Friday, May 31, 2013

Dis-ease: The Perversity of 2012

2012 continues to defy me. 2010 gave us a few movies I consider masterpieces--True Grit, Meek's Cutoff, Cold Weather, Arrietty--and several other strong titles besides those. 2011, like 2010, was a strong year with more great films--I especially loved The Mill and the Cross, Take Shelter, and Damsels in Distress--and 2011 was also a year that I praised for its strong cheerful comedies. Notes of hope and expectation had emerged from the dreariness that was all too often the status quo.

2012, following 2011's lead, was also full of strong comedies. The unsettling difference between these and the ones that I highlighted from last year is that each of these comedies is perverse, unnerving, and generally burdened by the weight of its troubles. 

I hope that Brandon doesn't think that I'm just engaging in some Armondian wankery here. I'm not going to compare/contrast films (though I could). I think that all of the films below are extremely well-crafted and very personal visions from these directors. At least the top few are worth struggling with even if I can't ultimately make my peace with them.

One doesn't need much more to prove auterism than look at this list below and see how obviously these specific films fall into the broader body of work of each of these directors.

This is not a Top Ten of 2012 List. I do hope to have one of those up before 2013 is over!! Inspired by my recent Sightseers viewing, the following is my:

Top Ten Respectably Repugnant Comedies of 2012 List.

1. The Comedy (Alverson)
2. Sightseers (Wheatley)
3. Killing Them Softly (Dominick)
4. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
5. Spring Breakers (Korine)
6. Killer Joe (Friedkin)
7. Seven Psychopaths (McDonagh)
8. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
9. Dark Shadows (Burton)
10. Here Comes the Boom (Coraci)

Alverson's The Comedy is far more confidentially directed than his excellent previous film, New Jerusalem. Though the content is vastly different, The Comedy follows New Jerusalem in its exploration of male friendship/interpersonal bonds in a world shorn of meaning and purpose. Jerusalem is quiet and holds out hope. The Comedy is a scathing bare-all denouncement of the vapidness of contemporary cultured leisure. It's successful in what it does because it never caters to its audience, existing as a film in that same space of entitlement ennui that its protagonist occupies. The Comedy serves as a documentary witness. It doesn't offer any way out.

Wheatley's Sightseers is nothing less than an ordinary romance gone awry. It's a solid relationship dramedy turned slapstick horror. It sits nicely as a companion piece to Kill List. Both are unsettling accounts of seemingly ordinary people participating in ordinary events. Except that none of it is ordinary and madness keeps bubbling up and breaking through, until the real and the unreal settle together and are indistinguishable. Horror becomes a way of explaining the world. The horrors of relationship anxieties are externalized. Sightseers ends with a gag, a feel-good shrug that maybe provided catharsis for anyone who has been in a damaging relationship.

I'm not sure how Dominick's Killing Them Softly fits in with his Assassination of Jesses James, but I'm sure it does (never afraid to toss out my uninformed film opinions). Softly is a not-so-subtle takedown of the myth of capitalist efficiency. It's also a deconstruction of gangster films and the Lone Gunman archetype. Softly is often crude and ugly with a nice sheer gloss, just like its subject matter. Softly indicts all of us who are complicit in this system at whatever level.

Tarantino's Django Unchained fits in nicely with his current program of historical revisionism. After tearing apart Nazi Germany in Basterds, Tarantino co-opts Germany's national myth, The Nibelungenlied, and re-purposes it as a story of black empowerment, an act of narrative taunting that is surely as offensive to the "master race" as anything in Basterds. Tarantino enjoys his revenge a bit too much and is too reliant on the worst of the 70s exploitation cinema that he has soaked into his bones. Django is, at its core, a "save the princess" tale, marred by Tarantino's excess.

Korine's Spring Breakers is an obvious continuation of the themes of his previous films. The real surprise this time is that now the MTV mainstream has become the freak in the spotlight. What privileged rich kids do with their free time turns out to be not so far from a semi-sanitized fantasy version of a trip Ol' Dirty could have given these kids for half the price and twice the grit. What's odd about this picture is that the second half fantasy sequence is less surreal than the "reality" of Spring Break. Korine, by the end, wants to have his Spring cake and eat it, too.

Friedkin's Killer Joe is at least as vile and disgusting as any of his other films. I admire Friedkin's craft, but have a hard time giving any sort of blessing to what is essentially a rape fantasy from beginning to end. Maybe it's all an ironic joke. If so, that only makes the whole thing more worthless and indefensible. What's the takeaway from this film? Stay in the city where you're safe from Redneck mayhem like the kind you find in Sidney, NY.

McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths has all of the vulgarity of In Bruges, but it doesn't quite have the same beating heart. There's something gone corrupt in McDonagh's vision; maybe cynicism has won out over sincerity. I find myself failing to remember much about this one. All flash and nothing to come back for.

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is one of the better science fiction films of the last few years. Its humor is built around the loneliness unique to the connectedness of our current cultural/technological situation. The way it builds to its final showdown is a masterful display of epic non-suspense, which is maybe the right mood of the moment.

Hillcoat's Lawless builds on themes of masculinity and brotherhood that Hillcoat began to explore in The Proposition. There is a jaunty humor that keeps this thing afloat (what other word but jaunty to describe a gift bag of testicles?), making it easy to watch even as it overstays its welcome and undercuts what seriousness it did have by turning the whole into a good ol' boy's reminiscing. It waffles in what it wants to be.

Burton's Dark Shadows picks up on Burton's obsession with macabre melodrama. The humor here is that human behavior doesn't change much over the centuries. If anything, witches and vampires have a better society in which to engage in their specific predatory practices. Burton is clearly just having fun here, but it feels like he's laughing at someone else's expense. The goth kids have won and Dark Shadows is a major motion picture. The world has been turned upside down.

Coraci's Here Comes the Boom is centered squarely in his tween-boy fart-aesthetic. Add a giant pinch of wishful thinking and all is right with the world. While many of the above films diagnose ills and then either wink or throw their hands up in the air, Coraci's solution is to sprinkle Hollywood fairy dust over it all. Magical thinking will make all of us fat men into honorable UFC champions with the desirable foreign girl on our arm while the music of children resounds through the whole wide world. This dangerous lie may be worse than all of the despair and aimlessness evidenced above.

I don't know.

I can't help but feel that 2012 has been a sad and lost year in film.

I'd love to read/hear responses, either on blogs or via Boo or whatever.


82jp said...

I've only seen two of those films, so I don't have much to say. But look at me participating!

trawlerman said...

Woo-hoo! PARTICIPATION!!!!!!