Monday, 30 March 2015

GET HARD and Get Angry

“I think this would have been easier to watch in 2008.”
The moral flogging that’s greeted the release of Get Hard is less revealing of how movies have changed than of how we have. What was once accepted and ignored is now the target of op-eds like this one. What would have once been in questionable taste is now everything we are not, if we’re to be seen as good people.
You’ve probably heard at least one media outlet’s despairing summary of the Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy by now. If not, I won’t sugarcoat it; there’s no way to make Get Hard sound innocent.
This is a movie about a racist white-collar millionaire (Ferrell) facing prison for tax evasion, who then, assuming that most black people in America have been incarcerated, hires his car wash’s manager (Hart) to show him preventative measures against getting raped by male inmates. In the social media/social justice age, this is what we term “problematic.”
            I can also point out that the release of every movie featuring gigantic A-list superstar Kevin Hart brings out a flurry of tweets from self-perceived enlightened white people asking, “Who the fuck is Kevin Hart?” But I won’t.
            Let’s get this out of the way: Get Hard is an ugly experience. As reasonably as one can argue that it’s actually confronting prejudices of class, race and sexuality (and again, this is only arguable), the grotesque heaviness of the subject of prison rape complicates both the audience’s will to take it all in stride as well as critics’ dismissal that it’s demanding to be taken that way.
            The truth is that Get Hard wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows ten years ago, but today, as much of the leftwing is veering uncomfortably close to the right in half-informed demonization of individuals and artworks, it’s unacceptable.
            Like many of The Nintendo Generation (born between 1977 and ’82), I’m offended by everything.
Growing up in Canada, most children’s programming taught the value of sharing through the trope of adults talking to puppets. We all assumed that when our parents went to “work,” they were meeting with their own puppet friends, the same friends who came out again when we were sent to bed.
Nineties political-correctness just seemed necessary. It never hurt the career of anyone who wasn’t Andrew Dice Clay or Rush Limbaugh, and those guys were destructive relics, so much so that if you’d been using the P.C. term over the past fifteen years, it was a pretty sure sign of a bigoted agenda. Considering peoples’ feelings is just the right thing to do. 
This is why mainstream culture in the aughts seems to me, even in retrospect, so completely beguiling. It was a notably lawless age for media entertainment, a decade so anti-human it allowed for Bumfights and the commercial success of torture porn. It was also a time when film comedy had a routinely privileged nastiness to it. Bookending the George W. Bush presidency with Freddy Got Fingered and Role Models (both interesting, superior examples of ‘00s shock value comedy), there was a furor in the air, an aura that shit wasn’t right and we were plunging further into doom.

The Obama era is more about how to rectify things, and while this is a definite improvement in terms of inclusivity and positivity, as well as in condemning prevalent hateful attitudes, and the bigotry of non-representation, we’ve covertly become hypercritical of transgression. Compassion and forgiveness, once defining components of leftist ideology, are buried by our need to react rather than heal. Feedback is instant, so comedy is fearful. Everyone wants to be “a good person,” and movies like Get Hard are important, only because we can define ourselves against them.    

This evolution of our attitudes is most apparent by how difficult it’s become to watch only slightly older movies through 2015 eyes. I screened Idiocracy (co-written by Get Hard director Etan Cohen) last week for several friends who had never seen it. One expressed discomfort with the 2006 Mike Judge comedy’s repeated use of the expletive “fag.” Context only mattered so much. The (white male) lead in Idiocracy is transported to a dumbed down future where the prevailing fratboy culture perceives his heightened intelligence as effeminate. Judge is making fun of the type of people who would denigrate others that way. My friend isn’t wrong. She’s been sensitized by internet culture, and there’s progress in recognizing when something hurts others, regardless of its initial intent.
History has made us aware that (contrary to any George Clooney Oscar speech about how Hollywood is on the leading edge) mass entertainment often lags behind cultural enlightenment. Shameful examples of blackface taint even the post-Civil Rights era, and it’s been mandatory to not take such offenses in silence. The struggle now, as it faces comedies like Get Hard, is different. The conversations on what’s potentially harmful or healing have ceased. Get Hard is vile. The internet said so.
Dismissal can be a survival mechanism. Last summer, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was met by box office failure and reviews mentioning that its attitudes were misogynistic. The original Sin City from 2005 is every bit as retrograde. It was never any fun for me, but many of these same critics now espousing their sensitivity liked it at the time. The same brand of misogynistic dialogue and amoral graphic mutilation was recently ok with them. We don’t talk about it often, but it’s incredible how prevailing cultural attitudes have changed so much in only a handful of years. If you ever enjoyed the first Sin City, try watching it today. It’s difficult to make it beyond the 45-minute mark.
            Literary legend, and occasional social media pariah, Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted that the scene of Jack Nicholson slapping Faye Dunaway completely soured her most recent viewing of Chinatown. The Twitter crowd that previously scolded Oates upon misunderstanding a point she was making about patriarchal world religions mistreating women quickly put Chinatown in their crosshairs.  
Sometimes we look away if it’s an artist whose work we still consume and enjoy. Collectively, we have an unspoken agreement to never acknowledge that there’s a 2008 Katy Perry song called “Ur So Gay.”

            What brought on this cultural shift? How many of us really care about these issues, and how many of us just say we do for our social advantage?
            That’s impossible to answer without offending a whole bunch of people, and I want to believe everybody’s best intentions, but the problem as I see it is this: There is not a higher proportion of intelligent people now than there was before, while the internet has expanded the public forum and deepened our loneliness and longing for human connection. For that, we seek groups that will take us. Our perceived openness to diversity has maybe shifted its aim, but hasn’t impacted our longstanding problem of inadequate empathy.
Humans, particularly in the western world, still believe in black and white notions of good and evil. It’s comforting. It’s engrained in our genome. It’s why the most successful films have clearly defined heroes and villains, and it will always be why Michael Bay’s films are more popular than David Lynch’s. We’ve widened our net of what groups are acceptable, but we’re still failing to see others as complex individuals, made up of, at times contradictory, shades of grey.
            There’s no nuance in the condemnation of Get Hard. Like people who become targets in internet pile-ons, there’s a movement to define it by only its worst instincts. But why are we so confident of its malice?
            What Get Hard is attempting to say about cultural prejudice, and with what degree of success, is less important than its easy function as an object of derision. 
Broken down on its most basic terms, Get Hard is about how Will Ferrell learns how to stop acting like a stereotypical elitist white man and learns to act like a stereotypical impoverished black man. That sounds awful, because it’s funnier to describe it so reductively, but there’s a simple, undeniable sense of inclusivity to that character arc.   
            Cheap jokes and easy shots abound, yet the film is told largely through Ferrell’s subjective sheltered bigot perspective. His worldview expands, even if in limited ways and through gags that rely on prejudicial attitudes in their audience. This isn’t positive, exactly, but that doesn’t make it completely destructive either.  
Male prison sex has been an awful comedy crutch appealing to those of low-intelligence for ages, even appearing unquestioned as the premise of the 2006 Bob Odenkirk comedy Let’s Go to Prison, and just last year in homopanic-heavy 22 Jump Street. It’s not an inherently funny subject, and Get Hard does nothing to make it seem less than repulsive (I watched most of the film through a mildly disgusted scowl). The trick is that through that intensely unpleasant focus, the panicked comedy of Get Hard actually makes prison rape feel serious and disturbing.
            I’m not excusing the film. Rest assured, I’m not even recommending it. I merely wish to highlight a hostile, reactionary habit that’s overtaken our responses to pop culture. Get Hard is a hard act to swallow in that it’s clearly about issues of race and class, even as it’s openly sexist, and too often conflates the fear of male rape with homophobia, as though they were the same issue.
            So we opt to accept none of this. (Interestingly, Ferrell’s criminal charge results in the whole world turning against him, denying his humanity like the recipient of internet shaming, condemned as thoroughly as the film of which he’s the subject.)
Get Hard never quite feels subversive, but its shocked-dismissal calls to question whether there’s room for real transgression in today’s climate. Where would filmmakers who make personal observations on society, who have things to say and to satirize, and who risk upsetting moral standards by deepening our acceptance of individual neuroses, be able to stand? The culture, on both left and right, has become condescending and condemnatory. The smartest among us have learned it’s easier to avoid social risk and ignore the political opposition altogether.
We’re terrible at talking to one another, and social media has only highlighted and facilitated this. We make no effort to “know our audience,” to try and relate by learning to speak kindly and persuasively to those with whom we disagree. We’re raging without a vision when we need an end-goal of unity. There’s an irony in becoming more aware of injustice, while conversely learning to hate one another, painting the world as an idiocracy of allies and enemies. The left is at a critical juncture. Either it acts or just reacts. Either it takes charge or remains eternally judgmental. 
I realize the irony here. I’m doing the same thing as those whose behavior I’m opposing by using this lowbrow comedy as an easy jumpoff for larger cultural concerns.  

            As for Get Hard, it just kinda sucks.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top Five Lists of 2014 and the Rest of Human History

Another Old Year has ended while a New Year begins, and although 2014 saw Western Culture have a collective nervous breakdown, we might just survive it.
            In times of change, it’s important to hold on to the things we love, and stop being so negative. As such, I won’t be doing any worst of the year lists, and will instead take inspiration from the Chris Rock movie Top Five, where innocent people are sometimes cornered and asked to name their top five rappers. I’m also taking inspiration from the comments section to Outlaw Vern’s review of said movie, where innocent people gave a lot of top five lists of different things without being cornered and asked. They just wanted to do so.
            So here’s a bunch of Top Five Lists. Let us read them and become better humans.

Top Five Rappers
Ice Cube
The Notorious B.I.G.
The Fresh Prince

Killer Mike
The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def

Things to Say at New Year’s Eve Parties
“This is the best party I’ve ever been to.”
“Yeah, man.”
“I rock the party that rocks the vibe.” (I said this once at a party in 1998, but I think it’s because I misheard a song lyric.)
“Happy New Year!”
“Jammin’ on the one.” (There’s really no better time to try this one out.)
Popular Catch Phrases From the Motion Picture Jerry Maguire
Help ME help YOU.
You had me at Hello.
Show me the money.
You complete me.
Don’t ever stop fucking me!

Lo-fi ‘oos American Indie Filmmakers

Wes Anderson
Michel Gondry
Spike Jonze
Sofia Coppola
David O. Russell

Canadian Cities
I don’t really travel that much, but probably Vancouver

US Cities
New York City
San Francisco
The stretch of Hollywood where you can meet Spider-Man

TV Shows
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (at the height of my obsession, I wanted to live in Sunnydale)
The Simpsons (first ten years)
Twin Peaks
Beavis and Butt-head

Projectile Vomit Scenes in Movies
Stand By Me (I’m kind of traumatized by this scene and don’t fully understand it, but it’s the grossest)
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
The Witches of Eastwick
The Exorcist
Problem Child 2

Songs of 2014
Charli XCX, “Breaking Up”
FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Ariel Pink, “Not Enough Violence”
Chance the Rapper, “No Better Blues”
Phantogram, “Fall in Love”

Movies of 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel
We Are the Best!
The Duke of Burgundy
The Purge: Anarchy

Filmmakers (English Language)
Steven Spielberg
Brain De Palma
David Lynch
Charlie Chaplin
Stanley Kubrick

Scenes of 2014
“When She Picks Up That Deformed Dude” from Under the Skin
“The Beach Scene” from Under the Skin
“Anyone for mush” from Grand Budapest Hotel
“Smaug Burnin’ Up Your Shit” from The Hobbit is Barely in This Movie
“Nocturnal Voyage to the Land of Eva Green” from 300: Rise of an Empire

Rock Bands
The Smiths
The Smashing Pumpkins

The Cinema of Chris Rock
AI Artificial Intelligence
Top Five
New Jack City
Pootie Tang

The Cinema of Gabrielle Union
Love and Basketball
Cradle 2 the Grave
10 Things I Hate About You
Bring It On
Uhhhhh, Bad Boys 2, I guess. Christ.


Soft drinks (also known as soda, pop, soda-pop, fizzies, or just Coke depending where you live… soft drink seems like the least offensive term in problematic times.)
Root Beer
Diet Coke
San Pellegrino Lemon

And Happy New Year!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Cinema of Death: JOHN WICK and OUIJA

John Wick anticipates critics comparing it to a first-person video game shooter. Intercutting stylized live-action violence with a moment of a gamer thug’s obsession underlines the movie’s simplemindedness: Keanu Reeves is wronged, and, in rock video set pieces, kills those who wronged him, and then it ends. The only spoiler one can reveal is that it has no twists or surprises.

In a retrograde way, this is refreshing and it knows it.  Following years of barf-cam “verite” action scenes, and uncentered Marvel storylines, John Wick is defiantly straightforward with clear, easy-to-track bullet impacted head explosions and upper torso knife plunges.

After his girlfriend dies of an illness, Wick (Reeves), a former killing machine, plunges into depression. Gifted with a cute dog who he plays with for most of the film’s first half hour like he’s taking cues from Riddick for becoming a sympathetic psychopath, Wick’s life turns back around when goons murder his new pet. He relapses to his murderous ways, as stunt coordinators-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski find a clever way of emotionally grounding their revenge narrative. We’re used to the disposability of human life in movies. Don’t fuck with dogs!

Reeves, a charming action star when permitted to be, is used at his most monosyllabic, disposing of bad guys and more than a few bystanders with cool posturing. In its combo barrenness and balletic kineticism, it’s both imitation Walter Hill and imitation John Woo, a movie that’s at once minimalist and maximalist.

First things first, John Wick isn’t as good as some people will try to tell you it is.

          But in a desperate climate where the best action films aren’t even getting theatrical distribution, there’s an urge to overpraise one that just gets it done. Its closest comparison is Robert Rodriguez’s series of violent rock music showdowns in Desperado. Wick’s just as brainless, but with less scatology. The recurrent joke of supporting characters shrugging off Wick’s barbarism feels cheap. And a nightclub fight centerpiece is reliant on ironic use of pop music against savagery, as though the movie’s audience isn’t familiar with Spring Breakers' “Everytime” montage, which expected its audience not to know Face/Off 's “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gunfight, which expected its viewers not to know the work of Kenneth Anger, which, in fairness, they mostly didn’t.

John Wick is a work of calculated affectation rather than of artists with this style in their bones. It happily contributes to cultural detritus when a smarter movie would comment upon it. But this must also be distinguished from The Raid’s pervy human degradation. At its own base level, John Wick’s murder fantasies feel detached from plausible bodily harm, and, for better or worse, are fun.

Mortality in John Wick is a heavy burden, until it isn’t. It’s murder as catharsis as spectacle.

Death is approached more solemnly, but without any more sensitivity in Ouija. Director Stiles White has a nice handle on widescreen horror imagery in the movie’s first half, building suburban folklore and dread through looming steadicam shots across white picket fences and wooden staircase railings. Ouija isn’t as grand and beautiful as last year’s The Conjuring, but, for a while, it breaks from the televisual standard of Paranormal Activity and Deliver Us From Evil, placing its strangely autumnal brown California within a nearby anamorphic universe to Craven’s Scream and Carpenter’s Halloween.

It’s in terms of narrative that it doesn’t provide anything to care about.

The oddest moment of Ouija is also the most stereotypical. Mourning teen Laine (Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke) visits her school guidance counselor, who is intent on providing her with outlets to help deal with the death of two friends. She storms out telling him he has no idea what he’s talking about. Okay, except the movie wields no insight into teenage trauma that he doesn’t.

            Laine’s outburst simply feels like it should probably be a movie scene (you see it coming because, undoubtedly, you’ve seen it somewhere before), and that’s how Ouija operates. It exists in desperate imitation of a real movie. The young cast reaches for a dramatic heft the material doesn’t support. Its pretenses to reckoning and painful rites of passage are missing the emotional current that grounded the original Final Destination. Loss and death in Ouija is just an aftereffect of cheap jump scares. It’s as hollow as the motif of spectres with their mouths sewn shut, something writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White haven’t connected as an abstraction of the way adolescent pain is silenced. Here, it’s simply a cruel thing to happen in the middle of flossing.

And therein lies the basic problem with Ouija: it’s about nothing. The filmmakers instill this by making the dead friend who the leads try to contact a victim of her own Ouija Board experimentation. This bypasses the opportunity to employ horror-fantasy as a means of confronting the very real confusion and grief of teen suicide. Laine and her friends should stand up and face the adult and peer scrutiny toward their shared depression. Yet the movie doesn’t allow them the dignity or humanity to address it.

Almost everyone young or old feels misunderstood, but teen movies are one of the only venues through which Hollywood will articulate this commonly and (sometimes) believably. Teen movies about death are a staple for a simple reason that Ouija hasn’t considered—when every experience is a new one, it feels as though it’s now or never. At the precipice of life’s beginning is a fear that life will never arrive.

 The things teenagers feel aren’t trivial. It’s when the movies reduce them to meaningless traumas and freak-outs that there’s no room for understanding, only disengagement.