Thursday, 28 June 2007

Your favourite movie hates you!

The amount that I find myself at a frat house party is less and less these days. But Scarface posters haven't left my vision completely. On one level, it's really cool that people who use their mantles to build shrines for emptied beer bottles have such passion for one of Brian De Palma's seminal works of 80s cinema. Yet the love isn't without irony.

How Scarface is so misunderstood by so many of its biggest fans is one of life's mysteries.

Maybe people just see what they want. They love that Tony Montana rises to the top by not taking no fucking shit. So what if he's a pathetic figure by the end, who's gunned down in his own house after dunking his face in a mountain of llello? Until then he made crime a profitable business.

"This movie's the most closely impactful for out generation. Our generation was really put here with nothing."
- Diddy, on the impact of Scarface in the Def Jam documentary Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic.

It's frankly so impossible to miss the message of Scarface, an over-the-top satire of Reagan era excess, that you just have to toss it up to people choosing to look around it. I love this movie. I have a Montana action figure standing on top of my TV. I admit that its drugs and violence fueled melodrama is completely badass. Those who dislike Scarface don't accept it as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy. It's as quotable as Hamlet. What's scary is how many corrupt entrepreneurs this movie has created. There's not a minute of the film where Montana isn't an asshole.

So why the adulation?

I blame Oliver Stone.

There's nothing inherently evil about Stone's script. But the guy has some weird voodoo curse on him that seems to affect his movies like nobody else's. Stone's films are doomed to be most loved by people who (sometimes deliberately) take the completely wrong message from them. I'm not trying to sound smarter than anyone; if there's one thing Stone is not, it's subtle. Critics weren't uncomfortable with Alexander on grounds that it wasn't gay enough.

I was recently informed of an attorney who just had a gold bracelet made with the name Gordon Gekko inscribed in it. Gekko is the bigwig stockmarket villain played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. He's a man who has sold his soul before the movie has even started. His motto is "Greed is Good." He's the Dark Side ruler whose temptations must be resisted by the film's hero. So why does this person think Wall Street shares his philosophy? The movie is opposed to his way of life.

Isn't separating the attitudes of characters from the attitudes of the story something people learn about in tenth grade English?

Angus Wallen and Kara Winn were 27 when they killed Brandon Murphy in a murder similar to that of Mallory's mom in Natural Born Killers. Like the 8 other alleged NBK-inspired killers (including Columbine duo Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), Wallen and Winn must have missed that the movie considers their actions part of the downfall of civilization. This isn't a hidden message either; it's about 115 of Natural Born Killers 120 minutes. And it's as subtle as a sledgehammer. They're paying respect to a movie that despises them.

When you look at it, the movies that become common youth obsessions (to the point where when you see its poster you know the beer bottle shrine isn't far away) deal in antisocial themes. If it's not Scarface on that wall, it's A Clockwork Orange or something by Tarantino. It would be funny if college age kids chose to idolize different Oliver Stone films. They could post pictures to Facebook of doing bong hits in front of their Nixon posters. "I'm going to university, so I can be a fucked up President too!"

The idea of art sometimes opposing its fans always reminds me a little of when Schwarzenegger ordered the execution of The Crips' co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams. Just think about how fucked up that is. As a notorious leader of the South Central LA street gang, it's highly likely that Tookie was a fan of Predator, The Terminator and Commando. And then one day, this guy whose movies Tookie felt a connection with decides he should be dead.

Imagine the world's biggest Woody Allen fan. He grew up watching Annie Hall, landed the woman of his dreams by studying Manhattan, and he tends to quote Love and Death in casual conversation. Then one day Allen decides he doesn't like something about this guy, and has the power to kill him. That must be the ultimate betrayal!

"Arnie partying with Tookie / Smokin and drinkin till they lose their cookies / Crips are cousins / Bloods are brothers / Family killing one another" - Fishbone, "Party With Saddam"

Sometimes a movie will deliberately turn its back on a significant part of its audience. I'm talking about critic hatred here.

It manifests in last year's Lady in the Water and in this year's Ratatouille. I don't for a second doubt that M. Night Shyamalan making a critic an antagonist in Lady in the Water is a big factor in that movie's critical thrashing. (Another factor is that critics universally decided it was time to be fed up with Shyamalan--something that's happened to Oliver Stone more than once.)

I didn't react negatively to Bob Balaban's portrait of a know-it-all movie critic in Lady in the Water for several reasons: 1) I'm able to see the humour in this job. 2) I don't identify much with most other critics, and have no aspiration to speak for the "critical communty." 3) There really are plenty of critics like the one Balaban plays, and they deserve to be called on it. Shyamalan has a thin skin, but there you go.

Ratatouille is a little stranger. Pixar movies pre-Cars have only ever gotten glowing reviews. In this case, it's a food critic named Anton Ego, but the general swipes would still apply. Writer Brad Bird includes a bit of voiceover dialogue where the critic admits that it's easier to destroy than to create, or such bullshit. And that his work will never be as important as the stuff he's tearing down. I wish filmmakers would acknowledge that they're critics too. Art is a commentary on life. And criticism is a commentary on art. Only the medium is different.

Still, I can't really take offense at Ratatouille. The movie's pretty great, and the other characters don't escape such exaggerations either. But you should see this food critic's mansion. Jesus! How much do these jobs pay in France, and why don't I live there?


Jesse Dangerously said...

It's long been my opinion that Fight Club hates its fans, too; that the whole idea of the movie is that TYLER DURDEN IS WRONG AND MUST BE STOPPED. Do you agree with this assessment?

Mark Palermo said...

Yes, I do agree with that. Some of the fans take Durden's message as the movie's, when it's far from it. The society Tyler Durden builds becomes as institutional and corrupt as the one it's rebelling against. I also know of people who hate Fight Club for the same reason. Ebert called it "fascist."

I like how retro-Canadian your video is.

riley said...

make that 9 other NBK-inspired murders.

your reference coincides with:

I'm interested in what more media will make of the connection - NBK and the content is obviously news worthy in this context (or is it?).

Mark Palermo said...

Wow, that's insane! I'm so attuned to the times, I'm usually a day ahead of it.

Shannon Emery said...

I just saw Ratatouille last night and wondered what you thought about Ego's little dissertation on criticism. Lots of good stuff to think about, especially since its coming from a director who earned great reviews. I still shake my head that the film is supposedly intended for children! I thought it was fantastic.

Mark Palermo said...

That dissertation is a weird thing for an acclaimed filmmaker like Brad Bird to include, as though he's letting go of some bitterness. There's a perceived antagonism between directors and critics sometimes that I don't really get. I think they'd like to trade jobs half the time. Art is just a commodity if nobody's discussing it.

There are other characters in Ratatouille I relate to more anyway. I think it's the most enjoyable movie so far this summer (though I'm already getting some raised-eyebrows for liking Transformers so much.)

Joefilmfan said...


I haven't seen the rat flick yet but a lot of that Pixar stuff is done creative-committee style, especially to the thematic story beating. So by the process' reductive nature, there's a collective consumer aim to the whole thing: what do the people want to hear? The anti-critic, pro-artist message sounds like typical silicon valley post you-tube advertising. As long as you own an Apple product, you are a creator. With an iphone, you can channel your inner creativity, just like the rat and his food creations. If anyone thinks your apple customizations aren't great, they're just critics. You are an artist.

But in this way, no one is really a critic anymore. Everyone owns an Apple product. Critics are a phantom villain: uncontroversial, and easy to distance from to a modern society that defines creativity by the things you buy.

I'm talking too much now and too busy to make this make any real sense. I'll shut up.

Mark Palermo said...

What you're saying makes perfect sense, and certainly explains a lot of what's out there. But when (if) you see Ratatouille you'll be reminded that Brad Bird is a hard Darwinist. The message goes down much smoother than the one in The Incredibles where the badguy's evil is an extension of not being talented enough to hang with the heroes. This time the message is that any type of person (or rodent) can be an artist, but not every person (or rodent) is one. That seems more reasonable. And the artistically talentless have other strengths.

Based on your socialized artist argument, and some other things, critic-bashing gets into populist movies by Pixar. Everyone thinks that their opinions are equally valid, when they often haven't a learned perspective on the artwork they're discussing. Liking or disliking something is legit, but the more you know the more that response is informed. I don't review ice sculptures, because I don't know anything about them except that ice is cold and slippery.

But this "everyone's a critic" attitude ironically results in people who get offended when someone applies thought to a movie... the whole "leave your brain at the door" argument.