Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Why? 'Cuz It's the American Fuckin' Way, Ya Dumb Fuckin' Goy

 directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill,
Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler


The Martin Scorsese of our current era — satiated by accomplishment, vindicated by long-overdue recognition — has lost the sense of alienation that allowed him to tap into the antisocial rage of a Travis Bickle or a Jake La Motta. Clearly, the former seminary student who burst out of NYU with a map of the Big Apple's back alleys and tenements, and a camera to match his jittery intensity, is long gone. The tortured Catholic who pondered the wages of sin in Mean Streets cashed it in ages ago. The gutter Expressionist who made Travis Bickle's cab a mobile confessional booth drifting wraith-like through the streets of Sodom died prior to Goodfellas. Today's Scorsese — the elder statesman who's risen in the wake of his younger self to collect an Oscar and shill for Apple and American Express — has made his peace with the whores, the skunk pussies, the buggers, the queens, the fairies, the dopers. Holding his hand to the flame of hellfire no longer causes him to recoil.

And he knows we're no different from him: we've always been a little wet between the legs for gangsters and bad boys.


It's why we admire the balls on a guy like Jordan Belfort, the Wall Street scam artist who started his own brokerage firm and made millions defrauding chumps like us before the Feds closed in and sent him to hobnob with Tommy Chong for twenty-two months of a four-year sentence. We listen to the stabs at contrition made by an older, supposedly wiser Belfort — "You make all this money but there's nothing attached to it," he says now — and we smile. We smile because we recognize the song-and-dance of a born bullshitter being trotted out for his media-mandated image rehab. We smile because we know that the faux-penitence that has the world believing that Jordan Belfort is a changed man is no different from the honey-throated con job that massaged $100 million dollars out of investors' pockets. We smile because we know that a criminal's essential nature is immutable, all-consuming and in constant need of nourishment; that, at heart, Jordan Belfort remains every ounce the bad-boy gangster of white-collar crime getting over on gullible WASP America while blowing nose candy up whores' pimply asses and rubber-legging on Quaaludes.

And we smile because Belfort's life trajectory from con man to con man now gets silver-screen immortalization with the twinkle-eyed insouciance of Leonardo DiCaprio to bring the macher from Queens to life. It's the ultimate in Hollywood flattery, of course, and it's exactly how we want our bloodletters and reprobates served up to us.


Appropriately, The Wolf of Wall Street, with its tits-and-debauchery update of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, is no more a Scorsese morality play than Casino's giddily-rendered nuts-and-bolts of how the Vegas Mob skimmed a fortune off the mortgage payments that Joe Q. Wonderbread dropped on blackjack. It's no more a cautionary tale than Goodfellas' two-and-a-half hours of Henry Hill on a keyed-up high of fuck-you-taxpaying-schnooks untouchability. It's tempting, naturally, to think that Scorsese's operating with some larger purpose in mind here — that the hand behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is now sculpting some grand statement for the ages out of Wolf's three hours of pill-popping and dwarf-tossing and workplace slut-banging and Swiss money-smuggling and gay butler-thrashing and goldfish-swallowing and lunatic comedy-of-excess that raw-dogs your brain's pleasure center into pure bathroom-skank bliss before pulling out and ejaculating liquid cocaine all over it. But he isn't.

There's no "larger point" to the hookers trotted out and conference room-fucked for our delight as DiCaprio's voice-over compares them, based on their level of attractiveness, to different types of stocks. There's no slow-burn satirical jab lurking behind Belfort's blasé acknowledgment of a former employee's suicide before leapfrogging onto another subject as if he'd just mentioned the weather. During the demented Jerry Lewis routine of Belfort struggling to maneuver himself into a car after 'ludes have turned his muscles to jelly — or during the slapstick that follows, as Belfort decimates everything in sight on his drive home, and wrestles with his equally-zonked right-hand man to get him off a phone line that he's just learned has a tap on it — there's not a single moment where we're allowed to do anything as destructive to the mood as pausing to ask, "What does this all add up to?"


This is Wall Street, after all: a bullshit factory where nothing is tangible, where numbers float through the air like dust mites; where "fortunes" are pulled from the ass of a given moment and sustained with nothing more than some missing scruples and a flair for seduction. As the senior broker played by Matthew McConaughey (in a gonzo, instantly-quotable cameo) tells the greenhorn Belfort: all they do is create the illusion of money for their clients and keep that illusion afloat — keep it from becoming something a client can close his hands around. A moment's pause, a second's worth of doubt, and reality turns it all back into dust. Scorsese bulldozed through the Mob narrative of Goodfellas with the bracing arrogance of a Gambino soldier out to break heads first and collect debts second; likewise, he orchestrates the drug rush of Wolf's Cecil B. DeMille circus for adults by adopting Belfort's reflection-is-the-enemy-of-success forward drive and stunted ethical growth as his own. The narrative takes the shape of whichever of Belfort's mindsets it's poured into: preening and cocksure when Belfort's tossing C-notes into his wastebasket and guiding us through his servant-filled mansion; giddy and lilting during Belfort's "honeymoon phase" with Naomi, the stunning shiksa peach he plucks from another man's tree and ditches his wife for; slower-paced and absent Scorsese's fondness for wall-to-wall music — numbed by its own length, really — as a sober Belfort sags under the weight of FBI aggression and faces the idea of having to walk away from his crooked empire.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street a great film then? Rapper MC Lyte once commented about an album of hers, "I have no messages because I've learned that sometimes people don't take too kindly to rappers preaching to them. So I gave people what they want: fat-ass beats, fat-ass lyrics, and no substance at all." MC Marty Mart would now appear to be on the same page as the former Lana Moorer, having increasingly — in the years since Goodfellas — capitulated in that eternal trade-off between the long-lasting richness of art and the fast-food approbation of commerce.


It's not that he's suddenly churning out pablum with "no substance." But the progression from Casino to The Departed to Wolf has seen him crafting triumphs of scope rather than depth — thinning out his examinations of the roots and the social impact of criminality for the sake of an all-too-comfortable formula: that staccato-toned, rat-a-tat-rhythmed, coke-rush journey through the easy money, easy women and predestined marriage meltdowns of whatever real-life crime figures he's using as a conduit for his lapsed Catholic's infatuation with the Devil. It's a journey that announces itself as A Martin Scorsese Picture™ from its first Stones-colliding-into-Muddy-Waters-scored frame; in its every alpha male-worshiping explosion of lovingly detailed violence in lieu of the vivisection of tortured psyches at which his earlier films proved so adept. It's a formula Scorsese rationalizes away in interviews with lofty-sounding, chronicler-of-the-human-condition platitudes that state, "These men are only human; we're all human. Who knows what you or I would have done if we'd been in their shoes?"

Yet, it wasn't hard times that caused Scorsese's Henry Hill to take a job at a Mob-run cabstand, setting rival taxi operations ablaze and unloading hijacked cigarettes. It wasn't a need for survival that led his Ace Rothstein to illegally skim casino profits for the benefit of Kansas City wiseguys. Nor was it a lack of options in life that set his Nicky Santoro on the path to jewel heists, ink-pen stabbings and eyeball-poppings via vise grip. What the men in Scorsese's fantasias of bad-ass gangsterism do requires the overriding by naked greed of all sense of ethics, of any fealty to notions of family or God or community. It requires a very specific, very conscious choice — a choice your average Joe on the block is neither morally nor psychologically capable of making, no matter how strong his disdain for a society that expects him to wait in line at the bakery and work shitty jobs for bum paychecks. 


Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull knew their protagonists were perpetual dwellers on the fringes of everyday life; Scorsese bridged the gap between them and us with a direct line inside his characters' heads — via voice-overs, via their journal entries and conversations with themselves, via an aesthetic that let us process the world around them from their highly charged, almost druggy perspectives. Now, though, Scorsese makes his films from the spectators' perch. Vis-à-vis his oft-stated assumption of universality, Scorsese's crime epics suggest that a will to brutality and a thirst for material comforts at any cost are so intrinsic to the American character that little why is needed behind their breakneck documenting of the what, the how and the when.

Not even the how of it all is allowed to penetrate Wolf's framework. Hoping for a detailed Casino-esque breakdown of the steps by which Belfort profited from peddling worthless penny stocks to John Q. Workingstiff? Twice in Wolf, DiCaprio pauses on the cusp of an explanation only to flash us his I-just-fucked-your-girlfriend smirk and tell us that the nuts and bolts don't matter. Fond of the way that Goodfellas tarnished the charisma of its wiseguys with spur-of-the-moment whackings and corpses stumbled upon by kids? No such perspective here. Beyond the implications of a rather cannily staged shot in which Belfort's flipping-off of some unsuspecting sap appears to be directed at us, Belfort's crimes are presented as virtually victimless. In declining to delve too deeply into Belfort's financial schemes, Scorsese leaves the victims out of the equation altogether — depriving us of the chance to see some of Belfort's faceless "schmucks" humanized, and keeping our heady buzz safe from consideration of the shattered dreams and piss-soaked futures that Belfort and his merry band of kosher fraudmeisters left in their wake.


Other than, say, a throwaway reference to schvartzes or a few riffs on the Jonah Hill character's attempts to pass as WASP, Scorsese tamps down the Jewishness of his antiheroes into a sort of culturally unspecific white-guys-on-Wall-Street mush. Yet, Belfort himself — in the memoir that served as Wolf's inspiration — draws consistent parallels between his primordial thirst for greenbacks and the self-cultivated pariah status that's so endemic to Jewish identity. Belfort refers to the real-life version of Hill's character as "a Jew of the ultrasavage variety." He repeatedly — almost ritualistically — imputes savagery as a basic characteristic to any member of the Tribe, and he describes the swindlers working for his WASPily-named Stratton Oakmont firm as hailing from "upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos." Furthermore, Belfort illuminates his own paranoia and obsession with the Blue-Eyed Other in passages such as this:
"The Gold Coast is a terrific place to live, especially if you like blue-blooded WASPs and overpriced horses. Personally, I despise both, but somehow I ended up owning a bunch of overpriced horses and socializing with a bunch of blue-blooded WASPs, the latter of whom, I figured, viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction."
Obviously, though, Scorsese doesn't want to offend or incur the usual howls from the "anti-Semite!" brigade — which is the clearest indication one could have that Marty the Oscar-winner prioritizes his reserved seat at industry circle jerks over the truth-seeking of the genuine artist. It's odd, though, coming from a director who's thrust his own Italian-American identity under the harsh light of scrutiny time and again. Mean Streets and Goodfellas showed us how the clannishness of his old neighborhood helped the criminality of the Mob to flourish — i.e. everyone looked the other way, everyone kept their mouths shut, everyone helped themselves to "discounted" booze and cigarettes while knowing damn well where it all came from. A similar approach to Wolf might have dug a scalpel into Jewish us-against-them-ness and the ways in which it nourishes the misdeeds of a Bernie Madoff, a Michael Milken, an Ivan Boesky, a Solomon Dwek, a Marc Dreier, a Sholam Weiss. It might have delved into the self-justification of a Jordan Belfort — a curious mindset that says it's alright to bilk the goyim since they've been shutting Jews out of their country clubs since the dawn of time; and that behind the blue eyes of every all-American on the other end of that sales pitch lurks a seething Nazi who can't wait to kick kikes back into ovens.


Wolf's coda shows us Belfort, fresh out of prison, in his new guise as motivational speaker. His audience watches him as one, hanging on his every word, practically pushing forward just to lap up whatever drops of wisdom fall from his lips. Scorsese holds on the audience long enough to make it clear that he's putting up a mirror to us.

And he's right, isn't he? There's no sexier bit of fap fodder to us here in bad-economy, baby boomer-fucked Obamerica than a guy who games the system, scoops up all the trophy snatch he can manage, and amasses a fortune with middle fingers raised to the heavens. It's water-cooler Viagra for office humps gone limp under the strain of paying taxes and knowing right from wrong; no matter that the final chapters of such dashing rulebreakers are punctuated with the clang of prison bars. No matter that what a gonif like Belfort is selling is the lie that his cutthroat quest for shekels is the essence of life itself, that it's the Great American Way; a reflection of who we truly are, as a nation and as a people.

As a broker explains to Belfort in the film, "It's mostly schmucks who buy this stuff."

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

Love and Seafood in Gay Paree

directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
starring Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos


Girl meets girl. Girl discovers the messy-faced joys of cunt-lapping. Girl discovers herself in the process. Girl then discovers that sometimes it's the "free-spirited," DayGlo-haired dykes who run game and break hearts while cocksure pretty boys hold their babies tight and ask 'em if it was any good.

I'm guessing that anyone who adds Blue Is the Warmest Color to their home library, and actually watches the thing once the current wave of hype dies down, belongs to one of two groups: 1) lesbians seeking the lifestyle validation (not to mention, flattery) of seeing their ideal "the time I became a real woman" deflowering scenario given the imprimatur of a critically-lauded Cannes sensation 2) pretentious Criterion junkies who need good spank material but prefer it dressed up in arty musings on Sartre and framed in the jittery, hand-held close-ups and inability to properly utilize 'Scope framing of the post-millennial indie set. (Said Criterion junkies will probably shelve it alongside In the Realm of the Senses and their Catherine Breillat DVD's.)


I'm also guessing that if Blue were the moving, emotionally involving tale of a straight male who knowingly pursued — then seduced — underage gash, it wouldn't enjoy near the amount of critical accolades and film-buff chinstrokes that it's received as the ode to pussy-eating-as-personal-liberation that it actually is. What is our "liberated" modern era, after all, but a curious facsimile of a horror film in which the unabashedly straight (white) male is typecast as the hockey-masked bogeyman slashing away at the idealism of those who "just want to love" with his machete of rigid intolerance? What is it if not some bizarre comedy of role reversal wherein every stripe of kink and sexual proclivity is given the blessing of media-enforced legitimacy and trite civil rights analogies — every proclivity, that is, except the one which lends itself to family stability, tradition and the continuation of the human race?

Let's take that last scenario a bit further, though. Imagine, for a moment, that Abdellatif Kechiche's much talked-about piece of gay-rights applause bait were instead the "blazingly emotional and explosively sexy" tale of a fifteen year-old girl falling under the spell of a rakish, philosophy-discussing, spontaneous-sketch-rendering older male. And let's say that, like the Lolita-chasing butchie played by Léa Seydoux, this older male sweet-nothinged his way into our teenybopper's soiled little panties despite already having a girlfriend. I'm guessing that, under this decidedly non-feminist-approved scenario, the tone of Kechiche's direction would be quite different — it wouldn't be nearly as "non-judgmental" and "even-handed" and "observant" here as it is while documenting his young heroine's slide into middle-class faux-rebellion via the "alternative lifestyle" that red-blooded males have been painting the ceiling over their beds to since junior high. I'm guessing that, under this straight-guy-seduces-young-nymphet scenario, there's no way that Blue wouldn't morph into some tsk-tsk-tsk'ing jeremiad about the ways that headstrong girls dying for a taste of adulthood get sucked into emotionally exploitive situations by immature cads trying to relive their carefree younger days.


Nor is there any way, under this scenario, that we'd get the hilariously protracted (and partially unsimulated) smorgasbords of muff-slurping, hip-jerking, tit-clawing and rump-slapping that Kechiche and his actresses treat us to here — your basic, steamy Euro-porn meatloaf served up on the fine china of a lofty association with young women breaking loose from "oppressive" social norms. Furthermore, there'd be none of the horseshit implications that Blue gives us in its real-world incarnation: that Adèle's initiation into a secret society of workbooted he-women with perpetual oyster-breath and Home Depot memberships has made her an authentic being in ways that a man's pelvic battering-ram couldn't; that predatory Lester Burnham-ish impulses and a man-on-fire eagerness to shed paramours say nothing unsavory — or at least, worthy of our consideration — about Léa Seydoux's Sapphic seductress.

Of course, I'm just guessing. Blue is what it is, in all of its au courant gay-is-the-new-self-discovery splendor — and what it is, say the hosannahs from IndieWorld, is a masterpiece.


Adèle Exarchopoulos is certainly an interesting actress — still young enough that she hasn't developed a filter of self-conscious protectiveness between herself and the camera. She's as naked as a rabbit-toothed ball of awkwardness fielding advances from her pre-"awakening" male crush, or while struggling to chew pasta like an inhabitant of the higher rungs of the evolutionary ladder, as she is while leg-locked with Seydoux for our Jergen's-lubricated enjoyment. Problem is, the Adèle character — as a person, as a protagonist worth a small chunk of our lives — is a work in progress. She's still on the road to becoming whoever she's going to be and — like anyone at her age with the blanks on their life experience resumé yet to be filled in — she's simply not that interesting.

There's nothing that Kechiche has to tell us about this perfectly average teenage girl that could reasonably fill out — or even begin to justify — a three-hour running time meant to serve large-scale epics and tapestries of time and place. There's no extraneous, over-emphasized detail highlighted by his directorial approach that wouldn't have been better served by more thorough integration into already-established moments of revelation, or by plain old creative implication. By its second hour, the film's become the equivalent of watching a man trying to run underwater — its progression is slowed enough that we might note particulars of movement that would otherwise go un-etched in the stone tablet of memory, but all it adds up to is that we're expected to glean insight from the tedious spectacle of something not moving forward very far. Detail for detail's sake does not a masterpiece of fringe humanity make.


Me, I like my spank material to be upfront and unapologetic about what it is — minus the overblown running time that'd have Bertolucci's 1900 yawning and checking its watch, and minus the grade-school usage of a girl's sudden appreciation for oysters as a clumsy metaphor for her growing embrace of bedroom clam-licking. One could re-edit Blue into a porno-Godardian montage of nothing but its sex scenes and convey virtually the same character information, while enabling me to blow my load and get back to more culturally enriching matters — like the "pinky violence" marathon I've had going ever since sleazoid Japsploitation filmmakers showed me just how aesthetically pleasing blood-spattered Asian tits in Toeiscope can be.

It's too bad about Blue, though — that gap next to Fat Girl and Realm on my DVD shelf has been yawning at me for months.

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sam Peckinpah: Top to Bottom (A Humble Ranking of the Master's Filmography by Yours Truly)



Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984).

"Bloody Sam," they called him. The patron saint of modern screen violence. Boozy poet of man's headlong charge into the grave. Balladeer in mourning for a West that possibly never existed. Champion of men without a place in a newfangled world presided over by bloodless businessmen who seal fates not with conviction or even passion, but with a pen and a plastic smile. Supposed misogynist. The greatest director of the nineteenth century — to detractors and admirers alike.

To the producers and studio heads who frequently butchered his films, Sam Peckinpah was an irresponsible hellion; a self-made misfit with a six-shooter in his hand and a bulls-eye painted on his foot. Chicken or the egg: did his alcoholic's thirst for self-annihilation fuel his genius for making mortal enemies of the money men who always retained final cut — or was it the other way around?

Sam Peckinpah's films are — to varying degrees of caliber and accuracy — bullets fired into that pristine Hollywood mirror reflecting Our Better Selves and the Great American Way. Here's your reflection in the spider web:

1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)


A vile, grungy, tequila-soaked desert dirge for every scruffy little gutter rat who got the notion — if even for a fleeting moment — that he might come out on top, that he might actually get away with the loot, that he might somehow make it to the other end in one piece. Life's response, of course, is a mocking laugh and a "not fucking likely." Meanwhile, Peckinpah's right there to watch us Bennies writhing in a pit of our own making, his white suit naturally soiled from his own climb out of the muck, as he raises his Scotch to toast us and our impotent gun blasts of rage against the steel jackboot of the inevitable. Have a drink, Al.

It does my heart good to see Alfredo go from being this semi-forgotten '70s curio and supposed Worst Film of All Time candidate to near-universal admiration as the pure artistic statement and underrated black comedy that it always was. I have my issues with Roger Ebert but Peckinpah fans must never forget that Ebert was virtually a lone voice in the mid-'70s wilderness when he gave Alfredo a four-star review and talked about all the sadness and poetry — and outrage at the way of the world — buried beneath its scuzz-ball, crab-infested surface.

Oh, and if anyone's in doubt: Warren Oates fucking owns your bitch ass, plain and simple.

2. Straw Dogs (1971)


Most Easily Misunderstood Film of All Time. A litmus test for a viewer's intelligence and ability to read subtext. A blistering slow-burn meditation on the disintegration of a marriage. More ugly truth about women's latent sexual desires than any feminist or Prius-driving, mangina bitch-boy will ever be comfortable with. Greatest/most hypnotic rape scene (scenes?) ever filmed. A straitrazor slashing mercilessly away at the distended white underbelly of ineffectual college-liberal manhood. An explosion that couldn't help but happen — that could only have happened in this era, under these circumstances. The coldest, most unsparing essay on man's territorial imperative and savage nature ever to masquerade as a home-invasion flick.

Certainly, one isn't meant to "like" Dogs — it's Peckinpah saying some very uncomfortable shit about the nature of men and of women; about the pull that the alpha-male caveman has (and always will have) on women; about the inevitability of certain kinds of conflict, especially when passive-aggressiveness and faux-intellectualism rule the day. It's a behavioral thesis dressed up as a home-invasion flick, and the spirit of the thing is as bleak and as gray and sunless as John Coquillon's cinematography would indicate. There's none of the moments of camaraderie that one finds in Peckinpah's Westerns here, no room for the possibility of acceptance or of peace of mind that one finds in his Steve McQueen films, none of the knowing black humor of Alfredo Garcia or The Osterman Weekend.

Per Pauline Kael, in her essay "Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah — The Killer Elite" —
...there is a total, physical elation in his work and in his own relation to it that makes me feel closer to him than I do to any other director except Jean Renoir
— I'd say that the explosion of violence in Dogs lacks even the "total, physical elation" that one finds in the release of The Wild Bunch or in the moral cleansing of Bennie's rage against the machine in Alfredo Garcia. Which is certainly the point.

In short: the truth, the way and the light.

3. The Wild Bunch (1969)


The Wild Bunch isn't a Western.

It's the fucking Western; a farewell to a moribund genre — the last true gasp of broad-canvas Old Hollywood myth-making sandwiched in between breathtaking, hypnotic, machine-gun-edited paroxysms of death and destruction that lobbed grenades at the parameters of the up-to-then American action-film narrative, and dotted the silver screen with exit wounds and ejaculatory spurts of blood in a way that sent preview audiences scurrying for the aisles and had a chorus of furrowed-brow, ostensibly concerned-about-violence cultural guardians howling for the director's head on a stick. In the process, Peckinpah gave a rising band of new-wave cineastes and 'Nam-era malcontents a Western they could call their own. In time, this daringly reconstituted last gasp of Old Hollywood would pave the way for the New — auteurist rabble-rousers who'd pick up the stick that Peckinpah dropped and continue poking at the bloodied but still-wheezing corpus of traditional masculinity. (Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, John Woo, Walter Hill, De Palma with his remake of Scarface, Tarantino, et al.)

What it also paved the way for was a thousand limp-dicked imitations that apparently studied Bunch's chaotic bookends like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but missed all that boring stuff in between about recognizing the failure to live up to a self-imposed code of honor in oneself; about having outlived your time; about marching to the beat of an increasingly outmoded way of life when the world around you is singing a new tune called Civilization; about living with the festering wounds of regret until you can't fucking take it any more, until you can scarcely stand to face your own reflection.

More pain and poetry packed into a Panavision frame than the world was ready for in 1969. Over twenty-five years later, the re-release of Peckinpah's original Director's Cut garnered an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Poetry never fades.

4. Cross of Iron (1977)


As woozy and muddled in its own way as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but in a way that I find works to the film’s benefit. (Plus, Orson Welles loved it.) What it feels like to fight a losing war, to have tethered yourself to a sinking ship — and to carry on with it, anyway, because you’re a professional, dammit, and that’s what professionals do. In other words: another Peckinpah treatise on his film career. The ending is its own complete commentary on the madness of war, and how insanity is often the only sane response to it.

5. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)


A notoriously butchered work in its original incarnation (thank you, MGM), but a 1988 restoration and a further 2005 re-cut got people reasonably close to what Peckinpah intended.

Also, this is where Peckinpah's infamous alcoholism starts to make its presence felt in the work itself. Retains a suitably appropriate, druggy '70s vibe, though. The evil twin to The Wild Bunch. No rousingly-scored elation or catharsis in the gunslinging here, just the slow, inevitable death of the West in muted shades of muddy gray-brown. Final fifteen to twenty minutes probably the best/saddest final fifteen to twenty minutes of any Western, ever.

Bye-bye, West. Say hello to the modern world.

6. Ride the High Country (1962)


One of the last of the old-school studio Westerns. A graceful film in its own shambling, quiet little way. It won't make sense to you at twenty but it ripens and matures as you get older, and you suddenly find yourself knowing just what Joel McCrea means when he utters the immortal line, "All I want is to enter my house justified." Ain’t a man alive — a man who's taken a few knocks, who's fallen on his ass a few times, who's gotten a few knots on either his head or his dick — who can't understand that, on some level. It resonates all throughout the film, all the way to its justifiably well-regarded — and utterly fucking beautiful — final shot.

7. The Getaway (1972)


A near B-movie, to be sure, but then Jim Thompson's book was a B-novel. Ali MacGraw's nostrils do an admirable acting job and Sollozzo from The Godfather kidnaps Archie Bunker's little goil and makes a helluva B-movie villain. Originally, I came to this one after Peckinpah's acknowledged masterpieces so I couldn't appreciate it. He did it for the $$$ but he still did it the artist's way: if there's a better treatise on repairing a frayed marriage within the framework of a down-and-dirty '70s action flick, somebody let me know. The hotel shootout toward the end gives me a boner. Doc McCoy can't get one when he first comes home to his wife, but he takes a pump-action shotgun and still shows us what a man looks like. I like it. Plus, there's Slim Pickens.

8. The Osterman Weekend (1983)


Bug-fuck insane? Muddled? Convoluted? Sure, sure, and sure. But worthwhile? You bet. Funny how — for such an unheralded "last gasp of a once-great director" — it's utterly spot-on in predicting the Big Brother-esque camcorder/webcam/phone-cam surveillance society we now take for granted. Not to mention, the pre-packaged phoniness of our Sean Hannitys and Keith Olbermanns and other things that pass for "bold" televised political commentary. John Hurt doing his improvised weather report is fucking hilarious. The big action set-piece at the end shows Peckinpah still on top of his game. Meg Foster with a crossbow is arguably his best use of slo-mo since The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah even finds the room for a little surrealism — check those bullets whirring into the pool over our heroes' heads or Helen Shaver's little coked-out children's song just before meeting her doom.

The little surveillance video that John Hurt shows Rutger Hauer of Dennis Hopper's meeting in the park? Check the boom-box that some guy is holding in the background. If you've noticed that there's no music coming out of said boom-box, then buy yourself a shot of Maker's: you've picked up on a subtle early clue that Hurt's character may not be all he seems. Devil's in the details, you know.

9. Major Dundee (1965)


Flawed, obviously, what with Columbia snatching the film from Peckinpah and re-cutting it, adding a horrid score, etc. The fault doesn't just lie with the suits, though: I look at this as sort of a dry run for The Wild Bunch, since the ideas he pulled off beautifully there, he's not quite able to realize here. The ending, in particular, is a bit of a rushed muddle. Fascinating as hell, though. One of Heston's best performances. And Senta Berger circa '65 is quite a sight to behold. More meat on this "failure's" bones than on ten certified "classics."

10. Junior Bonner (1972)


Unchanged men in a changing land and, this time, not a single bullet is fired. Accepting the ne'er-do-well that is your father, and learning to love him, anyway. Accepting that you can lose in a situation and still know that you've won, on some level. Learning how to pick yourself up after a mean bull (a.k.a. life itself) has dumped you flat on your ass. Steve McQueen in a cowboy hat. Nixon's small-town America in an age of crisis.

11. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)


Amiable, shaggy-dog tale saluting the men who built up the old West (and thus, America) from little more than a hole in the ground — and then, got wiped from the history books. Interesting to see Peckinpah give in to his sentimental, cornball side for once.

Plus, there's Stella Stevens and that damn cleavage of hers.

12. The Killer Elite (1975)


Part of me says: turn it off after the James Caan character gets out of physical therapy, about twenty minutes in. 'Cause you'll have seen all that's worthwhile here. Ninjas in slo-mo. Chinese virgins. Jeez, Sam. Cocaine's a helluva drug.

Then, the other part of me re-reads that brilliant Pauline Kael essay on how the film represented Peckinpah's battles with studio heads and his determination to show Hollywood that — like Caan's double-crossed character — he might have been down, but he certainly wasn't out. Or I remember what I've read about how Peckinpah slipped all these tongue-in-cheek Brechtian distancing devices into what he realized was essentially a cynical, by-the-numbers genre exercise meant to capitalize on the whole slo-mo-barrage-of-gunfire action market that he himself had helped to create. And then, I start to appreciate parts of it anew.

It'll be awhile before it replaces Alfredo Garcia as my Having A New Chick Over For The First Time movie, though.

13. The Deadly Companions (1961)


Said co-lead Maureen O'Hara, "Peckinpah later reached icon status as a great director of Westerns, but I thought he was just awful. I found him to be one of the strangest and most objectionable people I had ever worked with."

And I'm sure that producer Charles Fitzsimons — O'Hara's brother — foisting O'Hara upon Peckinpah, then essentially telling his first-time director how to direct while steadfastly denying him a crack at the screenplay or the editing, had nothing to do with Peckinpah's attitude on the set.

It might, however, have something to do with the fact that this isn't much of an actual Peckinpah film.

14. Convoy (1978)


Truckers. Kris Kristofferson. Ali MacGraw's nostrils. Ernest Borgnine's evil hick sheriff. Inspired by a one-hit wonder on country radio. The rumors that Peckinpah was too busy holing up in his trailer with Peruvian marching dust to do some of the actual directing. If you squint real hard, you can see a little bit of occasional magic in here. Or just take it as a corny '70s road movie and put it on a double bill with Smokey and the Bandit. You'll probably like it even more.

Further reading:

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: No One Here Gets Out Alive

Straw Dogs: I Am Just a Monkey Man and I'm Glad You Are a Monkey Woman, Too, Babe

Straw Dogs, Part Deux: Or, Shit I Left Out of the First Review

The Getaway: We Can Work It Out

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mademoiselle (1966)

To the Devil Her Due

directed by Tony Richardson
starring Jeanne Moreau, Ettore Manni,
Keith Skinner, Umberto Orsini


One can only suspect that Mr. Richardson and probably Mr. Genêt were out to denigrate and castigate a woman as much as they could in this film. For there is absolutely no redeeming quality in the spectacularly vicious female here.
—Bosley Crowther, New York Times review of Mademoiselle, August 2, 1966

When it comes to dissecting male identity in order to ferret out the root of all the world's evil, Western society is mighty quick with the scalpel. What we're taught not to do, of course, is to stare head-on at the destructive capabilities of the fair maidens in our midst; to scrape away the layers of make-up from our own wives, mothers and daughters — that hallowed half of the human race which benefits inordinately from naïve assumptions of vulnerability and man's stubborn attachment to the notion of the female as born nurturer. Yet, any open-eyed stroll through the footnotes of history yields no shortage of young life snuffed out by motherly hand behind a lawyer's gauze of ready-made psychological explanations; of women riding shotgun in a rocket's burst of bad-boy criminality that they've egged on and then rewarded with the sweet nectar of gaping punanny; of women who indulge their hearts' blackest whims simply because a feminized society will always accord a woman the benefit of the doubt and — compared to a man in the same boat — the lightest punishment possible. Wrap it in Botticelli's Venus and Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" if you must; history unadorned will forever brandish the ugly tattoos of its Bonnie Parkers and Caril Ann Fugates; of its Andrea Yateses, its Susan Smiths, its Diane Downses and its Casey Anthonys; of its Countess Bathorys and Aileen Wuornoses and all the women whose dubious cries of "rape!" sparked lynchings and character assassinations and madness like the 1923 Rosweood massacre; of the women who served the Führer as guards and officers at the height of the Third Reich — real-life Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS prototypes, as unblinking in the execution of duty as their male colleagues.


Accordingly, Tony Richardson's Freudian noir psychodrama Mademoiselle is the purest horror film imaginable: a bleak-souled, matter-of-fact account of uncured fuck-lust that's curdled into the blank-faced perversion of a woman trusted with molding the young. It cracks open that hardy walnut known as a woman's psyche to spill forth an unholy brew of sadism and vindictiveness born of wounded vanity; it's as indelible a portrait of the unwell mind as any given us by the cinema of the Psycho-and-Rosemary's-Baby decade. Like the tortured snuff-film pioneer of Michael Powell's fervid Peeping Tom or Hitchcock's Norman Bates, the small-town schoolteacher of Mademoiselle simmers with antisocial impulses under a mask of outward respectability. Unlike her jittery celluloid analogues, however, the Mademoiselle is burdened neither by stirrings of conscience nor by the likelihood of ever arousing suspicion. Set fires, poison farm animals and shatter a young boy's fragile psyche simply to get one's rocks off? Why, hush thy sour tongue, misogynist — women don't do such things. Her mask of respectability is, ultimately, the mask of a woman's perceived virtue and harmlessness — perfect, given Western society's inherent white-knight inclinations, for concealing what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described as the sex's "fundamental defect" of  "falseness, faithlessness [and] treachery."


Jeanne Moreau, as the Mademoiselle (we never learn her name), insinuates herself into the margins of cinematographer David Watkin's static black-and-white panoramas like a creeping fog of prim, stuffed-twat hostility that swallows anything blooming and vibrant. She's a spinster in black for the funeral of human possibility — a Grim Reaper signaling the death of her own fertility, made manifest for the sole purpose of unhooking the safety pins that hold together a sleepy French farm town's flimsy sense of community. There's our Mademoiselle, by way of an introduction, all done up in her Sunday finest, hands sheathed in black lace gloves resembling a doily on your grandma's dinner table, as she cranks open a sluice gate to let loose a tide of river water that floods a farmer's property and nearly drowns his livestock.

From there, she grows only more destructive, more daring in her catch-me-if-you-can outbursts: stealing away under cover of night to light a barn fire that results in the death of a farmer and threatens to swallow half the village, annihilating yet another farmer's livelihood by poisoning the trough from which his animals drink, abusing her authority over the town's schoolchildren with ritualized S&M emasculations that see her bashing the young and helpless against the woodpile of her icy sadism until they're transmuting her psychological crushing of the weak into savage grenade-blasts of violence; until everything that's open-hearted and trusting about them has leaked out like the contents of a jackrabbit's pulpified skull, never to be replenished. Naturally, the townspeople think the Mademoiselle is a model citizen, if not exactly "one of us." She fills in as a secretary down at the police station in her spare time, and it's here that she earns her stripes from method acting school: perfecting a poker face while listening to police consternation at her senseless acts, chiming in with concern at their misdirected suspicion.


It's the town's children, however, with whom she drops the mask. She lords it over them from the perch of her blackboard like a germaphobe in a lepers' camp, as if these spawn of the proletariat were tainted with the Original Sin of their parents' provincial-hick outlook; as if squeezing out the very will to thrive from the town's future inhabitants were a form of long-range genocide — suitable punishment to the adults for having offended her with their backhanded approval of her presumed chastity while pitying her for her lonely existence.

She fixates upon Bruno, a motherless immigrant waif from the Dickensian-urchin mold, as her classroom whipping boy. He tries to please her — tries in his unconsciously Freudian way to win this dominatrix mother figure's approval. He even comes to realize that it's the Mademoiselle who's setting the village fires and, as part of his good-son auditioning, he says nothing. But she's the Anti-Mother; his nascent beta-male neediness only puts the smell of blood in her nostrils. She prods away at him — mocking his tattered clothes and his immigrant poverty, forcing him to stand in a corner while the other kids play. Here, though, she's no wily domme playing a game of cat and mouse; she's more like an abusive husband belting his wife over lukewarm meatloaf and a spike in the light bill. She lashes out at the boy as if she couldn't help it, as if the persistence of his daily presence were a deliberate tightening of that straitjacket of responsibility which she's never asked for, never wanted. He's the kicked-around old dog who keeps coming back for more — naturally, he must be kicked until he breaks.


Of course, her sociopath's self-absorption precludes an awareness of what her petty humiliations are doing to the kid. When she banishes Bruno from the classroom over his grubbiness, and he takes his rage out on a small rabbit that he'd brought as a gift to her, she can scarcely believe the murderous rage that's erupted from such a harmless runt; it's her "eureka!" moment, a discovery of her full satanic powers. (Richardson gives us a close-up of that demolished rabbit, which is echoed later on by our nearly identical glimpse of a dead man lying in the weeds — images linked by their testimony to the violence that she brings out of others.) With her bun that bars her hair from even thinking about touching her forehead, and her haughty Gallic features gelled into an iron mask of assured disapproval, she's the distillation of every pent-up schoolmarm who's ever tried to stamp out burgeoning male vitality in revenge for her barren existence. What's more, she's the godmother to feminist hard-liners who inject their misandrous poison into the heart of the culture, in a bid to crush future manifestations of the red-blooded male imperative that never saw fit to elevate them to the same pedestal of worthiness as it did the attractive, well-adjusted women they secretly hate. (If nothing else, Mademoiselle makes one question the "wisdom" of subjecting boys to the castratory whims of a female-run education system.)

Her crowning touch: she concocts a tale of ravaged womanhood and pins it on Bruno's father — a lusty Italian woodcutter named Manou, whose way with the town's women has the men showering him with open antagonism. Certainly, it's another of her private aggressions against social cohesiveness with its rootedness in the family unit that leaves old maids like her in the cold. What's more, though, it betrays the envying of straight society at her core — that desperate need to be defined by love and to mimic the rituals of normalcy that all misfits harbor, no matter how relentless their machine-gunning of BB's against the battleship of civilization. (The Mademoiselle lashes out, Travis Bickle-like, at a social order which refuses to make room for her.)


Manou's night of passion with the Mademoiselle, which coaxed her long-suppressed masochistic desires into full bloom like some rancid flower, was but a trifle to him — exactly what his love-'em-and-leave-'em advertising promised. It proceeds with a stop-start dream logic — no dialogue, no music; only the sound of the Mademoiselle's moans, the distant cawing of birds, the clap of storm clouds breaking overhead. Manou summons the Mademoiselle toward him like the lapdog that she's dying to be, and she devolves quickly from playful little girl to whimpering animal: it's the regression to absolute primal nature, hinted at all along by the film's use of animal/forest noises as its sole "score." He grips her by the throat and she wilts under the deadening high of sweet degradation — clearly, what this emotionally corseted arch-villainess has been crying out for is a good bit of sexual humiliation. She's like the black-hearted aunt to the Susan George character in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs — she craves subjugation by an alpha male, except she won't put up a fight or pretend that it's wrong.

Afterward, Manou communicates his plan to take Bruno and move on to greener pastures, and it's a transgression that our Dark Goddess can't abide, as if the old trope of being responsible for the life one saves were somehow applicable to sexual awakenings. The greatest lover our Mademoiselle has ever had threatens to leave her stranded in a backwater town full of xenophobic rubes — implying to her that her true place is there among them, that she's no different from the uncultured village floozies who fell spread-eagle under the chainsaw of his seducer's tongue just as easily as she. And for this grave insult — this unwanted reality that rudely punctures her inflated sense of otherness and sends it sputtering down around her — the rage of a thousand wronged women must be summoned, collateral damage be damned.

Richardson, true to both his grounding in the warts-and-all British New Wave and the screenplay's genesis in a Jean Genet short story, balks at pulling any punches. As a writer and as a brand name lending his imprimatur to the Black Panthers and the transgressive shock of gay rutting, Genet flung plenty of mud at mean old Western civilization; I'd wager a bottle of bourbon and my next half-Asian slampiece that he found himself rooting for the Mademoiselle as a foxy little rabble-rouser. Director Richardson stops far short of pulling out the pom-poms, though. His Mademoiselle is no gleaming-eyed Alex DeLarge getting over on staid society in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange; rather, we watch her through the lens of the film's dispassionate approach, as if we were lab technicians and she were some rare breed of poisonous rat trapped under the world's most artfully crafted glass. We're given no background to the Mademoiselle, no patronizing "insights" into whatever aberrant psychology fuels her anarchic deeds; but neither are we allowed, for the sake of any bourgeois femme-coddling instincts which may arise in protest, a handy way to deny or whitewash the fetish for mayhem which greets us from — literally — the film's opening frames. Of course, the Mademoiselle has the single-minded perversity to return to the scene of her crimes to pose as one of the townspeople gathered to help. Her sparkless eyes take in the raging fire she's started as if she were an autistic child who'd set her dollhouse alight and had become mesmerized by the beauty of the destruction. Richardson captures her face emerging from the inky womb of a jet-black screen like a demon soul born of the night itself — distant flames lapping at her chin, smoke curling up toward her medieval countenance until she conjures up a flash of some ruthless queen condemning mankind to the guillotine or, more appropriately, a witch burning at the stake.

Is the Mademoiselle meant to be a symbolic figure — more a demonic spirit of ancient legend than a flesh-and-blood human being? Certainly, it's more comforting to think so; to scoff that women like the Mademoiselle exist only within the febrile brows of misogynistic French writers. Certainly, it's easier to turn away from Mademoiselle's head-on stare at the sociopathic potential of women embittered by the ego-crushing realities of age-lowered sexual market value and "freed" from the civilizing influence of the contract between the sexes. (Which is, in effect, a contract with society.) Richardson's vision, though, is far too pickled in the brine of hard-won wisdom. There's a theory that gay men are often quite unsentimental — or "red-pill," if you will — about the nature of women; Mademoiselle bears this out. (Richardson himself was a practicing bisexual; he'd succumb to AIDS in 1991.) Few men biologically programmed to smear as much lipstick on the pig of modern femininity as possible would dare cast their woman protagonist in such a harsh light, sans mitigating male "oppressiveness"; nor would they appear to indict the whole of womanhood with sordid little touches like the ostensibly married women who fall unhesitatingly at Manou's feet or the random woman who looky-loos with unflinching zeal as the village mob beats a man to death.


It's the cobwebs between the Mademoiselle's thighs that drive her to lash out — her sudden invisibility as a sexual object, brought on by the accumulation of years. An old-timer makes a cutting remark about her age — even the townspeople see fit to chatter about her single-and-childless status — and she's taking her indignation out on the first symbol of new life that she happens upon: a nest full of bird eggs, which she gathers up and crushes in a giddy adolescent burst of sex-while-Mom-and-Dad-are-upstairs naughtiness. (Repudiation of her own womanly purpose? Violence against a symbolic pair of balls? Take your pick.) Moreau invests the Mademoiselle's callous disregard for life with a misplaced eroticism that's compounded by the sense of superiority aroused in her by her surroundings. She practically radiates as she harangues her pupils with a terse, clipped monologue about French madman Gilles de Rais, luxuriating in the tale of his prowess as an arsonist the way American schoolteachers once spoke of George Washington driving back the British at Saratoga. Gilles de Rais is actually known for his murders of children — France's first serial killer, they call him — but it's a veiled admission by the Mademoiselle of her own crimes; a confession dangled in the faces of those too dimwitted to see what's standing right in front of them. As per her criminal nature, the Mademoiselle can't resist basking in her own deviousness — covertly seeking credit for the way that she's hornswoggled a town full of peons and languished right under the noses of the authorities.

Compulsive blasts of miniaturized anarchy are all the Mademoiselle has to excite her, to fill the hole in her sexual essence where a strapping, dominant male should be. She makes herself up to set fire to that barn in the middle of the night, and — naturally — it's as if she were prepping for a hot date. There's an eerie ritualism in the time and care she takes to wrap herself in layers of ladylike perfection — the donning of those black lace gloves, the application of lipstick, the perfectionist manner in which she selects just the right box of matches from her secret drawer of saboteur's tools. And afterward, she faces her placid reflection in the mirror, combing her hair over the sounds of panic and confusion from outside. It's a disquieting snapshot of everyday banality sheltering a chaos seemingly loosed from the bowels of the beyond; a peek into the void behind unchecked feminine wiles wherein "matters of justice, honesty and conscientiousness" (as Schopenhauer put it) scarcely make a fingerprint, and where childish gratification of immediate desires, fueled by an obsession with redressing a lifetime's catalog of perceived slights, can only swell in their absence.


The Mademoiselle's violence spirals in correlation with her Manou obsession — with her ripening jealousy as she watches him lavish upon other women the attention that he seems to deny her. She first spies him in all his barrel-chested, he-man glory as he takes charge of evacuating livestock from the farm flood she causes at the beginning of the film. The pleasure of wreaking havoc for her, then, becomes the thrill of watching Manou play hero after — she'll soon progress to a stalker's fit of watching him from a distance as he saws away at forest trees and indulges in on-the-job naps.

And why wouldn't all the women want a ride on the Manou Express? He's the strapping, unabashedly male presence striding through a village full of dour-faced God-worshipers destined to die quietly in the same town in which they were born. Manou, with his twinkling eyes and his Italianate zest for life is, by comparison, a fast-moving train to somewhere bursting with candy-coated Technicolor, whereas this town can only be rendered in stormy black-and-white on life support — an overcast sky constantly threatening to turn midnight. The villagers deride Manou as a foreigner — it's all the reason they need to finger him for the Mademoiselle's reign of terror — but what really gnaws away at their pride is his godlike rule over the town's vaginal pool, which they can only curse from afar. Taping over her swollen nipples is the Mademoiselle's desperate stab at hiding her arousal for the man; at obeying the sexual market laws which would deem her foolish for showing her attraction to a pre-selected alpha male with far higher value than a middle-aged hen such as herself. (Manou knows exactly what women try to hide from him; among his first gestures with the Mademoiselle is to reach for her nipple.)


Mademoiselle has the mounting dread of some long-buried nightmare from the attic of humanity's subconscious — it's as hermetically sealed a black-and-white dreamworld as Eraserhead or Murnau's Nosferatu. Richardson and Watkin's way with the extreme width of the Panavision frame burns itself into the retina of your memory's eyeballs. The film has some of the plain, direct power of an Italian neorealist film in its shots of peasant-garbed village women kneeling in church or the townspeople marching against the horizontal stretch of a sun-bleached countryside in their somber religious communion. Its narcotic mood is enhanced by a camera that never pans, never tracks, never dollies — Mademoiselle is literally an accumulation of static compositions, one after the other, watching a town come apart at the seams without even the traditional sweetening of a score. Richardson uses a visual motif revolving around mirrors: the Mademoiselle as Anywoman, reflected in various mirrors at once to suggest the multitude of compartmentalized identities — or demons — lurking beneath the still waters of her sexless, socially acceptable façade.

The film's head-on stare at female solipsism turned seething and malevolent is written into the text itself: Mademoiselle climaxes with the scornful j'accuse in the glare of Bruno, who can do little but stand mute in his helplessness as the Devil Herself rides off into her preordained sunset of matronly respectability; as the town to which she's brought nothing but chaos and wanton destruction sends her off with fanfare usually reserved for queens and heads of state. Bruno steps forward to place the curse of his gaze upon the woman who's destroyed his life, and one shudders to imagine what the festering hatred she's left him with will blossom into. It's no accident that Richardson has Keith Skinner, the young actor, look directly into the camera here — staring into his eyes is like looking at a childhood photo of a Ted Bundy or a Jeffrey Dahmer, back when they were still "nice, quiet" boys whose only prey was the occasional small animal. (It's like the where-will-he-go-now? in the last shot of The 400 Blows dipped in black acid and turned inside out.)


Richardson holds the shot until Bruno's baby fat seems to melt away before our eyes — it suggests a solitary shred of remaining humanity thrashing away beneath a rising tide of implacable rage and soullessness; a drowning young spirit in its death throes. It spells out for the lad a miserable life of orphanages and of petty thievery; of pathological anti-authorianism and an inability to trust women. It foretells for society a directionless ball of male energy hellbent on lashing out; perhaps even the raped, strangled bodies of girls-next-door strewn along the roadsides and riverbanks of some anguished loner's future killing spree. And all of this — Richardson insists — is a portal back to us, back to the quiet-boys-gone-berserk headlines and furrowed criminologists' brows of our own fractured world. It's what we as a society bear the weight for, as long as we see fit to weave stone gospel out of the fallacy that women — blindly trusted with the shaping of young minds — are incapable of the cruelty and savagery which we so readily impute to anything with a pair of testicles.

Just before the screen mercifully fades out: we watch from on high — as close to the horror as we can bear to get — as a fatherless immigrant boy is left to wander the French countryside in total ignominy. Like the white-clad sadists in Michael Haneke's Funny Games, the Mademoiselle will simply move on, breezing into the next sleepy little farming community with her reputation intact, only to spark anew the hellish tide of chaos and ruination that finds its culmination in the sacrifice of a handy scapegoat. One can attempt, like Bruno, to spit in the face of madness; to sound a lone klaxon against the mascara-veiled daggers poised so near to man's jugular that they sleep in his very arms. But, alas, one would find oneself — like Bruno — shunned and banished to the margins of polite society; an outcast spitting in the wind.

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, October 21, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

Even John Wayne Bobbitt Got His Dick Back

directed by Sam Mendes
starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper,
Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari


Barely a decade after American Beauty swept the 1999 Oscars, screenwriter Alan Ball's bathetic this-is-your-life homilies had been skewered by Todd Solondz in Storytelling to many a chuckle, and Beauty had earned itself a rep as the unworthiest Best Picture champ since Dances with Wolves trounced GoodFellas. Unlike its awakening-of-the-emasculated-self brethren Fight Club and The Matrix, Beauty's never inspired the kind of cult that injects a film's dialogue into daily conversation and turns the film into a Rosetta Stone for parsing the mysteries of modern life. To further the dick-measuring against Beauty's contemporaries: P.T. Anderson's overripe Magnolia wrung truer emotion from its overly diagrammed threads connecting a cast of miserable suburbanites. Stanley Kubrick made the unrealized carnal longings of Eyes Wide Shut far steamier than Beauty's ridiculously PG-rated sexual fantasies. David O. Russell and Spike Jonze packed a more robust sense of this-is-our-contradictory-American-life absurdity into Three Kings and Being John Malkovich, respectively. And forget Beauty director Sam Mendes — it's Alexander Payne's name, via Election, that's tattooed on the midlife crisis of every hapless nobody who's found his balls again thanks to a throbbing prick over some piece of jailbait. I enjoyed American Beauty during its theatrical run but, with the distance of time and repeated viewings, the film came to look as fresh in my eyes as its fellow 1999-marks-a-new-wave-in-cinema! superhypes The Blair Witch Project or Doug Liman's Go. (Quick, when was the last time you watched either of those?)

Of course, Mr. Solondz and I were correct — up to a point. Alan Ball's screenplay takes its sledgehammer proclamations about the who-am-I? anomie of the middle-class everyman and fashions them into a series of would-be one-liners, giving us cringeworthy moments like his hero Lester Burnham staring down the yuppie boss he's just threatened to blackmail and declaring, "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothin' to lose." (I can just see Ball scooting back from his laptop and pausing to let a chill down his spine after he wrote that one.) Lester's a cubicle-bound zombie hump who takes one look at daughter Jane's new friend Angela and finds himself dusting off his old barbells and Free 8-tracks, and tugging at the threads that hold together his safe two car-garage life. He's alive for the first time in years, and his demented (if understandable) quest for sweet underage pootie could have signaled real inspiration — Kubrick's Lolita updated for teen Daddy's-darlings who proudly slurp baby batter on homemade YouPorn videos; a satirist's knowing laughter at the lengths an encumbered man will go to for a hint of what smells like rebellion.


Instead, Ball flashes his pedigree as a TV writer by keeping things distinctly sitcommy. For the first half-hour, it's like we're watching the pilot for some new dysfunctional-family dramedy on ABC — each character's existential crisis is served up to us in cutely voice-over'd, before-the-commercial-break-sized vignettes. Ball has Lester doing a John Ritter spit-take at the news of Angela sleeping over, or scurrying off from a bout of eavesdropping like the dipshit dad on one of those fat-oaf-with-impossibly-hot-wife shows, and all that's missing is the laugh track and the wacky Benny Hill music. Certainly, Ball must have been combing through rejected Archie Bunker monologues to come up with the moldy "this country is going straight to hell!" boilerplate he sticks in the mouth of Chris Cooper's bigoted Marine dad. (Hollywood shorthand, of course, for all those God-furrin', flag-salutin' folk they picture chuckling at old Ronald Reagan movies next to wives shell-shocked by domesticity, out there in Fly-Over Country.) By the time the film's climax hinges upon a sight gag of innocuous behavior mistaken for gay cocksucking, Ball's pretense to sophistication has fallen flatter than a white mom's ass, and you're wondering just what the hell made Steven Spielberg (whose DreamWorks released the film) not only read the script twice in a row, but demand that not a single word of it be changed.

Beauty purports to sketch a turning point in the life of its heterosexual everyman, but the problem is that it's scripted by a gay writer with — bad news — a look-how-hollow-the-American-family-really-is agenda and — worse — no idea of how to bring the come-spurting fuck-lust and orifice-centered fixations of straight male fantasies to life. Men who fuck women don't imagine said women with their best bits covered up in a bathtub full of rose petals — and we certainly don't imagine them spouting "dirty talk" that reads like a gay eunuch's idea of stilted porn dialogue he read someone else's description of. Ricky waxing rhapsodic about dead homeless women and flying plastic bags is no one that any real female would find herself stripping in a window for — least of all, a high school girl desperate for in-crowd approval — but rather, he's the emotionally bruised, glowingly benevolent soul that represents Ball's ideal slab of dreamy-eyed boy-meat. Likewise, Kevin Spacey as Lester isn't as jarring, perhaps, as the actor trying to sell us his ladies' man Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential — but he is jarring. When Spacey gives his unctuous reading of a line like, "For you, Brad, I've got five," or he sends Lester floating through one of his wife's work functions on a cloud of amused disdain, he might as well be Charles Nelson Reilly cracking innuendos on an old Match Game rerun. It's no mirror held up to Married Joe Six-Pack, but the bitchy wit of a gay man who lives for repartee and two-olive martinis. Spacey holds us at arm's length with his oddly hipster-ish inflections in the beginning — that smug, I'm-in-on-the-joke-and-you're-not vibe that lays bare his distance from the material and imbues Lester with a self-satisfied sarcasm reflex. It's good for a wry quip here and again but, taken in toto, the Oscar-Wilde-in-suburbia act starts to work against the character — it's unbecoming of a lost soul who we're meant to believe has taken more from life than his sore ass can handle.


Chastened perhaps by the Spielberg influence, director Sam Mendes handles the material with gloves on; his framing suggests lacquered objets d'art rather than human beings — wax figurines in an exhibit entitled The American Family Gone Awry. It's all too immaculate, too production-designed, too storyboarded — from overhead shots that reinforce the perception that we're peering down into some sort of peformance-art dollhouse to the way that the text on a computer screen casts "prison bars" over Lester's reflection in one scene. You can feel Mendes behind the camera, straining for first-time director impact, thinking his symbols out, sculpting the mise-en-scène for maximum Norman-Rockwell-goes-to-the-dogs significance. Did it occur to Mendes that a film supposedly about liberation is puritanical and repressed at its core, climaxing with two aborted realizations of the long-suppressed sexual desires that we're meant to equate with the characters' spirits taking flight? Did it occur to Mendes that anyone who's ever watched a movie before will see the character developments coming long before Ball's script thinks they will? Hey, what do you know, the film pants at us, vain model-wannabe Angela is really a supremely insecure little girl seeking validation! Hey, the film nudges us, Ricky the psycho-eyed loner next door, who insists on stalking Jane through his ever-present video camera, is actually a poetic soul who sees all the beauty in the world! And Ricky's emotionally constipated, fag-hating military dad — get this — he's actually a self-loathing homo just dying to be released from the straitjacket of hetero family-man normalcy!

I've come back around on it, though. American Beauty is quite the strange beast — a film that isn't saying half of what it thinks it's saying while being unaware of what it actually is saying. What Ball and Mendes intended was an examination of how the unrealized self (via repressed sexuality) can lead to a stultifying existence at best, and homicide at worst, so why don't we all just break out of the socially-approved cocoons that we've built around ourselves and take flight like the wonderful little butterflies we really are? I see Beauty as the cautionary, all-too-modern tale of a henpecked, thoroughly unappreciated worker bee sleepwalking his way through life when he starts to cast off the yoke of bullshit that Doing All The Things You're Supposed To Do has thrown around his neck. He stops denying the male impulses that life as a sexless married schlump with his dick in a mason jar has taught him to repress. He reacts to being the breadwinner for a couple of sullen, ungrateful twats by diving headfirst into sweet, utter selfishness. He rejects all the crap he's spent the previous twenty-odd years buying into — most especially, marriage to a joyless, cheating, prune-faced scold as the apex of his existence. And, Hollywood pseudo-profundity aside, it's no accident that he dies with such a contented look on his face: he's seen through the glass wall of his jerry-built middle-class identity to find the cosmic joke waiting for him on the other side.

At least half of the Ball/Mendes theory is correct: Lester Burnham is living a lie. The life he's shoehorned himself into is a life that no longer works for men in a compromised modern era of feminist-orchestrated gender politics and marriage as a one-sided contract which the male had better uphold down to the fine print, but which his wife can feel free to break and abuse in accordance with whichever self-justifying whim is guiding her in a given week. And, of course, she needn't worry because even her most self-serving, family-jeopardizing actions are guaranteed the benediction of our current culture's Holiest Father: the echo chamber of you-go-girl reassurance that exists to divest females of their vestigial attachment to outmoded hogwash like personal accountability, and to fatten the coffers of the men selling mass-produced, government-approved Independence™ at 40% off. Lester's wife Carolyn wakes up to find him whacking off — i.e. still able to find some pleasure in his life that doesn't revolve around her — and she launches into a self-righteous banshee impersonation about her own misery, about how "this is not a marriage." Naturally, the fault for that rests solely on her husband's shoulders. Naturally, the only solution to life with a monster who's never abused her or fooled around on her, who dutifully trudges off to work each day, and who supported her through real estate school, is to instigate an affair with her colleague and all but rub it in Lester's face while launching into schoolmarmish conniptions over his tiniest indulgence. Naturally, she's justified in projectile-vomiting scorn and derision all over Lester every time her mouth opens, in according him as little respect in front of their daughter Jane as possible.


That's right, little Timmy: study hard and get a good job. Maybe one day, you too can have what Lester Burnham has: a shrill, ice-veined automaton of a wife who chants plastic mantras of determinism (because you've made her a "victim") and who clutches a handgun in preparation for the confrontation she plans to have with you. As brought to life by a purse-lipped Annette Bening, Carolyn Burnham is the American Career Woman in all her post-feminist glory: a woman who's so obsessed with the image of success — despite her inability to excel in real estate without spreading her legs — that she's shut herself off from human emotion, from her role as a mother, from her own husband. Predictably, dweeby male critics rushed to condemn this characterization as one-note and misogynistic. And sure, Carolyn's straight out of a cartoon when acting as if she'd never heard of masturbation, or when kicking things up another notch on the hysteria meter over Lester's pot-smoking and refusal to give a shit. But that cartoonishness is true to the core of a woman's nature: they secretly envy a man's power and individuality. They rightly recognize that power as the inverse of their own perpetual dependence upon the largesse of the Great Sugar Daddy — be he a father or husband, a boss with quotas to fill, or the gleaming white knight of Big Government, who shoves their every demand to the forefront of the Western political narrative (more abortions! rape culture! the wage gap! more child support!), who makes sure those mean boys talk nice at work and makes damn sure that they lob softer pitches so the girls can have their home runs, too.

Women stare agog at men's accomplishments and recognize — deep under the prideful surface — their own general lack of the will to innovate. They view the inherent singularity of men from under slitted eyelids as they contemplate their own lack of the fearlessness it takes to break from old, accepted modes and conquer new vistas in technology, in business, in the arts — these qualities being indispensable to the growth and competitive flourishing of any civilized society. Male autonomy, by the very fact of its being, taunts women, mocks them in their genetic relegation to the sidelines of the human revolution, and it's male autonomy — even as women find themselves unshakably drawn to it — that drives them to the frothing, child-denied-a-toy fury of a woman like Carolyn. Women can't help but flutter around a man's power like moths, to want to bask in its glow, to wish to claim some of that power — that ability to experience true happiness — for themselves. But they can't, and they know it. Which is why they seek to clamp down on any expression of it — which is why Carolyn squirts her ceaseless nagging and hyper-sensitivity all over Lester's breezy regression to the joys of adolescence.


Of course, we know that girls mimic the model of womanhood put forth by their mothers. Any wonder, then, that daughter Jane's mutated into a hostile goth-lite scag, so blind to the bounty of her many blessings that she can face a mirror with her big, lopsided C-cups spilling past the edges of her reflection, and pout that she needs a tit job? Any surprise that she's grown up so full of designer alienation and a first-worlder's sense of entitlement that she opens the film declaring that Lester is "too embarrassing to live" and needs to be put down like some rabid Saint Bernard? Granted, Lester's been slavering over her friend like a zit-faced Skinemax junkie given a night's access to Laura Gemser. But Jane's no defender of the virtue of high-school cheerleaders — what irks her is that Daddy's deigned to give some other bitch the attention that, by rights, ought to go to her. If it's true that all little girls subconsciously seek to fuck their daddies — and it is — then Jane lashes out at Lester with all the decorum of a spurned mistress, fuming at him that he hasn't spoken to her in months, and banging Ricky because Ricky validates her with voyeuristic longing that allows her to feel something of the worship that Angela must feel under Lester's wank-fueled ogling. Poor Janey — she's just come face to face with the sobering truth that her father is a man with a life beyond the title of "Daddy," beyond her; a man whose personal universe is big enough to accommodate someone other than the brat that spurted from his loins back when he still thought sacrificing his happiness might lead to some greater fulfillment. It's a tale as old as Moses: kid, the world don't revolve around you — and it's the before-and-after line in every female's life that separates that smiling little angel holding a lit sparkler for Daddy from the blistering ball of resentments she inevitably turns into.

It's highly absurd, though, that would-be Carolyns have come to view Lester as some "child molester" for pursuing a fully developed, sexually mature young woman with the rack of a twenty-one year-old Mena Suvari. Labeling as "pedophilia" a man's biologically-hardwired predilection toward fertile young female flesh — the better to carry his seed to fruition without the likelihood of birth defects or a miscarriage — is part and parcel of the shaming of men's natural desires that's been gaining traction for quite some time now. "Cradle-robber!" carp the harpies of the Shame America Squad, Misandry Division. "You mean, you actually prefer to fuck hot young women with taut, firm bodies as opposed to overweight hags? You mean, you chase after girls who are blissfully untainted by the soul-shattering bitterness of women who waste their peak years of attractiveness and reproductive capability bouncing from cock to cock in the name of 'liberation' and 'well, men do it too!'? You mean, you dare to deny the allure of a woman in her mid-thirties and beyond who's shocked to discover that no top-tier man wants to devote his best years to some used-up, roast beef-curtained, possibly abortion-or-STD-sterilized former party girl who's well into the middle stages of her Roman decline?!" And men, picking up the social cues, join right in and happily smother their own instincts while denouncing those of other men, just like they've been programmed to do by the wholly catered-to, endlessly aggrieved daughters of what now passes for feminism — the very women who have been trying for decades to shame human nature into a program of self-denial so as to lessen the repercussions for their increasingly selfish choices.


As always, Hollywood is nothing if not a cocktease who likes to flirt with bold ideas without actually having to bed down with them. American Beauty might have made for a slyly transgressive classic, had Lester gone through with deflowering Angela — the logical follow-through, after all, from all that casting-off-the-boundaries-of-normal-society stuff. Certainly, Lester dealing with the fallout from a perfectly understandable lapse in judgment would have made the film truer to real life, where people seldom suffer from those last-second changes of heart so common to the movies, and where perky cheerleader tits have a way of nullifying even the hardiest of moral objections.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
 
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