On “Execution” in Film

On “Execution” in Film

One thing I’ve recently noticed in reminiscing about films that made an impression on me as I was learning an admiration for the medium of film is how common – and in fact ubiquitous – is the trope of characters “executing” other characters. By execution, I here mean something more evocative and purposeful than to say that a character is killed; characters who are “executed’ on screen are done away with circumstance, fanfare, and zeal. The fundamental and unifying idea seems to be that – although every death (particularly of a major character) has some connoting substance or dramatic effect – when a character is executed, it has signifying content; basically (following the classic conception), there is an underlying claim that what is being done – the taking of life – is not only “just” in the sense that it “can be justified” on the basis of some value system and associated rationale, but that, in point of fact, justice (at least based on what the executor understand it to be) demands that the life be taken. The act has signification because the basic argument is that this – the act of killing – is a victory and vindication of “my” conception of justice against “yours.” This rationale often seems to translate into means; if its really an “execution”, expedient means would basically undermine the whole point; to the point about my concept of justice vs your concept of justice, it’s only really an execution if you understand that you are being executed – and this is act is not merely prudent or punitive, but retributive. The nature of an execution seems to therefore pre-dictate that one character make another aware of why they are being killed – which again, of course, follows from our penal systems. To use a direct quote from “No Country,” – the basic idea behind an execution is that one character invokes to another that whatever “rule” that character followed which “lead you to this” must assuredly be defunct (“oh what good is the rule?”)

There’s something also “demarcating” – and almost “grammatical” about execution on screen; most, from what I can tell, are meant to “punctuate” periods of dramatic action; one of the reasons this is so is because often times the executioner will either implicitly or explicitly invoke the idea that “this” is the “last” really necessary kill – and that having seen it through will plausibly slake or satisfy their need to right wrongs, address grievances, etc.

One of the main reasons I thought this was a salient point to bring attention to is because once I started to apply this word to the phenomena, I realized (again) how ubiquitous it is – and how much of the films from our canon basically seem to depend (or be totally reliant) on their use of this trope/device. Tarantino and Scorsese are probably two of the most prominent exponents of this tool; Tarantino includes at least one in every single he has ever written; he could probably even be accused of not knowing how to write a scene without the potential of an execution waiting in the wings. The Hateful Eight is probably just the most in your face about it – seeing as the whole premise of the narrative is about an outlaw being (to Red Rock) to hang – and, conversely, “Hollywood” probably comes across as the most self-restrained because it waits until the end to reveal itself – and does so in a way which inverts expectations. (It’s interesting to note how a lot of that movie is spent – in subtle ways – preparing or priming us to be glad when this happens; hence the profuse use of “anti-Hippie” language). Tarantino is perhaps different from Scorsese mostly because Scorsese a. tends to try to work in the opposite direction in terms of “stylizing” the execution and b. because Scorsese seldom, if ever, presupposes (as Tarantino almost always does) that the executor is morally vindicated. Scorsese generally seems to try to depict on some level that people who execute other people are often acting as pawns – and that the violence makes them victims of the systems they serve, systems they have been basically forced into because of a set of actually bad personal qualities which make them socially useless except as pawns who are willing to abdicate their sense of right and wrong to someone else’s emotions or business interests. It might also be the case that Scorsese is a little more as a matter of fact about how the premise of finality which executions are conducted “under” is really a kind of extravagant lie; once the ball gets rolling, there really is no stopping it.

At what point does this become exhausting? One thing I have come to find increasingly irritating about executions in film is that they are often kind of a cheap gimmick for the audience to get a kind of ego thrill; most audiences probably don’t think too hard about “what” exactly they are being brought into alignment with when they allow themselves to aggrandize the execution of one character over another – but regardless of the case, the basic underlying idea to many executions (particularly the sort Tarantino is known for) is that “you” (the audience) are worthy of life – and that the characters who are dead are/were not. Doesn’t that feel good? Filmmakers who more meaningfully deal in what we know as “substance” or actual “drama” probably tend to be those which force the audiences to find some more legitimate and durable basis of personhood. In older films, this “basis of personhood” was probably – very obviously – something like citizenship and the fact that the audience was American.

Another reason I probably feel that it’s worthwhile drawing the attention of a group of writers to this phenomena is that – for what it’s worth – although from our experience, many unproduced or “amateur” scripts mirror the precedent.

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