March 11, 2008

You Can't Judge Me: Leaving Las Vegas


You know from the very first frame of Leaving Las Vegas that Ben Sanderson regards himself as a dead man, and will spend the rest of the film attempting to encompass that identity. The first fifteen minutes serve as an introduction to Ben's severe alcoholism, so where they fall chronologically in terms of his progressive sickness is a little hazy, but I suspect that this first scene takes place either during the immediate fallout of his never-fully-explained marital/familial tragedy, or right after he has been fired and cut off from all of his friends--in either case different stages of the mentality that has decided to completely free him of such concerns. He's aware that he's being watched as he dumps an endless supply of liquor into his shopping cart, whistling some unknown tune as he jives down the aisle and makes just the right selections to sate his thirst. He passes by the shelves of bottled water in an almost sarcastic manner, taking a step past the booze before spinning back around to pick up one last bottle. Nicolas Cage's performance as Ben is one of gradual, entropic deconstruction, establishing a man entirely on his own wavelength and spending the rest of the film taking him apart, piece by piece, until nothing recognizable remains.As Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies essay on Leaving Las Vegas, Ben's drinking binges "are not about pleasure but about the temporary release from pain," but Cage transcends even that simple truth. He carefully studies Ben's various states of drunkenness in these early scenes, each of which represent a different level of a long and torturous journey to foster some understanding for who he is as the world collapses around him. The pain to be found in his brief stretches of sobriety is palpable--sweaty and fidgety, his hands desperate to grab onto something steady, his eyes either tightly shut or wide open, darting back and forth with suspicion--but it's the moments of booze-induced levity that are the most difficult to watch in this first act of the film. In contemporary interviews, Cage mentions that he watched several "great alcoholic performances" but connected most with Albert Finney's role as a drunken British consul in Under the Volcano. That makes sense: in The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland personifies an alcoholic's desperation to make the pain go away, but Ben/Cage's early moments share with Finney's Geoffrey Firmin a long-standing belief that alcohol is fuel for the personality--the concept of "liquid courage" taken in its most literal sense.

With this in mind, the physical dependence seems like only a side-effect of the psychological dependence. Ben distrusts himself to such an extreme degree that he relies completely on the alcohol to take control of his emotional state. He doesn't know how to approach social situations anymore, and simply coasts along to wherever the buzz will take him: as he hits on a disinterested woman (Valeria Golino) at the bar that serves as his L.A. haunt, he submits to a pendulous non-strategy, swinging from casual introductions to excessive silliness to egotistical directness to pitiable depression with impossible ease. Ultimately, Ben seems comfortable in letting alcohol dictate him before anyone else ("Maybe I shouldn't breathe so much, Terri! Hahaaaaaaa...") but his inability to find a woman still represents failure, and Cage sees that compounding sense of failure as the factor that finally overtakes Ben's unreasonably high tolerance for alcohol--the painful, gasping transition into numbness finally turns him to a pathetic stagger trying desperately to disguise itself as euphoria.


But in that attempt to feign happiness, you can sense an obligation to the daily grind that prevents him from just offing himself; you can locate moments when his former personality peeks its head out of the grave. Even as his colleagues sever their ties with him, Cage drops little indications that Ben was, at some point, a brilliant man and a good friend. As a Hollywood producer, he must have had a sharp eye for scripts: when he blasts a self-destructive monologue into a tape recorder while staring at his muse-of-the-moment, a blond bank teller ("if you spread your legs and had bourbon dripping from your breasts, and your pussy, [...] then, I would have a purpose--to could clean you up--and that, that!, would prove that I'm worth something"), he drips with creative obsession, cataloging his thoughts with confidence and urgency because it won't be long before the last shred of his talent drifts off into infinity. This sense of focus helps us better understand how this man could chug a bottle of vodka with such complete abandon, long after any rejuvenating effects have left him--eventually, the obsession is all that remains. "I'm sorry," Ben tells his boss upon being (very gently) fired, just barely suppressing a weeping fit. It's Ben/Cage's only moment of genuine remorse, extinguished seconds later by a stone-faced declaration that he will move out to Las Vegas. You soon realize that you have witnessed the final swing of the pendulum, the final death twitch of the man Ben once was and whatever prevented him from destroying himself for good. Personality no longer matters.

Physical evidence of his existence is the first thing to go, and already we see Ben/Cage trying to forge the distance between him and the rest of the world--he regards a salacious picture of his ex-wife as a foreign object before tossing it into the fire eating away at the rest of his possessions; he enters his son's room knowing that he should be sad but suppressing everything beyond the vaguest reasons why. On the other hand, he relishes the booze that he takes in on the long drive to Vegas, gasping down the stuff between inaudible ahhhhhhs. Looking beyond the weight that he has just thrown off his shoulders, it's the only indication that he ever actively enjoyed drinking outside of its most devastating soporific effects. This is the moment that clues us in to Ben's assertion later in the film, that "killing myself [is] a way to drink." It's interesting to contemplate the level of self-awareness that Cage injects into Ben, and how he acutely understands that the suicidal journey is no longer about how much he hates (or hated) himself, or any kind of self-punishment to that end--hell, if he could do nothing but drink until the end of time, he would. He smiles and chuckles in a "who gives a shit" manner that only regards the inevitable descent into death as just that: inevitable. This general indifference points to why his gravitation towards prostitute Sera (Elizabeth Shue) is so difficult to pin down. The film is haunted by the possibility that Sera's attraction to Ben are borne from her own masochistic tendencies, but Ben/Cage's cavalier approach of her brings into question whether or not he really recognizes her: he nearly ran this woman over during his grand entrance into the city, and got a middle finger in response. He doesn't seem to be actively looking for pleasure or abuse from her, but merely submits to another human necessity left in him--admitting that even dedicated misanthropes cannot stand to be complete hermits. But considering how the film will operate from this point, would he have treated another woman differently had she given him the same amount of leeway that Sera does? The real beauty of Shue's performance, meanwhile, is how she visibly struggles to reconcile between Ben/Cage's need for companionship and his disinterest in anything outside of his intrinsically lonely path.
After all, there is mutual acceptance in their relationship, yes, and even mutual admiration, but not mutual love. "You're like some kinda antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance," Ben/Cage decides (it's important to see this as a sudden decision), and that's how he will see her: as an appreciated, though perpetually external, force of sympathy. He expresses his concern that he doesn't want to drag her down with him, much in the same way that an atheist wouldn't want to actively tread on a friend's religious beliefs, and counters her request that he move in with her by forging a verbal contract that she can never, never, ask him to stop drinking. The creation of this pact is the only sentence he can say to her with any sense of conviction, and soon it's back to well, what the hell. Packing up his remaining bottles back at his motel, he practices his sincerity in an almost sing-songy lilt: "Yes, I'm crazy about you. Okay?" (That last word is spoken with a peculiar shortness that recalls his petulant response to Sera's demands for an apology after nearly hitting her with his car.) His claims that he is already in love with her and that he "wanted to come to [her] clean" are half-conscious lies, but he recites them with a weary straightforwardness that hopes she will know they are lies but just go along with them anyway. In his desire to maintain distance, Ben/Cage adheres to a warped sense of verisimilitude, one not necessarily borne of drunkenness but one that quantifies the dichotomy of the drunk: the expectation for others to believe in vino veritas while maintaining that they shouldn't trust anything he says while under the influence.
However, from this point on, Ben's drunkenness no longer guides his actions and desires--it defines them in every sense of the word. The symptoms of alcoholism are now firmly established as personality traits, and when Ben and Sera go out for a night of gambling, Cage lets go of the wheel, acting completely on impulse. No swings, no transitions. He sees something, he wants it, he gets it--there's a brief, terrifying moment in which he jumps at Sera and slams her against a slot machine before leaning in for a kiss. Another, more pivotal moment occurs at the blackjack table, when the booze takes its toll and he slumps into his hands. A concerned waitress approaches him, so he orders a Bloody Mary--and suddenly, he swings his neck around sharply: "What? What?! No! NO! Fuck, you fuck!" He continues to curse at the top of his lungs as he topples over the table and starts thrashing at it wildly. At first you think that the waitress set him off by refusing to give him the Bloody Mary he just ordered; but no, she seemed willing to oblige him. Soon the security guards are upon him, and he starts screaming as they drag him away:
"You can't judge me! You--I am his father! I am his father!" His ghoulish wailing indicates that this has been a long time coming, and finally exposes the fact that he has not completely rid himself of the emotions that brought him here. Theswre's a brief hint of Ben/Cage's suppressed rage earlier in the film, when he responds to a lecture from the L.A. bartender--his brow furrows and his teeth clench as he recites "I appreciate your concern" in a tone of voice that barely conceals "just pour me another drink, asshole." The sharp release here conjures images of endless arguments and ugly divorce proceedings, with Ben swallowing the totality of his anger and sorrow to maintain some modicum of dignity. At this moment, however, Ben has no dignity left, and the bouts with delirium tremens serve as his only catharsis.

Despite her obvious love for him--or, at least, what he represents--Sera's actions on Ben's behalf (escorting him out of the casino, cleaning him up, buying him a hip flask) do not seem to affect him beyond thanking her and telling her that she is an "angel." He offers her gifts and tells bad jokes in a very perfunctory manner, as if he has determined that he has found a woman who will tolerate him, and all women must be treated in precisely the same way--a mentality that we realize just one scene earlier, when he treats a girl at a biker bar in an almost identical manner before getting his nose smashed in by her boyfriend. There are very, very brief moments when he seems to regret that he cannot muster the same level of concern for Sera that she has invested in him--particularly noticeable when he makes a snap decision to insult her in a bid to break away--but the dynamic between them simply is what it is. When he nonchalantly walks into the pool at another motel, bottle in hand, Sera jumps in to "save" him with an underwater kiss, and there is absolutely no passion behind it; there is more direct intent in the way Ben/Cage places his thumb over the bottle to keep the precious liquid from escaping. However, the next few scenes finally expose some unconscious sense of gratitude: she pours liquor over her breasts and Ben suckles it from them, a moment, long implied, that finally literalizes the film's pseudo-Oedipal overtones.

"I wanna ge'my drinky," he says as they get up--he stumbles back too fast and falls into a nearby glass table. Despite the shards now embedded in his back, Ben/Cage laughs and cracks jokes with a genuine freedom that has gone unheard since the film began ("I'm like a prickly pear," he hoots with a half-British accent)--he has finally located the purely theoretical sense of worth for which he pined back when he stared at that bank teller with lust and self-loathing. But the rediscovery of his long-sought-after purpose means that it has been simultaneously fulfilled, and there is a tacit understanding that the final descent has begun. The haunting spirit of his past has at last been exorcised--but it's doubtful that Ben realizes what he has accomplished, or why this represents his personal death knell. Indifference to the world around him has encompassed him to such a degree that it has reduced him to an infinite loop of stimulus-response; the dearth of any conscious/unconscious goals (not to mention the onset of brain damage) has finally left him without any knowledge of what he wants. All that's left is a quaking zombie clinging onto his rudimentary sense of object permanence, desperate to know that Sera and alcohol are still a constant presence.

But after Ben baptizes this new stage of living death in a shower of vodka, Sera pleads with him to see a doctor, carefully dancing around any implication that he needs to stop drinking. Although he cannot communicate beyond a jumble of infantile syllables ("Sera... I nagonsee doctor"), Ben/Cage's thousand-mile stare still exudes a childlike understanding of betrayal. You can feel him slowly piecing together the indirect logic of this request: a doctor will only tell him to stop drinking, and therefore Sera has broken their cardinal rule. Like so many aspects of their relationship, the discussion ends without a proper conclusion; Sera goes off to work while Ben works off his last vestige of life at the craps table, where he attracts the attention of a buxom young woman. Considering how the last few days (weeks?) have destroyed any pretense of charm, coherence or sex drive, it may be difficult to see how or why Ben could attract anyone on the casino floor--even another prostitute. But while these surroundings have given Ben/Cage a brief visceral charge in the past, by throwing his last bit of energy into a shrieking rage ("snake eyeeeeeeeeees!"), he becomes the quintessential Vegas gambler. He has completed the downward slide into nothingness; all that's left is a neanderthalic need to drink and throw dice and fuck. Once Sera catches them in bed, he knows that he has wronged her and that he must leave, but only on a very base, instinctual level--he must go out looking to fulfill his needs unhindered.

The next time they see each other, Sera has been gang-raped and Ben is in his final throes; there is nothing left but violent convulsions. "I wann'ed a'see you," he mutters to Sera on his deathbed. "You my angel." He apologizes to Sera and asks what happened to her face, again, in a very perfunctory manner--taking more trouble to locate the strength required to bring a nearby bottle to his lips. He lazily attempts to coax an erection, but Sera climbs on top of him anyway. He tells her: "You know I love you, yeah." Spoken as a half-hearted statement, not a question, because he knows that the charade can no longer be maintained--and then, after several agonizing seconds of limp sex, Ben "climaxes." This release is Cage's tour de force moment: a deadpan wheeze that implies an orgasm but never actually convinces you that one has occurred--Ben's final living act interpreted as a moment of inaction, and the confirmation that he has been incapable of love for a long, long time. As dawn breaks, Ben is almost completely paralyzed--but he manages to turn his neck around and see Sera, still at his side. "Wowwwww," he croaks, staring into the beyond with newfound comprehension. That's the paramount tragedy of the film and the performance: he could no longer feel it, he refused to see it, and he never even recognized it until the very moment his physical self finally caught up with his bleak worldview.

75 comments:

Ryan said...

Please tell me there's a Doomsday review coming later tonight. I MUST read Walter's take on it.

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to comment on these long Nicolas Cage essays, just like it is difficult to make any meaningful comment on Alex's 10,000 word essays, just because they are so complete and thorough that there usually doesn't seem to be anything to add to it. So I just wanted to say that this is brilliant, insightful writing, and please, keep writing more.

Rick said...

I just watched the Leaving Las Vegas trailer, and it was funny to see it marketed as a love story. It looks like the producers in The TV Set cut the trailer.

Ian, are you going to do The Lost Weekend?

Walter_Chaw said...

Alas - Doomsday not screened. Can't wait to see it, though. Maybe this weekend.

Jefferson said...

The various critical insights to Horton interest me. The pro-life contingent has also spotted support for their message: "A person's a person no matter how small." I hear on NPR that a Denver group plans to picket the film opening there.

reader said...

I hope enough interest is noted so that a FFC Annual 2008 is justified. This Nicolas Cage Odyssey could have its own section.

Ian Pugh said...

Thanks, Anon. Again, I have to say that I'm really glad this series is going over so well. I'll do what I can to keep them coming a little quicker. Now all I need to do is figure out how to approach The Rock...

Rick: Indeed, it's a strange trailer--particularly for the almost sarcastic manner in which it portrays Ben's alcoholism.

I don't know if I could say much more about Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend than I already have.

Rick said...

Yes, I especially hate the part of the trailer where they cut the LA bar scene to make it seem humorous.

Bill C said...

Apropos Ian's mention of UNDER THE VOLCANO: you owe it to yourself to check it out now that Criterion's put out a snazzy DVD. I'd put it up there with SIERRA MADRE, FAT CITY, and IGUANA as top-tier Huston, though it's a comparative slow burn, and I found I had a rather delayed reaction to its greatness. Not to take anything away from Cage, but Finney basically gives THE drunk performance against which all others are found wanting. It's a heartbreaker.

Jefferson said...

As a former Ledhead who watched The Song Remains the Same at 14 and was left mumbling "eh?" ... really excellent Blu-ray review, BillC.

Bill C said...

Aw, thanks, Jefferson. Between you being a former Ledhead and laying dibs on Anna Paquin, I'm starting to wonder if maybe we're evil twins.

Ian Pugh said...

Definitely, Bill. I suppose I can't argue with the Academy choosing F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus, but Finney is a revelation. Really need to see more latter-day Huston... and more Huston in general, really. But am I the only one who doesn't get The African Queen?

Bill C said...

Ha, Walter and I have this conversation all the time: no, you're not alone--AFRICAN QUEEN isn't all it's cracked up to be, that's for sure. THE MISFITS, on the other hand, now there's a movie.

Seattle Jeff said...

Saw The Misfits just last fall. Man, I indeed concur.

I was in a writing class at the time and everything I wrote after seeing it came out as some neo-western...I couldn't get it out of my head.

Alex Jackson said...

Really need to see more latter-day Huston... and more Huston in general, really.

Me too. Annie kind of unfairly dimmed me to that proposition.

Man, the quality of Huston's oevre is deliriously uneven. Orson Welles' followed up his stunning 1941 debut with Magnificent Ambersons. Huston followed up his with the justifiably forgotten In This Our Life.

That said, I'll still watch anything he's directed.

Bill C said...

That's the fundamental problem with going through Huston's filmography, that he basically threw darts to decide which projects he would give a shit about. But by tarnishing his reputation early and often, he had a better modulated career than most quote-unquote great directors, who ritually peter out in old age. I think, too, that his living like a Hemingway caricature to the bitter end helped reserve fuel for uncharacteristically melancholy and remorse-filled pictures like FAT CITY. Has anybody here read his hilariously narcissistic, Walter Mitty-esque memoir? Anjelica Huston purportedly told him, "Nice book, dad--who's it about?"

djr said...

Hey Alex, are you going to write a top ten column for 2007? I've enjoyed your previous yearly pieces, and I had a good time arguing with some pals over whether or not you're off your rocker with last year's list.

Kyle Puetz said...

I remember you stating you could work up some froth for Paranoid Park. Are we going to be lucky enough to see a review soon, Bill?

Bill C said...

Honestly, I fear writing a review without a refresher course (even though a second viewing would be masochism) and it's not playing anywhere nearby. It *is* however coming to Blu-ray in a few weeks, so maybe then. I'm just relieved that the critical consensus has been a little more mixed than I originally thought. In a nutshell, it fits the profile of someone who'd fall for the JT Leroy ruse to a T; unlike ELEPHANT or even the abysmal FINDING FORRESTER, it's Van Sant's first high school movie that feels like it was directed by a guidance counsellor.

Alex Jackson said...

Hey Alex, are you going to write a top ten column for 2007? I've enjoyed your previous yearly pieces, and I had a good time arguing with some pals over whether or not you're off your rocker with last year's list

Will do it, but it hasn't been that much of a priority. Mine would look boringly like Andrew Bemis' though I do have one particularly wacky choice in there.

Rick said...

I find the shaggy-haired hipster non-actors in Elephant and Paranoid Park to be nothing more than scenery, which makes me not give a shit about most of the characters in either film.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that the wacky choice is Across the Universe.

Rick said...

Shot in the dark: wacky choice = Hot Fuzz?

Alex Jackson said...

I'm a great admirer of both Across the Universe and Hot Fuzz, (and also the oft-hated Hostel: Part II), but neither is the film I'm thinking of.

Bill C said...

R.I.P. Anthony Minghella. Another one that leaves me speechless.

Ian Pugh said...

...And R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke. Shit.

Stuart said...

I have to see a movie with some family members (no one young or stupid) and can think of nothing better than Paranoid Park; now several of you say it is crap; any other recommendations? Not much is out this time of year and the usually reliable Pacific Film Archive doesn't have much that is interesting (to me). Suggestions would be much appreciated.

Rick said...

Snow Angels if it is playing.

Rick said...

I have no idea what Alex's wacky choice would be...Aqua Teen? haha. Guess I will have to wait until the list is on Viddied.

Bill C said...

My advice would be to blot out the noise and see PARANOID PARK if it looks interesting enough to you that you're following the buzz on it. I guarantee you it'll fuel some conversation at the very least.

Kyle Puetz said...

Figured this would be of interest to some people here, consider Walter's similar observations:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200804/iraq-movies

Clint said...

Here's one I haven't seen discussed 'round these parts... Youth Without Youth (surprising considering it's got the hand of Murch guiding it, who I know is popular with some FFCers). Granted it is a bit of a mess, I just don't understand all the vitriol against it. And some of it is just plain beautiful.

Rick said...

I realize that people are turning on Judd Apatow because of overexposure, but after reading a recent interview where he describes his love for The Last Detail, and then explains that Freaks and Geeks is Welcome to the Dollhouse without balls, its hard not to like this guy.

Love Gorilla said...

Alex - is it Southland Tales?

Does anyone have any thoughts on Southland Tales, by the way?

jer fairall said...

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/news/1716409/ << The Apatow interview

Good list. Never seen Terms of Endearment but I like the other films listed here, and Being There is one of my favorites. I'm a big fan of Ashby in general, but yeah, Apatow's hero worship of him helps explain the rambling looseness that mars his films.

Southland Tales is indeed every bit the disaster it was reported to be. It's the cinematic equivalent of nonsense poetry, in addition to being exhausting and ugly to look at. Kelly has no control over the tone of the film; it leaps from Donnie Darko-esque pop philosophy to sophomoric comedy (this and Date Movie are probably the only two films I've seen in years that I would actually describe as "dirty") to haphazard "political commentary" at random. This movie is M. Night Shymalan bad.

Ian Pugh said...

Southland Tales was the catalyst for the Nicolas Cage Odyssey, so while I consider it to be one of the most godawful movies I've ever seen, I do owe it a debt of gratitude.

theoldboy said...

I just saw Southland Tales. I'm not sure if I'm parsing it or recovering from it. For a while I thought I was going to be one of those odd folk who actually dug the thing, but my opinion became much more muddled as it went along. I don't think the tone is the problem, the tone is basically that of Mulholland Drive minus the warmth and humanity, it's the way Kelly slathers his unfunny sex and poop jokes and blase political references in that tone, like that tone can be applied to anything, which I guess goes back to the depressing nihilism Ian describes. I won't be wholly negative about it, because taken independent from the rest of the mess there are some good sequences and images.

theoldboy said...

I take it back. Southland Tales is the cinematic equivalent of antimatter.

rachel said...

It occurred to me while watching Cradle Will Rock that the backlash against Apatow is more than a response to his overexposure. I really get the feeling that audiences looking back at this period will tag him as the preeminent filmmaker of the Bush era: a time when progressive filmmakers made movies like sitting shiva, and comedies were tepid hallmark cards of conservatism. Bush’s policies and Apatow’s narratives are similarly retrograde, in ways that initially charm but eventually, God willing, nauseate . It’s not just that they’re hegemonic in presence, but rather that they preach hegemony, either American hegemony or that of traditional marriage. In other words, the problem isn’t that there’s 40,000 Knocked Up clones, but that the first was so fucking oppressive.

Alex Jackson said...

It occurred to me while watching Cradle Will Rock that the backlash against Apatow is more than a response to his overexposure. I really get the feeling that audiences looking back at this period will tag him as the preeminent filmmaker of the Bush era: a time when progressive filmmakers made movies like sitting shiva, and comedies were tepid hallmark cards of conservatism. Bush’s policies and Apatow’s narratives are similarly retrograde, in ways that initially charm but eventually, God willing, nauseate . It’s not just that they’re hegemonic in presence, but rather that they preach hegemony, either American hegemony or that of traditional marriage. In other words, the problem isn’t that there’s 40,000 Knocked Up clones, but that the first was so fucking oppressive.

I don't have a clue as to what you're talking about Rach'. "Hegemony", defined in my dictionary as "control or dominating influence by one person or group over others, especially by one political group over society or one nation over others", seems to be one of those things that should never be seen as either positive or negative in and onto itself. I think that you can only be against it if you're on the wrong side. One needn't do too much creative redefining of the term "one political group" (meaning that everybody who disagrees with me is of the same political group) to justify making NAMBLA and the Aryan Nation viable political institutions. All in the name of eliminating hegemony.

"American hegemony"? So Knocked Up reflects the imperialism of the Bush administration? Heterocentrism? The quick fix tax refunds we're getting in May?

I'm not sure if it really even reflects the hegemony of the traditional marriage. I keep thinking back to that fight between Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd after she catches him playing fantasy baseball. I dunno, that seemed like a "real people fight" between two people that have more or less equal stock in the relationship. Particularly since Rudd is clearly in the wrong, I don't see Apatow as saying that it should be his way or the highway. Or vice versa, since we kind of empathize with him and understand how family life is smothering him.

Are you upset that Heigl didn't get an abortion? Or raise the baby herself?

I sort of wish that I could fault Apatow for his politics.

I fault him more for not being that interesting of a filmmaker. Absolutely no Schoonmaker juice at all. There's no sizzle, no charge at all there. I don't at all get how anybody could even entertain for a minute the idea of putting him alongside Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, or the Coen Brothers.

But I can't really see anything wrong with the content of his films other than his idea of the problem and his idea of the solution is just too simple. "Boys gotta grow up" that's about the extent of it. Talking about the fight between Rudd and Mann in Knocked Up, I think he believes that the fantasy baseball is the problem more than Rudd lying to his wife and not considering her needs. Know what I mean? Still can't believe that film buffs didn't reject The Forty Year Old Virgin. Couldn't they draw a line between collecting action figures and collecting DVDs? You can't expect your partner to completely replace caring about stupid shit as the filler for the hole in your life.

Apatow just produced Superbad, so I don't think we can assign ownership of it to him, but I liked that film better both on movie terms and also because of the bittersweet tone of the ending where he seperates from his friend to go with the girls.

Bill C said...

I dunno, I'm kind of with Rachel on this one, even if the term "hegemony" confuses me a little as well. Why is there never a conversation in Knocked Up where Heigl herself considers abortion--or any other option for that matter? (The movie is only concerned with how her pregnancy affects Rogen. Was anyone else here baffled when she told him immediately upon finding out?) Why does Andy have to *get married* before he can lose his virginity? These aren't fables of men growing up, they're thinly veiled allegories about the happiness that total conformity to puritanical mores will bring you--with all sorts of scare tactics (ewwwww--women have periods! (Superbad)) to keep their male protagonists on the straight and narrow. The fact that Apatow directs like Doris Wishman is almost, if not quite, beside the point; clearly, something about these movies' lack of visual interest actively contributes to their insidiousness.

rachel said...

I’m not upset with any one decision Heigl makes, Alex. The problem with Heigl’s character is a problem I saw when I took figure drawing classes. A student tries to fit the entire figure on the page, then realizes that they’re drawing the body badly out of proportion. So what do they do: erase parts of the figure, hide others under hair or objects, employ vague lines. They know that their figure’s deformed because of their fealty to their original concept of what should fit on the page, so they try to disguise that deformity. It’s been pointed out by Walter and others how underdrawn Heigl’s character is. It’s not that anybody forgot to give her interests or friends or the thousand other motivators that Rogen’s character enjoys, it’s that if she were drawn it’d be too obvious that her character doesn’t make sense in the context of the film’s universe, wouldn’t make the decisions she does, wouldn’t find the happiness she does by way of the Puritanical hoo-hah Bill describes. (I mean, obviously his movies are always running 130+ minutes. When a student can’t draw a person correctly, they’ll doodle in and around that shit to death.)

And it’s sexist because this deformation is what the institution of marriage has always done—to everybody but especially to women— when proposed as an overriding moral good and translated into discriminatory policies. This is what I meant by the word hegemony, although I probably should’ve used another. It doesn’t matter that Mann and Rudd fight, and that the fight feels realistic. It’s that Apatow feels that this is their very best lot.

I actually enjoy the fact, and find it totally fitting that Apatow’s a shitty filmmaker. Again, he’s the filmmaker of the Bush administration. Bush isn’t just an evil imperialist, he’s an incompetent and emotionally insincere one. (At least when Woodrow Wilson was invading Latin America he appeared to give a shit.) In those terms, Apatow’s technical mediocrity is kind of perfect.

Alex Jackson said...

I actually enjoy the fact, and find it totally fitting that Apatow’s a shitty filmmaker. Again, he’s the filmmaker of the Bush administration. Bush isn’t just an evil imperialist, he’s an incompetent and emotionally insincere one. (At least when Woodrow Wilson was invading Latin America he appeared to give a shit.) In those terms, Apatow’s technical mediocrity is kind of perfect.

Ah. Thanks, I was trying to find a way to translate Apatow's technical mediocrity into some kind of moral position.

I'm not sure that I see his films as sexist, but I would agree that they're square (Puritanical even) and that they're fatally told exclusively through a male perspective. 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are both films about immature men learning to grow up and the women are used merely as the means to facilitate the process.

But yeah, I dunno though. I guess that you could argue that the notion of using women as a "means to facilitate the process" is inherently sexist.

I think that I might kinda sorta challenge this notion:

And it’s sexist because this deformation is what the institution of marriage has always done—to everybody but especially to women— when proposed as an overriding moral good and translated into discriminatory policies. This is what I meant by the word hegemony, although I probably should’ve used another. It doesn’t matter that Mann and Rudd fight, and that the fight feels realistic. It’s that Apatow feels that this is their very best lot.

My soapbox position is that if you can't succeed as a wife (or husband) you aren't going to succeed as a mother (or father). Egalitarian relationships are the training wheels for taking on a relationship with an inherent imbalance of power.

But obviously, not all marriages are healthy relationships. I don't think marriage as an institution is either inherently good or bad and this idea that it's always the best solution and the surefire path to happiness is crazy talk.

I guess it's not the Puritanical attitudes that bug me, just the simplicity of it. I liked the film a lot more than Waitress, that's for damn sure.

Gave me food for thought though. This post is probably going to read like a bunch of half-thought out ramblings, but there you go.

rachel said...

Okay, I’m scratching my head at this:

My soapbox position is that if you can't succeed as a wife (or husband) you aren't going to succeed as a mother (or father). Egalitarian relationships are the training wheels for taking on a relationship with an inherent imbalance of power.

1) Marriage was not invented, nor has it ever existed, nor does it currently exist, as an egalitarian institution. To describe it as an egalitarian institution is to ignore the width of human history.

2) Marriage is not generic. Marriage is a culturally specific institution based on a host of details. To fail at marriage is to fail at adhering to the sum of those details. Failing at marriage does not mean you’re incapable, or even disinclined to engage in healthy and stable relationships with other individuals.

3) We are in power-imbalanced relationships from the moment we’re born. It seems strange to propose that we need training for this type of relationship. Your comment almost seems to disregard the entire concept of community outside the family, as it only begins to register these relationships once they’re with your kid.

Alex Jackson said...

Well, OK, I'll substitute "long-term romantic relationships" if you want. It might be news to you, but not all women who enter these kind of relationships are raped and battered.

Yes, we have relationships outside of the family and no I don't see these as providing the necessary skills to be a parent.

My point was essentially, that one should look at the problems that he or she has with romantic relationships: afraid to get close? Can't spend enough time at home? You're too clingy and you smother them? They're keeping you from doing the things you want to do? And you know, those problems aren't going to go away when you have kids. And in fact the ramnifications are worse, since kids generally can't up and leave their parents.

More on this later though.

rachel said...

Well, OK, I'll substitute "long-term romantic relationships" if you want. It might be news to you, but not all women who enter these kind of relationships are raped and battered.

I’m aware. I’ve just been trying to point out that saying that the marriage institution is structured to promote equality between partners is like saying that newspapers are structured to promote the best journalism. It’s Pollyanna. That link was just an example, not of how all women are raped (or as Apatow would put it, shma-shmaped), but how marriage, as an institution, was once concretely designed in a way that promoted rape. Policies continue to shape marriage in ways that obstruct equality. It's why marriage can't be thrown around as a generic term or synonym for a long term relationship. (Feel free, by the way, to replace this paragraph with The Wire’s bit about shingles.)

To bring it back, this blithe dismissal is something that Knocked Up is awfully guilty of. I was pretty grossed out by the scene in Knocked Up that makes fun of Heigl for feeling anxiety about losing her job. Her fear was appropriate and well-founded, based on realities in the employment field. The result of the scene is to marginalize and mock that anxiety. I often get the feeling—by the aforementioned scene; the scene where Mann’s denied entry at the club-- that Apatow enjoys taking pot shots at what he perceives to be the terrible privilege of white women. It's like saying, “Your privilege negates any feminist concerns you might have.” I don’t recall, of course, any less-privileged women in his films, whose concerns, one presumes, would be be less conveniently dismissed. He’s a concern troll, then, unserious about these gender issues unless they provide an opportunity at shaming well-off women.

Dave Gibson said...

"Knocked Up" is not remotely truthful about men "growing up" either. I have always wondered how Rogens' illegal Canadian expatriate managed to land a respectable hipster gig by the end of the film. I’m reminded (wistfully) of the early scenes of “Kramer vs. Kramer” when the Hoffman character really works at trying to find a job because, y’now it was just a given, rather than some mundane truth arrived at after 130 minutes of self-pity and dorm-room riffing. I don't get why “Virgin” and “Knocked Up” appear on top ten lists and get the op-ed cred while stuff like "Click" and “Wedding Crashers” are eviscerated even though they are all essentially the same movie. "Knocked Up's" obvious forerunner "She's Having a Baby" also proceeded from a male point of view but is infinitely more perceptive about husbands, wives, growing up and makin’ babies. (‘Course comparing Apatow to Hughes is kind of like comparing Shadyac to Sturges if you get my drift)

Bill C said...

On a side note, the THERE WILL BE BLOOD DVD rolled into FFC HQ today. I'm just the tiniest bit disappointed in the transfer, but it's an interesting set (comes in cardboard packaging like the soundtrack CD) with an entire silent film about the oil industry on it that I haven't watched yet.

Love Gorilla said...

Today's tangent: Shutter. The US remake has taken a critical smackdown, but does anyone know if the original was any good?

James Allen said...

Interesting discussion about Knocked Up from Rachel, Alex, et al. Not much to add myself, other than to give props for a spirited exchange.

Anybody watching John Adams on HBO? I've seen the first three parts and I think it's quite good. Romanticism of our founding fathers is kept to a bare minimum (while amply acknowledging the astonishing level of their achievements) and the overall roughness of the era is not given short shrift (the scene of a man being tarred and feathered was brutally rendered indeed.) Giamatti is nicely cast.

djr said...

I wish Walter had written a review for The Mist. I can't figure out for the life of me what the hell Darabont is trying to say with the end.

Will Goss said...

Darabont's saying the same thing King said at the end of the short story: never give up hope. Then again, Darabont took the long away around...

I too was curious as to what Walter made of it.

Bill C said...

Never say never, but the Weinsteins run hot and cold in sending discs to us and THE MIST probably won't show up at this point, so a formal review from Walter or any other FFC-er is unlikely. (Maybe as an Annual exclusive?)

For what it's worth, I think Tasha Robinson pretty much wrote the definitive review of it at A/V Club.

djr said...

*Mist spoilers* Sure, Darabont is saying that, but consider how the entire narrative is specifically geared so that everything Harden's religious zealot portends proves true, right down to the ending. As soon as the kid and the outsider are killed, the mist clears. Talk about mixed messages!

Alex Jackson said...

R.I.P. Richard Widmark.

James Allen said...

Re: The Mist

I tend to agree more with Stephen Whitty about the ending of this film, which to me was psuedo-Twilight Zone cheapness. Mind you, I have nothing against bleak endings, but this had all the finesse of a polo mallet upside the head. A lame capper to an otherwise decent modern* b-horror film.

*-Modern in the sense that is has an a-list budget. Do "b-movies" really exist anymore? Or is this something we just ascribe to films we don't expect all that much from?

Sean said...

"As soon as the kid and the outsider are killed, the mist clears. Talk about mixed messages!"

I really don't think it's a mixed message at all. You have to remember, she also said that she would lead them all to salvation, and was promptly murdered. I guess because I'm so damn cynical, I seem to get what Darabont's saying.

Let's take the obvious point - 9/11, for instance. Every religious wingnut in this country said it was punishment for our sins. How can you prove them wrong? You can't. They'll insist they are right, and there's no reasoning with them. Same with Mrs. Carmody. Someone like her can say "The dealer will pull a King of hearts right now, because of my faith in the lord." And if it happens, there's no sense in arguing.

In the end, they fail because their fear ends up pushing them AWAY from help. They were driving in the opposite direction the whole time. Though I'll also admit...I liked King's ending much better. And am I the only one who thought that, when the huge beast walks over their car and doesn't notice them, it was actually a pretty beautiful moment?

God, I need pills.....

djr said...

Interesting reasoning. Thanks for the illumination, Sean.

Anonymous said...

In the end, they fail because their fear ends up pushing them AWAY from help.

Oh, bullshit. Your reasoning is exactly the kind of nonsense used by "every religious wingnut in the country that said [9/11] was punishment for our sins" - the reasoning depends on the idea that correlation = causation, and the outcome is the evidence that proves the theory. Anti-intellectualism. Darabont's ending is like that of a tacky Goosebumps novel - an unneccessary shocking twist that gets a reaction but betrayes any subtextual ideas the film was getting at.

Compare the profound hopelessness of the ending to No Country for Old Men, in which realistic, often inescapable chaos is the order of the day, with the only character who walks high and mighty above that chaos a psychotic survival machine - and even he falls to an unexpected unpredictable violent accident. The difference between he and the other characters is that his principles and understanding of the chaos give him the abilities to cope with what may befall him. The universe of that film is a son of a bitch and he deals with it in a way that works.

Meanwhile, the son of a bitch universe of King's The Mist novella ends on a much more sensible ambiguous note than the film version, that seems to suggest that these characters may or may not survive or escape but they did their darndest to reason their way out of the situation, unlike the tards who fall to fundamentalist anti-intellectual insanity as a coping mechanism. Darabont's rewrite pisses all over them instead, deciding that the only recogniseable untouched survivor is the parent who ran out into the mist at the beginning of the film, which makes no sense whatsoever and means nothing. There's nothing to take from it because it's completely illogical. Imagine, say, we see some of those freshly baptised tards from the store on the survivor-truck instead: you could reason that the film was pro-religion after all, since the reason-based survival attempt failed and these jerks get were rescued because they followed the fundamentalist idiot. As it is, it's just tack.

Dave Gibson said...

I had a rewrite piss over me just yesterday, just while I was enjoying a plate of freshly baptized tard.

The english language. Catch the fever!

Alex Jackson said...

Speaking of Onion AV Club. So Nathan Rabin just gave an "F" grade to Chapter 27 putting it in the company of Date Movie, The Hottie and the Nottie, and that new Larry the Cable Guy movie. I take it in stride. The man clearly did not have any sympathy for the material so what are ya gonna do? If he was dying to see the new Mark David Chapman movie and then came up feeling that he had just seen one of the worst movies of the year--then I would be confounded.

On the plus side somebody on the talkback linked to my capsule review and mistook me for Walter! Score.

rachel said...

Darn it, Bill, you're killing me. I was in the middle of replying to that.

Bill C said...

Sorry, Rach. I worried it was bad form as an editor, albeit of a comparatively penny-ante DIY publication.

Patrick Pricken/Berandor said...

I recently saw "The Assassination of Jesse James", and while I really enjoyed the film something stuck in my mind. Does it annoy anybody beside myself that the voice-over introduction mentions Jesse's nervous blinking due to an eye condition but then we get several long, hard stares by Brad Pitt, one of them even right after the voice over in question?

I mean, why not either have Pitt do that blinking thing or just don't mention ist? Or is anybody else unbothered? I mean on the other hand, now I know Jesse James used to blink a lot and will not likely forget it soon.

jer fairall said...

I can't help but wonder if so much of the hatred being hurled at Chapter 27 stems from a sentimental protectiveness towards Lennon's legacy. Lennon fans seem to be treating the existence of this film the same way that many Canadians treated the existence of the eventually supressed Paul Bernardo movie (can't remember title now) from a few years ago--like something that shouldn't be allowed. The staff over at the music blog Stereogum are particularly vitriolic, hurling bile at the film (unseen by them, as far as I can tell) at every opportunity. The presence of Lindsay Lohan, and Jared Leto's recent dickish on-stage behavior aren't helping, of course.

Alex Jackson said...

I can't help but wonder if so much of the hatred being hurled at Chapter 27 stems from a sentimental protectiveness towards Lennon's legacy. Lennon fans seem to be treating the existence of this film the same way that many Canadians treated the existence of the eventually supressed Paul Bernardo movie (can't remember title now) from a few years ago--like something that shouldn't be allowed. The staff over at the music blog Stereogum are particularly vitriolic, hurling bile at the film (unseen by them, as far as I can tell) at every opportunity. The presence of Lindsay Lohan, and Jared Leto's recent dickish on-stage behavior aren't helping, of course.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 18% approval rating with an average rating of 3.8 out of 10. A lot of critics (even guys like Ed Gonzalez, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Nick Schager) really actively despise it. The handful that I've read basically just cook up a few wisecracks about the Leto performance and mention the "post-modern" and "meta" elements in a passing ass-covering way.

But yeah, I think that how you respond to the film depends on how much sympathy you have for the material. Certainly, Lennon's fans have come out in force against the film. It's not just that they find the film tacky, I think that they honestly truly find it sacriligious. I was banned from the Ain't It Cool chat room two days ago simply for talking about the film and specifically mentioning Mark David Chapman's name. That's kind of bizarre to me. And ironic even, given that the film is really about the spiritual angst inherent in this kind of celebrity worship. I think this is why I don't find the film's "meta"-ness particularly gamey. It's used for the hollow taste it brings to the proceedings.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I know I'm a little late to ask, but will Walter maybe write a review of _Paranoid Park_? I saw it a second time and liked it a lot more. It keeps growing on me... and I'd dig to see what WC might say, if you, Bill, won't go there (again).

Walter_Chaw said...

Sweet god. Jules Dassin.

Paranoid Park hasn't opened out here in the boonies, yet. I'm curious to see it, for sure.

As for The Mist. . . yeah, I dug it. I don't think the ending was a copout and for it to be compared to "Twilight Zone". . . time was that "Twilight Zone" was the gold standard. The real copout woulda been having all of them saved right before Jane caps his kid and his new girlfriend.

I have no real problem with the flick being on the side of the fundies - or that the Military is the bad guy that fixes everything in the end because isn't that the perception held by a a good 49% of our nation? I think it's a pretty fascinatin' pic for all the "wrong" things it says and does. That's what's stirrin' up the pot, I think - I was actually sort of glad for the insight into the other side of the aisle's way of thinking. I was really sort of upset by the way they sacrificed that one soldier. Didn't think Darabont had it in him.

Rick said...

Was I the only one to catch The Magnificent Ambersons: Director's Cut April Fool's joke? Ha, that cracked me up. If it was pulled quick due to implausibility, some glossed over, ultra-cheap fake Legend of Zelda trailer fooled countless people on YouTube, even though the description at the bottom of the header information stated that it was fake.

James Allen said...

Walt said:

As for The Mist. . . yeah, I dug it. I don't think the ending was a copout and for it to be compared to "Twilight Zone". . . time was that "Twilight Zone" was the gold standard. The real copout woulda been having all of them saved right before Jane caps his kid and his new girlfriend

For every classic Zone there are a number of no-so-good episodes with tacked on or forced twists... exactly the wrong idea many people got from The Twilight Zone, i.e. the twist is all that's important. In this case, from the way I see it, the ending wasn't some cruelly ironic follow through of the narrative, it was simply cruelty, not much of a twist, and not terribly original. I appreciate the post-modern philosophy that seems to avoid even remotely happy endings at all costs, but they could've done better than this.

Walter_Chaw said...

Hmm. . . maybe so. I never read it as ironic, I guess. Just struck me as more of the same cruelty throughout. There's no hope for salvation in the picture for the movers - just the followers. Salvation in the life of a sheep as Harlan Ellison once termed it. But rather than be critical of the herd mentality, it embraces it and, more, it sort of excoriates the men in the pic for not being "Promise Keepers" in letting the mother walk alone in the beginning. The flick is a really black mofo - tbe "B" version of No Country perhaps.

Any take on the Andre Braugher judge character? Or that the Jane character seems to be painting a movie poster for the Dark Tower series?

djr said...

If there is no hope for the movers, why is it that the mother from the beginning survives with her children? She was the only one willing to risk it all by immediately venturing out into the mist.

Walter_Chaw said...

Yeah - that's a tough one. I think it has something to do with the sanctity of motherhood, bit, but it doesn't save the Jane character's wife - any thoughts? Or is it just an inconsistency? Better, is it like No Country's sense of chaos?

Patrick Pricken/Berandor said...

"the period detail is exacting and the subject matter, football, is one in which I'm really quite interested, truth be told"
(Walter, in the Leatherheads review)

If you haven't already, you might want to check out Scott Sigler's free podcast novel "The Rookie", a sci-fi football story that got me interested in football when, by nationality, I should have been firmly rooted in Soccer.

http://www.scottsigler.com/therookie

it even got me watching the Superbowl at 3am.

Stuart said...

RIP Heston... despite the NRA thing, it is the death of an icon of an era. Flags at half-mast in Idaho compounds... sorry, that was in poor taste.