Author’s Note: This article previously had referenced the depiction of rape in the film. It was poorly phrased in regards to how it was filmed and not the act of rape it self. Due to that, I have chosen to remove the reference entirely and I am sorry that it was included at all.
Depending on how you clock the start of cultural decades, the period known as the 90s began somewhere in late 1991 or early 1992. They never start on the actual first day of the decade. There’s always remnants from the previous decades bleeding through and staining the edges. Shortwave transmissions from a dying star.
We’re then within thirty years since the dawn of the 90s as we know it. I don’t have a problem with nostalgia. Reflecting on the past and wanting to revel in the things we subjectively believe were great isn’t inherently dangerous or crass. It’s part and parcel for commercialism and pop culture. We buy anniversary editions for the bonus content or cool packaging. There’s a host of collectibles that we know sell because there’s an evident market for it. We will still watch content created from those times because we like it and we enjoy it, so let’s not feel like we have to chastise ourselves for purity in the eyes of other nerds on the internet who scoff at any notion of enjoying things, let alone for just liking something without much thought.
Then again, I like to think about why I like something. I like to find a root, if any, as to why I like something. And why I might like something from the 90s is more rooted in that being the period I grew up and came of age. My memories are stained with the colors of snap bracelets, Warheads, and the blue raspberry syrup from my melted Slurpee.
I don’t know what my point is. I guess I needed a good lead-in for this article, which is about a very 90s film.
The Crow was released in 1994, directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City) and starred the late Brandon Lee in his final film role. It was based on the comic by James O’Barr, which was about a musician who, along with his girlfriend, is brutally murdered but is then brought back from the dead a year later to seek vengeance. I’ve not yet read the comic but I’ve watched the film countless times and love every minute of it. To me, it is slathered in a grime that just feels like the 90s. It’s dark, gritty, but also offbeat enough to not feel tiresome or tedious. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and you get the impression that they know what their movie is. This is a film that made it cool to be a goth again in the 90s. I don’t think The Crow would have had a chance if not for the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films. Both of those properties concern a dark and brooding hero who must throw himself into a sinister underworld of depravity, fighting for justice at the expense of the law. Also, there’s a lot of gothic imagery that helps to flesh out the aesthetic.
There’s something to the violence of films of the 90s. You can say it’s stylized, however that’s meant to be interpreted. What comes to mind when I hear “stylized” is “artfully shot.” I also think of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It would be easy enough to say that Tarantino revolutionized the way we see violence depicted in films, but I don’t want to say that. I’d rather say that his contribution to violence in films has been greater than others due to volume, but he was not alone.
The Crow is peppered with violence, but it’s cloaked in shadows. There’s a faint tint of blue to everything, making it all feel like a dream. It’s not gruesome, but still brutal. You do see wounds and blood, and we also have torture. The violence is not fun but it’s not unearned. Throughout the course of the film, you are watching someone who has come back from the dead getting revenge on those who cut short his life and the life of his fiancé. If that’s not a blank check for killing, then I’d change banks.
It is nearly impossible to mention The Crow and not touch on the loss of Brandon Lee. It’s a tragedy compounded by his age and the short body of work to his name, the potential he had and what could have been. His death impacted several lives, including that of Michael Massee, the actor who held the gun that was improperly loaded.
When the news broke of an accidental shooting death of a crew member on the set of Rust, thoughts turned to Brandon Lee and conversations of responsibility renewed. The problem is that fault is not a straight line pointing to the person responsible. It’s a tangled string wrapped around various points of accountability, and the person solely at fault pulls the others down for cover. But we know that negligence is not a cover, so once you pull the thread you find that the knots are poorly tied and incredibly loose and soon you can drag the line back to the source.
Negligence is often at the root of many a tragedy, and yet it’s no excuse for when the finger gets pointed. To be negligent is to presume carelessness, but I think it is also borne of arrogance and ignorance. You’re arrogant of the rules and procedures that you are expected to follow. You are ignorant of the consequences should you not follow the rules.
Strange it is, then, that in one particular scene, the inadvertent swipe of a finger points to the consequences waiting to be served to the arrogant and the ignorant.
The Scene In Question
The scene itself is so brief and fleeting that you don’t really think too much about it when it plays out. I didn’t notice it until recently. It caught my eye and I had this immediate realization at how well framed it is and how it draws a connection between the characters in the story.
Upon entering Trash, the local music club that also serves as the base of operations for crime lord Top Dollar, hired goon T-Bird (played with all the usual subdued menace we expect from David Patrick Kelly) walks past a wall of framed band photos, memorializing all those who have played this venue. While doing so, he lets a finger slide across one of the photos, and he does so with such nonchalance you wouldn’t think it was intentional nor was he aware of which band photo he drew this imaginary line through: Hangman’s Joke, the band of formerly deceased Eric Draven.
It’s brief yet powerful when the camera cuts to a close-up of the band photo and you see Draven’s face immortalized behind the frame. It of course cuts deeper to how entangled are the lives of all the players in this tragedy. You realize that at some point before the night of the prior year’s events each of these people would have crossed paths. You would have to figure that Draven and his band would have had some interaction if not with Top Dollar, but perhaps his right-hand man Grange, though it isn’t likely either of them handle booking. Still, you get the feeling that someone would recognize the other or have a passing familiarity. It never does occur to anyone later in the film who Draven truly is beyond having returned from the dead. T-Bird recognizes him only once he’s bound by duct tape to the seat of his car and suddenly understands the brutality of his fate.
It makes me think about how intimate our worlds are. Expanding beyond this little scene, we know too that T-Bird’s gang passes through the rest of Draven’s past life, with Funboy being involved with Sarah’s mother, Darla. Again, lives overlap between different worlds and connections appear less random.
We’re drawn to find patterns in things to make sense of the world. To apply logic to the chaotic and bring order to everything. Things have to happen for a reason, they can’t just happen, but sometimes things happen for reasons that won’t make sense. And often those things happen in ways that aren’t so random but are coincidental to a degree.
There’s no greater punctuation to the scene other than the incidental and innocuous finger swipe, but it reframes the relationship between all parties.
It’s very apt that I resurrect Scene Dissections by discussing a film about returning from the dead.
I really do love this film the more I watch it. I would like to see a return to this type of comic book film in this decade. As much as I love the MCU films, those are definitely polished and while I don’t think we need to return to grimdark/dark & gritty superhero films, there’s opportunity for presenting flawed heroes and not just anti-heroes or real bastards (I think we’re well done with those types). The Batman looks like it might strike that chord based on the trailers and even Robert Pattison’s own words about the Caped Crusader.
The Crow might be an overlooked pop cultural gemstone or turning point in depicting comic characters in film that couldn’t be sustained, but I think it gets the recognition it deserves in the larger conversation around comic adaptations. I know, that sounds incongruous but that’s probably the most apt way to describe it. It’s a film that they’ve attempted to build a franchise around but each subsequent story was just a derivative of the original and not worth exploring. I don’t think it can be remade, either. It’s legacy is too fragile to withstand an attempt but it’s also a “of its time” story, too. So while I think the time is right to replicate what The Crow did for comics films, it’s not right to remake it specifically.
A Preview of Coming Attractions
My plan with this feature is to publish one article every other month, in between Pop Optics articles. I have a draft for the next entry in the works, so I will introduce a new section to these articles that includes a related clip.
Folks, for the next Scene Dissections, we travel to the glorious year of 1995 for a film set in the future world of…1999? That can’t be right. Anyway, I’ll be dissecting Virtuosity.