Monday, January 21, 2013

The Crow

I've seen The Crow so many times that I never need to watch it again. I've internalized it. It's a part of me.

It is a beautiful film. There isn't anything like it, beyond Alex Proyas' follow up Dark City. It also carries an extra edge because the film's star, Brandon Lee, died making it in a horrific shooting accident. Fourteen-year-old me was a martial arts movie nut. I'd been studying shotokan karate for a year or two and I became one of those white kids who wore Bruce Lee tee-shirts. I'd seen Brandon Lee's big premiere Rapid Fire and I was excited to see what else he could do. I was devastated when I heard what happened. I bought every magazine covering the story, from People Magazine to Black Belt, and I devoured every scrap of information on what happened, as if information could provide control over grief. By the end, I came to the conclusion that it was a dislodged shell casing propelled by the gunpowder from a blank, plus it was the dark juju from a film featuring such dark subject matter, plus it was the secret masters of the martial arts world getting revenge on the Lee family for Bruce introducing martial arts secrets to the world.

The Crow came along during the right time of my life. I was really into horror and the occult. I was creeping into my goth phase. I had a headful of fairy tales, an angsty heart, no sense of scale or irony, and a mean streak fused with an adolescent's desperate desire to be loved.

The movie is a fairy tale. After a couple are murdered for nebulous reasons involving fighting tenant evictions and slum lords, the boyfriend comes back as a half-insane revenant. Guided by his spirit-crow, he butchers his assailants more-or-less effortlessly before returning to the grave with his angelic girlfriend. It's a story of True Love. Eric and Shelly are Meant To Be Together and they can't rest until he Puts The Wrong Things Right.

I'm not entirely sure when the film is supposed to take place but I assume it's one of those five minutes in the future kind of things. The Detroit in the film can't exist in real life. It's always night and the city is almost pure obsidian. Everything is wet and dirty and broken. The people are either junkies or sociopathic thrill killers or Ernie Hudson. The crime lord behind it all reminds me less of Scarface and more of the myth-speaking douchey yoga teachers in my neighborhood. In other words, it's stylized beyond reality. It creates a world of its own and works brilliantly within its own context. In a weird way, The Crow is an inversion of the Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy, which is another neo-noir set in its own unique world.

It's impossible not to be on Eric Draven's side. He's a walking raw nerve. He can brutalize a corrupt pawn broker and heal a junkie's poisoned body. He's pain and rage and empathy incarnate. At his most insane, he reminds me of Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. There's a scene where Draven interrupts a gang meeting looking for his last victim. When the Amazing Interracial Gang cut him in two, he recovers and massacres the room to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult's song "After The Flesh." Midway through the massacre he stops, picks up a sword, and says "you're all going to die" in a dead man's ice-cold voice. It thrilled me in a way I can only describe as visceral.

Yet, as influential as the movie was to my younger self, I I think I outgrew it.

The big issue I have with the movie is the whole idea of True Love. Eric and Shelly were perfect in every way. We see less than five minutes of their entire relationship and it consists of them being adorable, her smiling down on him like an angel, and the pair of them goofing around with masks and burned food. We never see them disagree or doubt or fight. In other words, we never see them act like two human beings in a real relationship. These days, I think it's interesting how we never really learn anything about Shelly. She's a cypher. She exists to be perfect, to be raped and murdered, and to be the ideal that inspires an ultimately horrible massacre. She isn't a person, she's a statue on a pedestal.

I don't have a lot of patience for avengers these days. There's always something patriarchal about them. You sullied my woman/family and took them away from me, so I have a man's right to do whatever horrible thing I want to in order to avenge it. I'm also too old for fairy tales. I'm too old for simplicity. "True love" doesn't exist. Real love is lumpy and complicated and painful because people are lumpy and complicated and painful, but there's an authentic beauty in that fragility. It has more weight because it has more humanity.

If I were rewriting the screenplay of The Crow, I'd make it abundantly clear that it wasn't Eric Draven running around in the tragedy mask. Eric Draven remains moldering in the ground. The thing moving through the city butchering people is an idea, a figment, and it commits atrocity because it's a broken thing created by pain. In other words, it's a slightly more noble version of the girl from The Ring.

I am looking forward to the remake, if it ever actually comes into being. There's a lot of meat on these bones. Grief and anger are central human emotions and, in many ways, The Crow is one of the purer revenge stories. Because Eric Draven is unliving and insane, he is Vengeance Incarnate. There's a line in the comic that always stuck with me (yeah, I know the comic is significantly different) where he asks a person if he sees Eric's smile. It's sad and evil. Sad because he's utterly alone. Evil because he's dead and he still moves. You see? A dead man visits you.