Sunday, June 19, 2005

Unfinished Projects #1: Punishment and Drama

The first is a course (and possibly a book) about punishment and drama, from Greek tragedy to contemporary film. Sometimes we can overlook how central the problem of guilt and punishment is to tragedy. (I blame Aristotle -- that smarty-pants was only interested in the typology of heroes and the epistemology of tragic irony.) The dynamic impetus behind most Greek tragedy is punishment that is either undone or has gone too far.
Aeschylus's Oresteia is precisely about this problem: Agememnon kills his daughter, his wife Clytemnestra kills him, their son Orestes kills Clytemnestra, then the Furies come after Orestes, who appeals to Apollo and Athena, who have a trial that acquits him of blame for his mother's murder. Part of the problem here is the incompatibility of different kinds of revenge and different conceptions of justice: the furies have to set aside their primal, tribal anger for the communal justice of the Areopagus, the court established by Athena.
This same issue animates Sophocles's Antigone, which takes the opposite tack of the Orestia: Antigone, standing in for the Furies, asserts that there are some laws (the laws of familial obligation and proper respect for the dead) that transcend the civic authority represented by Creon. Creon takes his right to punish as too absolute, and punishes Polynices, Antigone, and Haemon excessively: Antigone in this sense stands in for the radical resistance to tyranny. A woman in love with death.
The problem established by Greek tragedy -- and hence western literature, right from the beginning -- seems to be the problem of tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other: this is why King Lear is the most genuinely tragic of Shakespeare's plays and Hamlet the most sophisticated (since Hamlet deals with the problem of guilt and punishment in the absence of either chaos or tyranny).
So I would begin there and close with two of my favorite films: Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Rashomon, like Oedipus Rex, has been read too much in the light of its epistemological implications and not enough politically, in terms of a critique of the possibility of punishment. In Rashomon, various witnesses give their accounts of a murder. They all agree on a certain set of facts: a bandit attacked a couple in the road, tied up the husband, and raped the wife. Afterwards, after a struggle, the husband was killed. However, all of the witnesses differ greatly in their account, and all of them claim responsibility for the death of the husband. The bandit claims that he killed the husband honorably in hand-to-hand-combat. The wife claims that the bandit fled, and that she killed her husband out of shame at his gaze following the rape. The dead husband (speaking through a medium) claims to have killed himself out of shame at his wife's betrayal. Each tells a story that implicates himself or herself, exonerates the others, but allows them to save face, social shame being apparently less preferable to official guilt. Each of the stories also follows certain cliches of Japanese literature (and movie-making) involving nobility in undignified circumstances.
Finally a woodcutter recants his initial story of having come along only after the murder and claims to have witnessed it: all of the principals were lying, he says; both men were cowards, and only the woman's laughter caused them to fight one another at all. But his story is also suspect, since he probably stole some valuables from the dead man's body.
"Rashomon" refers to the large gate at which the woodcutter relates his story: it's a symbol for the multiple frames through which the story is told, but also (again) for the tenuous boundary between civilization and the bitter reality of nature (especially human nature). The rain batters the gate and the men are barely able to keep dry. Rashomon does indeed fuck with our notions of truth, but it's really truth in a certain context, namely the truth necessary to punish, to blame or absolve or otherwise allay guilt.
But what's the nature of the cliche, the formula? Is it a persona that we adopt in the face of power, a rite of absolution? I haven't figured that out yet. Rashomon and Unforgiven both explode conventions of genre and character and destabilize the law, and those two seem to be connected somehow.
In some ways, Unforgiven is closer to the spirit of Greek tragedy, albeit with an overlay of the cliches of the Western and the rhetoric of original sin. A nameless cowboy cuts up a prostitute, and is in turn released by the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman), after the cowboy agrees to pay the whore's pimp as compensation for her injuries. The other whores gather together (like Antigone, it's always women who stand for the unwritten law against the tyranny of men) and put a bounty on the two cowboys' lives. This attracts two old outlaws out of retirement, William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) and Ned Roundtree (played by Morgan Freeman), led by an upstart calling himself The Scofield Kid. At stake is whether Munny can overcome his lawless ways or whether he really is (as he used to be) evil to the bone -- the movie never entirely answers the question.
The outlaws eventually manage to kill both cowboys, but Little Bill captures and accidentally kills Ned, who had no stomach for or part in the killings. Like Creon, he refuses to bury Ned's body, putting a sign on his coffin declaring "this is what happens to assassins around here." Little Bill is less outwardly vicious than pragmatic, yet with a skill and capacity for violence that seems to make his funny, appealing pragmatism a self-delusion, a la Rashomon (or Creon in Antigone). Little Bill and William Munny, along with English Bob (a self-styled "noble" mankiller played by Richard Harris) are more alike than they are different, linked through their similar capacity for outrageous violence. "I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks," Munny says, after he guns down Little Bill and all of his deputies in retribution for Ned's death. We're tempted to see these men as something different from the rest of us -- murderers, dangerous men. But the rest of us are simply cowards -- the message of Unforgiven seems to be that anyone is capable of great violence at any time, that we are all in some way guilty.

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