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Fiction rant: Convenient executions
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
A recent post by jducouer about "things that bug him in movies" reminded me that I have a rant I've been meaning to post for a while. Not movies (usually), but very common in serialized fiction of all formats (TV, comics, etc.): The Convenient Execution.

Setup: Good Guy (or Gal) of Long Standing has a run-in with Bad Guy of Unusual Vileness (not a recurring villain). After one or more tough fights, GG has BG at his (or her) mercy. Typically this involves GG holding a loaded gun at BG, but other variants occur -- the important factor is that GG now has the option to use deadly force against BG. Moreover, GG has been sufficiently provoked that the audience thinks there is a reasonable chance that GG will actually *use* deadly force. However, just before Good Guy (maybe) pulls the trigger, Bad Guy instead gets killed by either:
a) Another Bad Guy (typically this one *is* a recurring character)
b) An Act of God
c) Himself

This is, to my mind, a really cheap way of trying to have their cake and eat it too. Everybody in the audience gets to enjoy the Unusually Vile Bad Guy getting a deserved death. Pacifists get to be happy that the Good Guy has no blood on their hands. People who wish that the Good Guy took a more active role can tell themselves that Good Guy *would* have pulled the trigger, given another few seconds.

To me, the interesting question here is "Will this Good Guy kill?" And the Convenient Execution *raises* that question, but completely fails to answer it. Answering it (one way or the other) would make for (IMNAAHO) a much stronger story -- but one that might have undesirable consequences for the ongoing franchise. After all, the very nature of such serialized fiction is that it depends on unanswered questions for much of its interest. Something that the Producers of "Lost" are clearly quite aware of... but that's a rant for another time :)

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We have this problem all the time, from a choreographic point of view. The classic example is Cyrano. In the script, Cyrano says "I'm gonna fight for x many lines, then kill you." And he does. But a modern audience is in danger here of disliking Cyrano - Valvert is obviously no threat to him, and we just met both characters, so executing the BG just to show off seems a little callous for a GG.
This gets solved lots of different ways. Sometimes C just wounds V, sometimes he cuts off his suspenders or something equally embarassing. Sometimes he lets V go, and just as he is finishing the poem, V tries a final cheating stab in the back and C kills him in 'self defense'.

See, I consider "I had to kill him -- it was self-defense!" an equally cheesy path out of this moral dilemma. It seemed like every 80s action movie ended this way....the hero, bruised and battered, is *forced*, you see, to kill the bad guy; the pity.

For me, bug-eyed unreality is now "every fight scene ever". Act I: the bad guy acts tough. Act II: Our hero gets bloodied. Act III: the hero pulls out some magical crap and wins. YAWN. As someone once said, in real life, you generally don't "stage a comeback" from a solid kick to the head or vitals...

"It was pity that stayed his hand... pity he ran out of bullets."

In the script, Cyrano says "I'm gonna fight for x many lines, then kill you." And he does.

It's not necessarily as clear as that. He says he will "touche" the vicomte (as in "touché!"), which might mean kill him, or might just mean get in a game-winning blow. When he does end the ballade by "touching" him, the stage directions say (along with the eruption of applause, handkerchieves, flowers, etc.) "Les amis du vicomte le soutiennent et l'emmènent": "The viscount's friends hold him up and lead him off." "L'emmènent" *could* mean "carry him off [dead]", but taken together with the general celebration I really think he's wounded at worst. jdulac would know more about fencing conventions of the period than I do, but remember that the play was written in 1897, a time much closer to ours in terms of audience expectations about this sort of thing.

Maybe someone comes back in later and says that he's dead. Now that I've got the book out, I'll happily indulge in this excuse to re-read the play.

The ambiguity continues. The next day (Act II), Roxane is talking to Cyrano and refers to him "checkmating" and "punishing" Valvert ("fait mat" and "châtiant"), which on the one hand could be consistent with killing him but on the other doesn't conclusively prove it. More convincing, to me, is back in Act I after the duel, when Le Bret tells Cyrano about all the new enemies he made that evening, and counts the viscount among that number - a strange way of putting it if he's dead.

I'm only halfway through Act III (the balcony scene), but it's time for bed. My tentative conclusion: *I* don't think the duel was to the death, but anyone who wants to believe it was is allowed to. However, if they then complain that that makes it hard to like Cyrano, they have only themselves (or their translator) to blame.

Oh, you, with your french-reading ways... we single-language folks have to make do with a translation, of which my favorite is the Hooker. Hooker has him saying 'Then, as I end the refrain, thrust home'. Also, the last stanza of the verse says 'Prince, pray God that is lord of all/pardon your soul for your time has come.'

It is not at all clear that the Vicomte LeBret mentions is Valvert.

Roxanne is glad that the duel happened because DeGuiche would have 'forced that man upon me as a husband'. If he is still alive, why would she put that in the past tense?

But even if he simply wounds him, that is still a bit of a problem, for the same reason as killing him would be. And, of course, even if Valvert's friends lead him off, a puncture of the body cavity is likely to prove fatal within a few days...

Yeah...its dangerous though. Every time I start looking for something specific in Cyrano, I just read it all the way through again... Best play ever written in the English language...and it wasn't even written in the English language.

I usually find this trite, especially in series. It tends to get used to further villify the big bad guy, or minorly conflict the good guy. The best use is the suicide pill used to display the fanaticism of bad guys inc. That I can handle, even if it is somewhat predictible. I guess the more intentional the death, the better.

Have you seen the film 15 Minutes? It's disturbing and I don't know if it's good, but it definitely takes on the issue of will you pull the trigger? Interesting consequences, too.

[Alexx checks IMDB...]

Nope haven't seen it. Sounds interesting, though. And kestrell might be interested from a media studies angle.

Yeah, it is an interesting view for media studies. I caught it for the Czech actor that plays the bad guy. It's upsettingly gritty and takes a few unexpected turns that actually sort of made me long for a hollywood-ized version.

It's effective, but I'm not sure it's good.

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