Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rough justice

Outdoors, it's been a string of delightful August days here in New York. But within the Anthology Film Archives, the temperature will be as cold as a dish of revenge through Sunday, as it hosts "New York City Vigilantes," a handful of firepower-empowerment pictures from a different, dirtier era.

Last year's pretentious The Brave One was anachronistic. Not that there aren't periodic outrages to get the most peaceable city toiler in a Bernard Goetz state of mind, but crime is way down here--the more ex-urban Death Sentence is in keeping with the trends. More importantly, in line with the "broken windows" theory of prevention that has been central to New York crime management since the early 90s, the windows aren't as broken; a spic-and-span attitude has seeped in, despite boom-and-bust building, renovation, and gentrification cycles. Jodie Foster being rescued by Robert DeNiro in the Bicentennial hell of Taxi Driver made sense; Foster locked-and-loaded in 2007 felt like wishful thinking, as if anyone has nostalgia for that aspect of the good old bad old days.

My father was mugged twice in the 70s, and we never went to Broadway without the car windows shut tight and the doors locked. (Eighth Avenue resists a thorough cleansing, but I'm OK with patches of badness.) Anthology's mini-fest might have started with 1971's scarily satiric Little Murders, where the only rational response to beat random murderous snipings is to join them, but it was Death Wish that appealed to guys like my dad, with provoked upscale liberal Charles Bronson accepting the killer within. Picking up a Magnum is as sacred a duty in these pictures as taking up the cross. Dirty Harry had set the tone for urban Westerns; in Death Wish, the gun gifted to architect Bronson by good ol' boy Tucson client Stuart Margolin is a talisman of the Old West, passed religiously into the Wild East for the benediction of the vigilante-to-be. Abel Ferrara's creepy Ms. 45 (1981), which opens the series with a bang tonight, has the deaf-mute heroine Thana (for Thanatos, the Greek god of death) never at ease in society ("she was abused and will never happen again!"), putting on a nun's habit to consecrate her vengeance at a costume party. These movie avengers ride with the angels. (Ferrara will be at Saturday's screening, one hopes of an uncut print; the DVD is missing footage that my ancient laserdisc maintains.)

The rest of the fest is something of a salute to Brox-born filmmaker, William Lustig, who will also be making a personal appearance, and is now CEO of the fine Blue Underground DVD label. Lustig appeared at the last gasp of the grindhouse, jolting even the most jaded horror junkies with 1980's Maniac. (The poster alone, which I owned for years, along with that of Ms. 45's, is enough to give you the shakes.) By 1983's Vigilante, Lustig had cleaned up his act sufficiently for multiplex bookings, and had a more aspirational cast--Fred Williamson, Carol Lynley, Richard Bright, Woody Strode, and the excellent and underrated Robert Forster in the title role--at his disposal. It doesn't hang in my memory, though--I recall the savagely suggested murder of Forster's child (a blood burst on clothes on a laundry line), and that it comes to involve a group dynamic, with other members of Brooklyn's dispossessed joining in the fight against the bad guys, who as usual in these pictures are carefully multiethnic. Race would intrude on the death wish fulfillment for the broadest possible demographic. (Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne did time as scumbags in Death Wish movies--it's a shock seeing Goldblum doing unmentionable things with spray cans to Hope Lange and her daughter in the first one, as the score wails.)

Rounding out the series are the first two of the three Maniac Cop movies that Lustig directed, from typically cheeky and topical screenplays by Larry Cohen, in 1988 and 1990, the contentious Do the Right Thing era. Here the frustrated shooter (and smacker, and knifer, and so on with the weaponry) is a policeman--an undead one, no longer bound to the ethics and codes as set forth by the hypocritical and face-saving top brass, which we come to learn had it in for him.

(Pause. How he came to be is explained in the final one, 19923's Badge of Silence, which looked to me to be filmed pretty much in L.A., which had the Rodney King incident on its plate. It's not up to par with its predecessors, but if you were wondering how Jackie Earle Haley spent the interregnum between The Bad News Bears and Little Children, look no further. And it has a character comparing police brutality to Iraq, referring to the Kuwait invasion but a standout line when heard on cable TV late in the evening today, where I encountered it. )

With its monster-on-the-loose element, the Maniac Cop movies (the second, in particular, is distinguished by excellent, pre-CGI era car chases and stuntwork, gory, old-school makeup effects, and a fine-fettle cast including Robert Davi, Leo Rossi, and big-faced Robert Z'Dar as the unstoppable cop Cordell) don't really fit the angry citizen template, but what the hell--you'll rarely get the chance to see any of these pictures with an appreciative audience, especially at Anthology, a high church of cinema. But what happens at Anthology stays at Anthology--let's keep the bad vibes on the screen and off our streets, please.

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