This is not another post about Star Trek, although it begins with a scene from one of the Star Trek movies.
In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock is having a talk with the young Vulcan officer Valeris in his quarters. Valeris asks him about a painting on his wall.
It's a Chagall. Appreciating art is a very logical thing to do, and liking Chagall eminently more so.
Of course that's Leonard Nimoy talking right along with Spock. He's speaking for the whole cast of the original series, letting the audience know that this is it, folks, our last movie together. From here on out, you have to be content with the Next Generation.
He was also setting us up for Kirk's death, but the producers chickened out and changed the script at the last minute.
But mainly though this is Spock talking to Spock, preparing himself for the end of his life as a Federation officer. His world is about to change in a way that will mean there will no longer be a use for him and his skills...and his friends...and the old Enterprise.
The changes will be for the good, Spock welcomes them and, in fact, he is helping to bring them about. Vulcans don't feel regret, they don't get sad, but Spock is not all Vulcan.
All things end, he says, and as illogical as it is, he is sad. His Chagall is a reminder to accept both his sadness and the change.
Got an email the other day from Blue Girl. She happened to mention how her teenage son was looking online for posters to decorate his room.
...he wanted to order one from a scene in "Pulp Fiction" -- the scene where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are holding up those guns -- shooting those kids (but it doesn't show the kids) -- I said, "no" -- although I understood it was a cool poster, it was too violent -- and I started telling him about "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" -- the scene where they come out shooting at the end. And for some reason, I would let him put that one up -- but not the Pulp Fiction one.
And I immediately agreed with Blue Girl.
The question is, though, why?
What's the difference? Both posters are pictures of men with guns. Why not let the kid have the Pulp Fiction poster? Why let him put up Butch and Sundance?
But this is why we have web pages. To spend time writing about questions like this.
Blue Girl and I decided to each do a post explaining ourselves. We agreed not to look at each other's posts until both were up. She finished first.
Because she's actually dealing with the question and I'm just kibbitzing from the sidelines, for now, Blue Girl's post is more about being the mother of a precocious son and mine's about being way too obsessed with movies.
For me, the first difference between the two posters is that I am absolutely indifferent to Pulp Fiction while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my all time favorite movies.
But that's not a good reason not to let your kid put up a poster. "Sorry, Junior. You can only put up posters of movies I liked. And by the way, tear down that Red Sox pennant. We're Mets fans in this house!"
My second reason is that Newman and Redford are cooler than Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. Not necessarily one on one but as teams. Jackson is way cool. But Newman in his prime was way cooler. And Travolta can be cooler than Redford, but only on his very good days, and he doesn't have that many good days. Redford, in his prime, was always cool. There are no Look Who's Talking, Staying Alives, or Battlefield Earths on Redford's CV. And Travolta's resume doesn't include enough cool to compete with Barefoot in the Park, Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Electric Horseman, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, The Sting, Butch and Sundance, and All the President's Men.
(Trish Wilson would also add Sneakers.)
Mad City and Legal Eagles cancel each other out.
But that's not a reason either.
What does count is that although both posters are pictures of men with guns, the Pulp Fiction poster is, as Blue Girl says, more violent. Not just because we know who Travolta and Jackson are shooting at. But because you can tell just by looking at their postures and their faces that they are the threats in the scene. Butch and Sundance are clearly on the defensive. Travolta and Jackson look like what they are in the movie, killers. Newman and Redford look like they're doing what they're doing in their movie, fighting for their lives.
The Pulp Fiction poster is about its violence. The Butch and Sundance poster is about Butch and Sundance trying to get away from the violence that's about to destroy them. The first is about causing death, and the second is about escaping it.
I don't think you need to know the movies to see that.
The looks on their faces tell you. But the way the shots are framed do it too. In the Pulp Fiction poster the guns---which are very big guns---are as much the focus of the camera's eye as Jackson's and Travolta's faces. The guns shine brighter than the faces, in fact. And because of the way the shot is framed Travolta and Jackson's eyes are on their guns, which means that, looking at it, first your eye is drawn to the guns, then after an effort, when you switch to the actors' faces, their eyes re-direct your gaze back to the guns.
The poster is about the coolness of guns and how that power and cool are transfered to the people holding them.
Because Pulp Fiction is a post-modern masterpiece the dynamic works the other way, too. Travolta's and Jackson's cool flow into their guns.
Either way, that's not a message you want up on your teenager's bedroom wall.
In the Butch and Sundance poster the camera is looking primarily at Newman and Redford, at their faces and their body shapes. Their guns are almost unnoticeable. The first poster is about the potential for violence and the second is about a wounded pair of human beings.
But then I don't think either poster is particularly interesting if you don't know the movies at all.
And if you know the movies then you recognize immediately that both posters are perfectly representative of the respective films.
I'm not a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Here's a guy for whom Uma Thurman will apparently do anything, and all he can think to do with her is have her run around with a big sword slicing people up into cold cuts. I don't know if Tarantino loves violence or if he is so repelled and frightened by it that the only way he can deal with it is by fetishizing and aestheticizing it. Whatever demons are driving him, though, he treats violence and death as either comic or beautiful and in that picture shows them as both. There are those shiny guns and there's the goofy wig on Samuel Jackson.
Travolta and Jackson aren't acting in that scene, either. They are posing. This is part of the game Tarantino is playing with the violence in the movie. His characters are a collection of attitudes arranged artfully for his camera to photograph. And this is why his work leaves me cold. Tarantino does with his actors what George Lucas does with cgi---he uses them to show off his technical brilliance.
But in art being technically brilliant isn't an achievement, it's the given. Tarantino wants to be applauded for doing what somebody like Hitchcock assumed he could do in his sleep.
Tarantino makes movies about his own directing, and egomania like that bores me. So in addition to any moral objections I have, I think the Pulp Fiction poster teaches the wrong lessons about the art of making movies.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is anti-violence. It has very little gunplay for a western and Butch and Sundance don't kill anybody until three quarters of the way through the film. When they finally do draw their guns in earnest, it sickens them.
(Butch and Sundance are acting as representatives of the mining company when they kill the bandits. Which means they don't kill anybody until they stop being outlaws. There's a post to be written about how all the killing is committed by the representatives of the state---the Establishment, man---which marks the movie as a product of its its time. Nixon had just taken office and Vietnam had four more years to rage on when it was released. That aspect of the movie hasn't dated it as much as the same message in other movies from the era have dated them.)
And up until Butch and Sundance shoot it out with the bandits all the death in the movie has happened at long range, with no blood visible. When the movie at last turns bloody, the first real bloodshed is caused by Butch and Sundance and after that all the blood that flows is their blood.
Live by the sword...
But that's not what makes the poster more acceptable for a teenager's wall.
If I wanted my kids to put up Bible verses on their walls I'd sew them samplers.
What I like about that poster, what is moving about it, is that it is the last moment of Butch and Sundance's lives.
For most of the movie Butch and Sundance have been on the run, worried most about the lawman leading the Superposse on the trail, Joe LeFors. Shot to pieces by the Brazilian policemen, trapped inside the cantina, with a squad of soldiers setting up outside the door, they're doomed. But their last exchange before they charge out the door, intending to fight their way out of this mess goes something like:
Butch: Wait. You didn't see LeFors out there?
Sundance: LeFlors? No.
Butch: Good. For a second there I thought we were in trouble.
I used to think that Butch is joking. That he's just trying to cheer himself and the Kid up. Which means that Butch and Sundance know they are about to die. They're dead and there's nothing they can do about it. Surrendering's not an option because they're already both mortally wounded. So what they're doing is resolving to die standing up, fighting. And when I thought that was the case I saw that final image of the film as heroic.
Courage in the face of impossible odds---there's a message you definitely want on a teenagers' wall.
But now I'm not so sure that's what that scene is about. I don't identify with Butch and Sundance as closely as I did when I was young. I can allow myself to see their flaws and admit that they aren't meant to be taken as heroes. Now I think that we're meant to see that Butch is relieved that Joe LeFors isn't outside, he believes they're going to make it, or at least half-believes it.
And his and Sundance's unwillingness to face the truth, about themselves and about life, is what the movie has been about.
This is not just the last moment of Butch and Sundance's lives. It's the very last image of the movie. Is there another film that builds so inexorably toward its last shot? I can't think of one off hand.
Butch and Sundance are dead men from the beginning of the movie. The title sequences even says so. "They're all dead now." They're dead because time has passed them by.
All through the film we're given reminders that that Butch and Sundance are anachronisms. They have no place in the world any more. The movie begins with the future, and change, slapping Butch in the face.
Butch: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
Guard: People kept robbing it.
"Meet the future!" the bicycle salesman cries triumphantly. "Those days is over," growls Butch and Sundance's friend the sheriff, who delivers the key speech of the film.
You know, you should have let yourself get killed a long time ago when you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing that ever hit this area, but you're still two-bit outlaws. I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you're still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It's over, don't you get that? Your time is over and you're gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.
The sheriff is too fatalistic. Butch and Sundance can choose something else. They can choose to accept that their times is over. They can grow up. But every time they think about doing it, they balk. They go right on as if nothing's different.
I used to think that when after they kill the bandits they go back to being bandits themselves that the message was anti-Establisment: see what being on the "right" side of the law makes you do! It turns you into a killer! Better to be an outlaw than a state-sanctioned murderer.
But that's not what actually happens in that scene. The bandits draw on them first. They aren't the killers. The bandits are. What Butch and Sundance are in that scene are the grown-ups. Having to act as a grown-up often has terrible and soul-bruising consequences. And Butch and Sundance can't handle being grown-ups. They can't change.
At the end then what they're rushing out that door into is Time. I own the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's by William Goldman and it's one of the best written scripts of all time. Goldman's stage directions are as intrinsic to the script as the dialogue, and the last stage direction he wrote for the movie was "we hear the guns fire as Butch and Sundance are blasted back into History." The future arrives and kills them.
Death arrives not as a bullet but as a simple fact of life for all of us.
All things end.
I'm not sure that's a message I would insist a teenage boy learn. I'm not sure teenagers can learn it. Anyway, parents can't teach it to them. Time does it for them.
Valeris doesn't understand what Spock's talking about when he shows her the Chagall.
Anyway, that's why I wouldn't object if my sons want to put that poster up on their wall someday.
I don't see violence in that image. I see tragedy.
Meet the future. Those days is over. All things end. Time is the fire in which we all burn, which is the last word of the movie.
Officer: Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!