November 29, 2007

The Beginning of a Screamin' Mad Odyssey

So I've been leaving a lot of "Drafts" across the THE FILM FREAK CENTRAL BLOG 's administrative pages lately, trying to cobble together some cohesive thoughts to instigate discussion. But I've come up flat in the last few months--a particularly messy endeavor was trying to form cohesive thoughts about "Final Fantasy VII" and its undeniable link to Vertigo. When I find the time, I'll probably just play through the game again and give it the old college try. Until then, however, allow me to announce my intention to embark on a self-reflective odyssey in the form of a short diatribe.

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.


Jefferson said...

I used to think no one but the Coen Brothers and Mike Figgis could get the best use out of Nicolas Cage, but man -- he displayed a whole 'nother dimension in Adaptation, one which I was not expecting and which slew me with its pathos. (Yet somehow, I was still bored by the movie on the whole.) I think ... and why else would he give his kid Superman's real name? ... that Cage as a person and an actor is just so comfortable with/within fantasy that he's not bound by the laws governing most human dramatic performers. I can come up with no other explanation.

Bill C said...

I remember reading how Kathleen Turner kept trying to get him fired from PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED because he revealed the first day of production that he'd looked to Donald Duck for inspiration in shaping his character. (Good thing he was the director's nephew.) One of the great weird performances where you least expect it; Coppola's direction is so lacklustre there that it's in fact about the only thing giving the movie a semblance of an aesthetic.

jacksommersby said...

Yeah, I recall an interview where Turner warned Cage that he'd better be damn sure he wanted to use that voice being that this would be recorded onto film forever. It was a travesty, methinks, but I do have nothing but good cheer for that ultra-weird mid-Atlantic accent he used in "Vampire's Kiss".

Oh, and who thinks Cage would've made a better Brad Hamilton in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" than Judge Reinhold? According to the commentary, Cage was originally first choice but his being under 18 when the film was set to film threw a monkey wrench into the equation because only adults could work at night, and there was a good deal of night shooting, whereas Reinhold was 24 at the time. Oh well, Cage definitely scored a year later with his punk-rocker Randy in "Valley Girl" (which still remains Martha Coolidge's best film).

Still think his work in the outstanding "Red Rock West" and "Guarding Tess" were his two best performances in the '90s.

BLH said...

What Nicholas Cage does can not simply be described as acting; it's "flabbergacting".

Favorite performance is in Bringing Out the Dead. A serious film that embraces Cage's unique tendencies in earnest rather than ushering them into alcoholism or twin siblings.

I get a similar vibe from Vincent D'Onfrio. The choices he makes are fascinating, sometimes painfully inexplicable. Occasionally I'll watch a midnight rerun of Law and Order just to keep a running tally of how many times he crooks his head to the side when looking at a suspect. His attempted level of intimidation can be measured by how horizontal the kink in his neck is.

Seattle Jeff said...

I watch that Law and Order show just to see if D'Onfrio is going to bend his body sideways into a 90 degree angle...he can be so kooky in that show.

um...sorry, but I'm not jumping on the Cage bandwagon.

Dave G said...

Cage is not always good, but he's definitely always interesting--think he would have fit right in during the silent era.

"Trapped In Paradise" is one of my favourite comedies to watch around the holidays---Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Don Moffat wearing a sweater...blend in a totally insane Cage performance, add rum and nog and stir...

rachel said...

Hearing about Nicolas Cage brings two things to my mind: this very, very funny Defamer piece (Ghost Rider is great, we're all just too stupid to get it), and my mother's awesome scowl whenever she sees him on the teevee. "How is he a movie star? He is really unattractive! Just gross." Definitely, I think, one of those actors who appeals to audience members of their own sex rather than the opposite.

Quick off-topic question:

Are there any undergraduate film programs in the Northeast that y'all would recommend? Because I may have to transfer as my school may not let me major in film. Because my work isn't, um, good enough.


craig said...

For years now, I've been hating on Nic Cage for his lameness, but there seems to be a lot of him in my DVD collection. Hold on...

*checks imdb*

...seventeen films??!! (And that's not counting ..Ridgemont High.)


Bill C said...


Not to sound like a hypocrite, but what about *not* going to film school and trying to make it on your own? I can honestly say, except for the access to equipment and a talent pool of sorts (two things I could've afforded with the money that went towards my tuition), I didn't benefit all that much from film school. It's different if you're going for theory, but film production is an auto-didact's major. You essentially leave with what you brought. And the coccoon of film school can be a crutch, let me tell you. It's not like I'm today doing what I fully intended to be doing with my life, which is directing movies.

Still, depending on *how* Northeast we're talking, there's always my alma mater, York University. If they let me in, know the rest.

Whatever you decide, don't take anything these gatekeepers say as gospel.

Dave G said...

NYU has a great (pricey) program--and I believe it also has lots of summer courses which might fit the bill. Up here in Canuckville--there's Ryerson, York, Sheridan, Humber and the Canadian Film Centre.

Guess it depends what your end-game is--but, getting a PA job is often a step in the right direction.

Alex Jackson said...

If they can't appreciate the genius of Roman: A Suitable Case for Treatment or Magic Position, then fuck 'em. And trust me, that's not just me trying to build you up.

Quitting college might not necessarily be the most practical choice. The money to go, whilst it be from loan, scholarship, or family; may be earmarked exclusively for education and cannot be redirected elsewhere.

If your school would allow you to use their equipment as a student outside of the film major, I'ld actually suggest changing your major to something like anthropology, psychology, philosophy, or political science; something to develop yourself as a person and refine your world view; and make student films on your own time.

Then when you graduate, as Dave G has suggested, take a low-level job in the industry.

Just my armchair analysis.

Rick said...

SUNY Purchase:

Walter_Chaw said...

Fresh from Golden Compass. . . jeez I wish it didn't suck ass.

Dave G said...

Ah well--there's always the new McG Terminator movie

Bill C said...

Doesn't surprise me one bit. Who hires the co-director of AMERICAN PIE to adapt Philip Pullman? Unless of course they were purposely trying to engineer a flop, PRODUCERS-style.

Sean said...


Allow me to throw in my two cents, because I'm going to regardless.

If you're taking TV/Film courses because you plan on pursuing a job in the industry (which I assume you are naturally), then the situation becomes sticky. If this is something you're paying out of pocket for, I agree with Bill - screw it. The degree you leave with will mean nothing to most production companies/houses. I can't count how many film school graduates ended up getting coffee for the higher-ups on sets right beside me. The only difference between us is that I didn't spend 20K a year getting there. Take that money and funnel it into supporting yourself while interning on sets; it's invaluable.

On the other hand, if you've nailed down a scholarship or whatnot, enjoy the ride. Head for NYU. You'll get to experiment in a protected environment and, as Alex said, develop yourself as a person. I'm just of the mindset that one option really isn't any better than the other. They both put you in the same spot to start with - Starbucks.

Rant over.

Seattle Jeff said...

I read an article where the director of Golden Compass quit or nearly quit because he knew he had no special effects/blockbuster experience or knowledge...he ended up hanging out with Peter Jackson. Guess it didn't help. At least he was self-aware enough to feel overwhelmed. Too bad the movie is dreadful.

When I heard how anti-Christian the books were, I ran out and bought the trilogy for my son for XMas.

And Rachel, you have now turned me on to the world of APrtment 3-G. However, I read it mainly through the Comics Curmudgeon.

Alex Jackson said...

Ah well--there's always the new McG Terminator movie


It's like hiring Bret Ratner to do the next Hannibal Lector movie. You can't make this stuff up.

Rick said...

Is Walter going to do the Rotten Tomatoes Meet a Critic series?

Dave Gibson said...

I am however impressed with the rotoscopic motion capture technique which has rendered Nicole Kidman so eerily lifelike.

Walter_Chaw said...

what's a "Rotten Tomatoes Meet a Critic series"? Can you tell me without a link?

rachel said...


Glad you like it! I find its unhipness enormously soothing, like the ocean. Also, the plot is just meaningless enough. If that makes sense.


Wanted to give you props for that brilliant write-up for Santa Claus 3. That Zapruder line is extraordinary. It's made me smile all day.

Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone.

To offer a little more background-- so that this makes sense-- at my school every student is compelled to choose a major either by the spring of their sophomore year or the fall of their junior. You must be accepted by the professors of that department, and you must get them to accept your pitch for a senior project, a year-long project meant as a culmination of your work in that field.

The acceptance process, at least for film, requires writing three papers and holding a screening of your work for a board, comprised of three members of the department, randomly chosen. They watch your films and then spend an hour tearing them apart. A week after the board's been held, they let you know their decision. Last semester, I tried to get to get in as a sophomore and was deferred. As a junior, my time's run out; I haven't really got the credits, or the inclination (really, the strength), to try to major in anything else.

But anyway. My advisor let me know a couple of days ago that I can major in film, as long as I major in theory, not in production. (My films haven't shown enough progress, they are too opaque, I don't seem to benefit from the workshopping, etc.) It won't change anything on the diploma, or keep me from taking out equipment; all it means is that, for my senior project, I can't make a film, but will have to write a paper. (And you do have be a film major to take out the equipment. Technically, all you have to do is take a production course; however, it is nigh-to-impossible for non-majors to get into any of those classes.)


The punchline is, I do have a very good scholarship... and am still paying a lot of money. I'd never quit college, though. If I did, both my parents would promptly die. Nothing will make them happier than when I graduate.. except for when I go off to graduate school. (I, meanwhile, am haunted by Dorothy Gambrell's Bad Decision Dinosaur.)

Regarding what I'd like to do: I'd like to write and direct small films, I'd really like to work in television, maybe be a showrunner, someday. I thought it was important to focus on production so I knew what it's like and how to use a camera and how people talk about what they're doing and how to plan and how to organize. As someone who likes to write, I thought school would be where I started to learn to be that other sort of person. At least, that was the plan going in.


In terms of my intellectual embiggenment, I have been working on that... this spring, I'm going to the city to take classes here. I'mreally excited. (What's funny is how, during the interview, I felt I had to reiterate that, yes, despite being a film major, despite that, I do care about what's going in the world.)

Also... two days ago I found out that I've been accepted to be an intern on the Colbert Report.
I can't believe it either.

Rick said...

It seems the Rotten Tomatoes Meet a Critic column is a (weekly?) interview with individual critics who are referenced on Rotten Tomatoes. I will give you one guess to who they are kicking it off with...(Hint: Big fan of Bee Movie)

Jefferson said...

Rachel: Congrats on the Colbert placement! I hope the writers' strike doesn't jeopardize your acceptance. I have no doubt you'll learn more on-set than you could in a year of film or TV school. Also, be prepared to be the trigger for on-air sexual harassment/racial insensitivity jokes, especially if you're the one sent to bring Stephen his tea.

dennis r said...

Gonzalez at Slant is really getting his hate on:

At least I agree with his Redacted thoughts. I thought I was alone with Armond.

Alex Jackson said...

Gonzalez at Slant is really getting his hate on:

At least I agree with his Redacted thoughts. I thought I was alone with Armond.

Ah yes, just a few hours ago I posted my rant about how much I hated Inland Empire.

And wait, Armond White didn't like Redacted. I've gotta check this out.

Dave Gibson said...

If anyone's interested in revisiting the horror that is "Democracy in Film Criticism"--there's a mighty gum-fight over at regarding journalistic ethics.

Suit up folks, it's clobberin' time.

Bill C said...

Rachel: Congrats on the Colbert gig! Wowzers. (And thanks for the props.)

Everybody else: be sure to click on Dave's link. My good buddy Norm Wilner alerted me to "that Box-office thing" via his blog, at which he outlines the whole sordid mess in detail. It's things like this that give me delusions of nobility for simply having a shred of integrity. This is basically the meteor that will lead to the critic's extinction.

Norm Wilner said...

Thanks, Bill!

And yeah, with regard to your meteor theory, I figure this weekend is as good a time to put that vault door on my basement, and make a run to Costco for canned food and shotguns ...

Jack said...

Can someone provide a link for Armond White's review of "Redacted"? I read his reviews every week at New York Press but haven't seen a review for DePalma's latest.


There are, believe it or not, two DePalma films White's scolded: "Carlito's Way" and "Mission: Impossible".

Anonymous said...

Never mind, I found it:

O'JohnLandis said...

I'm back, by the way.

Oh, you didn't know I was gone?

Well, I was. You might have noticed that no one mentioned The Office in a few weeks.

Anyhow, the discussion is pretty depressing in all the usual ways. Sadly, the regulars are so witless that they can barely even articulate their underlying opinion. The only thing I didn't know was that the devil could be killed by a stake to the heart. Perhaps garlic would work too, and a possessed child could inadvertently kill the devil and end all evil in the universe by eating at Olive Garden.

Oh, and Inland Empire is terrible except for the five or so scenes that are spectacular.

One last thing:
Bill, the bitrate of SC3 couldn't possibly be 46 kbps, right?

Bemis said...

Rachel: That Colbert internship will probably teach you more than any film studies or production program could. If you want to learn how a set works, keep doing whatever you can to get on them. Be an extra, write to production companies looking for PA jobs, etc. I can honestly say that the seven days I've spent on professional sets ("shows," they call 'em) have taught me infinitely more about production than four years of college.

Bill C said...

It really is, John; I can hardly fathom it myself. Every so often it even spikes to 50mbps.