May 3, 2009
Fear of Death by Firing Squad
When movie posters were still an art form...
When I was 10 years old the most terrifying way to die in my young unsullied mind was to be executed by a firing squad. I think the initial horror came from watching the act on an episode of the A-Team (and later in an episode of Amazing Stories), but I started having nightmares about it after catching Red Dawn on HBO: a movie about a Soviet invasion of the US, chock-full-o' executions by firing squad. I was especially horrified when the protagonists, a group of teenagers, are left with no choice but to execute one of their own. They scream and cry at each other during the process of not wanting to, but having to, and then at having done it. They weren't made to do it. There weren't any adults around, no villains making them do cruel things to each other. It was a decision they made on their own, it was something they did in order to survive. Seeing something like that put a serious ding in my childhood innocence, which before that point was pretty much intact.
The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya
Much later, while taking art history courses in my undergrad, I fell in love with the work of Francisco Goya, the above painting being my first taste of his work. I haven't thought much of firing squads since then. This week however, at the insistence of an apprentice, I watched Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite.) Set in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, it is an incredibly violent and unforgiving film and offers a schmorgesborg of deaths via firing squads. A lot of interesting ghosts were let out of the closet that night. Goya immediately came to mind, and while researching the film I learned that some scenes were inspired by a set of Goya drawings called The Disasters of War; Leone asked his cinematographer to work off the drawings as a reference for the framing, lighting, and color effects he wanted.
Poster for "Duck, You Sucker," Leone's last Spaghetti Western.
It looks fun and happy go lucky, and on the surface the film seems that way.
But then there are scenes like this: two long pits full of captured rebels stand helplessly under a monsoon of automatic weapon fire.
I've been working on a "kids as soldiers" writing project for more than a month now, and scrapped all the work I'd done so far after seeing this film. Duck, You Sucker starts off with a scene with a large family of bandits, mostly boys between 8 and 16, toting carbines, who murder a stage coach full of people in order to rob it. It is their family's way of life. Eventually they get sucked into and squashed by the effects of the Mexican Revolution.
I started thinking about what it look like for a whole regiment of kids to fight a "Just Revolution" against its own country as a matter of necessity (as opposed to being made to, as has happened in places like Sierre Leone. (and a revolution based on greed and general stupidity.)) Though we've been attacked, we haven't had a war on American soil since we fought amongst ourselves two centuries ago. I'm very interested in what that might look like, in these times.
I watch films as much as I read in regards to research, and this weekend I've been having chills and fevers fighting off a cold in bed, so it's been movie time all weekend long, with wikipedia breaks in between (Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, Cuban Missle Crisis, Attrition Warfare, Guerilla Warfare, etc.) Post apocolypse, Revolutions, Cold War, you name it, I'm into it.
Here's what I got under my belt this weekend via video:
Red Dawn: Watched it for the first time in probably 20 years. It's a great film, and full of young actors we all loved from the eighties. At the time it was the most violent American film in history: 2.23 acts of violence per minute. It was the first film to get a PG-13 rating, and would probably get an R rating by today's standards.
Road Warrior: I thought I hadn't seen this. But it was Mad Max that I hadn't seen yet. I watched it anyway, though I wasn't all that into it.
Mad Max: Had to go back to the video store. I knew it would be bad. I was wrong. It was intense and way more interesting than it's predecessors.
First Strike: I found a documentary/simulation filmed in 1979 about how quickly a tactical nuclear launch from the Russians could force us into a surrender. (There are 2 more parts outside the above video on youtube.)
Che Guevara Trailer: This movie just came out of under all of our noses at the end of last year, starring Benicio Del Toro as Che (a very limited and short release in the theaters, from what I can tell.) I just found out about it, and am impatient. DVD already, please.
The Wild Bunch: It was mentioned that this film by Sam Peckinpah is what inspired Leone's Duck, You Sucker. I saw no resemblence, other than guns, horses, explosions, and dead bodies everywhere. There was also the Mexican Revolution but it was a fringe story element. I've seen one other Peckinpah film, Straw Dogs, which was a brilliant, disturbing, and very controversial film (banned in the UK) starring a young Dennis Hoffman. I really didn't think I could handle another Western and it was getting off track of my whole research bingeathon, but I figured it was something I could fall asleep to. But holy moly, what an incredible and tragic movie. Peckinpah was the first Hollywood director to use violence as an aesthetic and he was a master, but he's also a great story teller, and put me in all sorts of emotional pockets. He had me cringing and biting my nails off for the last 45 minutes. Christ. I've been doing this to myself since I was a kid. How are you supposed to sleep after watching something like that?