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

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fingers (1978)

Delayed Infant Death Syndrome

written and directed by James Toback
starring Harvey Keitel,
Tisa Farrow, Jim Brown, Michael V. Gazzo

Is Jimmy Angelelli the gangster that his washed-up loanshark father needs him to be? Perhaps. Jimmy's got a real flair for pistol-whipping deadbeat pizzeria owners and revenge-fucking the trophy sluts of rising Mafiosi over the debts they've refused to settle. And since Angelelli père is a tacky-as-plaid, yellow-suited old egg-dome who commands no respect on the street, Jimmy's flair is the only thing keeping his meager operation afloat. But we're introduced to Jimmy at his piano, grimacing in ecstasy over the soaring precision of his Bach runs — the fragile elegance of a perfect instant that could slip off its tightrope with a single wrong note and bring nothing less than Jimmy's potential as a human being crashing back to the gutter. Enforcer for a mobbed-up bookie by day, classical piano prodigy by night: Jimmy's like the soul of a Glenn Gould trapped inside Harvey Keitel's Charlie from Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. He's the sensitive Jewish artist (courtesy of his pianist mother) drawn to the life-affirming creative process but doomed by goombah heritage to a life that's predicated on destruction — both that of others and, eventually, his own. Jittery, compulsive mannerisms dominate whenever Jimmy's not playing: fiddling with his hair like a nervous girl on prom night, fidgeting childishly as his fingers dance their habitual dance over imaginary piano keys. He's stuck between identities in a stalled elevator of an existence that's as tortuous as his inflamed prostate — too reluctant a killer to make it in his father's world, too obsessive a pussyhound to commit to music and succeed in his mother's.

Clearly, director James Toback's got something he wants to say about the dualistic nature of men, of himself as an artist. He ties it all up in male rites of passage — bravado, dick envy, chasing skirt, straining under the weight of the father — and he filters it through the jukebox-scored Catholic anguish of Mean Streets, through the down-and-dirty pulp sensibility of the streets-of-New-York crime film. Toback's his own artist, though; a shameless exhibitionist in the best sense. He can't help but strip naked and parade his sexual obsessions in front of you, can't help but scrape his psyche and smear the fascination with other men's virility and the grandiose self-mythologizing bits all over the screen; his muse demands it. Fingers reads as if he'd scribbled some outré fetish or embarrassing personal anecdote on each page of Harvey Keitel's script. The actor dives hard into each fit of yearning, each clammy revelation of Jimmy's (a.k.a. Toback's) insecurities and quenchless libido, and he comes up with globs of guts clenched in each fist. It's a mesmerizing performance. The further Keitel digs into himself/his director/his character, the faster Toback's stripped-down dick-punch of a narrative races toward the brick wall of the inevitable: total annihilation, a blood-spattered snapshot of Jimmy's regression to the helplessness of infancy.

It's pussy, rather than Bach, that serves as Jimmy's muse — a fickle, ultimately self-serving muse that, by her very nature, diverts men from the path to self-realization and strands them in an energy-depleting bog of manufactured conflicts and capitulation to puerile shit-tests and mind games. Mere seconds after Jimmy's come down from his pianistic reverie in that first scene, he catches sight of the woman who's been listening to him from down on the street — the preternaturally aloof, ready-to-make blonde tease Carol (Tisa Farrow). Give Jimmy his due: he's got the surface moxie of a true-blue alpha male down cold. He struts boldly up to this inscrutable young thing with her fashionable high-heeled boots, her freckled Midwestern deadpan and her porn-starlet monotone. He stares her down, all rehearsed guinea charm that's pumped so full of timorous smart-boy deliberation that it's ready to burst. "You like all kinds of music," he says. "So do I."

But Toback handicaps Jimmy with a curious tic: wherever Jimmy goes, he feels compelled to take along his portable radio. (A tic that Spike Lee updated for the era of the ghetto-blaster and grafted onto Do the Right Thing's Radio Raheem.) Jimmy clings to his radio like a security blanket, blaring the doo-wop tunes of his (probably) romanticized youth to mask the queasy silences that result whenever he manages to gain a woman's attention and his patter runs dry. Jimmy offers up just a flicker of doubt: he stops in his tracks as Carol turns to meet his solicitous gaze and, from that point, no matter what he says, the jig is up, the writing's on the wall, his ego's fate is sealed. She assents to a ride in his convertible to see what this would-be cocksmith with the constant soundtrack is all about, but he only confirms his relinquishment of the upper hand. "You're shaking," Carol coolly informs him after he's sweated so much energy trying to read her mind and impress her with his knowledge of Bach and The Drifters that he ends up rear-ending someone. God bless him: he actually hits her with "what are you thinking?" and it's enough to make any man in the audience want to dive under a table. (It's the same petitioning for validation masked as sincere pensée that I'd lay on girls in the winter of my misguided, mom-encouraged belief that girls gave a shit about sensitivity or my obsessive familiarity with '80s post-punk — or whatever else I thought would set my swinging dick apart from the rest.)

"Mockingbird" appropriately spits forth from Jimmy's radio as he barges into Carol's trendy little white-bricked artist's loft after she's exited his ride without so much as telling him her name. So far, so good — he's reading her signals and rising to her juvenile challenge in ballsy emulation of that ladies'-man image he's been shooting for his whole life. It's the fantasy he's always had of his gangster father with the revolving door of balloon-tittied goomars; it's what he's picked up from eagle-eyeing the apparent confidence of other men — and it's right in line with the precepts of what we now call "game": fake it 'til you make it, mimic all the female-approved behavioral signposts of macho-man self-assurance until they seep into your pores and you've become what you're impersonating.

Our Jimmy can't keep it up, though. He takes her at face value when she pretends to resist his physical escalation and, within moments, he's holding her wrists as if wedding vows were tickling his tongue. "All you have to do is believe in me," he begs. The deflating of her sexual interest punctuates his crucial misstep like a wet fart during a church recital and she shuts down on him, leaving him to the knife in his pride while she retreats with her hairbrush and her coy-minx narcissism. In Peter Biskind's '70s tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Bogdanovich discussed his affair with a Lolita-like Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show. He recalled her casually tearing the petals off a flower like some destructive, doe-eyed Venus who hardly noticed all the stricken mortals and crushed egos in her wake. Carol is the evil twin of that flip innocence: a ball-buster of the utmost calculation who knows full well the torture she's putting Jimmy through, who relishes the hints of instability that he gives off as her denial of release keeps him wobbling on the precipice of some pell-mell lashing-out.

Jimmy needs what a man of certainty would simply want. He needs the conquest of Carol in order to call himself a man, in order to flesh out his half-baked sense of self — the self that neither his criminal father nor his withdrawn, piano-virtuoso-turned-nutcase of a mother were able to nourish. "I fuckin' need you to want me," he whines to Carol before glomming onto her breast like she's the last mother figure on earth. (And, of course, for Toback's purposes — diagramming the nosedive of his protagonist — she is.)

Toback leaves Jimmy's actual mother sketched in pencil, a flashback to a bad dream you'd have already shaken but for the unspeakable tragedy forecast in her mute shriek of a glare. Madness may as well have settled onto her from the mucky air of concert halls; Toback never tells us what it is that's pushed her to catatonia in a mental health facility. (Indeed, we can't imagine what brought her and Jimmy's father together in the first place.) Jimmy confides in her that he's bombed his audition with the same kingmaker who'd launched her on the classical circuit years before — surely, he's come home for a little of Mom's cooking and some words of reassurance; commiseration between tortured souls. He's his father's son now, though; her greatest mistake made flesh. She pushes him away, echoing the impulse she must have had all those years ago in the delivery room. She shrinks from the sight of him as if he'd peeled back his face to reveal the lizard-eyed progeny of her fateful dance with the devil, and the psychic tear in the narrative is too great to be repaired; the filicidal die is cast. Again, Jimmy needs something from a woman — the original woman — and again, he's brutally rejected. He'll disappoint Carol the surrogate mother, as well — by humping her to a premature climax, then throwing a tantrum as she drifts out the door unsatisfied. Naturally, he orders her to rip out her diaphragm: the guy wants nothing more than to crawl back into the womb and he'll brook no obstruction.

He hadn't counted on Dreems, though — the strapping black oak tree played by real-life Toback pal and football hall-of-famer Jim Brown. Jimmy follows Carol into Dreems' club like a strip of toilet paper that's stuck to her shoe, and the moment Dreems strolls into frame, Carol floats toward her Mandingo master like a glaze-eyed Bride of Dracula — Jimmy ceases to exist. Toback's pyretic Jewish-boy sexual masochism leaves no stone unturned in its salivating at the feet of the ebony stud. Not only does pussy collect under Dreems' storm cloud of pimp magnetism like barnacles on the hull of some unmoorable, indifferent ship, but Dreems hits every note in the symphony of expected black male existence — hustler, athlete, ladies' man, gangster, wildlife exhibit, sexual bogeyman to thrill-seeking whites — and he conflates them all into a single deafening clang that loops itself inside Jimmy's head.

Toback shoots a prelude to a Dreems orgy that fascinates as a shrink's-couch airing of the ultimate Jewish-male racial/sexual fixation: black dick as a battering ram against "repressive" Christian mores — the same fixation that flows through everything from porn's prototyping of blacks-on-blondes to the promotion of hip-hop as the preeminent cultural expression of our post-rock (a.k.a. post-white) modern era. It's not the two button-nosed shiksas trembling on the brink of a reverse-Oreo threesome that's got Toback playing pocket pool behind the camera — it's his buddy Jim Brown directing the girls to tongue his nipples then smacking their heads together in a burst of pique when they fail to get it on with each other. "Don't you ever cross me," Dreems warns in a moment that spikes Toback's fiction with reminders of Brown's real-life history of domestic violence accusations. Sure, Dreems knows a cuckold when he sees one, but Jim Brown knows what bitches like Carol do to men.

Dreems isn't threatened in the least by Jimmy's presence — he's amused by the chump flowers his chichi bottom bitch tears the petals from in his absence; he's amused by simps who sniff hungrily at other men's throwaways and march determinedly toward their own belittlement. Jimmy keeps showing the hand he first tipped the minute he came through the door — he sizes up Dreems, sizes up the way Carol watches Dreems, and he elicits nothing more than a smirk from the former boxer with his half-assed one-two combination and his scrappy kid's pretense to the cocksureness of grown men. Dreems toys with Jimmy, cat-like — first patronizing him, then seducing him, really, with the assurance of his attractiveness, of his worth as a man, that Carol's been withholding. It's a classic subtle dominance move: first establishing himself as the alpha male in the room, then nullifying his competitor's threat by undermining his expectations of direct confrontation and instead playing to his weaknesses. Dreems invites Jimmy to his orgy, and it's to help the dude get his thing together as much as it is to feed his own exhibitionism. Jimmy's on a rescue mission, though — to understand why his surrogate mom can't wean herself from brute masculinity, to try to pull her from the burning wreck of her self-destructive, sanity-threatening desires before she, too, goes up in flames. It's as if, by deepening the humiliation of watching Carol embrace his worst nightmare, Jimmy can somehow crack the code of his past and reclaim womankind for needy beta males everywhere.

"You don't even understand her ass," Dreems tells Jimmy while masking the hint of sympathy in his frustrated tone. Jimmy's busy hoisting street pussy onto pedestals when street pussy like Carol prefers to be taken by the hair and dragged naked through the filthiest sewers a man can conjure up. Dreems and Carol understand the contract that human biology has drawn up for them: to be dominated is the key component of a woman's psychology; to dominate, the key component of a man's. Fail to understand this — as Jimmy does by placing the Ming vase of his self-worth in Carol's reckless hands — and you fail to understand the driving principle behind male-female relations, which is to say, the propagation of life itself. Attempt to defy it and, like Jimmy, you spit in the very face of nature. The gods then must smite you, must levy a fine for your hubristic transgressions by leaving you stewing in the swamp of your own frustration and sexlessness — a warning to others who might likewise harbor delusions of imperviousness to the universal order.

Charge Angelelli, Sr. with dereliction of his fatherly duty. "They're all hoo-ers," he insists to Jimmy before stumbling over himself to introduce the nude centerfold-posing trollop he's decided to marry. She waits about four seconds after he leaves to hit on Jimmy, and it casts all the old man's tough talk and nuggets of guido wisdom into bold relief. Just look at his mess of a son: clearly, Dad never imparted the value of the alpha-male imperative to Jimmy. Clearly, he never taught Jimmy to invest in his own betterment above all else; to temper his expectations of the opposite sex by accepting women's chromosomal commitment to solipsism, illogic and vindictiveness. He never told Jimmy that, when wielded responsibly, a man's unabashed embrace of masculinity can right the tilted ship of male-female congress and bring one as close as possible to a life devoid of groveling, devoid of ritual self-abasement at the society-made altar of the almighty vertical smile.

"I shoulda strangled you in your crib," Jimmy's dad seethes in the face of Jimmy's inability to walk the walk that he never mastered. Instead, Daddy Loanshark saddled his kid with allegiance to a false idol and set him adrift on the merciless waters of feminine prerogative without so much as a compass. Mission accomplished, all the same.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Last of the Independents

 written and directed by Andrew Dominik
starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini,
Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn

Writer-director Andrew Dominik senses your itch for a bitter, black-coffee essay on the haplessness of small-time criminality and gives it a damn good scratch. Killing Them Softly comes gift-wrapped for all your whiskey-sodden bad moods — a grim, colorless, dirty-joke-on-the-way-to-the-electric-chair little yarn, adapted from a 1974 George V. Higgins novel, that's probably truer to the squalid, unfurnished lives of low-rent heist men and muscle for hire than any of the hip dialogue-laden romps we've come to associate with such characters.

Economic crisis befalls the underworld on the eve of Barack Obama's election to the White House: a pair of masked gunmen have just knocked over a poker game run by Mafia stooge Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Thanks to Markie's big mouth, everyone and his grandma knows he set up the robbery of one of his previous games — he laughs it off as if it were a locker-room anecdote about some fat girl he'd drunkenly nailed on spring break. Now, the mob is worried that, with the specter of yet another robbery hanging in the air — as well as the perception that nothing's being done about it — their games look about as attractive to the average high roller as a one-armed whore with the clap. Measures must be taken to restore confidence. Markie — though he's not responsible for this latest transgression — needs to be dealt with. Enter hit man extraordinaire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Cogan and his buttoned-up mob liaison Driver (Richard Jenkins) add the real perpetrators to the hit list: smacked-out Aussie dog-napper Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and jittery Frankie (Scoot McNairy), plus Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola of The Sopranos), the cleaning store owner who set the whole plan in motion. And if Jackie could stay within the meager confines of his recession-era budget and get the job done as quickly and as cleanly as possible, well, the bosses sure would appreciate it.

One needn't ponder why Dominik chose to lard Higgins' pulp-fiction roast with lumpy political-analogy gravy that parallels gangsters scrambling to fix a glitch in their easy-money machine with Obama & Co. bailing out Wall Street. (Reassuring soundbites from Dubya and Barry O bleat ironic counterpoint from every bar television and car radio.) Pitt's Jackie sums the film up for us: America is a business, he says, and cold, hard commerce is the engine driving every aspect of it, from business dealings and political maneuvers to — one presumes — personal relationships, marriages, friendships, whatever. Nothing is for "the good of the people" without first being good for the pockets of those who pull the strings — those sainted yet deeply hypocritical men named Thomas Jefferson or Barack Jesus Christ Obama, who sire slave children while stirring men with words of equality, or who preach sacrifice for the hand-to-mouth masses while shitting hundred-dollar bills and wiping their asses with fifties. No less a backdrop than Obama's election-night victory speech accompanies Jackie's nifty monologue, and it's followed immediately by "Money (That's What I Want)" chirping away on the soundtrack — subtle, this film ain't.

Then again, sledgehammers have their charms, too. Jackie explains his preference for "killing 'em softly" — i.e. from a distance, untouched by the complications of getting close to a sobbing, pissing-his-pants victim who's pleading for his life — and it calls to mind any number of lit candles held menacingly close to the country's paper ideals by button-pushing D.C. bureaucrats who never have to actually look at anyone, be they casualties in Iraq, the victims of umpteen U.S.-supported dictatorships, or tomorrow's fathers in army fatigues, sent to their graves halfway around the globe under the flimsiest of justifications. Now, though, as never before, the tide has turned inward; basic survival for ordinary taxpayers seems the rock of Sisyphus. America eats its young, as the Funkadelic album told us, and with employment rates and average household incomes still looking at the toilet and deciding to go for a nice, cool swim, the pickings are scrawnier than ever.

Killing Them Softly is the gangster film that crowns our era of downsized expectations with a king's fit. Dominik drains it of passion and all but the most bone-dry gallows humor, strips it to the barest of crime-plot mechanics without the slightest pretense toward larger-than-life outlaw excitement — or that hoary stand-by "honor among thieves." It's like a Tarantino script directed by someone who's seen too much to pretend — 97 minutes of watching dumb, sick animals totter blindly about as we sit there, waiting for the bear trap of their inevitable doom to close around their ankles. Ray Liotta's Markie has a bulls-eye on his forehead from the moment we meet him — the poor schmuck — and not a damn thing can erase it: not his poker-room chumminess with the fellas, not his essential harmlessness, not the money his games have raked in for the big boys over the years. He's puffy, a soft-boiled egg without even the protection of a shell, sodden from drink and fattened up on the assumption of good will that he thinks his years of harmless mook-ness have bought him. Even the goons tossing him through plate glass windows and pounding him until he returns his lunch don't exactly dislike the guy. But it's business, y'see — Mahatma-fucking-Gandhi himself couldn't stem the tide of ass-whoop, were he to come up short on his count at the end of the day. Markie's every luckless fuck-nuts hanging on by fraying threads of amiability that you've ever heard about if you hung around certain neighborhoods — you shake your head and laugh when your friend tells you about the latest stunt he's pulled and how they had to drag him into the back room and give 'im another beatin' before they fixed him a drink for his troubles. And then, your friend's telling you about the low turnout for his wake, and what a shame it was about that guy — and you shake your head and exhale into stale air. Some schmucks are better left forgotten.

James Gandolfini’s Mickey, flown in from Back East to assist in taking out the offending parties, shuffles off the plane like an overfed calf who'd downed his last swallow of Scotch and said, "why not?" after the universe tapped him on the shoulder and nodded toward the slaughterhouse. He's the career gangster as walking dead, a professional eraser worn to a nub, as numb and inadequate to the task of one more go-round as the cock he winds up pushing on half the whores in town. Gandolfini's exuded a certain weariness for most of his career. Trace that straight line running through his cavalcade of bearish thugs and natural born killers-for-hire and what you find is an actor sighing in resignation at the kinds of roles that his bulk and his physiognomy have confined him to — and yet, aware of the lived-in verisimilitude that he brings to these parts like none of his contemporaries. (His stabs at ordinary working guys tend to fit like suits made for smaller, lesser actors — they need tailoring, expansion.) It's a deal with the devil he seems to strike with each grinning, Jersey-esque sociopath he signs up for: yeah, I'll play another gangster, another alpha-male hard case, but I'm gonna give you a guy at the ass end of the life, a guy with a fate somebody long ago fired into the back of his head — it's just taken all these years to finally cut through all the booze and pussy. Mickey's obvious reference point would seem to be an older, wearier Virgil from Tony Scott's electric True Romance. (And it's a thrill to see Gandolfini and Pitt reunited here.) But Virgil wasn't yet ready for the pasture — he might have been "too old" to think to check under a bed for a suitcase full of coke but he could still get it up for the finer details of the job. Beating Alabama to a pulp was spontaneous bathroom-stall sex for a man walled off from all normal human sensation; sheer fire-hydrant release after the foreplay of Alabama's cock-tease of refusal and his Charles Whitman "bitch of the bunch" speech.

What we're really looking at is a what-if rendition of Tony Soprano ten years after onion rings at Holsten's, ten years into ever costlier payoffs for his wife's complicity, skull-fucked into a dead-soul stupor by the nightmare of watching his useless children morph into the people he always feared they'd be. (Mickey's got all the Tony mannerisms, the "whattya gonna do.") This Mickey's all torn up over women — he can make a young Jewish hooker with a great ass sound like the saddest thing in the world — and he bleeds his depression all over Jackie with a blow-by-blow of his wife threatening him with divorce, and his acceptance of it, as he's sucking down every drink in sight. Jackie's staring at him, wondering what the hell he's going to do with this morose, angry bastard, and it hits him right then and there: Mickey is him in twenty years, a hollowed-out prisoner of his own lonesome-drifter ethos, unable to sustain a life beyond the gun. It's the only kind of final chapter ever written for guys like him — no "happy," just an ending. (Jackie concedes his beer to his hard-drinking future self — he'll need it by then.) That realization spurs the only small mercy we see from Jackie — clemency wrapped in hard-bitten practicality — and it's part and parcel of a character who'd balked earlier at the notion of dishing out a prolonged thrashing to a man who's already marked for death. (Shades of American mealy-mouthing about torture, I presume.)

That's not to suggest that Pitt imbues Jackie with anything so damnably Hollywood as a "heart of gold." Jackie plies his trade with an unhesitating, face-to-face efficiency that delivers on the promise of his intro, set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," and utterly curdles the memory of his I-kill-'em-from-a-distance self-flattery. Nothing creases the brow of our slicked-back man in black — not the whimpering of a shotgunned man coughing and moaning through his final seconds of life as Jackie steps out of the darkness to put the cherry on his handiwork, not the casual necessity of eliminating an only witness with a bit of cranial reconstruction at point-blank range. Initially, I wrote off the slo-mo sequence of a Jackie hit set to Ketty Lester's "Love Letters" as pointlessly over-stylized, its bullets-as-love-letters conceit lifted wholesale — and rather cutely — from David Lynch's Blue Velvet. But there's a dazzling near-beauty to the way that the hit is presented — to the way that Jackie eases forward into the rain like a conjured spirit, gun-first; to the way that each detail of the hit is offered up for our fetishistic dissection. It's in the way that time distends itself to lovingly caress the clockwork mechanics of that steely piece of modern manhood — the release of the hammer, the kickback, all in trance-inducing extreme close-up with a magnified, Lynchian sound-effects rendering. It's in the perfect hole that a bullet makes in a pebbled mosaic of shattering glass, in the raindrops plinking off of spent shell casings like the kiss of a pebble skipping across a slumbering lake. It's in Jackie's target — frozen in a surreal stop-motion tableau of helplessness, hand impotently raised to stop the unstoppable. The whole sequence spins off into a kind of fever-dream hypnosis forged by a filmmaker in mad adolescent love with the magician's tricks at his disposal — it’s like a short-film treatise on the destructibility of human flesh fused with crash test dummy footage shot by David Fincher. It becomes its own grace note for Jackie, a paean to pure professionalism that morphs into a dreamy eroticism — the only real passion a cinder-hearted prick like Jackie can feel.

I suspect that this film's reputation may grow in the years to come, even if what it looks like at the moment is a minor work in the Dominik filmography — say, a stopgap E.P. after the sprawling, talent-defining double album that was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik's channeling the Gritty '70s with a Nixon-era they're-all-scumbags cynicism unfashionable in today's Democrat-besotted Hollywood and he filters it through the steely, desaturated colors and depersonalized urban anywheresville of David Fincher's Fight Club. It's a modern-day answer to Shampoo, really — a political allegory, set on the eve of a divisive American president's rise to power, that contrasts the grubby, self-centered goings-on of an American society in crisis with the backdrop of lofty rhetoric and empty promises made by the politicians who set the moral tone for all of us. To the callow bed-hoppers of 1968 Beverly Hills in the former, it was Tricky Dick Nixon — the evil spirit conjured forth by the me-firstness and personal corruption of the Southern California that gave him his initial prominence in politics. In Dominik's vision, it's the malfeasance and woeful mismanagement of an American government gone completely, bloodlessly corporate. Either way, it's a pointed finger at the people in the audience: "you — we — put this asshole in charge." Little wonder, then, that such a hard swig of rotgut was so utterly bypassed in our wine cooler era of "hope and change."

Dominik uses Pitt here the way he used his Jesse James: as his enigmatic Grim Reaper figure — the eerily unruffled, calmly fatalistic Zen center around which everyone else's panicked flailing and deer-in-the-crosshairs confusion revolves. Jackie's the graying ghost of an America That Was, evil flipside to a whole generation of unwavering, principled men who dedicated their lives to a craft. That craft, that job, was the sum total of who these men were, and they simply got down to business with no dawdling and little fanfare, with no expectation of a thank-you beyond full payment for services rendered. And what thanks does our Jackie get, this last of a dying breed, this true professional in our castrated modern era of loose-lipped amateurs and outsourced labor? He's saddled with double-talking bosses whose only concern is cutting corners. He's stuck picking up the slack for guys who just can't cut it. He's reduced to bitching with his colleague in a deserted airport bar like some middle-aged paper-shuffler who's in town for a conference about how to maximize productivity for the coming fiscal quarter, for God's sake. America eats its young, and leaves the bones for its working men to pick.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Roots, Bloody Roots

written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Guns on the table: is Quentin Tarantino using a shameful period of American history as so much paint to splash upon his hipster pasticheur's canvas, as the Spike Lees and Armond Whites of the world have charged? Is he, in fact, turning the subjugation and mental colonization of a race of people into just another candy-colored Panavision playground for his boundless, grindhouse-fed imagination to romp through?

Of course, he is – and it puts him in the company of approximately every dramatist or storyteller who's ever existed.

Imagine, if you will, a human existence without the eternal Godzilla's foot of war and enmity between nations that looms over us in every era, threatening to stamp us into oblivion. Imagine hearts shielded from the pin-pricks of bigotry and callousness and brotherly betrayal; no random shootings, robberies gone awry or crumbling inner-city war zones blasted daily into our consciousness by op-ed pieces and chirpy anchorwomen. What, then, would our future artistes and essayists on the human condition use to fuel their plaudit-inspiring, name-making masterworks? How many little gold statuettes and industry back-slaps have been dished out on the deaths of soldiers at Normandy or grunts blown apart by Vietnamese land mines, while we swooned over all that Method-acted agony on the screen and inhaled another fistful of Goobers? Does one suppose that the Bard paused in the middle of writing Macbeth to weep for poor souls ground underfoot in man's eternal headlong rush to power? Human suffering is art, and the Tarantino of Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds – comic-book moral intelligence notwithstanding – is no more inherently objectionable than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam restaging the David Berkowitz killings or Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski slapping wheels under the Holocaust and riding that sucker straight into Oscarville.

What gets folks all indignant about The King of the Fanboys tackling a Serious Subject like slavery is the same thing that makes his work crackle with a charge unmatched in our dickless modern era: he refuses to stick a neat little bow on his intentions for the guardians of human suffering by ladling on the strings, standing back at a respectable distance and putting his sense of humor on ice. He refuses (is unable?) to treat the slave trade as any less of a springboard to rip-roaring action-movie nirvana than botched jewel heists, Mexican standoffs in diners or Uma Thurman and her samurai sword taking on a squad of assassins – hence, the accusations of cloistered geek-boy insensitivity.

But he's not wrong, in essence. To try and understand with twenty-first century minds a world where biblically justified chattel was as intrinsic to daily life as child labor and the outdoor commode is to circle endlessly around a cold black void of the unknowable. What might as well be dystopian sci-fi from the unbridgeable distance of neat schoolbook summaries or dusty daguerreotypes flashed upon in PBS documentaries becomes flesh and blood when couched in the grammar of a big Christmas-season revenge flick. Ancient history merges with the present-day narrative, the freedom of a Nat Turner becomes as tangible a hero’s quest as Batman cleaning up Gotham. Culture-wide catharsis beckons at the pop of an overloaded squib.

That's not to say that Tarantino isn't indulging in the usual Hollywood self-flattery. Your friend who still quotes lines from Pulp Fiction will swear to you that Django is an examination of how every facet of an ostensibly civilized society both benefits from and does its part to sustain institutionalized inequality. Tarantino's not that deep, though – not intentionally, anyway – so what we actually get is a rock-'em-sock-'em Sergio Corbucci/blaxploitation mash-up where modern-day liberals are time-machined back to the mean old past to wreak sweet, bloody havoc on the not-with-it-ness of our backwards forebears. No one with an investment in historical accuracy will mistake Christoph Waltz's kindly, über-progressive Dr. King Schultz for anything but an emissary of our present age of enlightenment, what with his pangs of guilt about buying Django like a horse and his blithe naïveté about riding through town with a black man at his side, while clueless as to what all the slack-jawed yahoos are staring at. His climactic Wild Bunch gesture – a Pike Bishop middle finger in the face of one last compromise – completes his canonization.

Obviously, then, Schultz is our Tarantino surrogate – the lone white swan amidst rotten-tooth redneck ducklings, the white man who gets it, the sole beneficiary of divine wisdom and madcap inspiration who atones for the sins of his race by freeing a black man from the chains of iniquity and molding him into an instrument of heroic vengeance that echoes the legends of his youth. (The Nibelungenlied for Schultz, Coffy and Fred Williamson flicks for the future masthead of the S.S. Weinstein.) It's interracial male bonding not as a balm for lingering social hostilities, not even as a Tarantino-esque tweak of buddy-movie conventions, but as a fundamentally white male artist's assertion of continued relevance in the age of identity politics; an application for renewal of the ghetto pass Tarantino first earned by sporting a backwards Kangol and telling the media of his mother's black boyfriends and his lifelong hard-on for Pam Grier.

I wonder, though: what happened to the mad bomber of Miramax who played around with form and context like a mischievous brat who'd just received the history of cinema for a Christmas toy? Whither goeth the pop revolutionary who delighted in taking stock genre characters and dropping them into the real world with its frustrating refusal to stick to the script? When a pair of bad-ass hit men like Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent find themselves faced with the consequences of careless firearm handling in an everyman's L.A. full of observant cops and friends who want your ass gone before the wife gets home, it's how they extricate themselves that epitomized the singularity of Tarantino's gift – the way that their B-movie programming short-circuits at life's improv and sends them scrambling out of the cineplex toward a kind of shaky humanity. "Movies are great," the video store clerk-turned-overnight sensation seemed to be telling us. "But at some point, you've gotta grow up." Jackie Brown's sublime meditation on aging and regret only furthered the perception.

Now his gift's in service of cinematic wish fulfillment, righting the wrongs of history. The bad-boy president of the N-word Fan Club is now defined by his eagerness to liberate himself from the shackles of white maleness and soothe his chapped ankles in the waters of grrl power, anti-anti-Semitism and black hipness. Problem is, that eagerness has blinded him to how underwritten his totems of payback-against-The-Man tend to be. (Unless, of course, he meant to make Basterds the first World War II movie in which the Nazis are complex, three-dimensional magnets for audience identification while the Jews are little more than bloodthirsty comic relief.)

Jamie Foxx, as Django, is supposedly the centerpiece of the Unchained saga, and yet – grim irony – he winds up about three-fifths of a fully sketched lead. (Waltz is the true star of the film.) One guesses that Tarantino didn't feel the need to – pardon the pun – color him in: our counted-upon disgust for slavery was assumed to be enough to have us cheering on Django's rebirth as the ebony Siegfried. (Just as motherhood in Kill Bill was meant to be the trigger for our investment in The Bride.) And Tarantino was likely motivated by the threadbare characterization and shadowy man-with-no-name aura of any number of spaghetti western protagonists. Still, he somewhat glosses over the psychological scars of a life in bondage by having Django go so easily from human property to damn-the-system avenger and crackshot marksman. We need to feel, as well as see, the spectacle of a black man rising from the prehistoric racial milieu of 1858 and pointing his shotgun toward a better tomorrow. We need to see the nuts and bolts of nothing less than a man's mind being molded. The potentially fatal audacity of learning to put bullets in white men for money, of developing a ruse in order to waltz into the fourth biggest plantation in Mississippi and reclaim his wife, needs to be as eye-opening and as consciousness-transforming for Django as the contact with other lifeforms in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – he's discovering new planets. Instead, we get an amusing scene of Django decked out in Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia and a nifty montage set to Jim Croce.

Foxx is less a pure actor than he is a movie star and comedian (call it The Eddie Murphy Factor), so he keeps us at arm’s length, never truly disappears into the character the way a Don Cheadle or a Chiwetel Ejiofor might have. Tarantino, in a recent interview with Henry Louis Gates, spoke of having to coax Foxx into the mindset needed for Django – the spirit-killing degradation and utter smallness internalized by a man who's used to life as a farm implement. But Foxx doesn’t do "smallness." Here, as in most of his performances (Michael Mann's excellent Collateral being an exception), he's too tethered to his public award-show image of super cool Jamie Foxx-ness, too locked into a shell of 2012 black male hardness that refuses all hints of vulnerability and bristles with anachronistic indignation. It's a variation on the same false note that plagued Spielberg's Lincoln, with its 1865 black soldiers proudly addressing not just any white man, mind you, but the President of the United States of America – and with far too much direct eye contact and (to echo Richard Pryor) "bass" in their voices, to boot.

Here, you can see that hip-hop-appropriate I-ain't-no-muthafuckin'-slave-ness bubbling up long before the narrative has a chance to account for it: on the plantation of the Don Johnson character as Django pumps a hole in the leering sadist who once reveled in whipping Django's wife, or at the beginning as Django struts forward to grab the coat from a dead white man and put his weight on the mangled leg of the dead man's brother. It's there as Django cracks wise and simmers with animus during his and Schultz's visit to the Candie Land plantation under the guise of purchasing mandingo fighters – and it's enough to smother whatever suspension of disbelief we've been able to muster between all the cutesy spaghetti western speed-zooms and flashbacks filtered to look like a faded film print from 1968. It's an admission of this misplaced modernity when Tarantino drops 2Pac and Rick Ross on the soundtrack. And because we haven't fully bought into his kitsch-laden panorama of the past, the choice doesn't jar us nearly as much as, say, Peter Gabriel's synth-drums over the opening battle in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

It’s worth noting that Django only bonds with Schultz the hip Tarantino stand-in rather than with any black characters. Despite his flair for the verbiage of salt-and-pepper interaction, Tarantino has no real idea how black people might actually relate to one another. (Jackie Brown's tête-à-têtes with Ordell aside, and that's in large part due to Elmore Leonard's source novel – in which she was white.) We keep waiting for Django to offer a helping hand, some ray of hope – something befitting a hero – to his fellow black men as he prepares to ride off into his preordained sunset of ass-kicking righteousness. They stare up at him like a living Greek myth whose legend they'll undoubtedly spread to others, and he looks back at them – knowing yet dispassionate, a god made flesh. And then? Tarantino seems to be nudging us toward something larger, some sparking of a communal flame – perhaps a plantation-wide revolt – that might thrust his fantasia into a broader historical context, that might use his worship of the "bad muthafucka" archetype to scrape decades of Hollywood-applied makeup from the bloodstained, genocide-blemished face of American history.

But nothing comes of it. Was Leonardo DiCaprio's plantation heir Calvin Candie right when he pegged Django as a one-in-ten-thousand rarity among biologically docile blacks? It's as if Tarantino spent all his capital on enriching Django's relationship with a white man and had none left to flesh out the sense of community that undoubtedly existed among slaves, even under the shit-encrusted boot of captivity. Save for a brief, enlightening throwaway of Samuel Jackson's Stephen joking with the kitchen help, we get no hints of the cobbled-from-scraps culture – the humor, the secret communication – that managed to nourish blacks in spite of slavery's every attempt to sever them from human connection and turn them into self-regulating extensions of Massa's whip. There's nothing from Tarantino, that eternally bowed figure at the monument of superficial black coolness, that even nods in the direction of slaves' capacity for aiding one another. Rebellion other than Django's crackles at the margins of the narrative but it's ill-planned – and we do need a sacrificial lamb or two to help showcase the depths of hillbilly depravity – so it's easily quashed. Django, though, has the good fortune to have Schultz; he's given agency and on-the-job training by a Magic Caucasian figure who feels sorry for the poor devil, thus, he triumphs. It's retroactive affirmative action; the auspices of the hipster's White Negro impulse jumping back in time with the cutups from Dave Chappelle's "Playa Haters in Time" skit and rewriting Roots.

As with Basterds, though, the real meat of Django Unchained is around the edges. Laura Cayouette, as Candie's sister (and probable lover) Lara, is a satirist's sketch of blushing Southern-belle coquettishness; Susan George in Mandingo minus the storm clouds of scorned-woman spite. Walton Goggins, as Candie Land henchman Billy Crash, is our grinning death's head of keep-the-niggers-in-their-place-ism – a bud of privileged intransigence that would shortly blossom into the Confederacy and the Klan. (By the way, Quentin, 1858 is three years from the start of the Civil War, not two.) He's in a constant, self-perpetuating fit of arousal: he can't wait to kill you in the most agonizing way possible, and he wants to know if it turns you on as much as it does him. A cineaste could die smiling from all the great character actors that keep popping up: Don Stroud facing down his doom with prickly unawareness, a befuddled Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, James Remar, Franco Nero (in Tarantino's obligatory nod to the original Django westerns).

From the second he turns to greet us, DiCaprio's Candie is clearly no member of the laboring class. He's a cover-boy dandy for the Esquire of the antebellum South, with his ridiculous Holly Golightly cigarette holder, his pointy cartoon-devil goatee and his air of bored hedonism that can't help but hold a mirror up to the thoroughly average countenance of whoever has the audacity not to have been born a wickedly clever son of the landowning class. Like the insane dreamworld that surrounds him, he's a study in contrasts: he's our gracious host for a banquet on the elevator to hell, balls-deep in chained chocolate as he preaches phrenology and offhandedly instructs a pair of bloodied mandingos to "keep fightin', niggers" while tossing his Southern hospitality around the room like bits of bread thrown to starving pickaninnies. That's no goof on nineteenth-century hygiene when his smile flashes rotting yellow teeth: that's the state of his soul, the silk hanky of the "suh-thun way-a lahf" peeled back to reveal a lump of maggot-infested horse meat.

Candie and Stephen, his head servant and the father figure that's shaped Calvin from childhood, are a crackling minstrel-show duo of his 'n hers interdependence. (Call it Jack Benny and an uppity-as-hell Rochester as sketched by the writers of Blazing Saddles.) Hilariously, Jackson's made up to look like a refugee from a crude Reconstruction-era staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He distances himself from the self-loathing of this doddering old sellout with that theatrical old-man look and with funky little touches like the tuft of white hair that adorns his bald geezer's dome. It's another of Tarantino's knowing black men schooling greenhorn white boys in the ways of the world (think Mr. Orange and Holdaway in Reservoir Dogs); yet another Sam Jackson performance that hones Tarantino's genius for triggering manic, queasy laughs to a diamond-bullet sharpness. From his every utterance of "muthafucka" to his Ordell Robbie huckster's laugh (more distancing techniques), to the glorious intro shot of that beady-eyed scowl that breaks over the landscape of his face like sudden nightfall, I couldn't get enough of him.

It's Stephen who runs the show at Candie Land – the original Head Nigga In Charge – and, though he gives great shuck 'n jive while yes'm-ing and mm-hmm'ing away at the side of his boy king, it's Stephen who reveals himself to be the dragon standing between Django and his sainted princess. Stephen drops his mask of servility twice, and indelibly: face to face with Django and, earlier, as he hips Calvin to the ruse that had a house full of fool white folks nodding along like Simple Simons. It's his truest self: the contempt for his socially appointed betters that lurks shark-like under placid waters of sass-tongued coonery. Forget Clarence Thomas, Jackson gives us Stephen as a great-great-grandfather to the flared-nostril surliness that white liberal tastemakers now applaud as Authentic Negro Expression – commodified black rage turned self-applied blackface. And tiny victories are all Stephen's world allows him; if he has to topple another black man just to feel the salve of backroom superiority against his own chapped ankles, then so be it.

Tarantino, divorced as he is from the fat, humorless bitch of highbrow critical consensus, has long championed Richard Fleischer's Mandingo for its big-studio wading into murky exploitation waters. But Mandingo – along with Lars von Trier’s overlooked Manderlay – trumps Django for pure daring. Fleischer and von Trier dig beneath evil-whitey caricatures to stare head-on at the fetishizing of black otherness that kept slavery on life support. That "otherness" eventually curdled into America's fear of miscegenation: for generations of self-styled white Siegfrieds, the black penis became the fire-breathing dragon forever coiled in wait outside the castle of white womanhood. That’s something Tarantino shies away from, cranking up gunshot geysers of tomato sauce in its place – Sam Peckinpah by way of Chuck Jones. It's not surprising, given his career-long aversion to the sexuality that informed much of the cinema he claims as inspiration. Django does bear the scent of sex in one regard, though, and it's the fruit of Tarantino's apparent white-liberal cuckold fantasies: he sits back and watches a black man fuck the legacy of his ancestors. And you know what they say about black virility. No wonder this long-winded film keeps climaxing over and over.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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