06/11/2016

Bronson - The Existential Imprisonment

This is first post in the newly opened...


This series is linked to the screenplay Virtue's Ploy that can be found and read on the blog. On top of this, Virtue's Ploy is available as an ebook in the Amazon Kindle store for free (for American users). Links to that free ebook will be provided in the end.

Thoughts On: Bronson

The story of Michael Peterson, a.k.a Charles Bronson, the most expensive, most violent prisoner in British history.


Bronson is a mesh of things, holding many strong elements and quite a few weak ones. First things first: the first act. The opening 20-odd minutes of this film are magnificent. Refn captures the persona of Peterson not just as a mad-man, but a complex, somewhat relatable, character with a pin-point sense of pacing, sound design and direction. And for this, watching the opening of the film is like listening to a great piece of music - you can't help but be swept away by it. That's not just to say that it's entertaining though. Intricately weaved into the first act are the core philosophies of the film and the crux of its narrative message. This is what we'll come back to later. However, moving into the second act, Refn attempts to slow the film down as Peterson is transferred into the psychiatric hospital. This choice, whilst artistically justifiable, doesn't help the film's tone or pacing. It lulls the viewer into a stupor from which is pointless to emerge from for the sequences where Peterson is free. Taking away the prison environment damages both Bronson's character and the film's tone. Refn seems to have his footing and sense of the story, both in terms of writing and direction, when in the prison environment. Outside of this, the film isn't worth much attention. This is largely because of the absurdist approach to character. We accept Peterson and Bronson with all of his manic nuances because its deserved, because the film spends time setting him up, working towards enunciating his voice. The same cannot be said for any other character in this film. This means that when they start acting strange, when they take to the screen... yeah, its just boring nonsense. And that's an unfortunate aspect of this film as it leaves it open to the criticism of being nothing more than a pretentious artsy indie feature. This is what the form of the film screams out at you thanks to Refn's direction and, without a good hold of character, becomes of detriment to the narrative. We see a similar thing happen in Refn's Drive. The moment character starts to move away from the focus of the narrative, things start to deteriorate. This is because of how prominent and characteristic of Refn that the feel of the movie is; there's a spotlight put mainly upon the lighting and soundtrack. These are important aspects of a movie, but are not the main draw, are not what films need to be good. After all, many indie features go to show that a great story can be told without a sound track and without the film looking particularly exciting. The opposite - a film that looks good, sounds good, but doesn't do much for the audience - suggests a film helmed by a good director, but little more; someone who can make pretty pictures into a pretty movie--but ultimately one without much substance.

These final words apply to a large chunk of Bronson. The ending picks up a little, but it is the opening act that, to me, hold the best this film has to offer in terms of the direction, editing, cinematography and writing coming together to form a complete narrative. Having said that, I'd like to stay focused on what we get from the first act from here on out. Bronson, as said, is a mesh of things. It's marketed as a commentary on celebrity and often seems to have a weird focus on ideas of art, sexuality and so on, but I don't see the meat of the film in just these themes. Sticking with the marketing, largely represented by the tagline...

The Man. The Myth. The Celebrity.

... to say this film mocks an idea of celebrity is largely redundant, more so an implication of a shallow reading of the movie. This is because the 'celebrity' aspects of this film and Bronson's character most poignantly point towards something deeper, something of a disconnect between people and their external environment. What this means is that the core of the film is in Bronson claiming he's not 'bad, bad' and that, as he implies, he's actually due a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. In this we are seeing a perception of the world and self misaligned with reality. Bronson sees himself as a good guy, but is labeled by society (as represented by the government and judicial system) as the polar opposite. He sees himself as worth something in this world, but is often disregarded as no more than scum. This speaks of two things; firstly, us, secondly, the driving force in human nature. Starting with us, the audience, I come to the astounding opening 10 minutes or so. What is designed into this is a mechanism for us sympathising and getting on the side of Bronson. This mechanism is founded in a few writer's techniques. To name a few, the introduction of romance, the use of universal themes, the demonstration of Peterson at his weakest moments, comedically implied flippancy, nihilist themes and the lack of sympathetic victims. The last point is the most important. We're put onto Bronson's side by seeing him as, in part, a victim, and in other parts a hero. This is done by him never being shown to be doing much wrong to anyone and by those who do 'wrong' to him never being shown on screen. What this means is that Bronson fights 'the system'. His enemy isn't directly the police men, post office, guards, wardens, prisoners, the Queen. His enemy is the collective force they imply - that which we call 'the system'.

What this says about us is that we're awfully simple minded when caught off-guard. When people hear 'the system' they are hit with a profound emotional reaction. The system is the worst thing ever, the system is worst than them, they or that, the system is.... ohhh, it's evil. But, what is the system? Yes, you could say an organisation, corporation, business, but the truth is that the system is a phrase people use with pessimistic undertones to say they don't like the network of cogs they're stuck in. What's funny about 'the system', as is Bronson's character, is probably best exemplified by an old Pryor joke...



Pryor, like us all in many situations, is swept away by an 'us v them' dichotomy. But, when he turns around and faces the 'us' he thought he was apart of... yeah, he's not sure he likes the idea of sides. Whilst Pryor's joke is fundamental just a joke, it does poke fun at an obvious truth, one perfectly demonstrated by this film. We jump on the side of Bronson against 'the system' for no sensible reason - only an emotional one. The system is never quantifiably revealed to be corrupt, there aren't any questioning elements of this film that put much effort towards to assessing who is right or wrong, Bronson or the system? After all, yes, Peterson never killed anyone, but he was a major dick. He's like the kid in class who never does nothing particularly bad, maybe just talk to his friends and not do the work, but when he's called upon by the teacher, manages to cause the most catastrophic scenes. He claims that 'everyone else was doing it', that he's being picked on, this, that and so on. But, in doing so, the kid disrupts the lesson, grows angry, ends up being thrown out of class, hurling chairs as he goes, probably swearing at the teacher, ending up in the head teacher's office... it goes on. But, ask any of the onlookers in the classroom who is wrong, the teacher or student, you'd likely get the finger pointed towards the kid. Yes, the teacher may have been picking on him, but why did he force the escalation, why not just say, ok? In the same respect, yes, Bronson served record-breaking stretches in solitary confinement, and this, when presented with the exclamatory "I never even killed anyone", seems inhuman, but, if you were the guard or 'the system' dealing with him... I'm sure you'd see him as a deserving dick.

The subtextual relationship between ourselves and Bronson as a character is then there to comment on how easy it is for us to be tricked onto the side of the anti-hero. However, this part of Bronson's characterisation is neither there to glorify his misdemeanors or to shit on us, the audience, it's there to comment on a wider disconnect all people have. To expand on this point we'll have to appeal to the second crux of Bronson's character, the idea that he not only sees himself as 'not, bad, bad' but also more than deserving of fame, that star on the Hollywood walk of fame. This part of Bronson is not there to show him as crazy, self-centric and delusional, it's instead there to comment on his anti-heroisms. In other words, Bronson expects more from the world than he is allowed, then he is given. We see this paradigm of human thinking echoed best in the simple idea of modern politics. Under democratic systems people are led to believe that they matter. With concepts such as representative government, voting and so on, this idea of individual worth is bound to a collective worth, but with very loose ties. What I'm then talking about is the fact that everyone has ideas of how they'd like to be living, how they'd like their country to be run. When you get into this realm of politics with the average person, you delve into some of the most pointless conversation you will ever have. I'm not critiquing the average person and their political literacy here (I know nothing of politics and am not at all interested in it). I'm instead pointing out the fact that everyone wants change, everyone has ideas, but almost just for the sake of it. This aspect of human behavior, of wanting something just because, is inherent in almost everything we do. Why is there science, why are there movies, why do laptops, the internet and so on exist? There is no reason for this tantamount to questions of why we eat, sleep and reproduce. We eat, sleep and reproduce because life has this insatiable tendency to want to carry on. When it comes to almost everything else about society (art, technology, culture) we are seeing an evolutionary expression of this basic drive, but one that is convoluted and not directly needed. In other words, we could live without it.

To expand, everything people do is to survive - and all people are irrevocably selfish for this reason. There's two forms of human survival. The first is surviving as the individual. This idea encompasses the crucial and most obvious forms of continuing life; eating, sleeping, reproducing, staying safe and so on. From this need to survive as a singular unit comes a need to use other people. to appeal to the herd. This is because a lone wolf often has the hardest time staying alive for long. And so, from this appeal to the herd come the second form of human survivor: surviving as a collective. It's from this incentive that we get ideas such as culture, art, love, communication... all the 'higher' and very 'human' things we do. Art, love and such are a product of needing to survive as a collective because they are a form of communicating our personage to others. In other words, surviving as a group ensures you have people around you that will, A, help to fight off the tiger when it comes prowling, or, B, hopefully get munched on before you do, giving you that chance to run away. It's in this that you see how the central crux of our human instinct to live is in the preservation of self. And so from this we see the selfish core of everything we do. From here you may be expecting an optimistic turn with an aphoristic 'however', but the fact is that all human behaviour can be broken down into this paradigm of survival. All we do is survive, all we do is selfish. This is not a bad thing, it's not the end of the world, it's just how things are. However, recognising this truth does make life a little clearer and that's why I mention it. We have this self-centric expression as the core reason for why we get along with Bronson, why we think the system is the ultimate antagonist. We like the tangible, the comprehensible, the things that if we can't control, we can at least get along side of. 'The system' is not one of these things for it is an idea - and that's why we take Bronson's side when presented with the 'us v them' dichotomy. Furthermore, it's this self-centric look at life that blinds us from our existential extravagance. People think so much of themselves, of the world around them, of the way we should be living. Because of this, we develop concepts such as laws, human rights, politics, society, science, art and so on. What this distracts us from is the basic goal in life: survival. We, as a species, stop wanting this basic desire centuries, probably millennia, ago. We don't just want to survive... you know the cliche... we want to live.

There is a lot more you can delve into with this perspective of human behaviour, but, in respect to Bronson, what this all points towards is his reasoning for everything he does. He is the asshole kid who fights the system, who causes things to escalate constantly, who makes trouble for himself for no sensible reason because he has this existentially grandiose picture of himself and the world around him. This...


... is then the most poignant image of the film. The sight of Peterson in his cage, having just been shut off from all the calamity he's caused, waiting to start up some more trouble, is the most poetic and human thing about his character. It's his waiting that reveals everything incomprehensible about his behavior. Bronson knows he's only adding years onto his sentence, he knows that for every moment he spends fighting prison guards comes months in solitary confinement. But, he does it nonetheless. With this image, we are seeing a naughty kid just told of by his parents being sent to his room. We've all been that kid, we've all been sent to our room, put on the naughty step or in the corner, had our toys, our games, our phones, taken away, we've all been grounded. For a kid, this is, as we all know, crushing. And for most of us, when we get near that mark, when we can see punishment coming to the horizon, we stop the stupid shit we're doing out of fear. It's the fear of being stuck in our room, looking out at all the other kids playing that essentially conditions us against being naughty. However, with Bronson, this concept does not resonate. For him, being put in that room is a punishment he's happy to take just so he can spend a moment in the sun being an absolute asshole.

From here we could cap things off by seeing a comment on celebrity. We could choose to see Bronson's choice as something tantamount to a celebrity releasing a sex tape--sorry, having one leaked--or a reality TV star being a reality TV star, just to reap the monetary rewards, just for their 15 minutes of fame. But, we can't forget here that we empathise with Bronson, that he appeals to our commonalities through ideas of 'the system' as well as personal worth. Just a Bronson sees the world as unfair, something worth constantly lashing out at, we often, on a much more introverted level, do the same things. Whilst Bronson punches prison guards, we moan about their metaphorical equivalence. This yet again highlights the fundamental crux of the film. It's all about a societal disconnect driven by an individual focus on oneself, driven by an existential pretension we hold around ourselves. This, quite ironically, connects us all, but also speaks most poignantly of an overwhelmingly confounding question of why? Yes, we can affirm that we do everything to survive as part of the group or for the individual purpose, but, why? Why do we work ourselves into personal prisons by not accepting the world around us, by refusing to 'devolve' into a minimalist way of life? Why do we choose to evolve and progress to the point of causing ourselves more issues? Would it not make more sense for us not to be conscious, just apart of the food chain, a vessel for the universal passing of atoms from one state to another? Why, why, why, why, why? Why am I throwing such unanswerable questions at you?

The obvious answer to all of this is 'what the fuck do I know?' And I suppose that's the only answer worth giving in respect to this essay. We see these set of questions posed to us through Bronson via the nihilist, almost anarchistic meandering of character and narrative. And such is the beauty of the film at its best. It speaks to us of a universal anomaly of our character that no one seems to be able to account for. Bronson pokes at the fleshy disconnect between ourselves and the world around us, one created by our own perception, one made insurmountable by the same construct.

To find out why Bronson is apart of the Virtue Series, pick up Virtue's Ploy for free off of Amazon now...



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