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Revenge Narratives

Yesterday, I sat around and watched Man on Fire, a Tony Scott, Denzel Washington remake from a few years back. One of my students thinks it's a good film, and we were doing film techniques, and I'm of the mind that doing it with a film they like is better than one they hate. I've watched some shit in the name of this theory, including, but not limited to, Bring it On, episodes of the OC, and the Bond films with Pearce Brosnan in them, though it could be any Bond film as far as I'm concerned. At any rate, Man on Fire didn't make me go blind, and parts of the film were enjoyable enough, so it could have been worse.

It still wasn't very good, however.

As I was watching this film, I started thinking how poorly the revenge narrative was handled. At one stage, Washington, the ex drunk now sober and shot up ex-bodyguard getting revenge for the supposedly dead Dakota Fanning, says that he's good to kill anyone who was involved, anyone who profited, anyone and everyone, you know what I mean? All good, thought I. Except, of course, the first female he comes into contact with, he ties up, then shoots her male companions, finds out she has an abducted child with her, and then lets her live, possibly because you can't kill fat, elderly women and still be doing the right thing. Shortly after that, of course, he burst into a house full of children and a pregnant woman, all of which he lets live, because you definitely can't be doing the right thing if you shoot children and pregnant women. In fact, all he manages to do at this stage is shoot the fingers off a man, and get shot himself, making for the film's very anti-climatic moment where, for reasons I'm still not quite sure on, the kidnappers swap the really alive and oh god bet you didn't see that coming Dakota Fanning with the dying soon to be dead Washington. Oh, and the guy with no fingers.

I know why Washington wasn't killing women and children and that, of course, is that in doing so it will make him unsympathetic. The audience might begin to view him as an unreasonable, violent man who, when the child he had come to care for is taken away from him, responds in no way that can be considered rational. Which, of course, is how he should have been. Within the rules of the narrative, he should have killed the woman with the girl; he should have killed the pregnant woman; he should have killed the children. His goal was to punish and take away everything that the kidnappers had, to do the same thing that had been done to him. As I kept watching Man on Fire, inevitably disappointed by this failure that I should have been prepared for the moment i started watching it, I came to the conclusion that the revenge narrative works in two parts: the set up, where you establish just how much one person (or one group) of people meant to the surviving figure, and them resolution, in which the protagonist, fueled by this loss, becomes a completely unreasonable figure, and enacts a revenge to sooth his hurt and which is worse than that which has been done to him.

That means, I believe, that your protagonist stops being sympathetic, or even likable, but, the trick, from the artist's point of view--and I use artist in a general term to cover writers, directors, you name it--the trick is that the audience can understand what motivates him/her, and that creates a willingness for them to follow the narrative.

That's exactly what I thought.

Did I mention I'm writing a revenge narrative?

Yes, I am.

Comments

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chrisbarnes
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:02 am (UTC)
This puts me in mind of the John Wayne film The Searchers, in which he plays a man hunting for his niece who was captured by Comanches, and becomes so obsessed by revenge that he definitely becomes an unsympathetic character. I won't say more in case you've not seen it.
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:15 am (UTC)
nah, i've seen it. it had a nice final image, but other than that, i've never been much of a wayne or ford fan.
ataxi
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:37 am (UTC)
Depends, doesn't it?

I mean, what if you're writing about revenge as the pursuit of an idealised symmetry that can never exist, about an entropic, irreversible, bipartite transaction of deeds that concludes with neither an equalisation of the moral account nor a restoration of the material world?

Wouldn't it then make sense to confront the revenger-protagonist with the intractability of his desires?

Working families say yes!

this comment brought to you by the SocraticRuddian method of persuasion
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 11:27 am (UTC)
like, man, dude, where's fucking money?!
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
though yes, i do see your point. however, i guess it depends on what you think is more fulfilling to the narrative.
ataxi
Oct. 23rd, 2007 12:51 pm (UTC)
You do? And here I thought I was just waffle-trolling ;-)

I'm tempted to say that none of it matters except whether the story and characters are any good. But it does occur to me that a revenge story without a point of some sort is going to be difficult to pull off. Even if the point is just "there is no point -- it's pure revenge".

Oh, and bugger fulfilling the narrative ... I say, fulfil the reader.

benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
i figure fulfilling the narrative and fulfilling the reader is tied together.

you're always waffle-trolling, too. i've learnt to accept it ;)
mondyboy
Oct. 23rd, 2007 07:01 am (UTC)
The original and the remake are based on a novel - which I haven't read. I wonder if AJ Quinnel's novel takes the harder approach.
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
no idea. i didn't know it was a book...
ninebelow
Oct. 23rd, 2007 09:35 am (UTC)
Bring it On is awesome. Man On fire is not. That is all.
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 11:29 am (UTC)
you on crack, boy.

(i watched the a team last night)
lucius_t
Oct. 23rd, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
That's the longest analysis of man on fire O ever saw. Most are pithier and with the word shit. :)
benpeek
Oct. 23rd, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)
it just takes me a while to say that, is all ;)
ex_chrisbil
Oct. 23rd, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
I couldn't get passed the mention of Bring It On either. At least that has Dushku.
benpeek
Oct. 24th, 2007 01:03 am (UTC)
they made a sequel, even.
elenuial
Oct. 24th, 2007 02:08 am (UTC)
Most characters I can think of whose main motivation is revenge are antagonists.

On the other hand, revenge is a pretty common motivator in Japanese stories, because revenge is pretty well tied to the culture so that you can do the revenge thing and still go about your daily business.

This is more true for chambara/jidaigeki, of course.
benpeek
Oct. 24th, 2007 02:37 am (UTC)
on of my favourite revenge pieces is a michael caine film, from ages ago, called GET CARTER. that was a cool flick.
elenuial
Oct. 24th, 2007 02:40 am (UTC)
Michael Caine is pretty cool. I'll check it out.
benpeek
Oct. 24th, 2007 02:46 am (UTC)
beware the sylvester stallone remake. i've not seen it, i just, like, beware it.
(Deleted comment)
benpeek
Oct. 24th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
always am.
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