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Death Wish (Deep Focus) Paperback – November 1, 2010
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Sorrentino opens with choice words condemning the aggressive panning of the film by critics at the time of its release in 1974, an idée fixe in the chapters that follow. His roasting of the apparent ignorance and prejudice of the critics- in their "moral outrage" came the resultant failure to see Death Wish as a complete film, as opposed to its simple "provocations" - acts as a unifying element of the text. The body of which text consists of four chapters that may be read as independent essays (while an appendix offers a helpful plot synopsis), exploring Death Wish from four different approaches which amalgamate in a more considerate exploration of the film.
In "Death Wish and the City," Sorrentino praises Winner's decidedly non-authentic, non-documentarian approach to the tired premise of "the city as character," instead flattening it into generic set pieces at the expense of local color: "New York is a cave into which predators can crawl. Bronson discovers himself in the cave." He classifies the film's introductory sequence, in Hawaii, and interlude, in Tucson, as exemplary opposites of New York City (which, he allows is not New York City, but "New York City"), building a binary that unambiguously declares its position: urbanization destroys the possibility of joy, while pastoralism allows one to "live." The Tucson sequence is of particulate importance here, in terms of plot (the Tucson sequence the place of Kersey's transformation), and also metaphor (" Tucson" as opening a portal by which Kersey enter, and adopt, the lawless Wild West). Upon his return, Kersey wages war less for the sake of law than of order. Sorrentino writes, "Bronson is forced to track the cave-dwellers down to where they live to restore order...the contemporary city - even a mythical one - is the only conceivable setting for a story like this."
The "Politics in Death Wish" chapter focuses primarily on Kersey's transformation from a professed "liberal" into vigilante judge, jury and executioner. Sorrentino maintains that subjecting the film to the binaries of liberal vs. conservative on the pretense of condemning the film on a political basis is "fundamentally puritanical." Much of the chapter contrasts Paul Kersey and "Dirty Harry" Callahan, attempting to bridge these two mavericks and properly determine Death Wish's agenda. While Dirty Harry challenges the application of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Death Wish suggests an "absence of enforcement...a systematic failure rather than a failure of design or interpretation" (perhaps paralleling Sorrentino's feelings towards the body of critics). Mainly, Death Wish is "interrogating us, not indoctrinating us" and, while Dirty Harry draws doctrinate conclusions, "Death Wish is more sinuous, postulating a what-if question." What if this happened to you?
Throughout the text, Sorrentino repeatedly describes the film's performances less as acting and more as "antic blocking," the film "a superb exploration of an actor's limitations," while at the same time "full of stilted performances." The chapter "Death Wish and Performance" is likewise handicapped. Each performance receives a write-up - even bit characters such as the police commissioner and the three droog-inspired "Freaks" - though the longest pertain to assessments of three performances: Hope Lange (making a lot out of a thankless role: "a fairly brilliant piece of acting" on repeat viewings), Vincent Gardenia ("the hamminess of the performance is canny," which helpfully bolsters the film's convoluted second half) and Charles Bronson ("one can see Kersey's transformation into Charles Bronson," a persona to whom violence is second nature; this transformation suggests that Bronson's portrayal of Kersey isn't that of a man in torment, but of a man who is rejuvenated).
The film receives its closest reading in "Death Wish as Film." Sorrentino critiques Winner's "on-the-fly" style, which he feels results in a film that falls flat in any scene which had not been of explicit personal interest to the director. While he mentions technical aspects of the film - minimal cutting (with notable exceptions), shooting with a wide-angle lens in deep focus - Sorrentino's method of analysis is more interested in addressing the following question: "Where does Death Wish work, or at least work hard, as a film?"
Several scenes are analyzed, with the most compelling moments occurring halfway through the film. The " Tucson" scenes are an interruption which, due to its mythical (and reflexive, as "Winner continually plays with the idea of the fake, the nostalgic") presentation, "the result is a deeply enhanced sense of [the narratological] `legitimacy' of Tucson and the idea it embodies." Sorrentino argues that the film's second half represents an unsuccessful attempt at genre-mixing, "a good illustration of the narrative crisis that can occur when genres are pushed together without a true synthesis occurring." Following the introduction of the detective Ochoa, the film's narrative focus diverges from the mythical origin of vigilante Kersey to a cat-and-mouse game between him and the detective. Sorrentino notes how Winner's techniques change at this point of the narrative, for example, as the director's distinct style of shooting close-ups is replaced by frequent cross-cutting, a technique mostly absent in the film's first half.
Sorrentino's feelings of the brutality of the film imagery and direction, poor pacing, and resulting negative emotional output of the film is best summed up in a sentence early on in the chapter: "Winner creates very few images of true beauty in Death Wish and while you understand that the camera is an undiscriminating machine, you wonder why Winner has to be."
Meanwhile, Sorrentino's writing is very good, in that it captures the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of Winner's film with well-crafted sentences, and phrasing which often amusingly pinpoint the degree of Death Wish's general artistic ineptitude. However, he is prone to (admitted) contradictions, and, more often, meandering " digressive speculation" (as he will own up to in the book's least effective chapter, "Death Wish and Performance"), which is likely a symptom of the text's approach: these independent essays seem somewhat piecemeal in conception and arrangement, occasionally coming off as a sort of tirade with any number of digressions - there are often entire paragraphs which occur within parentheses. Overall, Sorrentino's conversational tone makes one feel as though they are candidly circumventing established, dead-end discourse which pervades the opinions of those professional film critics.
In the book's conclusion, Sorrentino reiterates his argumentative stance: that his work stands to suggest that "one key to thinking about a film is to watch it receptively, without preconceptions, absorbing it as a film, as a story, as a set of performances...that the professional reviewers who watched Death Wish in 1974 didn't manage to come up with any of these insights, or the variations on them that the book provides, unmistakably says that on some significant level they didn't watch the film."
Death Wish by Sorrentino reflects the source material in that its message is interesting in a muddled way. Indeed, the book provides a refreshing critical analysis of the film free of moral grandstanding. While it seems that he has a preoccupation with particular trends in professional film criticism, Sorrentino proves that he's equally capable of thoughtful discourse on this notorious, dark horse of a genre film.