Monday, April 13, 2009

A Travis for our times

I used to have mixed feelings about Seth Rogen, but those feelings are gone after seeing OBSERVE AND REPORT, replaced by shock, awe and reverence. I like him better than similarly deluded psychopaths played by De Niro in KING OF COMEDY and John Goodman in BIG LIEBOWSKI-- because he's actually laugh-out-loud funny as well as disturbing, while in KING and LIEBOWSKI, you just want to get away from these psychos asap. Sure that's a controversial thing to say, but why not? Who gives a fuck? Not director Jody Hill, who's too busy capturing the  Quixote-meets-Col. Kurz madness of the American mall culture. As mall cop Ronnie, Rogen is like a snail crawling along a straight razor here, at times the Rogen aura completely vanishes in his character's self-absorbed, mutton-headed haze, but the two are inextricable. Forget about KING OF COMEDY, this is Rogen's TAXI ZUM RAGING DRIVER BULLSHOT.

Naturally the critics at large are split down the middle (RT gives it a 51%) but for my money, OBSERVE AND REPORT should be praised as a black comic masterpiece, a satire of masculine character studies, the DR. STRANGELOVE to THE WRESTLER's FAIL-SAFE. The reason it wont be compared that way is because most critics let marketing, set and setting, sway them: THE WRESTLER came out with big Oscar buzz, the Micky Rourke comeback story; OBSERVE AND REPORT comes out with PAUL BLART: MALL COP still in theaters, and all the baggage of the momentarily overexposed Rogen-Apatow hit machine clogging the carousel, so people expect a grungy gross-out comedy with a heart of gold. What they get is a heart of darkness. That it's also brilliant, touching and hilarious doesn't seem much to these critics, who would probably be writing a totally different take were the film, say, British (ala HOT FUZZ) and screened at the art house rather than the multiplex. As the always fearlessly trenchant Kim Morgan puts it on Sunset Gun:
"Which makes this movie all the more shocking than, say, (and I admire the following examples) that junkie epic Trainspotting, and a lot more subversive than anything Michael Haneke hatches up. Because Observe and Report isn't playing at your local art house. No, it's playing right in the belly of the beast: at the mall."
The mall is the emotional and spiritual center of America's bloated middle, and the one Ronnie works in is rather unreal, almost empty, a ghost town of middle-America's unconscious, a near-Brechtian fantasia for the artistically maladjusted loners who wish they could just knock the slow fat moms with strollers out of their way when trying to rush to the Game Stop. Saying what they really think right out in public, punching whom they want to punch, having confidence even beyond incompetence, this is their moment. OBSERVE AND REPORT is the film that Terry Zwigoff is too inherently decent to make; the highlighted tantrums of his BAD SANTA--a similarly mall-bound film--errs on the side of decency and thus undoes any attempt at genuine subversion. It's one thing to threaten children and then "come around," it's another to bash them into pulp with their own skateboards. In BAD SANTA, we watch a man behave badly, but OBSERVE AND REPORT itself behaves badly.

One must look farther back than SANTA to find an apt comparison to OBSERVE, I would cast my vote on W.C. Fields' THE BANK DICK. We're not talking a real reality in either: OBSERVE AND REPORT exists in the same fantasia of id wish fulfillment that the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields used to inhabit, the zone where we go to push and shove the people who've been oppressing us, the space where we can sock seemingly innocent bystanders on the puss, drink, snort, smoke and flirt with complete obliviousness to how we're perceived, and in the end manage to win all the marbles despite ourselves.

The BANK DICK finds Fields--ala Rogen's Ronnie--in a security guard uniform, the guise of authority (the mall cops have no real legal power), just waiting to be abused. Billy Bob Thornton's Santa costume, by contrast, is a joke from the get-go: the clothes of a saint in name only. There's no legit authority to Santa. But in the twilight realm between a real cop uniform and the illusion of power implied in the security guard uniform it gets tricky; you can either navigate how far you can bend within the rules or you can deliberately erase them and that goes for the film as well as its narrative. If there's no hint of the Iraq war going on within OBSERVE, for example, it's because the mall could very well be Iraq in an Animal Farm metaphor sort of way. The mall Seth's portly cop monitors is a real mall only in the same sense Poe's House of Usher is just a house or Don Quixote's windmills are just windmills.

Even if he can't see past his own bullying ego and warped isolation, we can see Ronnie is a good soul. Like the martial arts instructor of director Jody Hill's previous film, THE FOOT FIST WAY, Ronnie's a delusional but forceful alpha male picking up strays from other packs, making his own army of America's runts. He's the kind of pal you make fast--when you're the new kid in town--and abandon even faster as you begin to climb the social ladder. You eventually leave your mall cop job, go to college,  get married, divorced, promoted, and then years later you go to the mall and he's still there in the same uniform, having not aged a day, and you try to leave before he sees you. Still, he's a hero because no matter how pathetic you are, he'll always take you back into his fucked-up fold.

In truth, Ronnie represents the true American sociopath mentality that our country needs to win the war in Iraq. The whole place could be burning down around them and they'd still be fist-pumping to Metallica--oblivious--just happy to be there, happy to have at least some Iraqis who like them. You can't tell a guy like Ronnie he's a lost soul, or that his war can't be won, and that's perhaps the greatest victory America can have, the victory of embracing in full the Don Quixote madness that bravely and finally makes sense of our fucked-up planet. That's why we like George W., or Sarah Palin... in crazy times, we need a crazy leader. When reality sucks, vote for the space cadet. All America is a lost Sancho Panza, in search of just such a nutjob to follow over the border of collective "sanity."

It's a hard character to capture and Hill and Rogen nail it so perfectly it goes unnoticed. Thanks to its association as 'the other Paul Blart' it gets little respect. John Goodman in BIG LIEBOWSKI came close to Ronnie's level of insanity but tried too hard and became spittle-flecked and unpleasant by the end; Thornton in BAD SANTA similarly was too busy "trying" to be offensive to register fully; but Hill and Rogen get it juuuust right: Ronnie is every self-conscious young male repressing the urge to punch out rude customers, bosses or co-workers. Unlike most of us, he's touched glorious bottom in the abyss where he's Dirty Harry times King Arthur, no matter what anyone says. 

In order to appreciate such rampages it helps to have lived some formative years under the weight of deep-seated socially-inflicted repression, i.e. in the suburbs. Watching a superhero punch out a bad guy trying to blow up the world is just abstraction and sublimation but watching Ronnie run down a skate punk and crack him on the back of the head for no real reason? That's catharsis (presuming you've ever been annoyed by skate punks). In 1991, for example, I literally cheered in my seat when Cyberdyne Systems HQ blew up in TERMINATOR 2, because my own place of employment at the time, Ortho Pharmaceuticals in Bridgewater, NJ, looked just like it. No offense to Ortho (I was a mail room temp) - I loved the people, and got a discount on Monotstat 7 at the company store, but you know how it is - everyone in the theater thought I was insane, but I was beyond caring. I'd been set free, for a hot second.

It's characters like Ronnie whom our big dumb war is meant for, their raging violent streak needs an outlet, and its better to just give them guns and send them far far away. War gets them out of their parent's house... war belongs to them, was made to serve that American muttonheaded will to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and common sense be damned.

The second closest auteur to reach Hill's level of subversive deadpan comic genius is actually horror icon John Carpenter, particularly in THEY LIVE (1988), with Rowdy Roddy Piper [pictured above] which brings us to THE WRESTLER. And of course, the promo for the National Guard with Kid Rock singing "American Warrior!" (Read my take on that here)


  1. You must be stoned or drunk. I've been reading your posts pretty consistently over the last year and I've always enjoyed them. I think you're very perceptive and original and funny. But saying that Rogen is better than De Niro in both TD and KoC is not only plain wrong, but makes me question your sanity. Is Rogen funny in O&R? Yes. But what De Niro did in TD and KoC is unimpeachable. When Rogen becomes as good a physical actor as De Niro, when he is able to communicate what a character is thinking (or what a character is not thinking - which is precisely De Niro's genius, to communicate lack, or nothingness) with his eyes, then I'll consider him worthy of inclusion into the discussion with one of the great film actors ever. Until then he's not even as good as Sandler was in Punch-Drunk Love, which, by the way, is a performance that can be talked about in the same breath as De Niro's. So I'm not immune to giving credit to comedic actors trying to achieve greatness. But, I mean, come on.

  2. Ha! Thanks for calling me on this. I wasn't drunk at any rate. But I was intentionally pushing the envelope in a textual mirroring Ronnie's grandiosity and making a point about how some cult films get elevated to art by bandwagon critical praise.

    Also, I am always wary of how quickly some envelope-pushing performances get canonized as genius and others of perhaps equal merit are ignored or even condemned if said envelop is pushed too far. Consider Jerry Lewis! A genius in France, an embarrassment here, at least to me.

    Lastly, I wasn't trying to imply Rogen was better than De Niro in Raging Bull, only that Observe is for Rogen what Bull was for De Niro. But I'm glad you're reading and calling me on some of this stuff, whomever you are.

  3. I hope I didn't come across as too pissy. I didn't mean too. Even though I probably did. Either way, I still think you are one of the best film writers out there right now. All of those posts about 70s Fathers were some of the most original analysis of 70s cinema that I have read, anywhere.

  4. Well thank you! No, you didn't sound too pissy. There's nothing wrong with feeling strongly about these things. It's De Niro, after all!