Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Collection Project: Furniture

[In an attempt to breathe some life back into this blog, I'm bringing back The Collection Project, at least for the time being. I unceremoniously dumped it a while back because I found it too pointlessly restricting, but I think it will give me some direction again. Of course, in the months since dropping it, I've covered several movies that would fall under The Collection Project's rubric, and I may go back and label those posts accordingly. On the other hand, who cares?]

I think it's safe to say that one of my interests, in film and literature if not quite so much, or anyway not in the same way, in life, is violence. Not death in general, so much, although that's obviously part of it, but violence -- murder, revenge killings, self defense killings, combat, the various kinds of violent or at least unnatural death found in the horror genre -- and how it is depicted by the artist. Connected to that is an interest in how that violence is perceived by critics (moreso than by audiences, because I'm not going to be taking any polls outside of movie theaters in the near or distant future), although I mention that only in passing as it doesn't really pertain to today's film.

It's a big subject, though one that is sometimes sniffed at, or even sneered at, unless the morality of the moment is absolutely concrete and in line with the views of whoever would otherwise be doing the sneering. Another element, apart from morality, that can keep people from engaging with onscreen violence has to do with a misunderstanding of the word "violence" so that it becomes synonymous with "gore". It can be, but violence, as I'm using it here, means basically any act of aggression intended to do harm to another person. This can range from sticking a live grenade in someone's mouth to poisoning someone as they sleep. Cinematically -- and in reality, of course -- one of these acts is going to be noticed and talked about far more than the other. Which brings me to Michael Clayton.

In Tony Gilroy's 2007 film, Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, an attorney for a company called U-Conn who has a mental breakdown stemming from a sort of moral collapse, which itself stems from the fact that U-Conn is manufacturing and selling a weedkiller that they know causes cancer. The film's plot revolves around attempts to keep this secret hidden from the public, and Michael Clayton's (George Clooney) attempts to save both his own soul -- he's also an attorney, brought in by U-Conn from the outside to help them deal with the crisis -- and protect Edens, who is his friend.

Until Clayton begins to take firm steps towards moral correctness, and even after, Arthur Edens is the good-hearted, right-thinking center of Michael Clayton. He reaches his epiphany well before Clayton does, though is less able to deal with it, or its repurcussions. The primary source of those repurcussions is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), an ambitious U-Conn executive put in charge of cleaning up this mess. She is, we learn, willing to do anything to support her company (one highlight of this very strong film, and one of the unacknowledged reasons Swinton won an Oscar for her performance, is Crowder's willingness to purge herself of all moral thought while trembling with horror as she does it -- this is a stark contrast to Catherine Zeta-Jones's probably intentionally over-the-top, but not quite buyable, Lady MacBeth turn in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic). One of the things she's willing to do is hire two hitmen (Robert Prescott and Tony Serpico) to silence Edens, who by this point has come just short of shouting out the truth about U-Conn from the rooftops.

And so. Arthur Edens is coming home one day, and is met by the hitmen. They grapple with him briefly, overpower him, and drug him.
This all occurs in Edens' doorway, so they bring his body deeper into his apartment, one hitman at his shoulders, the other at his legs, prepping to lift him...
. hitman finally saying "Up", as though they were lifting a sofa, and bringing him to the bathroom.

They're nothing if not efficient, these killers. The scene is fast, and Prescott and Serpico play the hitmen as professionals, good at their jobs without a trace of psychology threatening to bust them at their seams. They've been paid well, and they get on with their work.

The method of Edens' execution is poison, which they inject into his foot with as little thought to its effects as they would if their syringe contained a mild anaesthetic.

It is not a mild anaesthetic, however, and all his killers need to do now is wait for Edens to die.

Which he does.

Though the two don't entirely match up, while thinking about this scene recently I was reminded of an actual murder I heard about -- I may have the details of it slightly wrong -- that involved a husband slowly and systematically poisoning his wife by putting a little bit of antifreeze in her, I believe, Gatorade every morning. Apart from the sad and prolonged death of that poor woman, the most horrifying feature of this case is the idea that this man woke up every morning, killed his wife a little bit, went about his day, and successfully went to sleep that night, day after day. There is a blankness in that man, as there is -- and I don't mean to connect these things too closely, since in one case a real person really died -- in the hitmen played by Prescott and Serpico. In Michael Clayton, Edens becomes an object, a piece of furniture, as I've said, to be brought down to the dumpster. It's only when the camera lingers on his corpse after the hitmen have left that any of his humanity is restored.

And this is violence. When violence disturbs in films, it's usually because much blood is spilled, or yards of guts have come unspooled, but I've never been able to shake this scene of bloodless murder in Michael Clayton since I first saw it more than three years ago. This is violence as work. This is violence as a project to be seen through to completion. This disturbs.


POST-SCRIPT: I should have done this before, but I'd like to thank Ryan Kelly for providing the screengrabs for this post.


Roderick Heath said...

I'd say there's plenty of life in this blog as this terrific piece testifies, Bill. When it comes to violence, I was actually contemplating in watching the conflicts in Careful, He Might Hear You, in which a child becomes essentially a prop between two family members' rivalry, how much more emotional violence affects me in movies rather than the physical kind.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Rod. Maybe my shot-in-the-arm idea has worked.

Emotional violence packs an enormous whallop with me, too. I have a hard time with realistic depictions of bullying, for instance. One example is CARRIE -- okay, yes, it's over the top, by design, but Spacek's performance makes it horrifyingly plausible. Particularly rough is seeing her brief moments of happiness, but knowing what's in store. I'd have killed all those fuckers, too.

Roderick Heath said...

I'd've used my psychic powers to bring them back to life, just to kill them again, no fear.

Indeed, bullying in particular gets me in movies (and in life too, no fear). It's interesting you bring up a King work because he essentially built his fortunes initially on being one of the few people to understand and tap into that adolescent emotional carnage. Carrie is a very good portrait of it, too, in spite of the theatricality, because it shows how such things become cyclical.

But getting back to your initial point, what strikes me as kind of odd about Michael Clayton when it comes to those assassins is why they're good at killing Arthur but so conveniently bad at killing Michael; Arthur's death is the highpoint of the film, and everything after slides further and further into formula. The coldness of Arthur's death has a sort of ugly truth in it Gilroy then had to studiously shy away from.

bill r. said...

Well, Rod, you are not, as they say, wrong. About the hitmen in MICHAEL CLAYTON, I mean. There presence becomes lazy, I agree, but I can't say the rest of the film following Wilkinson's death bothered me. Formula, maybe, but not ineffective. The hitmen thing is a bigger problem, because setting them up so brilliantly with the Edens murder leaves little room for error afterwards. It must be hard to figure out a way for your hero to not be killed by such people, but there must be better ways of going about it than the one Gilroy landed on.