Christopher Sorrentino’s Death Wish is a monograph on the controversial and eponymous 1974 action movie. It stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect turned vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is brutally assaulted in their New York City apartment. The book is the second installment in Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series, which invites contemporary writers to examine important popular films. I recently interviewed Sorrentino about his new book via e-mail.
In the 1970s, Hollywood produced a number of superficially political, urban action films. I’m thinking of Dirty Harry, which you discuss at some length in the book, and, of course, blaxploitation cinema. What made you decide to revisit Death Wish in particular?
Sean Howe approached me with the idea of writing about a movie that hadn’t been done to death, and we batted around a list of titles and genres ranging from eighties romantic comedies to zombie movies. The most prominent one we talked about was The French Connection. I really don’t like that movie, but it did get us talking about New York on film in the seventies. Among other reasons, Death Wish appealed to me because I’ve always been fascinated by Charles Bronson—since I was a kid. I didn’t have especially high expectations for the film itself, although Death Wish ended up surprising me a lot.
When did you first see the film?
Oh, probably when I was a teenager.
You argue persuasively that Death Wish is not a serious political gesture but a modern extension of the western. Like many westerns, for instance, the movie posits that “crime and violence are scourges visited upon a respectable and peace-loving citizenry from without” and that the only way to meet such threats is with more violence. Do you think Death Wish is a comforting reenactment of this myth?
I don’t think it’s comforting at all, unless you describe “comfort” as the feeling of having one’s vicariously violent desires gratified. But that’s the western, too, largely: a creepier genre is hard to imagine, especially after it began to mature and breed ambiguous and enigmatic films that took a hard look at the position violence occupies in establishing and maintaining order. John Ford and Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah often made you acutely aware that you were cheering for guys who were doing the wrong thing, or whose means were only very abstractly justified by their ends. Death Wish sort of takes us back to the simpler westerns, the ones where we happily accepted a certain level of atavism even from our heroes—westerns that are “merely” mythical, and not mythical allegories. As I say in the book, if it had been set in the late 1800s, the critics wouldn’t have made a peep. Death Wish disturbs by defamiliarizing the conventions it’s drawing on, enacting them in a contemporary setting.
In what sense might Paul Kersey—the vigilante played by Charles Bronson—speak to you?
I guess it’s a familiar contradiction. As a liberal, I denounce the state’s saying, to a convict, “On such and such a date at such and such a time you will be executed.” But I also completely understand and sympathize with the loved one who says of that same convict, “Just give me five minutes alone in a room with him.” It’s right there at the edge of who we are. Our entire culture says, give us a reason and violence is, if not OK, understandable. And movies that ask us to root for vigilantes or revenge killers aren’t really asking us to make that big of a stretch. But like I say in the book, there’s a difference between what you root for at the movies and what happens in the real world. That’s why I mention the Bernhard Goetz case; as long as Goetz appeared to be justified, it was a feel-good story. It turned out he wasn’t even remotely justified.
You write: “U.S. film reviewers seem to possess an almost pragmatic blindness to the aesthetics of film.” Initial reviewers, for instance, attacked Death Wish, which is far from an exercise in cinematic realism, for its supposed failure to depict the real New York—whatever that is. Today, as you point out, critics attack movies that are too “filmy” or self-referential. Why do you think critics aren’t understanding?
In the case of film reviewing, at least, the job seems to be oriented toward discussing what the film is “about,” whether the script is any good, whether the actors handle their roles well, and so on. So I really get the impression that most reviewers are happier and much more in their element with a straightforward middlebrow picture like American Beauty or The Savages, which lends itself to that kind of treatment, or with some review-proof piece of junk that they can trash. Sometimes a movie insists very loudly that it’s to be considered a work of art—think of something like Synecdoche, New York. My father [Gilbert Sorrentino] used to refer to this kind of thing as “sweaty” experimentalism; work that is very anxious its audience might not get how importantly imaginative it is. In those cases, the reviewers dust off their old vocabulary to consider mise-en-scène, lighting, editing, and other more integrally filmic elements. But every now and then, some movie that appears to be one thing slips into some other reality altogether, without making a big deal about it, and it throws reviewers off their game. They might love it, they might hate it, but clearly they have no fucking idea what to make of it. I mention Inglourious Basterds as an example; other movies like this that come to mind—not to suggest their equivalency in any other respect—are Vertigo, The Searchers, Groundhog Day, and, yeah, Death Wish. I’ll grant that reviewers are working under the gun, usually. They don’t have two months and unlimited numbers of screenings, like the authors of certain monographs, to work out and refine their opinions.
In the book you criticize the “realist” approach to filmmaking, particularly with how it has been used to depict New York City. Apart from Death Wish, what films avoid this technique and still find compelling ways to use the city as a backdrop?
Susan Sontag has an interesting take on photography: She describes it as a fundamentally “surreal” art because from the outset it leveled what were considered inherent qualitative differences existing between suitable and unsuitable pictorial subject matter, thereby redefining our idea of what constitutes “beauty.” She goes on to claim that this eventually resulted—often for reasons quite apart from an interest in documentary realism—in a willful aestheticizing of ugliness and even banality. There’s a corollary to this in many of the films made around the same time as Death Wish, but I don’t know if it’s a technique so much as a contrivance. I kind of take a director like William Friedkin to task for this. The crumminess of a film gets obscured beneath a mountain of authentic data. It’s like an unanswerable challenge: That’s a genuine subway car, buddy! How can you dare not admire this movie? The ugly decay you might have seen walking around Manhattan at the time of Death Wish becomes the lushly and lovingly photographed decay of everything from Midnight Cowboy to Live and Let Die. Death Wish really doesn’t care all that much about the scenery. It simply posits that New York is a lawless and chaotic place, and we go along with it. To answer your question directly, is it too insufferably effete to suggest that the best films made about New York were shot on sound stages in Hollywood?
You confess to “believing in the usefulness of maintaining a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ while remaining suspicious of the kind of mummified thinking that will scrutinize examples of either only after confining them to their respective enclosures.” Why do you think the distinction between “high” and “low” art still matters?
I could spend about a year trying to answer this question. Let me go ahead and respond, with the caveat that next time I’m entirely likely to provide a different answer. Dwight MacDonald uses different terminology and at least two additional layers of cultural stratification than I do in that quote, but his rationale for what the differences are and why they matter is still completely serviceable. MacDonald anticipated the complete marginalization of both high and low, so that the exponents of what he referred to as mass- and midcult are left alone in the spotlight to squabble endlessly over the infinitesimal qualitative differences between them. To shove high culture out of sight in order to valorize schlock is to enable a kind of zero-context discussion that, even when dressed up in the most rarefied academic discourse, is one step removed from fanboy chat. We get to talk about how great or how bad something is within a tiny comparative frame; and it’s gratifying, yes, to defend some beloved corner of the pop-culture universe, totally confident that it’s the best example of its kind, but it also allows us to completely sidestep things that are beyond our ken, or inconvenient to our argument. What’s interesting about the way things are now is the way that the frame of reference for even very highly educated people doesn’t extend beyond the midcult—when somebody says something like, “John Grisham has written a serious work of literature,” you can fume and sputter, but, really, whose territory are you defending? Scott Turow’s? David Simon’s?
American popular culture—from rock music to television—plays a central role in all of your books. Do you feel as though your own orientation or attitude toward pop culture has evolved significantly over time?
I think I used to see popular culture generally as a kind of pernicious and dishonest entity that occupied a sphere wholly separate from that of real life. I realize now that each is completely immersed in the other, for better or worse. The big difference is that I don’t think any longer that it’s necessarily for worse.