Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Longish Post about Killing

Given how rarely I've been posting lately, it's almost a shame to devote a post to someone being wrong on the internet - but, given how rarely I've been posting lately, maybe I should grab at anything that gets me to write something....

Last week, Dan Schneider, sometime clogger of the Unspoken Cinema blog, recently took on the Dekalog. Things have taken an interesting turn - as is his wont, he devoted a big chunk of the review to declaring that The Critics Are Wrong - even when they agree with him... this review was unusual for naming names - including David Sterritt, who apparently saw the google alert and turned up to point out the error of Dan's ways. I doubt anything good will follow - Dan's first reply already concedes defeat - he's quoting the dictionary.

I should leave it alone - but I have been thinking about this review all week, since it popped up in Google Reader. Why? The films are a towering achievement of 80s cinema, and any extended consideration of them has to have some value - but Dan Schneider's views might be an exception. But this is a fascinating review, because it has a quality Dan has rather often - especially when he is lukewarm about great films. Most of his reviews are just in praise of great films - and for all his efforts to denounce the ignorance of critics, he usually sticks pretty close to the general line on the accepted classics. Nothing wrong with that - they are considered great films for a reason - but his reviews are far too vague and pompous to say much new about the films he reviews. Once in a while, he will attack a great film - Vertigo, Godard being frequent targets - those reviews - can get ugly... But in the middle - like this review, or another of Diary of a Country Priest, at the same site a week or so ago - he sometimes does things that are surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps he is obliged in such cases to be more specific in why the film fails to be a great film - he can't attack it from the word go, he has to work out the differences between what is good and bad - he has to get down to cases. And when he does -

Well - the problem is - in explaining the things that are wrong with these films, he almost always illustrates something crucial to the way they work. I will get to cases myself: one of the weakest episodes in the series, he says, is Episode Five - Thou Shalt Not Kill. Which I suspect is generally seen as the best of the series. I'd certainly say it is. The fascinating part is that Dan's reasons for disliking it are almost exactly backwards. To quote at some length:
Attempts to mitigate the youth’s crime, by showing his cowardice and tales of his sister’s tragic death years earlier simply ring false. In fact, one might cynically assume this is a pro-death penalty film if KieĊ›lowski was not so adamant that it’s against death- murder and capital punishment. This is because the youth is so reprehensible and his crime so brutal that even ant-death penalty people must feel squeamish when confronted with the sort of reality the film portrays.

Isn't that as absolutely wrong about the film's logic and rhetoric as you can get? So far as it is about the death penalty (and that's not an unfair claim, though seems incomplete), the film seems to be making a moral argument against it. It is not making a legal or political case against the death penalty (except secondarily) - it is making a moral case against it. And the moral case against capital punishment has to account for the worst possible circumstances - if capital punishment is wrong, it must always be wrong. (That, again, is not necessary to making a legal, political, social case against the death penalty - those kinds of arguments proceed on other grounds: our limits of knowledge [and the chance of killing the innocent]; the possibility of redemption, of the killer becoming something better. This episode does not make those arguments - it is making a moral argument. Though the series as a whole is greatly concerned with the fallibility of man; and this episode's references to Dostoevsky at least raise the issue of redemption.) So we do not see anything mitigating about the killer: he is guilty - he is cruel - there is nothing redeeming about him. But we do not have a moral right to kill him - and if the state kills him, we are morally complicit in his death.

Now: that's just the theme of the episode. But that's basically all Dan deals with. The film itself offers a good deal more. It is the most striking looking of the series - the bleached out colors, the distorting lenses, the overall sickliness of the cinematography. It is one of the least talkative episodes - the parts devoted to the boy and the taxi driver are almost silent - two miserable men go about their business in bitter solitude until they meet. We see both killings in detail - the murder is ugly, cruel, messy, long drawn out... the execution, though not so gruesome, is presented with similar matter of fact explicitness. Both bring out the seriousness of what is happening - people are being killed: we are made to face the horror of what is being depicted. It's a harsh, efficient, brutal film on an important subject, organized with care and Kieslowski's characteristic sense of dramatic shape - the parallels between the killer and his victim, between the murder and the execution, the references to Dostoevsky, the explicitness and efficiency of the argument - it is a masterpiece.

The truth is - there's a lot more in that review that works the same way. Dan takes exception to something - in a way that makes you realize how important and effective the thing he objects to is. He quotes Stanley Kubrick, disapprovingly - Kubrick says: "These films have the very real ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.…They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart." - Dan answers: "One of the very reasons this series fails the ‘masterpiece’ litmus test is because there are too many times you can see exactly what is coming." But this makes me think - Kubrick said "ideas" - not "plots" - knowing how Episode 1 will end tells you almost nothing about either how it will get there, or what kinds of ideas will be raised along the way. And much of the effectiveness of the series is the way the plots and ideas play off one another - the way the questions about determinism, fate, the limits of knowledge and types of knowledge play out in the first episode, to name one - the way those themes interact with the explicit foreshadowing of the plot. Something like that - those themes, certainly - what we can know, and how we should act, given that knowledge (or lack of knowledge) - is operative in most of the series. We're let in on the stories early - to let us watch more carefully how the characters react...

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