Current Cinematic Critiques of the Violent Life-Style
a review by Ari Armstrong
Grosse Pointe Blank is one of those films Bob Dole might deride (without actually seeing it) as irresponsibly violent; it is filled with scenes of hit men shooting people with both guns blazing, it sports an exploding convenience store, and it has John Cusack's character (Martin Blank) stab an attacker in the neck with a pen. The way the film makes light of death is uncanny; there's just something sickly funny about seeing Dan Akroid's hit-man character trapesing through a building firing two semi-auto pistols at full-speed while wearing that damn fool grin of his. Blank's secretary (played by Cusack's sister) reads Blank a letter about his high school reunion while he's in the middle of shooting a bicyclist with a rifle ("...hold on for just a moment" - pow!). It really touches the absurdity-bone.
But this film is not gratuitous violence. It makes violence extreme and horribly funny precisely to make the viewer feel uncomfortable taking it lightly (as our culture so often does).
Not all the humorous moments of the film revolve around violence; the scenes between Blank and his psychiatrist are hillarious, as is a radio broadcast of Blank's attempt to win back his childhood sweetheart-turned-DJ (played by Minnie Driver). It's the funniest movie I remember seeing (and it's brilliantly performed all around).
The story revolves around Blank, who stood said sweetheart up at their Senior prom only to disappear for ten years, first into the army, then into a "career" of killing people ("Psychopaths kill for pleasure. I'm no psychopath; I don't kill people for pleasure. I kill them for money"). Blank's life finally eats at him until he decides to return home for his ten year high school reunion in search of his life. (Blank's name is a play on words; his home-town is called Grosse Pointe, and he is the "Grosse Pointe Blank." He is invisible. Perhaps the writer also thought of the variation, "Gross Point-Blank.")
Behind the violent facade wells up gently the theme of the movie: a life-style of violence alienates a person from his friends, destroys his hope of a loving family relationship, makes his life seem depressingly empty, and, of course, puts his life at risk. Three scenes from the reunion highlight this message. In the first, Blank meets an old friend who has her child with her. She makes Blank hold the child while she prepares a bottle, which gives Blank a touch of the "normal" life he's missing as the child smiles at him and Blank stares back in wonder. (Brought a tear to my eye.) After Blank kills the guy with the pen (who was attempting to collect the price on Blank's head), his old best friend says, "I'm Wally and I'm in real estate. What do *you* do?" - and then walks away. (Wally had to help Blank dispose of the body.) But before the body is disposed, Blank's sweetheart catches him with the bloody corpse and, naturally, freaks out. At one point she says, "Why didn't you ever learn that [killing] is wrong?" The film takes a few scenes off from humor as she continues, "Get away from me. Don't you understand? You *can't have me*."
Blank finally does undergo "redemption" and wins back his love. The message is touching if subtle: violence as a way of life *denies* one one's life.
Grosse Pointe Blank is one of number of films which have dealt with the absurdity of violence. Heat, with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, is the story of a gang of sophisticated thieves (led by DeNiro's character) who see their lives turn to ruin in the wake of their violence. DeNiro finds the love of his life, but is forced to abandon her and ends up shot by the cop played by Pacino. The other thieves fare about the same.
In the back-ground of a convenience-store shoot-em-up scene in Grosse Pointe Blank appears a life-sized cardboard advertisement of Pulp Fiction. I'm not sure if this appearance is intended to pay homage to Pulp Fiction or hold the film up to criticism, but it at least accurately points to the ring-leader of the (anti?-)violence movement in cinema: Quentin Tarantino. My theory about Tarantino is that he genuinely enjoys writing about violence, but that his conscience forces him to channel his penchants into morally constructive stories.
Tarantino wrote also Natural Born Killers (directed by Oliver Stone), the film about two sociopaths who go on a killing spree. NBK is more concerned with how certain elements of our society glorify violence than with the mechanics of how violence destroys the lives of the violent - a poignant theme in itself my view. But I am truly disappointed that Stone didn't initially run his original ending, in which Micky and Malory (the killers) finally start thinking about having a family, but are shot by another sociopath who takes the killers' rhetoric to heart. This is the more logical (if even more horrible) conclusion. (The original ending is shown in the Director's Cut.)
My point is not that Tarantino is a consistently uplifting, "benevolent" type of writer, but merely that the main thrust of his work is to point out some of the problems with violence. Sure, I generally prefer a more positive, more uplifting theme, but once it a while it's okay, I think, to dwell on the problems and to seek resolution. And films like Grosse Pointe Blank do take the anti-violence themes farther and point the way to a moral life. So we perhaps shouldn't discard such films out-of-hand, but, rather, enjoy them for their positive moments and learn from them what we may.