Monday, May 20, 2013

Substance Abuse

Writing about movies is a job that needs a little extra pepper and spice. There’s a generation of current critics who grew up sheltered by suburbia and technology, to the point where pictures reflect their narrow interests and morals, whether it be high-flying superheroes or juvenile gross-out substituting for actual insight on sexuality. I’ve personally struggled with this, particularly in seeing films of yesterday from people who Lived. It was clear John Milius was well-read as far as combat, machismo and death. There was a certain diseased perversion to an Abel Ferrara picture. Even someone like Nicholas Roeg could give you something of a contact high. Today, studios would rather hire people like Len Wiseman, who cut his teeth not in the military, not with drug and alcohol abuse, and not with having dangerous friends and family, but makes pictures like the roleplaying-inspired “Underworld” and the “Total Recall” remake, the latter successfully recreating the first twenty seconds of ads when you’re not entirely sure what’s being sold, but you know you’re being had.

Because we’re not getting movies from people who Lived, there’s a certain sterility to our major studio offerings and even some of our independent features: the recent, somewhat interesting “Antiviral” doesn’t reveal a filmmaker who is anything other than miles separated from his subject of celebrity worship and genetic manipulation, which makes sense given that it’s Brandon Cronenberg. Daddy David was never exactly a blockbuster sensation, but it’s not like Brandon grew up impoverished. Of course, “Antiviral” is interesting specifically because of its remove, suggesting a director’s statement about being so deeply protected against what the film depicts as modern day societal diseases: contrast that with the moment in “Star Trek Into Darkness” where Spock (Zachary Quinto) dials up Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) from the previous films to ask about this curious Khan fellow. It’s the equivalent of a character popping in the DVD of a previous film to learn how to solve a third act problem, a moment that tells you everything you need to know about writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, the first two who once collaborated on a hilariously-titled disaster called “People Like Us” that reflected an alien interpretation of human behavior.

But, somehow, movies slip through the cracks, movies from people who have lived a little, who have that necessary life experience to re-create debauched, peculiar, but believable behavior onscreen. And recently, we’ve had two; even more stunningly, they’ve come from the studio system. Baz Luhrmann’s focus in interpreting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” comes from a definite understanding of the core story, one that the earlier 1970’s version lacked, that being if you can’t party all the time, just fake it. The glee present in Luhrmann’s vision is borderline apocalyptic: this is the Prohibition-era twenties, and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, bronze) is spending his fortune on weekend parties. With the Depression right around the corner, why not?

One of the key decisions Luhrmann makes, one that another less wise director would not, is to use contemporary music to enliven the parties. Luhrmann’s manipulation of the soundtrack makes it seem as if the anachronistic pop (much of it electronic in nature, some of it admittedly terrible) isn’t being played live, but emerging from the pores of the partygoers. No one orchestrates this: the music emerges as soon as people start dancing and pouring drinks. The reasoning is to convey to today’s audiences what a party feels like: hearing more appropriate tunes would render “Gatsby” to be a film about a bygone era, and therefore bygone emotions, decisions and consequences. This is a decision made with the knowledge of late nights and later mistakes, the idea that sound, sight and intention simply melt into each other as the night goes long. Just add booze.

Its booze that “The Great Gatsby” seems to run on, to the point where I watched this film critically, but couldn’t ignore the emotions and vibes given off by the aesthetics. Indeed, “The Great Gatsby” isn’t about love or desire (at least in film form – it’s significantly weightier in prose, though Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or literacy), but about drunkenness. Gatsby’s fascination with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) borders on inebriation, so consumed by this girl he seems to barely know, and not even truly respect. His stubborn demand that she renounce husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, cruel muscles) seems less like period-specific paternalism and more like blinded objectification. It perhaps says something about our contemporary need to diagnose everything that the film has a framing device originated for the movie suggesting that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) became quite the reckless drunk after the events of this story. Of course, he never had a stomach for the booze, though he certainly was enamored with Gatsby’s self-destructive lifestyle. Even the romance with Jordan Baker (Samantha Debicki, bewitching) is axed in this interpretation: how can Nick love if he can’t even see straight?

The experience of watching “Gatsby” is also not unlike being drunk. At first, it’s a rush of colors and layers (the 3D is a wonder) as we take a dizzying tour into Gatsby’s world, where even the simplistic act of throwing shirts at the screen becomes the onscreen creation of an endless layering universe that weirdly reminded me of the doors sequence in “Crimewave.” Soon, the parties stop, and people sit down, but the camera keeps moving, the rooms keep spinning, and you begin to regret ever sitting down to watch this ridiculous movie in the first place. Like in the book, Nick is our protagonist, but he is only a bystander in a late-film encounter between the main cast where Gatsby and Tom feud over Daisy’s intentions rather than her affections. This scene is abrasively long and disjointed, made even more uncomfortable by Daisy’s emotional distance and confusion, and it perfectly captures the feeling of boozing too much and watching everyone else either sober up and/or make terrible decisions. It helps that Tobey Maguire makes for a terrific reaction shot.

There’s the sense that Luhrmann purposely added to this sensation through casting: Mulligan and Debicki are both milky white dolls, and when Adelaide Clemens shows up in a brief role, you lose track of all of them. Similarly, best friends DiCaprio and Maguire used to compete for the same roles as child actors, and anyone familiar with their early days would notice a slight doppleganger effect (perhaps “Spider-Man 4” could have featured Leo in a sexy attempt at the infamous Clone Saga). Class is all that separates the brutes played by Edgerton and Jason Clarke, both very sharp actors eating scenery in a way that suggests a different film altogether. It captures that drunken sensation when faces begin melting into each other, and one person morphs into another: you wish Luhrmann got a little license to run with that idea, making a more phantasmagorical “Gatsby.” Amitabh Bachchan is the only performer that stands out in this respect, a Bollywood star standing in the shoes of Meyer Wolfsheim, referred to in the text as a “kike.” With only one appearance, he is nonetheless conjured through dialogue many times over, suggesting what Fitzgerald hinted at: everyone in “Gatsby” is a child, more or less, and corrupt or no, Wolfsheim seems like the only one not getting wasted.

I don’t know what Lurhmann’s personal life is, but I do know he makes massive films powered not by logic or tact but by passion. Even his detractors would admit to be curious about Luhrmann’s version of just about any story: Vulture posted a plea to have Luhrmann helm a “Fast And Furious” picture, while a recent Grantland podcast offered him up as a potential big screen superhero essayist. But Michael Bay is different. Here is a man that seems to be fueled almost entirely by contempt. Even his critics would acknowledge that unlike other faceless modern filmmakers like a Shawn Levy or a Brett Ratner, Bay means it. He means it when he makes an unapologetic trilogy of movies designed specifically to make toys. Not only is his contempt expressed towards the audience, but also towards the heroes themselves, turned from action figure icons into venal, violent, often stupid avatars of misanthropy. When a catty Optimus Prime tells the humans in the third “Transformers” film that his cohorts specifically allowed millions of Chicago residents to be killed specifically so he could say “I told you so,” we’re clearly working on a whole other level of ugliness.

Which is what made waiting for “Pain And Gain” such a curious activity for some film fans. Bay found inspiration in a certifiably insane true story about a group of bodybuilders who kidnapped wealthy entrepreneurs and tortured them in order to attain their life savings through brute force. Though there are a number of absurd elements added to the story thanks to movie magic, the real case is loaded with “stranger than fiction” elements that you’d never quite witness in a fiction movie. Surely no one has a heart that black, and Bay’s direction of “Pain and Gain” seems to suggest that he wished he did. What sticks in your craw about “Pain And Gain,” and what likely kept a movie starring red-hot Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson out of profitability: Bay doesn’t exactly sympathize with these lugnuts, but everyone surrounding them merits equal disdain and mockery. Even the victims, who in real life are apparently not amused with this movie, are bumbling, desperate idiots: when first target Tony Shalhoub somehow survives his gauntlet of beatings, he becomes an irritable, mummified hospital patient who later can’t seem to navigate his limited mobility with his constant anger spasms, resulting in broad slapstick.

“Pain And Gain” is the work of a distinctly American filmmaker in dialogue with the “American Dream”. Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo, spurred on by a craven self-help speaker (Ken Jeong, cranked up to Ultimate setting), believes that success exists for everyone, and it simply must be attained. Doing so involves a flaunting of the rules, because Daniel’s thought process is that his weight training makes him an Optimal Human, and the only thing missing is the world’s mandatory reward. Later, his viewpoint evolves to the point where he tells his first captive that, “I want it all, but mostly, I want you to not have it.” It’s a competitiveness bred from fear, the idea that there’s only so much to go around. Later, Lugo credits his actions as making America “better,” an upsetting notion that isn’t even knocked away by the private investigator played by Ed Harris who suddenly becomes the only moral character in the entire film. But he’s not interested in judging, he just wants to solve the case and return home to his loving wife and a cozy semi-retirement.

I don’t mean to make any implications, but I would say Mr. Bay, a very handsome, extremely wealthy Hollywood director, has lived a colorful life behind the camera. His films are obsessed with fast cars, roaring explosions, and rows of supermodels, suggesting that it’s not a stretch that Bay can afford a rock and roll lifestyle. Appropriately, “Pain And Gain,” which carries no commercial considerations (but plenty of moral ones, of which Bay has little interest), feels like it’s almost entirely powered by cocaine. The drug features prominently in the narrative – these are wealthy, good-looking, self-destructive people in 1990’s Miami, after all – but the film’s consistent breathless pace and popping color schemes suggests a funhouse approach to a horrifying true story, where real life people have been twisted into exaggerated caricatures. Bay is blasted for his moral vacuousness and disturbing disregard for humanity, but he understands the tempo and rhythm of film, and “Pain And Gain” feels like a coked-up sprint down the street, naked and desperate, with a dried-up bloody nose. Even the slow motion sequences feel suffused with detail and color, as if the drug has slowed down your vision, but briefly enhanced, and exaggerated, your perception. Moments where text appears on the screen seem like Tony Scott jitters, until one realizes that these diegetic moments have been added as if someone was trying to snap their fingers to bring you back to reality. It can only interfere with the drugs a couple of seconds at a time.

It’s an approach that certainly feels appropriate: “Pain And Gain” is the “small” movie that Bay has been discussing for years now in between blockbusters, but it proves that Bay is incapable of making anything other than an action film. Characters run, jump and lunge at the camera, or out of the frame, and the constant motion is amplified by Bay’s typical attention to primary colors, a lost art amongst today’s filmmakers. This hyperactivity suggests this is the type of film Bay has always wanted to make, and there’s a broadness to the performances that feels amplified by the wittier moments in the film, like a “badass” sequence set to a fugazi bootleg of a track from The Heavy, suggesting that these characters think they’re something they’re not (which is emphasized later when the real version plays, noting the choice is intentional, and not a cheap soundtrack fallback). Any nuance in this film feels fueled by something other than talent or good intentions: no other filmmaker could amp this material quite beyond ’10’, and that sentiment has to come with the acknowledgement that there is real bad behavior lurking behind the screen, the type that made William Friedkin and Brian De Palma movies so compelling back in the day.

The boozing is a familiar element that has helped “The Great Gatsby” perform strong at the box office, though the darker rabbit hole that is “Pain And Gain” was mostly a non-starter with audiences. It’s the suggestion that audiences will flirt with toxic elements but aren’t truly going to pursue them: audiences will sleep with “Very Bad Things,” but they’ll take “The Hangover” home to meet the parents. Unfortunately, our filmmakers are shifting in that very same direction, and in an era of specialization, we’ve been robbed of the outlaws behind the camera. Somehow, Luhrmann and Bay’s visions have received mixed reviews from some critics. You wonder if this is the result of film writers going the way of filmmakers, too busy observing their DVD collections to go out and make some character-building poor decisions: lest we forget, yesterday’s writers and directors couldn’t re-watch films in the years before VHS, and critics existed in the same boat. And while certain writers hinted at a vivid life behind the pen (R.I.P. Roger), you don’t get the sense that today’s critics have gone on a bender, gotten arrested, embraced their deviance. Perhaps if they did, we’d have more films like “The Great Gatsby” and “Pain And Gain,” both imperfect works that, for better or worse, diversify our film culture greatly. 


  1. Great post, and identifies the best double bill of 2013 - "Bling Ring" with "Pain and Gain," in some fictional rep house of the future that is probably already gone out of business.

    Keep up the good work,


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. People who lie also seem unable to match their emotional responses with their reactions. It smiling a tad too late when accepting a gift they obviously do not like. It is like waving their hand to dismiss an issue too early.