Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blood Lust

I don't know if this film is quintessential Tarantino or if it just belongs to the weird 90s pastiche of murderous road movies, but then a lack of definability is exactly what has since vaulted Tarantino to his idiosyncratic strata of superstardom. True Romance is part violence orgy, part puppy love, and partly the reappropriation of cool as a concept. I feel like Tarantino makes a concerted effort at anachronistical "coolness," not unlike the teacher in high school who wore vaguely out-of-fashion clothing but got brownie points from the student body just for being aware that in doing so he was, by extension, commenting on their own fashion sense. And since it's Tarantino, there are a lot of convoluted plot lines that lead to an endless stream of bodies, and the adolescent concept of true love that gives the film its title and through line.

Aside from the obvious (Bonnie and Clyde, which I've never actually seen, and Thelma and Louise, which came out two years earlier and was directed by the other Scott brother), my main frames of reference for this film were Terence Malick's Badlands and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (to be honest, for the longest time I thought NBK and TR were the same movie). Badlands is a movie about a bored little girl on a farm who gets sweet-talked by a guy in his twenties to run away and live on the wild side for a while. The whole movie is undercut by a voiceover from that little girl about the meaning of life and her (inconsistent) reasons for doing what she did. From that voiceover, we get that, despite everything that happens, she's just a fucked up little kid looking for something that doesn't exist, and for that reason we feel something like empathy for a character who is morally on the wrong side of the tracks. True Romance cops the voiceover, as Alabama attempts to explain why she falls for Clarence, and why in the end she thinks he's "so cool" despite everything that has gone down.

But here's the thing: in Badlands, Kit was a bad guy, but the story belonged to that girl who followed him with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. True Romance is Clarence's own kung fu fantasy, and he doesn't come out as the badass he wants to be so much as an average dude in over his head, someone who wreaks a path of death and destruction that isn't so much his doing as it is fallout for his stupidity. He murders a pimp, which is asking for trouble, but he's never even confronted with the fact that his father takes the fall for it. By the end of the movie, I didn't care about Clarence's journey anymore: he would have been better off to stay home and play house with the pretty girl he already had in the bag. Hell, it was her that picked him up at the outset, and maybe that's one of the reasons her idolization occasionally rings false.

I don't really know how this movie compares to NBK, in many ways its bastard sibling. I vaguely remember hating NBK for what it wasn't, for its lack of insight. Of course, Oliver Stone isn't really one for introspection; his movies are more about values. And as bad people, I felt his protagonists(/antagonists) were in large part objectified. If there's ever an opportunity for moral ambiguity, it belongs in a movie about youth, angst and bloodlust, and as far as capturing the adolescent fantasy that spurs both movies, True Romance does a superior job. Tarantino and Scott do a brilliant job of describing how fun  it would seem to run to California with a suitcase full of coke, even if the bodies start flying before we have time to really revel in the hedonism.

In general, there were so many things to love about TR that I wished I'd enjoyed it more. For one, Gary Oldman. Holy fuck, Gary Oldman. Why couldn't this movie have been about your character?
What's that, James Franco? You want to play a sick, twisted, faux-black, dread-toting drug dealer with weird teeth? Alien is a housecat next to Drexl. Seriously. I haven't seen a lot of Oldman, but what I have seen feels like a callback to this amazingly frightening and devastating character who lasts far too short for the TR world. He's fast-talking, he's greasier than the underbelly of a Winnebago, and he absolutely emanates insanity.

In this paint-by-numbers script, Drexl is the inciting incident, the character who pulls Clarence from the mushy feel-good prologue (which could have made for an entirely different, smaller movie about the risks of falling in love with a prostitute) into the violence that will consume TR's world. But Drexl's appearance also the point where the film jumped the shark for me. Clarence spirits Alabama away and Drexl has no idea where she is. So why does Clarence go to Drexl? Why even go to the bank if you know you can't cash the check? Everything that happens in the movie is a direct result of Clarence knowingly walking into a bed of snakes, and when shit goes bad all I could think was...well, were you expecting a carnation?

Things gets weird. People show up. Some of them stick around, others don't. Plotlines return when they're needed. That creepy theme music invades your brain. A lot of people who were semi-famous in 1993 and are much more famous now get cameos. And then everybody dies.

And then...Pulp Fiction happened.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Identity Crisis

Well, that didn't take long. A month-and-a-half without a post and it's time to take a step back and decide: what is this blog? My previous site was specifically designated as a baseball blog, but that petered out as I realized there were a million others out there getting more exposure because they're infinitely better researched, or connected, or simply brought something to the table which was out of my ballpark. So I switched to this, something more amorphous. So what is this, then? Does it have a focus at all?

A while ago I stumbled across a site that was comprised simply of a guy sitting around and watching certain genres of old movies and sagely recapping how outdated they'd become (the internet in You've Got Mail, the cellphones in Annie Hall). It was a mildly hilarious blog and inspired me to watch several cringeworthy-yet-awesome 90's movies of the Can't Hardly Wait prototype (you know the ones I mean, the talky high school movies that pose as romcoms with a lot of geeks and a decent amount of John Hughes-Richard Linklater crossover). But the site has since been swallowed up by the internet and I'm not sure I'll ever find it again. Maybe permanently deleted, maybe paywalled, or maybe I just can't remember the stupid title.

Remembering that site, though - and how good it was - makes me wonder if I should turn this into a review site. It could be a structured one, where the website forms a kind of course outline to be determined in advance, or more loose-leaf, a general spot for me to recap whatever I just watched or what book I'm working through. Needless to say, they won't be pat critiques; what's interesting to me about a movie is how I relate to it, not how functional it is in the abstract. To be honest, I'm resistant to the structure of tying my writing to critiques at all, but I think I need some focus and the truth is that as much as I enjoy empty philosophising and relations about the strange people I encounter on a day-to-day basis, I get the sinking feeling that people don't enjoy travelling down my existential wormholes nearly as much as I'd like to think they do. Media is how we are taught to process our anxieties these days.

But I watch a lot of movies, and I read a lot of books. And while I primarily read or watch for value, sometimes I indulge in shit. And I don't necessarily mean shit like so-called "summer reading" or "blockbusters" (which are usually either terrific works of art in disguise or just awful), I just mean stuff that is surprising or weird. Picking up a book at Value Village that looks bad just to see if you can judge a book by its cover. Streaming a movie without IMDBing it first. 

Most recently, I read a nonfiction about the New York mafia in the 1980s. It wasn't a particularly great book, and I didn't feel like I came away from it with an intricate understanding of the subject matter or any great level of self-reflection. But it only cost a buck and I did enjoy it for other reasons - the light it cast on stock Hollywood mafia characters, the way the criminal underworld uncovered in the book reminded me of a similar underworld portrayed on The Wire (whether borrowed from fictions or a true-life underworld of its own accord), the external examination of a corporate system. But really, what I got from the book isn't worth a blog post on its own, and if I were to pose the question, "what would you like to read a review about?" I would expect John Gotti to wind up about 7,184th on the list. It was worth the hours of boredom it consumed on the plane, and the slight edification it provided for future endeavours...and that's about it.

On the heels of that, I watched Casino Jack, which is similarly about mobs, money and government corruption. Again, it was a true story, and like the Gotti book, the protag was hardly sympathetic, but I enjoy the film quite a bit less than the book. Basically, it's about a lobbyist who used his influence to swindle some people out of some money and invest in some offshore casinos, breaking some laws and some people in the process. While it's true that one of the hardest and most interesting things to do in fiction is to turn a bad person into your main character, the problems in the film ran deeper than that; not only was there no place to put your sympathies, there was no sense of continuity or structure, or, really, rising action at all.

(As an aside, can Kevin Spacey stop making these movies? At what point at the beginning of his career did someone decide that his average-suburban-dad was a perfect face for the mastermind villian in every caper movie ever? He's like classy Steve Buscemi, shmucky-looking schmucks who have carved out entire careers on being total assholes, when their best roles (Lester Burnam and Seymour, respectively) have come as the losers they looked like all along. I'm not saying I don't respect the niches they've carved out for themselves, I just think they need to do more arthouse stuff that shows their true abilities.)

The film was a sequence of bad people doing vaguely bad things related to purchasing casinos while alternating between being broke and flush, all culminating in a relatively unearned moralistic ending. While I get the analogy (dur, Jack was a gambler), the movie was missing the through line that would have put the dangerous game at the heart of the movie into some sort of life context, and maybe taken us along for the ride. There's a way to write a movie where the audience is hustled just as much as the marks in the film, even (and especially) if it leaves us with a sick sense in their stomach at the end; Casino Jack was (literally) sitting back and watching some jerkoff rationalize after he'd been caught with chips in his pocket. I would have loved to be drawn into the thrill of the scheme Jack was running, but he presents himself as a true asshole from the opening monologue and only finds any reprieve in comparison to his even filthier partner in crime (played by Barry Pepper, most memorable to me as the douchebag friend in 25th Hour, a slightly more sympathetic look at an asshole forced to sleep in a bed of his own making).

At their heart, both the movie and the book are reflections on the perversion of the American Dream; making it means busting heads and turning into the kind of monster who pays to get someone whacked in prison. Which is interesting in and of itself, and what it says about the world, but doesn't necessarily make for the most introspective reviewing. So what do people think? Should I review idle, picked-it-up-off-the-street junk like this? Or only the good/relevant/sage stuff?