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an email on The Life of David Gale

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This showed up in my email today, a rebuttal to my review of The Life of David Gale, which I rated as one of the two most unbearable films of 2003.

Anybody else here seen the film? What do you think of this?

I watched The Life of David Gale tonight on DVD and, as it was thought-provoking, decided to look for an online review. I found the movie troubling, at times poorly constructed, but ultimately intellectually titillating. You evidently do not share this view. I would just like to point out some of your comments or implications and try to shed a little more light on what this movie may have been about.

I am neither very well acquainted with the art of film-making or reviewing but here are some of my concerns as a film neophyte:

In the end, David Gale is as villainous as Keyser Soze, but the movie is too stupid to realize that.

David Gale is certainly a master of deception with a big, ugly epiphany following his departure, similar to Keyser Soze`s. But whereas the nuances of morality are never considered in the Usual Suspects, ethics and the crooked timber of humanity are some of the main themes of this movie. However, this movie is not mainly about moral positions. The message of the movie is not that the death penalty is evil per se and that David Gale and his confidantes are truly pure in their martyrdom. It is easily discerned that true martyrdom does not entail constructed suicide to enlighten the blind public. Nor is the message that, in the end, the death penalty is vindicated because activists themselves turn blind in their dogma and act immorally by deceiving the public, committing suicide, and causing unnecessary hardship despite their natural gifts, potential prospects, and room for human agency. We can neither take the ``saint`` image away from the screen nor the notion that the ends do not justify the means. This is not doing the however stupid film-makers justice.

The movie is not, in my opinion, too stupid to realize that the ending creates a moral dilemma that is more complex than the question of capital punishment. The movie tries to be very smart in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Puccini was overplayed and not subtle; the effect of hearing the tunes of Madam Butterfly as foreshadowing is rather numbing and fails to incorporate the art of music into film the way Kubrick did when celebrating Beethoven in Clockwork Orange. But beyond some of these sub-par techniques lies a more profound message which is introduced by mentioning an intellectual figure in Gale`s speech in the lecture hall: Lacan, the French structuralist, with his Freudian take on sexuality, the surreal and unreachable nature of the objects of fantasy, the paradox of the perceived freedom of will of a human vs the way in which his ultimate choices are shaped by his every-day surroundings, his society and the state apparatus.

We hear discussion about the non-existence of Truth since truth is constructed through various perspectives, which is challenged by the intern who claims that this assertion makes an instrinsic claim to validity, hence proving that there is some type of truth. But beyond these philological quarrels, we get to witness their application in this picture. This work is not nihilistic nor does it end up presenting a good guy vs bad guy scenario based on any conceivable morality. The best way for me to express what it does is by looking at Joseph Conrad (my favorite English, well Polish, author). In his tales, Conrad takes civilized people out of their institutionalized colonial societies, straps them of the belief in the safety of their surroundings, and places them in situations where they are confronted with pure, unmitigated savagery, primitive nature and primitive man. They mostly end up dying insignifcantly somewhere in the Belgian Congo or collecting the skulls of natives, but the point is that Alan Parker does the exactly the opposite but with the same effect. Parker places man into a society in which man is not free precisely because of the institutions that were founded to guarantee liberty, that he is ultimately contained by them, contingent upon the workings of a machine that man cannot control. Perhaps a bureaucracy that is impenetrable, social divides and dogmatic stances that are irreconcilable, and, ultimately, a death machine that, once in motion, is unstoppable. It is the cruely of society rather than the cruelty of man. And this cruelty is defined by the complexity of the interaction between an individual, the crowd, and those mechanisms that seem to be running indepedent of either.

The characters are driven to unlikely, if not incredible, actions in their plight for emancipation. They claim that they will achieve in death what they cannot achieve in life, but this claim is certainly undermined when we realize that their effort failed because the only reason an innocent man was convicted was because he constructed his own destruction. The movie maker clearly realizes that this adds another moral dimension and discredits the capital punishment opponent`s cause.  In this sense the movie is rather negative and flirts with nihilism, going back to truth as perspectives and lives led simultaneously as consituents and prisoners of a self-defeating social structure. So the questions raised are really about the significance of certain objects of life and the potential for change through our own choices. It is about the significance of sexual desire and the ability to ``heal our minds by means of the senses`` (Oscar Wilde). This was evident in the scene were sex was liberating Constance from her fear of death. It is about the ability we have to change anything, in life or in death, our freedom of choice, the (mental) curtailment of that freedom, and the strength of human will to try to break through that curtailment and all boundaries, not even stopping at suicide.  It is ultimately also about the realization that, as Immanuel Kant put it, ``out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.``The characters actions are bound to cause outrage because they are so imperfect and yet we are asked and perhaps drawn to sympathize with their plight. Lastly, it is human agency struggling with human fragility and human mortality. ``As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport" Shakespeare noted in King Lear. This is human mortality. Except God is replaced with more mundane, material, and yet sometimes intangible institutions of our society. And we realize that our crooked timber lets us struggle and cause change, however minor, and yet, our fabric is sometimes too flawed to endure. 

And while I can personally see elements ranging from Shakespeare, to Kant, to Oscar Wilde, and even Foucault, we can return to Lanac, the red herring of Alan Parker`s intellectual odyssey in film. Lanac highlighted the actual role of language, the challenges of communication and inter-textuality, which are presented visually in the Life of David Gale by the disparate and incomprehensibly extreme and superficial statements thrown on the screen in the form of one-second interview excerpts, the power and the internal power relations of the media, and the ultimate lack of comprehension for Bitsey Bloom, the U.S. public, the proponents and opponents, and the viewer at the close of the movie.

The movie is not a fable with a moral. It does not preclude any conclusion nor is it conclusive in any sense. The movie marks a beginning, an opening of a debate, the first inspiration for a longer thought process, and a deconstruction that is truly in the tradition of Western thought.

Perhaps the movie is too stupid to realize that subtle, complex, intertwined, (and admittedly somewhat unclear) film-making is not appreciated by hollywood-conditioned audiences. But it makes us think and challenge. Thats good enough for me.

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Hmmm, in cases like this, I sometimes wonder whether it's really the film itself that MAKES people think, or whether people who think a lot about certain things simply apply their viewing of the film to those thoughts.

FWIW, our original thread on this film, two message boards ago, is here.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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In my "10 Years Later" column, I revisit the film the film that is my go to answer for "what is the worst movie you've ever seen?"

The odd thing about the film’s politics is that it is offensively condescending to not only pro-death penalty advocates but to those who are against capital punishment as well. In one of the activists’ speeches, she argues the death penalty condemns the families of victims to hate. The implication is that nobody could have first hand associations with violent crime and be against the death penalty as a matter of principle. The moral superiority of Gale and his colleagues is established not just by virtue of the fact that they have the right position but that they are capable of having it.
Edited by kenmorefield

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10 years later, it's still the first title that springs to mind when anybody asks about "worst movies." Followed moments later by the long-time runner-up: Dreamcatcher.

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Exactly. I used to love this movie, back when I was younger in a lot of ways. Probably because it pretty much convinced me to hate the death penalty. But other than that it's manipulative, overbearing, titillating in the wrong way, and self righteous to the point of gagging.

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As I meditate on this revisiting, the film this reminds me of is, surprisingly, Habemus Papam.

Both think they are being shockingly controversial when they are only really being provoking (which is different from being provocative). Both depict a world that is supposed to be our world but is ignorant about (and largely unconcerned with) the way the people in its world actually think. Finally, both either end where they should begin or begin where they should have ended. A film where Gale and Harraway discuss their plan and how they delude themselves that it is a good/idealistic thing to do might be an interesting character study. A film where the world reacts (or doesn't) to this bizarre story (in an age of 24 hour "what's next?" news cycles) might be a bitterly ironic, cynical, cautionary tale. Instead the story that we get in both is the least interesting part of the story. Both end up being films developed around a pitch/idea but never really develop an actual story. In Gale's case it all about the reveal (which is different from being about the mystery) and parceling out bits of information while biding its time to hit you with its twist. It's amazing how little emotional impact the revelation has. If not for Kate Winslet biting her fist in horror, I wouldn't know I was supposed to be horrified;

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