The Art of the Futile
We watched Escape from New York today, a kind of great, yet not so great movie from the 80s. 1981 to be precise about it. And, being an 80s action movie, it’s radically different from what we’re used to seeing these days. We also watched Crash of the Titans (2010) yesterday, so that’s an interesting comparison.
The main thing that struck me on finishing the movie was how they allow there to be futility. Notably, the character Maggie at the end (the snake lady from Carnivale looking so young!) tries to kill the Duke of New York by standing in the road and shooting away at his car with a handgun. She misses every shot (though one hits the windshield) and he runs her over with the car. She dies.
This sort of thing is, as far as I can think right now, deeply uncommon in most of the big movies we see these days. The idea of a character taking desperate action and then totally failing in such a way as to have achieved literally nothing before then being killed… well, it’s just not the done thing anymore.
Consider the character Io in Clash of the Titans. She’s as close as you tend to get to the “futile death” in that she just randomly gets stabbed by one of the bad dudes toward the end. Mostly to tug on our heartstrings and to enrage the hero, Australian Perseus. So, pretty futile on her end. But it’s not allowed to stand. At the end of the movie, daddy Zeus says he doesn’t want Perseus to be all alone and instead of bringing back his family (the only people Perseus ever showed any actual connection to), he brings back Io. Futility averted.
Perhaps the best distillation of the “80s futility moment” I’ve seen is in Blood Simple (1984). As he is being buried alive, one character managed to pull a gun and point it at his tormentor. They both freeze, then the guy pulls the trigger once, maybe twice – it doesn’t go off, though there are bullets in the gun. Then, in a beautifully shot moment, the other guy reaches out and oh so slowly takes the gun away. The shot is of just their two hands, both tentative, one trembling with the nearing of death. It’s super evocative – a truly awful image.
If art imitates life, then I guess I should be pumped that life is so much less futile these days… but I think I’d rather take the 80s aesthetic a lot of the time.