A fun interview with Don at the OO Files
Folk Horror has long had a strange allure for me. Perhaps it was that first late-night showing of The Wicker Man, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s on BBC 2, with an introduction by Alex Cox (would somebody please recommission Moviedrome – also I’m free to present), that first pushed me towards this oddly British sub-genre. I wasn’t the only one to be affected as poor old Edward Woodward came to a fiery end as over the past 30 years The Wicker Man has gone from cult oddity to be acclaimed as a Horror great. The other films of the classic triptych that initiated the genre, Witchfinder General (which I wrote about here) and Blood on Satan’s Claw are equally worth seeking out and set out various depiction of Britain’s rural past. More recent additions, Kill List, The Witch and Apostle, for example, have revived Folk Horror and drawn a new audience for the older films.
Given this burgeoning
What’s more the short suggests the flexibility of Folk Horror as a genre to reflect and comment on different part of our lives. Here folk-belief becomes a channel to represent a staggering loss, reminding us of the power myths and legends have in helping us understand and manage our own lives. Which quite frankly is pretty damn impressive in 12 minutes.
It’s available right now on Amazon, and is definitely worth your time.
There’s a bad old joke that goes somewhat as follows:
A Native American chief is tasked with buying toilet roll for his village – he goes to the local store and asks for the options.
“Well, there are three options,” says the clerk. “White Cloud, Cotton Mist and Economy.”
“How much is White Cloud”, asks the Chief, “That sounds like a good toilet paper”.
“2 dollars a roll”.
“That’s too much for the whole village, what about Cotton Mist?”
“1 dollar a roll.”
“Still too much! What about economy?”
“50 cents a roll.”
“Ok, but why does it not have a nice name, why is it just economy?”
“It just is, it’s too basic to have a name.”
Several weeks pass until the Chief returns to the store to re-stock. He approaches the Clerk. “I have a name for your economy roll” he says.
“Ok” replies the Clerk, “What is it?”
“John Wayne? Why?” “Because it’s tough strong and don’t take no shit off no Indian…”
Like I said, it’s not a good joke but it does point to the place of John Wayne in American cinematic mythology and, especially, in the representation of masculinity. For many years Wayne’s stoic image dominated the Western and the War Movie, progenitors of the modern action film. It’s an image I watched on a TV as a child, in the endless re-runs of old movies back when there were only four channels in the UK. We played Cowboys and Indians in the playground with no sense of the historical truth behind the images that played across the tube. The heroics seemed simple and accessible; moving up to the films of Schwarzenegger and Stallone wasn’t difficult. The settings had changed, but the simple morality seemed the same. There were good guys and bad guys and the good guys won because they were better in every sense.
And then came Big Trouble in Little China. It sure looked from the VHS cover like a typical film. There was Kurt Russell, all muscles, gun held aloft as Kim Cattrall lay seductively at his feet. So, the Chinese theme seemed a little different but, like swapping Native Americans for Latin American drug dealers in so many other films, the ethnicity of the bad guys never really mattered (as long as they were thoroughly Othered from the hero). The black tape was pushed into the VHS player, the familiar click and whirr followed by the fuzzy lines on the TV. And then… something completely different unfolded. I loved it then and love it now, although at the age of 10 I barely understood how clever John Carpenter’s film is at undermining the typical conventions of the American hero.
On release Big Trouble was not a success, despite some strong reviews. Both Carpenter and Russell point to company politics undermining the film: the producers wanted something closer to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) and were unhappy with the jokey tone; the release was undermined by a last minute and poorly thought out marketing campaign which suggested a traditional heroic narrative, with a traditional hero (including lobby cards asking “Who is Jack Burton” above images of Russell who was yet to be confirmed as an above the title star).
Ironically the film had begun life as a Western, albeit one mixed with supernatural Kung-Fu elements, until Carpenter, and writer W.D. Richter, retooled it for the modern day. Ditching the Old West setting was designed to make the film more accessible, but only serves to play up its weirdness. The audience is asked to believe that within modern day San Francisco there is not only a Chinatown (reasonable), dominated by warring Kung-Fu gangs (a bit less credible), where Chinese mysticism is an everyday occurrence (now we’re getting odd) and below the street is a network of tunnels where the “black blood of the earth” flows (that’ll be bonkers, then). Stir in a near immortal villain (James Hong’s David Lo Pan) who needs to marry a girl with green-eyes to regain his flesh, so he can then conquer the universe, three Kung-Fu masters with powers based on the weather and a red-haired monster and it starts to become clear just how odd this is for a studio produced film. Also, did I mention the flying eyeball?
All of this spectacle was entrancing to my ten-year-old eyes – it was my first Kung-Fu movie and helped inculcate a delight in the genre that remains today. But as an adult what stands out is Russell’s performance as nominal hero Jack Burton. Through the movie Russell’s performance, and Carpenter’s direction, deconstruct the myth of the American hero, turning Burton into, what Carpenter later described in a DVD extra, as
“John Wayne without a clue.”
A prologue, filmed at the studio’s behest after they became nervous of Russell’s performance, only serves to build up his character, making the reality even funnier. Chinese mystic Egg Shen (Victor Wong) tells a lawyer that the world “owes a debt of gratitude to Jack Burton”, before we cut straight to Burton’s truck in which he, between mouthfuls of sandwich, speaks ridiculous platitudes to his CB radio:
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favourite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that:“Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”
Burton looks like the hero but the dark glasses he wears while driving at night and in the rain point to his lack of understanding; this is a man literally driving blind, which he remains throughout the story. His appearance is further undermined by the ridiculously high legged boots he wears throughout.
As the film progresses it becomes evident that the man who’s supposed to carry the film is actually the sidekick, with Dennis Dunn’s Wang Chi emerging as the film’s real hero (he even wears a hat that looks very similar to Indiana Jones’ fedora). Burton is a bull-shitting protagonist with no idea what’s going on, blundering into an Asian culture and presuming that everyone there will simply bow down to him and his bluster (shades of Vietnam?). Wang is his friend and allows Burton to tag along in attempts to rescue Wang’s betrothed Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) but it’s extraordinary how useless Burton is, and how little he realises it. Indeed, it’s his posturing at the airport that creates the sequence of events that lead to Miao Yin’s kidnapping – if he hadn’t gone with Wang perhaps none of this would have occurred…
As the film develops Burton’s ignorance and borderline racist attitudes are constantly undermined and exposed. He insists on calling people’s head-bands “Turbans” and his ignorance of Chinese culture and tradition expose him, as opposed to a more typical action film in which the hero would happily ride roughshod over the locals (who, a lá John Wayne’s The Green Berets (John Wayne, 1968), would be so happy for the American to help). Burton is captured, beaten up and, in one glorious comic moment, manages to miss most of the final battle-royale by knocking himself out following his own macho posturing. All he really has to offer is bluster while Wang and Egg Shen go about defeating the forces of evil. Despite the physical image that Russell casts in the marketing he can barely operate a gun and is visibly shaken when he first kills someone. When, disguised in plaid jacket and glasses, Burton attempts to gain information by visiting a brothel he’s shown to be fairly useless there too, undermining the heterosexual vitality that is a given of most movie heroes. Of course, he still gets the requisite romance, but even that doesn’t run to expectation.
Maybe the film’s real secret is that it’s not just an action film or a mystical Kung-Fu epic, it’s also a screwball comedy. It’s well-known that Carpenter is a fan of Howard Hawks (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) riffs directly on Rio Bravo (1959)) but it’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) that are the more pertinent influences here as Burton and Cattrall’s Gracie Law snap at each other throughout, with Cattrall usually gaining the upper hand. Their romance further defuses Burton’s machismo, no more so than when he faces Lo Pan smeared in lip-stick from a recent kiss. His final rejection of her speaks to the risks of a relationship in which he would no longer be able to buy his own bull-shit; the strong woman must be avoided because she’ll keep bringing him back down to earth.
On release some claimed the film to a be an exercise in stereotypes, Roger Ebert making comparisons to Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. Big Trouble in Little China certainly has its issues, but I think those comparisons are unfair. The film was made with a reverence for 1970s Kung-Fu movies, like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, and makes few concessions to the American relocation or present-day setting. Clichés are employed, but in a knowing way. Compare it to the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Golden Child released in the same year (also casting James Hong and Victor Wong in supporting roles) in which the Chinese characters are side-lined and the main love interest, of supposedly Tibetan descent, is played by an actress of English, Irish, Chilean and Iranian ethnicity.
Of course, Big Trouble’s big trick is the inversion of the usual Hollywood power relationships, with the white American male rendered impotent throughout, as opposed to, for example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which, two years earlier in 1984, reinforced all the old stereotypes about white heroes helping the locals who can’t help themselves. Watch the two back to back and you can notice how Carpenter and Russell undermine many of the clichés that Spielberg embraced (Ebert, by the way, gave Temple of Doom five stars and neglected to question its representations). One suspects that if Jack Burton had never turned up in Chinatown the narrative would resolve quite happily without him, as the Chinese characters are shown to be knowledgeable and capable throughout. That some people complained that Burton wasn’t much of a hero managed both to get the point and miss it completely.
The ending of the film imitates Wayne’s greatest Western The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). The hero leaves society behind knowing he’ll never fit in. But whereas Wayne departs a mythic figure held in silhouette against the never-ending backdrop of the Old West, Burton turns back and shows a brief flicker of recognition, a moment of self-reflection announcing that it’s because “sooner or later I rub everybody up the wrong way” that he can’t make common cause with Gracie. For a moment a human face replaces the smirking bravado, but it’s soon gone and then he’s back in the truck espousing bullshit.
Like so many of Carpenter’s films, a mainstream audience initially eschewed the film only for it to find a large cult following. But it deserves more than that, it deserves to be recognised as an innovative film splicing together disparate genres and having the courage to satirise its own, supposed, hero. From a decade of by the numbers action films Big Trouble in Little China stands out as something truly different. After 30 years the film still offers the same delight, but I now realise how smart the film always was. It takes direct aim at the idea of the white saviour taming the uncivilised savages and exposes him as an ignorant boor well out of his depth. Even more perhaps, it suggests that he might not even be needed.
Ebert, Roger (1984) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. RogerEbert.com [online] Available from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/indiana-jones-and-the-temple-of-doom-1984 [accessed 27 September 2018]
Ebert, Roger (1986) Big Trouble in Little China. RogerEbert.com [online] Available from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/big-trouble-in-little-china-1986 [accessed 27 September 2018]
So I got put on the robes again! Doubly officially a Dr of Philosophy now!
In 1967 Stanley Fish published a seminal work that reconceptualised the understanding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Seduced by Sin Fish argued that the true subject of Paradise Lost was not Satan, or Adam and Eve, but the reader himself who, through the epic poem’s structure and use of recognisable narrative forms (Satan’s heroic journey being patterned on The Odyssey and The Aeneid), experiences his own fall. For Fish the reader is “confronted with evidence of his corruption” (1967, ixxii) when he realises his seduction by Satan’s heroic narrative and should, by the end of the work, come to realise his own temptations and spiritual limitations, becoming a sort of guilty reader who develops an understanding of the limits of his own spirituality.
At first glance a 17th Century English poetic work seems to have little in common with Death Wish, a film that has long been neglected by serious critics despite its box-office success and evident influence on cinema (arguably starting a whole sub-genre of vigilante/revenge films which continues to this day, with a 2018 re-make). Indeed Death Wish was received with outright hostility by most main-stream critics in the US and UK, and still exists as a sort of by-word for violent exploitative film – happily referenced during real-life crimes, such as those of Bernie Goetz in 1984, by lazy journalists.
On its release Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it
a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers
in July 1974, returning in August to decry its popularity with “law-and-order fanatics, sadists, muggers, club women, fathers, older sisters, masochists, policemen, politicians, and, it seems, a number of film critics”. Roger Ebert denounced it as “propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice”, and Richard Schickel called it “vicious”. Judy Klemersud was sent by The New York Times to answer the question “What do They See in ‘Death Wish’?”, noticing how audiences cheered when Bronson (as the audience identified him, not his character Paul Kersey) gunned down muggers, and confessing that she too found herself, much to her shame, “applauding several times.” A clear characterisation of the film and its audience emerged, but if it was intended to warn away movie-goers it failed as the film took over £20 million in the US on a budget of $3million (Talbot 2006, 8).
But what if there’s something more complex at work in Death Wish? What if we can take Fish’s ideas about the reader in Paradise Lost and apply them to a film written off as exploitation? What emerges is a film much more complicated than previously assumed – one that tempts the spectator into identification with a psychotic protagonist, forcing them to reflect on their own sense of law, order and justice and the lure of simplistic answers to complicated problems.
Use of Myth & Genre
Many critics have perceived Death Wish as a sort of “urban Western”, an attempt to relocate the form to a more relevant setting, taking account of the demythologising of the genre that occurred through the 1960s and the early 1970s (through the Spaghetti Westerns and revisionist films such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)). There is much on the surface that makes this suggestion appealing; Death Wish repeatedly references the codes of law and order represented in the Western, most notably in Paul Kersey’s journey to Tucson where his is schooled in “the old American tradition of self-defence” by Aimes Jainchill, the sort of man who carries a gun openly and has bull horns on his car. The casting of Bronson as Kersey, who came to fame in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and cemented his association with the genre in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), furthers this, lending the theory some pertinence which is helped by the film’s direction.
Winner directs the film in a traditional Hollywood style (despite his English nationality), eschewing the experiments of form that characterise the New Hollywood period when the film was produced. Indeed one could quite happily label his work as heavy handed, if efficient in covering ground quickly. Generally speaking, except in the infamous rape scene, Winner avoids using subjective techniques, instead allowing the spectator to remain distanced from the action, watching it unfold rather than being in the centre of it. This lends the film a sort of comfort in its spectating position, as does the use of genre tropes from the Western, helping to put the spectator at their ease.
When Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked the attacker’s behaviour can easily be compared to that of the “Red Indians” in any of the multitude of Westerns audiences had familiarised themselves with through film and television during the past decades.
Much of the initial critical opprobrium directed at the film stemmed from the rape scene and Winner directs it to cause maximum offence and impact – the effect of this is two-fold. First it brings to life the implicit rape threat that was contained in many Westerns for a modern audience more accustomed to such images by films such as A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), but also it’s critical for the rest of the film that the crime be sufficiently disturbing that Kersey’s reaction to it seems, on the surface at least, reasonable. From this Kersey’s rediscovery of a Western code of justice follows, with the crime fitting that code – it is after all his “women-folk” who have been attacked in his urban “home-stead” (his wife is killed, the daughter is left in a vegetative state, conveniently unable to voice her own views).
Underpinning the Western genre is a binary opposition between the Wilderness and Civilization, the former a male environment in which the hero belonged, versus the feminizing force of the latter and Death Wish plays with this suggesting that the feminising power of civilization has left Kersey unable to protect his family, and the authorities impotent in the face of crime. Such a philosophy is espoused by Jainchill during the Tuscon segment, where the wide open spaces are contrasted to the dark alleys of New York. Here Kersey witnesses a Wild West show, an artificial and corny representation that beguiles him. Here he discovers a simple answer to New York’s crime problems – the good man versus the bad man.
There is no doubting the seriousness of crime, and especially mugging, during the 1970s so one can assume a certain pre-existing sympathy on behalf of the spectator, especially as they had paid to see a film in which the advertising campaign had highlighted the controversial elements (the tag-line read “Vigilante, city style – judge, jury and executioner”). But the film goes further in seducing the audience towards being sympathetic to Kersey by surrounding his actions with supporters and suggestions that his acts would have a significant impact on crime (the DA claiming a reduction in mugging from 950 per week to 470). The representation of the media within the film, complete with Western inspired imagery such as a noose and the headline “Frontier Justice in the Streets” on the cover of Harper’s, serves to cement this. A consistent narrative of Kersey’s effectiveness is built up – so much that it inspires other New Yorkers to defend themselves (such as Alma Lee Brown, seen in a TV news report, defending herself with a hat-pin).
These elements, alongside the comforting familiarity of the Western model, invite the spectator to align more closely with Kersey as the film continues, as does the comparison provided by Kersey’s ineffectual son-in-law and the scenes in which Kersey is confronted by a police force unable to catch his wife & daughter’s attackers. Having primed us in Tuscon the film returns to New York where Kersey starts acting out his new found sense of law and order, imaging himself to be the lawman of myth.
Kersey’s first act of violence is in self-defence (using a sock filled with a roll of coins), his second (this time with the revolver given to him by Jainchill) saves a man from being mugged. These actions fit within the narrative conventions of the Western, ideas of self-defence or helping the defenceless. They may be the acts of a vigilante, but they retain a certain sympathy, especially as Kersey reacts traumatically (vomiting after the first instance).
From then on Kersey’s actions become more sinister: he begins riding the Subway miles away from home waiting for someone to attack. He cruises the parks with no intent to look for people to save, rather he deliberately makes himself a target, enticing attackers by placing himself in vulnerable positions. And he begins to enjoy it. At home he surrounds himself with the newspapers and magazines that detail his exploits, watching the news reports that validate his actions with a broad smile on his face. He has moved well beyond the desire to protect himself and, of course, he has spent no time at all searching for those who harmed his family. It’s an often neglected detail, but a key one;
Death Wish is not a film about vengeance, at least not in a direct sense. Although the attack on his wife and daughter instigates a change in how Kersey views the world, none of his subsequent acts are directed towards punishing those responsible.
To have done so would have more easily placed Kersey into a pre-existing narrative schema, recognisable from films such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), but the film simply elides its way past this point and takes the spectator with it. We have the justification for Kersey’s crusade, but by omitting a direct vengeance against the criminals responsible the film moves slowly away from expectations towards something more complex and troubling. By the time Kersey is shooting men in the back, about as far from the Western code as you can get, the spectator is positioned so as not to notice the departure from expectations.
Revealing the Truth
On reflection cracks in this world appear early, indeed even in the opening prologue (added by Winner, and not present in the original novel by Brian Garfield) in which Kersey and his Wife enjoy a holiday. Ostensibly included to increase the tragedy that follows and to draw a direct comparison with the Hellish New York that follows, Hawaii is represented as an Edenic space, a land of plenty. However anyone with a cursory knowledge of crime on the islands can recognise this image as a sham, the resort an artifice behind which lies high levels of violent crime and drug-use. This effectively preys on our understandings of binary oppositions, the calm pastoral idyll as opposed to the degradations of civilization – however this Eden is so obviously false, as is the world of Tucson presented later which Kersey is so beguiled by. The Wild West show, from which Kersey draws inspiration, is over the top, a tired rehash of clichés for children and tourists in which the gun shots and deaths are clearly fake. Jainchill himself is an over the top caricature. Winner gently suggests to us here that the world that Kersey identifies with is a sham in itself; what values can possibly be drawn from it?
Alone in the film, as a voice of reason, is Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) edging towards the only logical conclusion about Paul Kersey: that he has become a serial killer. Ochoa provides an alternative protagonist in the film, but he is drawn to be uninspiring, a man of stubby cigars and crumpled coat, stuck with a permanent cold, as if crime was a literal disease. In a different edit of the film one could imagine Ochoa becoming the hero, tracking down Kersey the killer, but this would remove the growing moral complexity from the film, cemented when Ochoa tells Kersey to leave New York.
What of Kersey at this point? He has descended into a psychotic state, believing himself to be a lawman in the Old West; of course his targets aren’t the Native Americans of the films, or the bad men in black hats, but young urban men whose lives can only be hinted at.
During the final confrontation the young black man Kersey has chased and cornered can only be confused by the demand to “Draw” and “Fill your hand” – codes utterly inaccessible and irrelevant to someone who had previously exhorted Kersey to “Come on down, Mother Fucker”.
When confronted by Ochoa Kersey inquires if he has to leave town “by sundown?” Slowly, but inexorably, through the film, Kersey has bought into his own fantasies of law and order, coming to see himself as the hero of the West, but moving on to being someone who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.
During the final moments of Death Wish Paul Kersey arrives in Chicago and, having disembarked from his train, is confronted by the sight of a gang of young men harassing a woman. As Kersey helps the woman recover the belongings that have been scattered over the floor he turns to the young men and forms his fingers into a gun shape, smiling broadly. But look at that shot again and you can see that the finger, ostensibly aimed at the young men, is pointing straight at us. It’s an image that reaches all the way back to 1903 and the first Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which, as the legend goes, had the audience ducking under their seats with its final image of a bandit shooting straight towards the camera. The image has been remade, but the implication is the same – you’re next. The modern audience of course considers itself too sophisticated to duck their heads at such an image, but have they been too sophisticated to be seduced by Death Wish?
Through its use of familiar tropes and structures Death Wish plays out a tempting fantasy, one of easy answers to complicated questions. But rather than simply endorse Paul Kersey the film turns to the spectator and asks whether they too have been drawn in to this fantasy – a fantasy in which complex problems of urban degradation are made into narratives of good men versus bad men. The subtle hints that pepper the narrative, undermining its representations, point to a question for the spectator – are they too to be seduced like the Kersey’s many supporters in the city? As he turns to the camera in the final seconds Bronson reveals the film’s trick – a gothca moment designed to entrap us.
Just as Fish suggests regards Paradise Lost, the real subject of Death Wish is the audience. The question it asks them: are you conscious enough to see your own temptations?
Ebert, Roger (1974) Death Wish. Chicago Sun Times. [online] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-wish-1974 [accessed 10 September 2017]
Fish, Stanley (1967) Seduced by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gilliat, Penelope (1974) Death Wish. New Yorker Magazine. 26 August.
Klemersrud, Judy (1974) What do They See in Death Wish? The New York Times. 01 September.
Schickel, Richard (1974) Mug Shooting. Time. 19 August.
Talbot, Paul (2006) Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films. Lincoln: iUniverse