Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: Summerisle (Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN)


Having finally shrunk my balls enough to reach the end of Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN remake, I see what a fool I was to give up so many times before, and what a genius Nic Cage is to risk coming across as such a terrible actor. I was so used to the central figure of manly authority in a horror film being the 'good guy' I kept pressing stop against my will. But it finally dawned on me that here he's the villain, and doesn't even know it. And yet his Nic Cage-iness is the exact same as it would be if he was trying to rescue the Declaration of Independence! Genius.

It helped me, I guess, to have seen ANTICHRIST and BAD LIEUTENANT 2: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS in the interim between attempts. All I needed was to wait for those two movies to finally be made, and Boom! La Bute's Wicker Man comes into clear perspective. On that note, may I recommend the three as a triple feature?

So there's no need to sacrifice me, now, to your bee gods, ladies, fair ladies of Fårö...


So let me clarify, I don't think LaBute's a misogynist, anymore than Von Trier. Both merely believe as I do that if women ever truly shucker free--all the way and completely--from patriarchy's handcuffs, then as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz once put it: "Say goodbye to your nuts!" That's not misogyny, any more than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is anti-Semitic. These sorts of hatreds generally come from a place of unconsciousness, once brought to light from the muck through art, yadda yadda, they're often dispelled (or at least temporarily exorcised). And LaBute packs this MAN with plenty of very powerful, frightening, intelligent women, all going up against one lone, coarse, ineffectual male cop --and I bet that's pretty far from a misogynist's idea of a good time. Even for us sensitive males, a truly liberated, sexually aggressive, snarling female is one of the most terrifying creatures on earth, and here on Summerisle one can't even trust in God all of a sudden, because God is suddenly not even a "He" and everything gets dark and scary and one's balls shrink and release hormones of queasy dread that hit like an extra dose of blood-chilling gravity.

And the same goes for Nic Cage, that national treasure. Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it's probably that he's just so far ahead of the curve we're afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage's cop in WICKER is brave so far beyond reckless that he comes back around to cautious and upwards towards brave again.

Perhaps this WICKER has acquired such a dismal rep because it is neither a CHILDREN OF THE CORN GONE WILD as its targeted demographic likely hoped, nor a "noir antihero loses his marbles" art movie, but rather something much more difficult to handle: a damning critique of patriarchy wrapped up in modern sexy teen remake horror trimmings, with just enough polish that we believe in its structure as a "Where the *)@^&# is my daughter, you monster?!" movie, the kind with frantic cop fathers throwing away their rule books and/or drinking alone while staring at half-burnt family photos. WICKER even pretends to be such a film until its trap springs shut on the sac of our manly American values.

Just as the fun of the original was in feeling the last two thousand years of Christian stigmata burnt from our eyes via a single dose of Pagan Lasik, so too the fun here is seeing how, without the people of Summerisle kowtowing to his manly whims, Cage's "A Child is Missing, damn you!" righteousness is revealed as immature bullying.  Cage here is like the sister's boorish boyfriend in REPULSION or the sleazy neighbor in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, only we're conditioned by his star wattage to think he's the hero, because he thinks he's the hero, and the film posits him in just that framework (the 'child is missing' scenario being dreadfully pervasive in all media). Like the hero of an action film, too, he's outnumbered, and we're conditioned to consider the outnumbered lone male the good guy. LaBute's subtle tweaking of this expectation all but dooms his message for anyone but those of us who love to see this type of safety-first Clyde crushed to death under Satana's headlights.

I guess more than any other film, original included, LeBute's remake is more like Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1974), in the sense, and it offers a similar story arc and intentional confusion over whether the lead actor is a hero or villain: Dustin Hoffman in that film is a representative of the "civilized world" entering a strange, cut-off remote society and expecting we the viewers to laugh along with him as he jibes the locals. Critics in general were unkind to the movie, many failing to pick up on the idea that Hoffman's outsider was the real villain and even calling the film sexist thanks to a morally ambivalent rape scene. You can imagine LaBute suffering the same misunderstood confusion over WICKER MAN. In a critique of the patriarchy, one must apparently never be ambiguous or stir up unresolved castration anxiety.

Now that there's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and ANTICHRIST to situate it, WICKER MAN makes perfect crazy sense. In the first, director Herzog is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by the forces of chthonic nature, forces reflected in BAD's flood-faded colors and Post-Katrina New Orleans water lines; in WM, LaBute is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by a strong cabal of women, reflected in the patronizing warmth of Ellen Burstyn and the sudden emotional swings of Lee Sobieski; In ANTICHRIST, Von Trier just cuts, literally, figuratively and otherwise, right to the chase, right to the chthonic meat of things, where nature and the feminine entwine into one massive castrating green wooded Medusa, and then does some pruning. Taken together the three film perhaps indicate that patriarchy has to repress and belittle the feminine, for the very simple reason that otherwise women will realize it's much better to kill men off once they've served their reproductive purpose, or send them off to work in the fields as castrated slave labor. Hasn't anyone seen CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)? What's the matter with you people? You think this is a joke? A child is missing!


The 1973 original was (perhaps) more bearable for American audiences because of the British accents which made the colloquial strangeness even stranger (not close to home enough to stick in the proverbial craw, as LaBute's version does) and it should be noted that the original was similarly box office-stricken in its own home country of Great Britain (due largely to bad marketing and brutal editing).

In the Americanized rendition, Nic Cage goes deep Yankee tourist: unconscious of the world around him, condescending, arrogant, even boorish, expecting that wherever he goes people will "get" his outmoded hipster posturing and that all women will bow and scrape before him when he flashes his badge and waves his gun around.  When they don't, his only option is a roundhouse kick to Lee Sobieski's heaving bosom. But that still doesn't work.



In the end the movie resonates for the same reason it annoys: we hate that which reminds us of our own unconscious Ugly American-in-a-china-shop deformities. In BAD LIEUTENANT, Cage made us feel the chronic pain of his character and revel in chemical relief and the joy of dancing ever on the edge. In WICKER MAN, it's not his pain that's alleviated, but the pain of any woman who ever endured an unwarranted and inappropriate "pat-down" or otherwise had to suffer the preachy condescension of an arrogant male official. It's always amusing to see these patriarchal bullies squirm when the shoe is on the other foot, until of course we realize that we the audience are the ones squirming... in embarrassment. Ask not for whom the man burns, he burns for bees... until there's no other foot left.

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Read also Kim Morgan's"The Bitch is Back" on her Sunset Gun, which originally, back in 07, gave me the courage to keep trying to make it through. And remember, just because you wear a bear suit doesn't mean you can punch out pagan women! You need a pope hat do the that. Or to paraphrase Lauren Bacall: Be careful of those double standards, Steve. You're liable to trip over your cross and break your neck!

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