I just saw Southland Tales, shortly before the box office plans to perform its mercy killing. Long story short, it just strikes me as all so much non-directional bile. The problem isn't that it doesn't make sense, it's that everything's so freakin' clear in its complete and utter contempt for the movies, for the avant-garde, for art in general, for philosophy, for itself, for its audience, and for anything else that comes within fifty feet of it. After a lot of self-conscious blather vaguely related to philosophy, sex, media, politics, literature and poetry, its one ultimate truth seems to be that "no one rocks the cock like Krysta Now [a porn star/media darling played by Sarah Michelle Gellar]," apparently the coda for humanity at the apocalypse. Because those words come from a smarmy, omniscient voice at the tail end of a cocktail party, it might be seen as some hyper-absurdist satire if it weren't for another piece of omniscient narration (from none other than Mr. Dick-in-a-Box himself) that quotes from the final lines of The Hollow Men; "whimper" and "bang" switch places in such a way that seems to imply that even the bangs themselves are ultimately whimpers. "No one rocks the cock" becomes an entirely earnest statement--none of it matters, metaphors are useless, and everything is so fucking stupid, so why bother trying to figure anything out?
Southland Tales' greatest crime in this regard may be how its plot and cast contrivances (an awful, nonsensical script that serves as the figurative and literal stand-in for the film; hiring washed-up actors to play washed-up actors-turned-political activists) act as ironic-cum-nihilistic reflections on the accepted conventions of "art" and "indie" films (non sequitur and dreamlike scenarios; the tendency to cast unknowns and b-listers). In doing so, it ignores any other directions that these "genres" have taken, and boils "good" and "bad" to immutable, objective concepts--in this case, it only recognizes and defines "bad." Immerse yourself too deeply into those immutable, objective concepts and you won't be able to see anything beyond those strict parameters. Encompassing yourself in irony comes at a price, after all, and you can't help but think about how this mentality has already creeped into societal acceptance. How would a kid raised on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" respond to a film of dubious intentions like Red Dawn? Counting myself as a member of that misbegotten generation--and not having been old enough to care when the Soviet Union collapsed--well, I'm still not entirely sure. But after I saw Southland Tales, I started wondering if my own relationship to cinema was capable of that brand of reductive hostility, and I found a concept to discuss in my long and storied history with Nicolas Cage.
You may have guessed by my throwaway mention in the "Shark: Season One" review that I have a particular affinity for Cage's batshit-nuts performances--but ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that "Screamin' Mad" Nicolas Cage is a recurring topic of discussion and fairly reliable running gag. Dude screams, dude grimaces, dude is hilarious. I'm not sure where all of that started, precisely--might've been after The Wicker Man, when that out-of-context "comedy of the year" clipshow started circulating on YouTube; maybe it was when I saw his manic, arrested-development performance in Ghost Rider; or maybe it didn't really gain momentum until I found his Japanese pachinko commercials. I've long considered these examples as hilarious for essentially the same reasons and never thought twice about it--but, of course, Wicker Man was intended as a thriller and the commercials were meant to be silly and a little unhinged. Contemplating that clipshow, I'm forced to wonder if these (mis)interpretations have had an adverse effect on my ability to properly discern Cage as anything but some knowing/unknowing avatar of wackiness. The guy won an Oscar some twelve years ago, but it's a lot easier to just pigeonhole him as a pleasant nutjob and leave it at that. I watched Face/Off again recently, and man, Cage is just wonderful in it. But is my admiration just post-ironic hangover?
Another example: just about everyone I know died laughing when they saw Nic play Fu Manchu for Werewolf Women of the SS--despite the fact that we all knew that it was coming. Why did we think it was so funny? Because it was just another example of Cage's madness? Because he had found the perfect outlet for appeasing a projected image to the masses? For all intents and purposes, Cage is the halfway point of Grindhouse, smack dab between the tiring post-modern sarcasm (Planet Terror) and the genuine post-modern self-analysis (Death Proof)--and by the same token comes the uneasy task of categorizing and understanding Cage's craziest performances.
Trying to figure this man out, then, has challenged my critical faculties, and I need to step up to the plate. So over the next few weeks, I'll be watching some of Nic's films--Raising Arizona, Vampire's Kiss, It Could Happen to You, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off, Adaptation., Ghost Rider, and more--and discussing them here on the blog through the prism of his performances and his career as a whole. Stay tuned.