Death Wishby: Christopher Sorrentino
"IS DEATH WISH A GOOD MOVIE that ultimately fails, or is it a bad movie that succeeds brilliantly from time to time?" Christopher Sorrentino asks at the outset of his brief study of the 1974 film, before turning to wrestle with a more lawless possibility: "Could it be both?" Such questions may prove over time to be the running theme of Deep Focus, a paperback series launched in late 2010 by Soft Skull Press, of which Sorrentino's Death Wish is the second, following Jonathan Lethem's provocative look at John Carpenter's They Live (1988). The approach in both is lively and heretical. "I've never seen a Carpenter film in a theater except Memoirs of an Invisible Man," Lethem tells us by way of introducing himself. We are in the newfangled realm of criticism post-cinema:
A Netflix copy of They Live plays behind these words as I type. Not a television screen in the same room, but the computer's, on which my document also appears. Thanks to contemporary technology — not just DVDs, but YouTube excerpts, available via wireless signal in the café where I write sometimes, if I've forgotten to bring the disk — I'm Pauline Kael's ultimate opposite here: I've watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).
Improbably close readings of questionably canonical texts are the order of the day in these books, and the authors — both of them novelists — are clearly aware of the willed incongruity of what they're doing. Sorrentino quotes Herman Melville's description of the "Indian Hater" from The Confidence-Man — "He commits himself to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be his, to act upon a calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance" — in order to illuminate the peculiar magnetism of Bronson's death-dealing vigilante.
At first blush this seems like a heap of gorgeously overdone erudition woven to crown an undeserving subject. Yet Bronson, with his uncanny calm and lunar-eclipse gravitas, was nearly always so much more interesting to watch than the movies he starred in that drafting in Melville serves Sorrentino's larger purpose, which is to map a wilderness of contradictions, both within this particular film and in his own reaction to it. Death Wish, as Sorrentino sees it,
perfectly realizes its own invented form, but then becomes incoherent; a nasty provocation, but one that somehow doesn't go quite far enough; a superb exploitation of an actor's limitations, but a film full of stilted performances; an interestingly photographed depiction of a nightmare city, but a film whose director sometimes seems to lose interest in what's happening on the screen.
Earlier film critics have been unsure what to make of Death Wish. For Sorrentino, Vincent Canby's two, count 'em two host...read more