The Unswung Bat

Tuesday, July 04, 2006
 
Jesus, Viggo
Oh, don't give me that look.

Dear Viggo,

I've taken a few days to think about how to say this, and I think I've got it figured out, but this isn't easy for me, and I don't want you to think I'm trying to be cruel, or vindictive, or doing anything less than trying to help us grow as people. Maybe as two different people, maybe too different.

I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I wasn't. Blockbuster was out of Baltarstar Galactica, and Ultraviolet, so I picked up A History of Violence. Otherwise I probably would never have seen it. I almost got Sideways, which I've been meaning to see since it came out. But no.

Ultraviolet is at least completely honest about the kind of movie it's trying to be. That's what this is really about. Honesty. See, in that movie, there's a war between The Government and some people who caught a DNA-enhancing disease that gives them superpowers including the ability to change their hair and clothes' color.
Our heroine deems that the best way of infiltrating enemy complexes is to curl up into a tiny hamsterball shell, Metroid-style, roll through the walls, and pop out, guns a-blazing. Her sword is inscribed with lines of Sanskrit characters for no reason whatsoever! Now that is a movie I can get behind. On Canada Day, some friends and I discussed a theoretical Actionest Movie, which begins with 2000 people in a large room with guns, and after 2 hours only one person is left. No pretense, no front, just complete openness without shame or apology.

AHV, on the other hand, hisses sweet lies through its black teeth till you part with your 6 bucks and rent it. Cronenberg you bastard! How dare you include with your artsy mumbling rant a documentary on whether or not it's "Too Commercial for Cannes?" For me, there were exactly two things going for this bad joke of a movie, and they overruled my better judgement, namely: 1) Ed Harris, and 2) you, Viggo Mortensen, kill a guy by stepping on his neck. How a movie where ten guys die in brutal close small arms and hand-to-hand combat could be so boring, so damned unaffecting, is beyond me. Andra and I managed to watch the whole movie by making fun of it throughout — the overwrought symbolism, the hyperstupid bad guys, and the god damned precocious little girl ("I'm sorry I wandered off, mommy, but look! They have the new Vespa dolls!")

Ed Harris was magnificent. For all 10 minutes of the movie his incorrectly-presumed-important character was in.

But Viggo, how could you get involved with this? You were the star, I went into this movie on your say-so. In retrospect, I guess it would've been hard for you to've messed up playing Aragorn, and I forgot about Hidalgo, and that in your spare time you write poetry that Time magazine says is of the "spare, dark, ruminating kind" and appear in movies called "A Walk on the Moon," so I had kind of the wrong idea going in. But Jesus, man.

Now listen, don't think I was expecting an action-filled adrenaline fest. Please. I know better than that. I looked forward to a movie about a guy who used to kill people, then tried to get away and invented a new life story, but the mob tracked him down. See, now, I see in that the possibility for an interesting story. I mean, it's all there in that poster tagline. Instead, here are 96 minutes so pure of plot that it amounts to one single, stage-setting event followed by absolute nothing. The rest is silence, and an interminable metric Fuck-Ton of it, too. The so-called story has all the dramatic grip of a bowling ball being dropped onto a carpet, falling with a dull thud: The premise establishes that this thing will happen, and then it happens, and then the movie ends!

Maybe you should've been in Sin City instead, Viggo. You'd do well as the ex-Navy Seal in Hell and Back. Frank Miller can get away with that kind of pseudo-plot for a few reasons. First of all, he revels in all the clichés he has to use to pull off the story, and if he doesn't manage to show us something new about them, he at least gives a virtuoso demonstration of why they caught on as respectable clichés in the first place. Second of all, everything that happens in one of his books is tied to great artwork that perfectly compliments the story.

This latter is closely related to the Big Thing his stories have over AHV: they're aware of the fact that they are fucking graphic novels! I haven't seen the movie version of Sin City, but I know whoever did it apparently tried hard to replicate the stylized, blocky sharp-relief and coloring effects of the novels, not to mention capture their tone and let it help carry the plot. That's just respect. I wasn't surprised to find out that AHV was based on a graphic novel. Like I said, that's the only form I know of that can get away with such a straight-vertical-drop plot. But Cronenberg apparently decided to Make Something New with it, divorce it from the source material and present it as a realistic Cinema Thing.

I'm not trashing that idea, but if, as with most graphic novel, the story's interest is inextricable from the form and visual elements, well, he should've changed the story a little. It's not like he couldn't do it, he managed to film (with heavy but cool modifications) Naked Lunch, for crying out loud! He can handle this! All he had to do was shore up the parts of the story that were using the conventions of graphic novels as a crutch. Then again, maybe story isn't so much his thing. He does seem to specialize in weird shit, graphic violence, gruesome sex, and instinct-driven amoral acts that make you think about themes and stuff. I guess I should think of his movies as some sort of time-synced multimedia art installation instead of an audiovisual story. Which is to say, I shouldn't pay to watch them.

When Ed Harris isn't onscreen and you, dear Viggo, are not breaking some chump's neck or shooting his jaw off through the back of his head, the only interesting parts of the movie are technical things and Filmmaking Stuff. And I am not interested in those things. Yes, I am aware that Cronenberg used that same fly-buzzing sound to represent both death and guarded secrets. I see he is having Tom/Joey's family watch him through the window (in a tilted perspective, through a screen) as he talks to Fogarty and his men, as though they are removed from both the immediate danger and the reliable truth. I am sure there's lots of Filmmaking Stuff I missed, too. It's in there, I dig. So what?

And Cronenberg made it clear that the title "A History of Violence" refers to 1) your character, Tom/Joey, who has a history of commiting violent crimes; 2) the nature of violence throughout history; and 3) Darwinesque hintings at the principle of survival of the fittest. "I am an evolutionist to the core," he says.

He rhymes prettily, Viggo, but don't be taken in. To give some substance to his last claim, Cronenberg played up the struggle between Tom's son and that sharkfaced jock, Bubba or Hutch or whatever. Indeed, I grok that this battle is meant to show that the boy inherited something of the violent nature that he wasn't even aware his father possessed. Cronenberg managed to get Ebert (god I hope he gets out of the hospital alright) onside with that one, a respectable achievement, but don't let that get the better of you. For what it's worth, I think it's facile. It's dumb and overplayed and lame, as a plot device (it actually isn't used as such, as there is no plot to manipulate) as a thematic cue, and just as Something That I Can Stand To Watch.

And as for Jock Angryface, what the hell is his problem? He resembles the character Flash in the first Spiderman movie: they both had hugely unreasonable aggressive, bullying tendencies and submoronic behavior, but Flash was acceptable and this guy just comes off as hackneyed and strained. He makes me angry, yes, but not because of what he says or does. Rather, I'm just mad that he's such a bad piece of writing polluting this movie. Why, then, can I live with Spiderman's Flash? Because Flash was a pastiche. Because people accept things like him in comic books, where minor characters will appear in only a few small panels and have that space alone to present their entire being. Larger-than-life, hyper-exaggerated archetypes are the accepted currency of character development there, even for major villains and heroes, and Spiderman did a good enough job looking and acting like a comic book that it could pull off the same schtick. Go back and watch Willem Dafoe's mirror scene. Now that's true to form. There's even an actual frame, f'r Chrissakes.

As a side question at this point, regarding the Darwinian thing, I'd like to ask why so many Artists With A Message who use Science in their Statements rely on ancient, turn of the century research. Why are they only reading things from a hundred or a hundred-fifty years ago? Not that survival of the fittest is debunked, but the study of evolution has a lot more to say now than it did back in the day when it was inspiring social darwinist misinterpretations. Short of a few sci-fi readers and John Updike (who will write about anything because he's that great), no one writes any poems or stories, or anything out of more contemporary science. And it's not like it's that abstract. Why did the artsy types stop reading after The Descent of Man or The Interpretation of Dreams? I've got my answer, but it's depressing: it's all they studied in school.

I think it's a holdover from literary realism, which tried to appear objective by putting on airs of being scientific and disciplined and neutral observers. In its defense, at the time scientists were putting on airs of being scientific and disciplined and neutral observers, too. But that's changed, both for scientists and artists. Still, when an artist uses a scientific rationale for their work, a lot of the time they still do so not only with that same old attitude, but with that same old science!

Look, Viggo, I can practically see your eyes glaze over and I know this isn't what I set out to say. It must seem like I'm just venting on you, but — well doesn't this bother you? How many times have you heard some crappy script or artist's statement flouting Jung, or even Maslow, or Einstein, the nuclear option for rationalizing crazy new-age ideologies. Here's the thing: stories and music and all that can stay relevant much longer than scientific publications. Those go out of date by the month, now. So if you, or Cronenberg, or whoever, thinks science can shed light on humanity like it's supposed to, then why should you, or he, or whoever, be content with reusing the same old ideas that were being kicked around back then.

And no, I'm not calling Cronenberg a realist.

Maybe if I'd seen his name on the box (I hadn't realized he was the director) I would've thought twice about picking up AHV. I mean, I've seen Crash and Spider. I saw the latter film with Andra, and couldn't understand how she could have enjoyed watching it, until she pointed out that Ralph Feinnes is the sort of person so innately watchable that she would gladly sit through two hours of footage of him taping string to walls and sneaking around an empty house — essentially, Spider.

I would've known what to expect. I would probably have picked up Sideways, instead. But Viggo, let's be honest, it's not about Cronenberg, it's about you. When I pick up the DVD box, all I can see is your big, tough, lovable face, so full of experience, so feeling. You know that. You knew it! It didn't even occur to me that movies have directors. They just have you. Such is your power, Viggo, and your burden. Upon whose good name do you think AHV's status as Blockbuster's 4th most-rented movie is founded? C-Berg's? No, no. You've got a lot of mistreated, angry people to make it up to. I, personally, am waiting for you to show up with flowers. Or maybe a decent movie, you don't even have to buy it for me, a rental's good enough. I've already given you more than a few suggestions. Impress me, Viggo. Remind me why I thought you were special in the first place, or maybe we should just spend some time apart. I don't know.


Feeling cheated,

- André



original site + text contents ©2004 twenty oh four by me called it

"Powered by Blogger"



Powered by Blogger