December 05, 2007

Nosferatu, Arschloch der Nacht: Vampire's Kiss

It may seem like a matter of putting the hopelessly-crazy cart before the socially-integrable horse to start off a Nicolas Cage retrospective with Vampire's Kiss, but it may be the film that best represents my intentions in starting this little project:
the exploration of Nic's routinely over-the-top acting beyond giggling face value. In a wonderful feature-length commentary for the film with director Robert Bierman, Cage mentions that "over-the-top is one of those things that doesn't work with me, 'cause I don't believe in such a thing. I feel that it's just stylistic choices--and this was obviously a choice to use grand gesture and go bigger." A reasonable enough explanation, because a deeper look validates his performance here as something more than just madness for madness' sake--it may be hilarious when the actor flails his arms and screams the alphabet, but realize that this occurs upon the slight suggestion that his character has committed a misdeed and you'll find that pinning everything down becomes a lot more difficult.
After all, Vampire's Kiss isn't about a man descending into insanity so much as it is about a neurotic corporate asshole's transformative search for redemption--it avoids the pitfalls of Michael Clayton, however, by better realizing that such people are trapped by what they know, and by how they have operated their entire lives in clawing their way to the top; their idea of redemption only means being absolved of wrongdoing. The film doesn't have an ounce of sympathy for its lead character, Peter Loew (Cage), by any account a complete fraud in everything that he does: his dragging, "Continental" accent is a put-on to make himself seem more worldly (Cage mentions that he got the idea from his father, who adopted the same accent as a professor of comparative literature); he has little desire to admit fault during sessions with his therapist, Dr. Glaser (Elizabeth Ashley); and his day job as a literary agent seems to have little consequence beyond harassing his secretaries. It eventually wears down on him when he recognizes some never-fully-explained sexual inadequacy in the form of a wayward bat. After what is surely his most flagrantly prickish act (without a second thought, he skips out on love-interest-of-the-moment Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) when he excuses himself to go to the bathroom), he receives a sharp rebuke on his answering machine--to which he drawls a depressed response from his ersatz psychiatrist's couch. ("Yeahhhh, well fuck youuuu tooooo, sister.") Loew finally recognizes that he is a bad person and sets out to do something about it: make sure that he can come up with a good excuse. In that case, you could call the preceding scene--his vampiric encounter with Rachel (Jennifer Beals)--a retroactive fantasy, a one-night-stand purposely misinterpreted to set a plan into motion.
At first, Loew's regular bouts with hallucination feel like a forged doctor's note, a conscious attempt to exploit his innate eccentricity--and there's a distinct feeling that he already gets away with a lot of things based on that alone--entering a false plea of insanity to pardon everything that he's ever done. (Note that, after a hollow apology to Jackie, Loew's first post-bite vision of Rachel prevents him from attending a follow-up date.) The problem is, of course, that the plan works too well. In order to convince others that his natural douchebaggery is worthy of forgiveness, he believes that he must convince himself that he is a monster controlled by supernatural urges--eventually ending with his death in a state of grace mandated by "it wasn't his fault." Cage's primary treatment of the material as slow transformation (rather than as simple loss of mental capacity) can be traced to an early scene: after chanting his secretary Alva's (Maria Conchita Alonso) name from a mumble to a shout, Loew finally storms out of his office--and in one athletic move, he leaps on top of a desk and points an accusatory finger at her: "There you are!" When Alva instinctively runs out to the hallway, notice how Loew initially gives "chase"--mixing the confident stride of a go-go eighties power-player with the unstoppable gait of Michael Myers.

But the most prominent among Cage's touted influences in playing Loew (alongside Mick Jagger and the Brando of Reflections in a Golden Eye) is another great screen bogeyman, Max Schreck. Only one scene shows Loew watching Nosferatu, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had become a nightly ritual for him, picking up villainous traits here and there in order to better convince others that he is a menace to society that must be vanquished. In that, there's another example of how you can follow Cage's inexorable build-up--after cruelly berating Alva with great big bug-eyes and a weird, rectangular grin, he calls after her with a touch of sadness in his voice: "Don't you wanna use your gun, Alva?" Loew soon realizes (after the "formal" viewing of Nosferatu) that he must adapt some rudimentary sense of charm before he can convince anyone that this run-of-the-mill eccentric dickhead has transformed into a vampire. Thusly come some of the oddest scenes in a film full of much louder oddities: shortly after eating a cockroach, Cage/Loew does his best to embody Schreck in his entirety, visiting Alva's home when she fakes sick. He attempts to curry her favor with apologies and "soup!" while arching his shoulders and tucking his arms into his body in such a way that he comes to resemble a crooked, German Expressionist stick. At last, after this bout of charm is replaced with more invective, Alva is convinced to fill her gun with blanks provided by her brother Emilio (Bob Lujan).

Alas, Loew's imagined self-pity reaches its apex when he discovers that the blanks fail to do him in, crying out loud, literal sobs of "boo hoo" as Alva lies unconscious next to him. It seems that, in his latest attempt to turn Alva into his personal Van Helsing, Loew has raped her--but it is of no concern to him. Such a self-conscious act of prefab emotion draws attention to the several layers of "actor" that embody this character (Cage as Loew as "Continental" Loew as "Vampire" Loew) and the "Method" attempt to bypass anything that could possibly stand in the way of the performance. It's an idea enforced by Loew's subsequent spree through the streets of New York ("I'm a vampi-yah! I'm a vampi-yah!") which perfectly captures Cage's palpable joy at being able to shake loose any misgivings and go bigger, to use those grand gestures--and, handily, it also reflects Loew's masked elation at achieving a vital step towards freedom from responsibility.

But Loew finds that he is in need of external validation, because his "former" self is gnawing away at his newly-discovered vampirism--with only a few dollar bills in his wallet (never mind the credit card), Loew plays the cheapskate, eschewing professionally-crafted fangs in favor of dime-store plastic. The scenes that follow may be inherently ridiculous--acknowledged by the dramatic music sting when Loew sticks the fangs in his mouth--but watch how Cage plays the next few scenes, with his forays into exaggeration borne of complete earnest: Loew's call to his therapist through his new choppers (his desperate pleas to reschedule an appointment are actually heartrending in a knee-jerk pathetic kind of way); the capture and devouring of a pigeon; and finally the murder-by-neckbite of a young woman at a discotheque--which plays out like a self-contained, minute-long version of Dracula and represents Cage/Loew's most valiant attempt to encompass his identity in the hallucination. But it's all for naught--even his visions of Rachel have begun to mock him for his inability to completely succumb to the night.

And so he continues into the dawn, begging for someone to kill him with a makeshift stake. Wandering down the street, wailing at the top of his lungs, he soon walks face-first into the corner of a building (silent horror becomes silent slapstick), an interruption which he naturally interprets as his appointment with his therapist. The scene alternates between the reality and the imaginary; the latter features a newly-invigorated Loew, announcing that he has decided to abandon his therapy sessions and that he will search for love on his own. What I really adore about Cage here is that, cutting back and forth as they do, the two versions of Loew flow together so nicely--the upstanding, self-sufficient hero and the slobbering, blood-drenched maniac are both such outrageous fantasies on either side of an acting spectrum that they circle around and meet each other.

It seems to be a last-ditch effort to let Loew have his cake and eat it too: "Dr. Glaser" rationalizes away any guilt from the rape and the murder (presented here, of course, as an after-thought fear of consequence) as "a little id release" and even pairs him with "Sharon," a theoretically perfect soulmate who, we gather, comes to dog him about his "identity" as a vampire, until--"God damn it, what did I just say?!"--he launches into a hate-filled diatribe directed at thin air. After so many moments that could be interpreted as mere silliness (or moments of terror purposely masked by Cage's own hysterical melancholy), Loew's explosion finally introduces a sense of fright to the proceedings. Cage has suddenly become a terrifying on-off switch. His film-long build-up is no longer some cycle of weirdness, but has finally culminated in choppy mood swings that exude pure danger--the very final stage of this on-the-street insanity. Even previous outbursts were not quite as violent and abrupt; the actor's ferocity in battling himself translates as the final attempt from whatever sanity Loew has left (or whatever sanity he ever had in the first place) to deny him his self-contained forgiveness and peace of mind.

But Alva's brother, dramatically set up in the last few minutes of the film as some ever-approaching avenger/demon slayer, storms into his apartment as a whimpering Loew brings the "stake" to his chest; Emilio obliges and forces it in. At this point, Cage performs his final act of reining it in: after a brief, painful scream, he slowly brings his arms to his side, his final thoughts being of Rachel, begging that he dream of her. In other words, the asshole wins because we've taken him up on his fantasy. He had it comin', but we've all got it comin', kid--Loew has beaten the rap by dying on his own terms, successfully pleading "not guilty" to the crimes committed during his life by reason of supernatural monstrosity, and his mind has finally thrown up the white flag and forgiven him. Cage mentions that he didn't want Loew to go out quietly, and perhaps he doesn't--but Loew's death rattle is not exaggerated in any way, which emphasizes his mortality and drives the point home that this is an inappropriate end for such a horrible person. The dual expectation for more histrionics and some form of cosmic retribution leads to one inevitable, "unfair" conclusion: he should be going out in a much louder fashion.


Clint said...

Fantastic job, Ian. I've been dying for a FFC review of Vampire's Kiss for awhile now. Glad to see some recognition of Cage's batshit insane performance.

dennis r said...

Please tell me you're going to cover Deadfall. Cage's performance in that is just stunningly incomprehensible.

In any case, was it Chambers and Jackson who said they liked I Know Who Killed Me? C'mon guys... all of that blue?

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Ian, I don't know whether to praise you or curse you -- praise because this is a dandy opening to a series I can't wait to read in total; curse because I've been talking about doing a re-appreciation/revisitation/reconsideration of the later career of Nicolas Cage, the onetime gonzo acting icon who supposedly "lost it" after his Oscar, for a year now, but never started the damned thing. (Bottom line: He's the bravest, craziest actor/star since Brando, with an equally erratic brilliant/merely abrasive ratio, but ultimately far more interesting than contemporaries who made safer choices.)

"The Weather Man" is as weird and special a film -- with as fully imagined a lead performance -- as anything Cage did pre-Oscar. And I kind of liked "Lords of War" the first time I saw it, and a partial second viewing on cable made me think it's another minor triumph that was not properly appreciated when it played in theaters.

Hell, even the "Wicker Man" remake probably seemed like it was worth doing on paper, and having finally watched bits and pieces of it after digesting a wave of pans, I wonder if it's not supposed to be blackly absurdist, like Frankenheimer's "Dr. Moreau" remake? ("Not the bees!")

The guy's not infallible, and like Johnny Depp, who I also enjoy and admire, he sometimes mistakes abrasive noodling for bold art. But he's never dull unless he's playing somebody typical, and there have been thankfully few examples of that sort of character when you look over his entire resume.

On the basis of this opening installment, I suspect I'll have little add besides, "Damn. Wish I'd written that."

Rick said...

It was refreshing to see Walter put Juno in its place. Seems that some over-the-top patrons (witty! brilliant! revolutionary?) think Diablo Cody is self-destructive to the point where they have a shot with her.

Walter_Chaw said...

This is a beautiful piece, Ian. Damn, wish I'd written that.

Thanks for the kudos, Rick. Juno the second time through made me want to fork out my eyeballs.

Saw There Will Be Blood this morning and I'm still hard.

Anonymous said...

Your Remo Williams reference in the Golden Compass review suggests that you didn't like it, Walter? C'mon now, Remo is a classic. At least that's what my ten-year-old self is telling me, since that's the last time I saw it. Perhaps that's one I shouldn't revisit.

Bill C said...

Anon: I think even if you *like* REMO WILLIAMS the comparison is apt, since THE GOLDEN COMPASS is destined to go down as a non-starter.

Dennis: It was Chambers and Jackson. Don't get me wrong, the movie's ridiculous (especially its colour symbolism), but my lower-than-low expectations were surpassed.

Ian: Talk about hitting the ground running. Always in the mood for VK, but now I'm dying to see it again.

Alex Jackson said...

As if you would be surprised, good ole you-know-who just gave The Golden Compass and Juno both four stars.

It's not getting ridiculous, it's been ridiculous for some time now.

Rick said...

As if you would be surprised, good ole you-know-who just gave The Golden Compass and Juno both four stars.

It seems that he is happy just to be alive, and his inaccurate reviews reflect this.

Anonymous said...

Well, shucks--thanks, everybody. What with December being the hectic month that it is, the next installment might be a little tardy. Not that there's a set schedule or anything...

Dennis -- I'll take that as a challenge!

Incidentally, if anyone was curious, Diablo Cody's memoir Candy Girl is similarly overwritten fluff.

Seattle Jeff said...

"Diablo Cody"?

I have to ocnfess my ignorance that a real name? SOunds like the name of a cowboy in a cheap dime store a bad way.

Man, I can't wait for "There Will Be Blood"...hopefully it will get me over my Judd Apatow resentment that's gripping me after seeing "Superbad" the other night.

Walter_Chaw said...

So.... avalanche of hate mail for my use of the word "retarded" again.

How fucking retarded is that?

Seattle Jeff said...


Tim Duncan totally has sympathy for you.

Love Gorilla said...

Share some of this hatemail with us, and your responses!

Alex Jackson said...

I can tell you. I'd be interesting in reading that hatemail as well.

Even after serving as an intern for the Division of Services for People with Disabilities and then as a support staff in a group home for people with autism (and IQs literally in the 40s), I can't muster much outrage for the casual use of the word "retarded".

I mean the term "mental retardation" IS in the DSM-IV manual. I hate the euphimism "developmentally disabled" as it could be interpreted as referring to cerebral palsy. I guess "cognitively delayed" or "disabled" would work, but it could hardly be said to be more specific and is considerably more cumbersome besides.

When the American Association on Mental Retardation recently changed their name to American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, it wasn't to be politically correct but for a very practical reason. Many of their members worked with persons with autism but no mental retardation.

"People First" language dictates that a disability not be used in the adjective form, but as a thing that exists outside of the person. So a person would not be mentally retarded, but would have mental retardation.

But in practice, when describing a film that has a particularly low intellectual capacity, I don't think it's useful to force in the noun form.

And to get to the skinny of it, I simply don't percieve the use of "retarded" to describe The Golden Compass as robbing persons with mental retardation of their humanity.

Bemis said...

Agreed. I work at a day program for people with developmental disabilites - a term we use, as you pointed out, because we also work with people with autism, CP and traumatic brain injuries. There's one guy I work with who's relatively high-functioning, and he finds casual use of "retarded" hilarious. Which it is, especially coming from him - it's encouraging to know that he's developed a strong sense of irony.

Jared said...

I'm really interested in I Know Who Killed Me, but also like Alex - I have Showgirls in my personal **** list. Has to be one of his best reviews if you head on over to IVIOTS.

I think Lindsay Lohan is a really interesting actress on top of being an interesting celebrity. I'm probably just seeing things that aren't there because I'm attracted to her but I feel like an intelligent writer/director who tailored projects for her could really get more out of her than you'd expect. Sadly she's on the short slide to straight-to-DVD projects and 15 years from now will probably be cast in horror movies as some sort of winking reference the way Rob Zombie casts Priscilla Barnes or Karen Black. She's certainly not as vile and fake as Hillary Duff.

Jefferson said...

Lindsay Lohan recorded an awesome song called "Ultimate." I swear to God it's one of the best pop songs of the early '00s. Hunt it down and be rocked, if you dare.

jer fairall said...

Mad Props!