Friday, June 27, 2008

A Device That Must Be Retired Post Haste.

Last night I saw a perfectly good performance of John Kolvenbach's Love Song. Being Wellington theatre, there was a fair fistful of gesticulatory "the director wishes us to communicate that he has in fact read this script and even given us annotations thereon" carryon, but apart from that... sparkling dialogue, heartfelt characterisation, class act almost all the way.

(Once I picked up the box for a really dire looking serial killer movie. The blurb mentioned that there was a killer known only as "Alone" terrorising the city. The blurb went on to say that only the bright, vivacious protagonist named Enola had a hope of catching the killer. "Enola". Fucking honestly).

But that's not what we're here to talk about. What we're here to talk about is how two-thirds of the way through Love Song, there is a really beautiful scene, just two people sharing a chair and talking and managing to make it rather amazingly beautiful... and then something happens that turns the whole plot on its head. Reality is shockingly twisted in a way I couldn't possibly spoil for you, except of course that I'm about to do just that.

(Secret Window is about an author, because it's a Steven King story. But it's also about a man who turns out to have split personality disorder - DID, or as it's sometimes called MPD, or as it's sometimes incorrectly called Schizophrenia, or as it's sometimes called in movies A Thing That Real Psychiatrists Don't Think It Laughably Ridiculous To Even Entertain The Suggestion Of. Isn't the possibility that John Turturro IS real more terrifying than the third act of this movie?)

But let's have a show of hands. If I tell you that Love Song is about a mildly intellectually stunted shut-in and his succesful sister; and I tell you that one day said shut-in meets a beautiful and terrifying woman who against all odds is immensely attracted to him; and if I tell you that this woman's presence in the shut-in's apartment invigorates the shut-in's life so utterly that his waves of joy ripple all the way out to rejuvinating the sister's marriage and all those he comes into contact with; and if I tell you that the shut-in is the only one who shares scenes with said woman... what do you think might be the SHOCKING TWIST?

(The Machinist has an antagonist that only the protagonist can see. It bills itself as "Fight Club meets Memento". It seriously expects us to be surprised when the protagonist turns out to have forgotten much of his past, including the identity of the mysterious antagonist that nobody else has seen. Also, "Trevor Reznick"? What, Nine Inch Nails was busy mixing his sixth album of the year and couldn't be bothered acting in your stupid movie?)

Yes, indeed, the shocking twist in Love Song that elevates it from wry observational dramedy to full-blown bust-yer-mind-wide-open social text is the revelation that the retard's lover is not real. At which point it goes from being immensely engaging and deftly written to making me want to tear my fucking hair out.

Oh, don't get me wrong: it doesn't lose its tension. There is intended to be tension surrounding the possible nonreality of this character, and there indeed is, tension for Africa. However it's not the tension intended - "could she really be an hallucination, and what would this mean for our poor suffering lunkhead?" - because it's not diegetic tension. No, when a writer in this modern age dredges up the tres-swish "imaginary friend/enemy" character, the tension is promptly shoved offstage and left to linger in the space between stage and audience: we're not worried about the characters, we're worried that we've just invested an hour and considerable emotional reserves in yet another iteration of the same story that we've heard a billion times before. We're worried that our time, money and effort have been sunk into a handful of magic beans. We're wondering if we could possibly summon the energy to go along with this, in the vain hope that this might be the first work this century to reuse the Figment of the Imagination device in such a way as to tell us anything remotely new or interesting about ourselves or the characters or the world.

And then we have to sit through the characters acting like this is at all surprising or novel, this notion that any post-millennial narrative trading largely on its own winkedy-fucking-wink cleverness apparently has to contain a character who's basically Norman Bates with a negotiable degree of murderousness. We have to decide whether to sit and compose lists of narratives that could've contained Figment of Imagination characters but ostensibly didn't (the girl in Rambo 2, the brother in There Will be Blood, Anton Chigurh as Hyde to Llewellyn Moss' Jekyll) or try and follow the narrative in the hope that it will go anywhere interesting.

But it won't, because they never do. The themes are always the same: oohh, identity, malleability of image, oohh, the fragility of superficial veneers, oohh, compartmentalisation and invented personalities to say the things we can't say. Yes, yes, the modern world is a harsh place, and with all these Segways and Walmart greeters and Dick Cheney it's little wonder one personality isn't enough for the broken or ingenious among us to become self-actualised. Oh my, trenchant. Fuck off.

I humbly suggest that from this point on, any work in which "and then (s)he turns out to be a figment of the protagonist's imagination" is a major plot twist, ought to have said twist ruined as loudly and early as possible, and see how many of them survive without their fucking clever reversal. Hop to it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

You Don't Mess With the Zohan, or On Healing The Hurt

Adam Sandler has big aims with You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that his goal for the work is nothing less than bringing about peace in the Middle East.

Picture this: a group of Israeli and Palestinian stereotypes, some of them white Americans in crude brownface, stand airing their differences. It’s pointed out that Americans dislike all of them equally; the crowd erupts into laughter, a character pointing out (in exaggerated raspy
accent), “well, we do all look the same!”

You start to wonder if Sandler, eminent humorist though he is, may be doing this particular cause more harm than good.

Oh, certainly, his depiction of the immigrant experience as a disheartening, humourless grind of nauseating humiliation may give bigots pause before they toss jibes at the next Middle Eastern
expatriate to cross their path; after all, one of those expatriates might be a cocoa-buttered-up Rob Schneider, and if we as a society can agree on one thing, it’s that Rob Schneider is not to be laughed at.

And his choice to give the film’s cast of broad ethnic stereotypes a bizarre mixture of Spartans-esque reference-in-lieu-of-wit faux-humour and lame, outdated cultural callbacks (most of the film’s anti-Semite jabs use Mel Gibson as their punchline, in reference to an event that took place in 2006) is in keeping with the quietly tragic fish-out-of-water tone, which might be charitably dubbed “poor man’s Borat”.

The picture’s constant parade of misery wears on, however: 113 minutes feel like 130, so bereft are they of anything that might conceivably be called “a joke” or “humour”. Sandler and cowriter Judd Apatow have made a brave attempt at cultural change here, but should in the future stick to comedy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Leatherheads, or On The Auteur Theory (578th Revisiting)

There’s this very particular, rather charming animus at the centre of Leatherheads. It’s called George Clooney.

While the auteur theory immediately gets your correspondent’s hackles up – the notion that, say, Lord of the Rings tells us an immense amount about who Peter Jackson is would seem to do a disservice to the hundreds of skilled artisans behind that picture, and also to Mr. Jackson’s depth as a thinker – there are cases in which he must simply admit that, yes, this is a clear case of movie as product of one singular force personified. (An author, if you want to pretend like we can have this discussion without sounding like prats).

But what’s a pleasant surprise is when auteurs just out of nowhere manage to really impress themselves upon you, as Mr. Clooney has an increasing habit of doing.

(It’s worth noting that just because someone’s an auteur doesn’t necessarily make them much good: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, for instance, are definitely auteurs, but unfortunately they’re also obviously real dicks).

The self-aware dapper-Dan posturing, the wry tightrope act between suave and ridiculous, the unabashed alchemy of progressiveness and old-school chivalry: these are the things that suffuse the Clooney persona, and also form the essence of Leatherheads.

So there must, somewhere out there, be people who have little time for George Clooney and by extension will have little time for Leatherheads: those who will find it subtly smarmy and vaguely hollow and wonder why it insists on being both period sports-flick AND Renee Zellweger romcom; and who could, if they thought it through, level at least the first two charges by extension against Clooney himself.

But come to think of it, your correspondent has never met these people, and he suspects they might be dead inside.

[appears at Flicks]