Monday, October 20, 2014

Post-tabloid feeding frenzies and the c-word: Gone Girl and Maps to the Stars (2014)

For some reason the will to write about films this year has been lacking. I say, 'for some reason' yet I think I'm being disingenuous for the simple fact seems to be that great films this year are in worryingly short supply. Pessimists (or optimists, depending on your point of view) would refer to the rise of the box set diet and point to the the 'wealth' of quality drama series, with top box office talent to boot, leading to a leaching of talented writers and directors, lured - in straitened financial times - by guaranteed returns, efficient factory-line production processes and the strong chance of repeat fees until they turn grey. This is no shock to anyone with a TV or a laptop.

Yet I see no reason to regard this zenith of chapterised entertainment as any kind of 'threat' to serious cinema. To me that's a little like saying that soap operas could challenge literature - the two function entirely separately in their cultural purpose, and anyone who regards TV as offering any really serious talking points is missing the point entirely. I refer to this age we inhabit a 'zenith' for a simple reason. TV, like all mass communication in capitalist frameworks can only reach a certain point before it starts to mimic itself and rely on formula. And it's way past that point as far as I can see: with new 'landmark' series being announced virtually weekly. 

Sure, cinema does this too (and Hollywood is nothing, if not a knee-jerk reactionary industry mainly devoid of people able to think beyond percentages and sequels. Thanks again, George Lucas etc. etc.), but like the literary novel, its medium allows for (and demands) a rigour and an economy of story-telling that is notoriously hard to pull off on a small screen. I loved Hannibal, but it's still a prequel that has strayed into one forthcoming season too many. Elementary was another re-tooling of Arthur Conan Doyle for the 21st century; House of Cards was a remake of a '70s British drama… you get my point. 

People who think Game of Thrones is high art, just because it comes from a multi-volume series and thus requires several seasons to cover or because it's a loose analogy of early medieval history, have missed the point (again). We watch these weekly instalments because we long, like children, for narrative closure. I recently watched the excellent True Detective with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey being dragged through the swampy underbelly of Louisiana towards some kind of Lovecraftian non-revelatory climax: it was superbly acted, written and directed. In fact, only the awful T Bone Burnett faux-bluesyness of the opening music, and the hurried last episode spoiled the thing. And yet… by the end I realised that the whole thing worked better as scene setting for a new long-running detective series starring Marty Hart and Rust Cohl, because now we really had explored their respective back stories (and still left more to explore, for instance: Rust's Alaskan upbringing) and had established a rather fine dynamic. But also at the same time I enjoyed it because I knew there were only eight episodes and that I would have the requisite closure.

I admit that I never got through more than five episodes of Breaking Bad, not because I didn't enjoy it, admire it or even want to see more. Put it down to time constraints. And yet I'm willing to bet that no one really got a great deal of philosophical, moral or didactic grist from the series, despite the slick writing, superb acting or the thrilling portrayal of a descent into darkness. Actually, I've just realised that I lied just now: it wasn't time constraints alone that put me off completing these commitments to fiction - it was the sure and certain knowledge that I would always, in some way, be let down. I lost (haha) six YEARS to Lost and look how THAT turned out. Homeland was, and is, when all's said and done, pure fantasy with one coruscating central performance (Claire Danes) by a character who you very quickly get sick of. What's more, its central premise: that any one of us may be the mole/spy/religious nut, was directly lifted from Battlestar Galactica

I used to write a lot about BSG. That was my first real experience of the joy of box-bingeing. And yet it celebrated its ten-year anniversary this week. Homeland appeared in 2011 - which implies that in seven short years the now-ubiquitous water cooler series has reached its tipping point. BSG was both an exemplary and a terrible place to start my series-watching habits, mainly because it dared to address contemporary matters both spiritual and political in a brutally serious way, and also because space opera is a far more forgiving arena for examining  such weighty matters. Maybe because our expectations are lowered by the genre it succeeds far better at sneaking in the subversiveness. Nothing these days can really compete with that initial thrill of seeing something that dared to openly criticise American society on a small screen. But even re-watching BSG revealed the occasional hackneyed sub-plots or dodgy performances. And on a week after David Lynch and Mark Frost announced a return to Twin Peaks - surely THE high-water mark for TV drama subversion - no one seems to have remembered how bitterly disappointing the second season was - descending into soap opera and second-rate sci fi nonsense when Lynch fell out with the network. 

Lynch's recent pronouncements that now only TV has the funding and scope to produce serious high-level drama is both cowardly and incorrect. I'd argue that TV can easily subvert our expectations, but its format can only ever lead to serious compromise and ratings chasing. Let's face it, the BBC wouldn't be in such a parlous state today if it hadn't bowed down to these market forces. And no amount of HBO/Netflix/Amazon Prime shenanigans will replace the rigour of sitting still with no adverts for two hours watching a large screen. And while this insistence on the effort involved in getting off your fat arses and hauling them to the local fleapit may seem quaintly archaic or even Stalinist, I truly believe that for true film art people will always need to return to the cinema.

Which brings me onto the two films mentioned in the title: because one is an example of a director who dabbles in both genres quite happily (as Lynch used to do) but sees no paradox or even crossover. The other is an auteur who consistently derides the constraints of shrinking budgets by creating superb, low budget arthouse movies that always challenge thinking and twist perceptions of modern/future thinking.

David Fincher's remake of House of Cards was undeniably superb on every level. The cold-hearted dissection of the Washington snake pit moved like a well-oiled machine through the degradations of a modern, socially networked and post-tabloid world. Of course it didn't hurt that the leads (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) were completely believable as steely-eyed pragmatists and power game whores. But Fincher's heartland (again like Lynch) is still the big screen as Gone Girl proves. There's nothing in House of Cards doesn't appear in some form or another in his cinema, in fact it's pretty much all there in Gone Girl, apart from the overt political overtones.  The adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel (with apparently a slightly more ambiguous ending) is crisp despite being overlong, biting and above all: funny. Really funny, in fact. The skewering of the media frenzy surrounding an alleged disappearance of a beautiful wife from small town Missouri is filled with knowing dialogue, priceless asides and brutally accurate portrayals of the human scum that rises to the top during a circus that attends every high profile court case, from Madeleine McCann to Oscar Pistorius: this is a timely movie, just as The Social Network was. I have to admit I found the story of Zuckerberg slightly more compelling in its observances of the rise of social media and the bratty nerdy heart at the centre of this latest phase of 'civilisation'; but then I've had to work in that particular swamp of egotism for a few years now.

But with a razor sharp script, an outstanding collection of casting choices (not one actor seemed out of place) and denouement that refused to see so-called justice meted out, Gone Girl is a truly 21st century film. The meta jokes come thick and fast: even including Ben Affleck's chin (even the investigating police officer in charge of the investigation makes a joke about the bar Affleck's character owns as being a 'meta bar' because it's called The Bar). It's the kind of film you wish you'd seen with a notebook, so many are the great one-liners. I guffawed when Rosamund Pie's rube ex-boyfriend of  (played by Neil Patrick Harris doing his best Niles Crane impersonation) says, of the plan to run away to a Greek Island: 'fresh octopus and scrabble!'. Gone Girl is not a great movie but it is a very good one. Fincher has his signature style, yet he falls far short of being an original (no matter what you may think of boys' 'cult' stuff like 7even or Fight Club) - relying too often on established forms or other people's words. On watching Mark Gatiss' guide to European horror films last night I realised that Gone Girl was very similar to Les Diaboliques, although it cleverly avoids the final twist ending that would make it another bloody M Night Shamalyan 'why see it more than once' special.

Maps to the Stars, meanwhile,  continues David Cronenberg's recent spate of literary adaptations although this time it's merely the script (and experiences) of Hollywood writer, Bruce Wagner (who, like Robert Pattinson here, worked as a limo driver while attempting to get his scripts filmed). Wagner may be remembered by some readers as the man behind Wild Palms - a wonky mini-series based on his comic book, which recycled a lot of Cronenberg (and Philip K Dick's) ideas.

If there's one sure sign that you've made it as an arthouse, yet mainstream auteur in Tinseltown, it's by making a film about Tinseltown. Billy Wilder, the Coens, even Lynch etc. etc. the list is almost inexhaustible. And if we're talking meta, Maps… is so stuffed with self-reference and cultural nods that there's barely time to fit in a scant plot about incest, madness and (what else) narcissistic self-involvement. Beginning a little like a Robert Altman movie (disparate characters whose paths gradually enmesh) - in fact it was The Player which I was most reminded of. Many lines brought to mind that fantastic scene in Palm Springs where Greta Scacchi says to Tim Robbins: 'I thought these places only existed in movies'.

It's not just Altman who gets a nod here: there's a line about P T Anderson (and his ability to resurrect careers): and of course Julianne Moore gave another powerhouse performance in Magnolia, as similar tale of self-interest and incest in Los Angeles… And other actors don't get of lightly either. Robert Pattinson, a man whose career is completely worth following in my opinion, gets to reprise his limo-dwelling role from recession-fever dream, Cosmopolis, only this time he's driving the limo. He still has sex in the back, however (in years to come, people may possibly refer to this period of Cronenberg's career as his 'Robert Pattinson shagging in the back of a limo' phase). Come to that, even Cronenberg references himself - as one character is bludgeoned to death with one of his own (Canadian) film awards. Talk about sneaky and snarky,eh?

It does have its flaws: Wagner's cynical dissection of John Cusak as self-help snake oil salesman, 'Dr' Stafford Weiss seems a little hypocritical when you consider that he's a pretty new age guy himself (as most cynics tend to be): a former follower of Carlos Castaneda and a current follower of some other guru. Here his harsh nibbling of the hand that feeds him is also predictable as hell. But this is why Cronenberg can now be considered a master. In his hands the material takes that brilliant odd half-turn that always leaves you feeling slightly disoriented.  While, just like Fincher, he's fascinated by the rapid changes that shape all of our lives, he also layers it with a surrealism that's never obvious. In any Cronenberg film there's always bound to be sex, disease and decay, yet here you get the sense that Cronenberg holds out some hope that there's a universality in the suffering of these spoilt denizens of the Hollywood Hills. Evan Bird's Justin Bieber-alike brattishness masks a deep, and surprisingly mature worldliness. His final line is 'I made 13 summers, not so bad.' which sounds like the words of someone five times his age. He's a boy who grew up far too fast.  His parents played to perfection by Cusack and a wonderfully under/out of control power-hungry Olivia Williams are only one step ahead of the same media feeding frenzy that consumes Ben Affleck and his family in Gone Girl. The ending is inevitable, yet the Greek tragedy aspect adds weight and dignity to these deeply flawed lives. 

It's only Moore as fading, mother-obsessed star, Havana Segrand who doesn't escape complete damnation. Like Madonna… well, pretty much as you\d expect her to be, she's a egotistical harridan who bludgeons her way across the screen. Her end is almost welcome and while all reviews have identified her as the real kinetic force behind the film, I found myself tiring of her 'intensity'. at times. She's brilliant, of course she is, yet such an unsympathetic character diluted the film's important message about how ageing and death haunt each character, like the spectres they glimpse in the wee small hours. At one party young Weiss' two girlfriends cackle about anyone over 30 being 'menopausal'. It's a world where time is both literally and figuratively catching up with everyone. And while this is by no means Cronenberg's best moment (I've been so sick of every geeky hipster critic waxing nostalgic DC's early body horror shockers - as if he's not allowed to stray into serious cinema - while letting us know how well-versed they are in his work. Idiots) it's, as always, reliably intriguing, wonderfully performed and as creepily funny as everything else he's made in the last ten years. But then, I thought Cosmopolis was near-genius. Feel free to disagree. 

And while I've just written a huge amount on the reasons why cinema will survive (goddamit) - I also get the feeling that what links these two films is that they dare to say 'cunt' a lot. Something you still can't get away with on TV.

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