Clarence tells them to leave at once and go see Richard. The murderers understand this as "go see Richard when you're finished here," and agree, ironically, to follow his directive. They will go straight to Richard, to collect their payment.

At this point they're getting tired of all the talk--"talkers are no good doers," one of them assured Richard earlier. "We go to use our hands, not our tongues." By keeping them talking, Clarence has gotten the upper hand for the moment. The 2nd murderer ends the legal argument and urges his victim to "make peace with God," since he must die at their hands. Clarence tries one last time to scare them into relenting:

Have you that holy feeling in your souls
To counsel me to make my peace with God,
And are you yet to your own souls so blind
That you will war with God by murd'ring me?
O sirs, consider: they that set you on
To do this deed will hate you for the deed.

This is true enough. The murderers will no doubt be scapegoated for committing a crime that no one wants to take responsibility for. This gives them pause, and they confer. Clarence seizes the moment, urging them again to relent. Murderer 1 argues that relenting is "cowardly and womanish"--the idea that mercy is "womanish" will be taken up again in Macbeth, a play in which being a man means being a killer.

In his last speech, Clarence makes a fatal error:

Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish.--
My friend, I spy some pity in thy looks.
O, if thine eye be not a flatterer,
Come thou on my side, and entreat for me.

So far so good. He calls them "friends," and speaks to them as social equals. But then, he loses whatever sympathy he'd gained by reminding them of their social differences:

A begging prince, what beggar pities not?
Which of you, if you were a prince's son,
Being pent from liberty as I am now,
If two such murderers as yourselves came to you,
Would not entreat for life? As you would beg
Were you in my distress--

And then they kill him, mid-speech. After calling them "beggars" (more or less) and "murderers," and reminding them that he's a prince, he loses the "human" argument, which must be based on a notion of equality before God.

Will's audience, like the audience of Pulp Fiction, would have sympathized with the killers in this scene. They make the better legal argument, they consider his pleas and debate them, and ultimately realize that, given their social standing relative to his, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. From a purely practical point of view, they're better off taking the money and running. Or at least one of them realizes that. Will keeps the moral question open by having murderer 2 refuse to do any actual killing, and "repenting" at the end. This gives the scene a biblical overtone (Christ and the two thieves), and allows the audience to laugh, while still maintaining some moral superiority to Clarence, who, as the killers reminded us, showed no mercy to the Lancastrian heir.

It says something about our own era that audiences no longer need this ambivalence, this "open question" to identify with bad guys. But if I speculate too much about this, I'll end up sounding like every aging moralist who ever lived. "Young people today have no values, and they're all going to hell in a handbasket." There, I said it. Middle-aged people have been lamenting the diminution of moral values in the young since time immemorial--far be it from me to break with tradition.

So, I finally finished Act 1! It was, admittedly, a pretty long first act.

Next time: politics, politics, and Richard's mom.

Yeah, I know. You'd rather watch Pulp Fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment