Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Feature Film Is Dead, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” Is Its Tombstone

There are lots of bad Hollywood films pitchforked at us every year, of course.  But not many from the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is both a Martin Scorsese movie and a crime against cinema.  It’s a soulless, brainless, lazy, relentlessly ugly calamity it’s hard not to read as hostile to its audience—an audience out fully three hours of its one and only life on earth by the time the nightmare’s over. 

This is a film that asks the searing cultural question, "What happens when you lift a bunch of fictional 'men' out of a Bud Light ad, drop them into an NC-17 playground, and let the cameras roll?"

And then leave nothing on the cutting-room floor?   

I’d synopsize the story, but there is no story.

I’d mention the characters, but there are no characters.

There’s just a bloated, depthless cartoon that makes the idiotic mistake of cranking the debauchery knob to an anemic “10” when it’s well over two decades now since Bret Easton Ellis gave us a similarly revolting Wall Street nightmare (American Psycho) with the knob wrenched to 12 and a half.  

If debauchery's all you're going for, and you can’t get your knob to at least 13, what's the point?

Maybe it’s just the beginnings of the old-and-crankies on my part.  But I sometimes feel a little betrayed when hugely talented artists I’ve put a certain amount of spiritual stock in decide it's time to start farting in public.  I mean, can the man who gave us Jake Lamotta before the mirror really not see how unwatchable, how unbearably bad these never-ending scenes with Leo DiCaprio preaching hyena capitalism to cattle pens full of coked-up stockbrokers are?  Minute after impossible minute grinds by, DiCaprio screaming vapid corporate nothings about, like, Steve Madden shoes into a hand-held mike.  And just when you’re sure there can’t possibly be another such scene in the film, twenty minutes later he’s hollering into that mike again, another six, seven, eight, nine minutes ticking painfully off the clock.

There are a few possibilities here, maybe.

The first is that Scorsese just needs to retire.  Because he can no longer tell the difference between good cinema—which he may have been limply trying for here—and a migraine. 

The second is that The Wolf of Wall Street actually isn't an attempt at good movie making.  It’s just a hate letter addressed to multiplex-goers.  It’s Scorsese saying, All right, dolts.  You think the 2013 Superman was a good movie?  And Cars and Skyfall and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  Well here’s some red meat for you, morons.  Choke on it.  All three hours of it.  And how about you give it a best-picture nod, too, since the fact it came out in December must mean it’s Oscar material? 

The Wolf of Wall Street, this is to say, just might be Scorsese’s Metal Machine Music.

But there’s a third possibility.  And it brings me no joy to introduce it, but I feel, as I gaze out on the smoking ruins of 21st-century American cinema, the time has come to do so.

Maybe there are so few good American movies these days because we’re becoming a nation of philistines.

Maybe Martin Scorsese can’t make a great movie (or even a good one) in 2013 because he’s no longer living in a culture that licenses him to do it.  Maybe he’s working in an America that doesn’t want good movies.  That can’t tell the difference between a good movie and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Maybe a culture’s desire for good art is the rainwater that makes good art grow.       

Maybe one of our founding assumptions about great popular art is ass-backwards: great artists don’t create mass audiences for themselves through sheer brilliance, persistence, and brute intellectual will.  

Maybe society instead uses its force of will—one harder to see, but no less real—to grow the great art and artists it secretly wants and needs.

Maybe Americans, despite initial widespread expressions of anger and disgust, willed Friedkin and his Exorcist into being.  Or Hitchcock and his Psycho.  Or Waters and his Female Trouble.        

Maybe the veiled social will that gave rise to those great movies and scores of others is now fading away.

Maybe Martin Scorsese’s status as a sometimes-great artist doesn’t make him a magician who can grow a big, strong orange tree in the middle of Death Valley.  Maybe no matter how hard he tries, the best he’ll manage is to raise a gnarly little weed like The Wolf of Wall Street.   

Okay, okay: the nation-of-philistines thing might be going too far.  There’s been no particular scarcity of excellent pop music since 2000.  Or excellent TV, truth be told.  And it’s not like there have been no good American movies in the 21st century: behold Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007), Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), Spielberg’s Munich (2005).

Every year, though, there are fewer films cut from anything like the same cloth as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Nashville, Annie Hall, A Clockwork Orange, and Chinatown—or any of a thousand more obscure, no-less inspired Golden Era titles: your Eraserheads, your Night of the Living Deads, your Chelsea Girls.  And I know—I know—there’s been no paucity of mega-budget CGI extravaganzas in recent years making perfectly smart critics jump out of their seats with glee and invent whole new vocabularies of superlatives to drive up the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores.  

But that fact begs a certain question:

Does anyone really think we’ll still be talking about Avatar twenty years from now?  

How about Gravity?  Or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?  Or The Lord of the Rings?  Or Wall-E?  Or Iron ManAnd lest I come off as a simple special-effects/summer-blockbuster hater, how many 21st-century American movies that seem, at first blush, cut from genuine Golden Era cloth do we really think will stand that same test of time?  Winter’s BoneDjango UnchainedSidewaysThe Hurt LockerThere Will Be Blood21 GramsBoratBlack SwanMidnight in Paris

Takers?  Anyone?  On twenty years from now?

Look: I’m not saying it means fire and brimstone that the era of the Hollywood feature film as art is ending.  But I guess I’m saying it’s ending.  And pretty rapidly, too.  And it’s rarely clearer than when a once-major artist like Martin Scorsese drops a stink bomb like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Is some other cultural form going to step up to provide art for the masses?

Don’t look to pop music: unless it’s Justin Bieber's we’re talking about, there are no mass audiences anymore.

Don’t look to the American novel: a few strong 21st-century efforts by Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen aside, its best days are obviously gone.  Besides which, how many Americans still read?  Anything?

Could it be we’re simply evolving out of our need for art, now that so much of what happens in “reality” gets sucked up instantly into the Screenland we used to go to for art?

(Wasn't the painted canvas always a "screen"?  Wasn't the proscenium arch?  The printed page?)

For better or worse, we’re poised to find out.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder, and the Odds

I don’t care if Stevie Wonder’s best music is decades behind him: he’s obviously still one of the most badass Americans alive.  Behold his recent announcement he will, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, boycott Florida.

It’s about time people who actually live in the 21st century—Americans and others who come here for work, school, or vacation—start kicking certain parts of the U.S. where it counts:

The wallet. 

Because it’s eminently clear said certain parts require more inducement to sanity than public castigation is providing—a fact demonstrated by a proliferation of “Stand Your Ground”-style laws in too many U.S. states.

One of the many, many problems with these laws is that they make it too easy for goons under the influence of racial animus to antagonize, shoot, and walk.  All it takes is a wink (“I sure was being threatened!”) and a nudge (“I didn’t even notice he was black!”).    

Here’s the thing about racism in America today: just because it dares not speak its own name from behind the political podium, in front of the TV-news camera, or across the boardroom table doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

Racism’s existence was a no-duh proposition at a time when mobs in bed sheets proudly murdered young black men for, like, looking (even supposedly) at white women.  But today, when a black teenager walking in his own neighborhood is shot and killed in an encounter with the Batman, and the Batman swears the teen’s blackness had nothing to do with why he was selected for harassment, and a sizable chunk of the white population actually takes up the Batman’s tune and sings a million-part harmony behind it, it’s easy for us to enter a weird metaphysical fog—one in which we might find ourselves asking, “Well…was racism a factor in Trayvon Martin’s death, then?”

Of course it was.  

And the fact that Trayvon might, in the time-honored tradition of 17 year-olds, have thrown the first shove doesn’t change it. 

Lord knows I’m no statistician.  But it seems to me racism’s continued presence in American life comes clear enough if we just (as the President recently invited us to do) consider some odds.   

What are the odds Trayvon is accosted by the Batman in his own neighborhood that night if he’s clearly, plainly, obviously white instead of black?

What are the odds the Batman beats the second-degree-murder and manslaughter charges if the race roles are reversed—if the Batman is a 29 year-old black man and it’s a 17 year-old white child he’s amateur-policed to death?

What are the odds a white person who utters the word “bullshit” to a state trooper during a traffic stop winds up in handcuffs in the back of the squad car?  And what are the odds for a black person?

What are the odds a white American in possession of a few lines' worth of cocaine gets arrested for it, and what are the odds for a black person in possession of same?

What are the odds a black person who speaks a black American dialect is hired over a white person who speaks a white American dialect if it’s a white person (and it usually is) conducting the job interview?

Friends: we could do this all day.

Yes, it's true a black neighborhood watchman could get off after killing a white suburban teenager.  It's true a black person who speaks like she's from South Philly could get hired over a white person who speaks like she's from Yale.  It's true a forty year-old white dude in a Polo shirt and khakis could get followed around a department store by a security guard who just has a kinda funny feeling about this guy.

All these things are in the realm of the possible. 

But anyone who grew up in the U.S. who thinks those scenarios are just as likely as others in which a black American experiences the business end of the stick, he or she just might—to invoke the great moral philosopher Ted Nugent—be brain dead.

What will it take to wake Floridians up to the fact that wild-west times are gone?

A good, thumping kick to Disney World's bottom line in 2014 might be an excellent place to start.

Monday, July 1, 2013

"Mad Men" and the Myth of Counterculture

How did hip morph, in U.S. culture, from a secret code of the dispossessed to something good for selling semi-disposable furniture and hamburgers?

It seems a pressing question now that hip is so omnipresent in our lives, lurking in every Starbucks coffee cup, every Urban Outfitters store, every Volkswagen ad.  It's even found distressingly fertile ground on the Web, winking out at us from a billion images of light saber-wielding cats.

The suspicion for years now has been that the 1960s were the turning point—the moment when hip quit flirting with the mainstream (à la Dizzy and Kerouac in the '50s), abandoning its bungalows and rat-hole apartments to shack up with capitalism.  Because advertising was the medium by which so many square Americans made first acquaintance with hip's delights, Madison Avenue has often been cast as the horse whisperer that lassoed hip, made it behave, and sold it to Peoria and Levittown.

For this reason, it's inevitable we look to the celebrated AMC series Mad Men, set on Madison Avenue in the '60s, for theories about what really went on in advertising in those crucial years.  And the good news is the show doesn't disappoint, offering a sophisticated, nuanced vision of a love-hate relationship between the advertising industry and the ultra-hip counterculture headquartered just a few Manhattan blocks away.

As Mad Men sees it, '60s advertising didn't just co-opt and defang hip; it also found a soul-mate in it, was infiltrated by it, and even learned to do its bidding—just as hip learned to do Madison Avenue's.  In positing a complex symbiotic relationship between hip and consumer capitalism, not a simple parasitic one, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner throws in with such recent cultural theorists as Thomas Frank, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, and—especially—John Leland.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Six Pithy to Semi-Pithy Observations about Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"

1. It has to have started as a joke about a novel so complex it turns into rocket science.  Actual rocket science. 

2. True, it's a Bakhtinian orgy of a thousand discourses, many of them remarkably specialized.  But it's narrated in just two main voices, really: the grandiose, self-mythologizing one that gives us the famous opening line, "A screaming comes across the sky," and the deliberately facile (o-or glib!) one that relays about a million Roadrunner & Coyote-type scenes and gives us the famous line, "fickt nicht mit dem raketemensch!"  After a few hundred pages they're both pretty hard to take—the second especially, as it gets to sounding a little too much like this guy:

3. It's like a brilliant, ambitious, thoroughly researched novel about the last days of World War II dropped acid.  Really a whole lot of acid.

4. World War II is to Pynchon what the JFK assassination is to Don DeLillo in Libra: postmodernity's founding moment, o-or the moment at which the modern world's complexity outstrips the human mind's capacity to conceptualize, theorize, narratize, chart, map, or otherwise grasp it (behold GR's several hundred characters and dozens of fragmented, often only semi-followable plot lines, some of them of ambiguous ontological status). This post isn't about Libra, so I won't quote DeLillo.  But here's Pynchon on the War:
The War, the Empire, will expedite . . . barriers between our lives.  The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together.  The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity . . . .  Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it.
And here's another interesting passage, courtesy of Pynchon's character Roger Mexico:
"There's a feeling about that cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go.  That for science to carry on at all, it must look for a less narrow, a less . . . sterile set of assumptions.  The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle."
5.  It's thrilling, sure, watching a planet-sized brain go balls-out, shaking off all the shackles, giving itself license to say or depict absolutely anything that occurs to it, propriety and concern for the reader be damned (and no novel was ever more toweringly indifferent to its audience).  But it gradually becomes clear this avalanche of language (to steal a phrase a buddy uses to describe Moby Dick) is concerned mainly (if we can even use words like "concerned" and "mainly" here) with denouncing a nebulous, death-obsessed, hyper-bureaucratized "Them" bent on dragging the modern world, via such insane enterprises as World War II, into its grave.  And you have to wonder, once you've had a massive commitment to this novel repaid with one mind-blasting scene of ultraviolent brutality after another (there's stuff in this book Bret Easton Ellis wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole), whether GR is really so much an indictment of Them as their unwitting agent.

6. I am a Pynchon fan, believe it or not: The Crying of Lot 49 has to be one of my five all-time favorite novels.  If you're looking to get into Pynchon, start with that way more controlled, way more  human book.  It's a maximalist novella.

Now that's funny.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

1. Though there's no point denying it'll do its part, for better or worse, to shape young Americans' thoughts and feelings on the subject of race, saying Django Unchained is a movie about race is like saying Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a movie about lesbianism.  This is because Django does absolutely no serious thinking on the subject of race; it attempts no insights about race as a force shaping American memory and consciousness.  What it is, simply, is a movie about movies—and their seldom fully exploited potential for wish fulfillment.

What's the most primal, enervating wish, arguably, a human being can have?

That for revenge. 

In what context might an American filmmaker set a revenge-wish-fulfillment story if his goal is to make contemporary American audiences achieve orgasm right in their movie seats?  

Well, how about a scary abusive-husband context?  (There's your Kill Bill.)

Or a Nazism/antisemitism context?  (There's your Inglorious Basterds.) 

Or—why not?—a racism/slavery context?  (Hello, Django Unchained.) 

It's hard not to think Tarantino will be doing Crazy Horse and Custer next.

But deepening our understanding of what went on between slaves and masters in 1850s Mississippi is not on Tarantino's to-do list in Django.  In fact, he seems weirdly determined not to extend our knowledge beyond the set of facts and quasi-facts most Americans with high-school educations already carry around in their heads: that slavery typically took place on a "plantation," one of whose key features was a "big house"; that unlucky slaves toiled in the hot sun, picking cotton, while "privileged" ones tended massuh's desires indoors; that phrenology, a popular 19th-century garbage science, was sometimes used to validate slavery; that a slave who attempted escape and failed might be chained to a tree and bullwhipped to within an inch of her life, so her knotty scars could serve as a warning to others.

We know all this before we sit down for almost three hours' worth of Django Unchained.  And we've gained precious little on the knowledge front (Mandingos, anyone?) when it's over.

What we do get is the not-inconsiderable pleasure of watching a gun-slinging American slave take his brutal, insane, hilarious revenge on a bunch of mental-defective white Southerners who sure do have it coming.  And what the movie, which tirelessly quotes '70s spaghetti-Western and blaxploitation flicks, never lets us forget is that this thrill is brought to us by the movies, which institution's ability to fulfill wishes is as boundless as our violence-obsessed American imaginations care to let it be.

So be careful what you wish for, America, says the closing scene of Django Unchained (much like the movie-theater-massacre scene near the end of Inglorious Basterds). Because Hollywood will give it to you.  And the brain that finds its delight in the dark is the same one you'll take back out to the parking lot after the lights come up again. 

2. One thing that's always been simultaneously excellent and awful about the U.S. is its antipathy to history, its conviction that history's lessons simply don't apply to it or to anything that goes on inside its borders.  On the one hand, this results in a citizenry embarrassingly baffled by events like 9/11.  (Why is all this Jewish/Palestinian stuff coming over here into our New York City?)  On the other, it results in a citizenry brave enough to elect Barack Obama, who would have looked mighty like a slave just a couple short human lifetimes ago, president. 

Oh how Django Unchained participates in this American proclivity.  It literally (I guess) dynamites American history, congratulating American audiences on being part of a nation hip enough to give its own history the finger.  Gleefully rewriting the high-school textbooks, morphing abject trod-upons into fire-breathing hellions, the movie invites us, maybe foolishly, to overlook the grim reality too many black Americans still live in today, a century and a half to the minute after the Emancipation Proclamationa reality birthed by a history no mega-badass Django Freeman will be riding in and blowing up anytime soon.

But then isn't all the smoke and splatter thrillingly protean, too?  Doesn't Obama's America deserve at least one truly celebratory Hollywood movie, movies being, like, windows on the American soul? And doesn't the U.S.'s going from Emancipation Proclamation to black president in less than a century and a half (holy hell: maybe history doesn't much matter in America) deserve at least one great fireworks display of the sort Django ends with?  And isn't that the real meaning of Django's horse's dressage steps there among the embers—a final up-yours to all the racists, subtle and otherwise, who convinced themselves America would vote for a stuffed-shirt, dressage-loving buffoon like Mitt Romney just because he was white, which fact, owing to our history, should, like, mean something? 

Isn't history blown to smithereens actually a pretty beautiful sight? 

3. While Django Unchained might wind up remembered as the Tarantino movie best capturing its moment's zeitgeist, the fact remains it's lesser Tarantino.  Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and a never-more-fearless Sam Jackson make the material seem pretty decent.  But don't look or listen too closely—because Django's characters are strictly comic-book fare, lacking anything like the depth and complexity of those we know from Pulp Fiction or, especially, Jackie Brown.  (It's a shame Tarantino's sworn off novel adaptations, since what he did with that Elmore Leonard book was pretty choice.) 

Leo DiCaprio is badly miscast as Calvin Candie; the role should have gone to Don Johnson, who's way more menacing as a slave owner called Big Daddy, gone from the movie too soon. 

And one last gripe: how does DiCaprio's Candie inspect, in one scene, the bleached  insides of a long-dead slave's skull, pointing out dimples bespeaking servitude and docility, and not have the insides of his own skull inspected in like fashion by, say, Django Freeman before the closing credits roll?  

The tune is called "Bloodbath," Mr. Tarantino.  Let's take care to hit all the notes.