Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wicker Lieutenant: Port of Call: Summerisle

I am not embarrassed to say it: Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN (2006)  remake finally moved me, we reach. After four years of starting and stopping all through the early scenes with Cage as an overwrought motorcycle cop retrieving a stuffed animal thrown out a speeding car, after four years of vowing to return one day, finally. Look at me, mom! I'm all right!

So now please don't sacrifice me.

It helped me to have seen ANTICHRIST and BAD LIEUTENANT 2: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS right before watching it this time. I recommend the three as a triple feature to show that if women ever truly shucker free--all the way and completely--from the patriarchy handcuffs, then as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz once put it: "Say goodbye to your nuts!" And as for Nic Cage, whenever we think our man is totally sucking, it's probably that he's just so far ahead of the curve we can't make out where he's going. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD, Cage's brave so far beyond reckless that he comes back around to cautious and upwards towards brave again, mach 2.

Perhaps LaBute's remake has acquired such a dismal rep because it was neither a CHILDREN OF THE CORN GONE WILD as its targeted demographic 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 "Won't somebody please think of the children!" or "Where is my daughter, you animal!" movie, the kind with frantic cop fathers throwing away their rule book and hearing ticking clocks underneath the pulsing synth pads. WICKER even pretends to be such a film until it springs a mighty trap that snaps down tight on the sac of our American values.

Many critics incorrectly label LaBute a misogynist, but his remake of WICKER MAN allows him to depict plenty of very powerful, frightening, intelligent women going up against a coarse, ineffectual male cop, and that's far from a misogynist's idea of a good time. Almost my definition, a truly liberated, sexually aggressive, snarling female is one of the most terrifying creatures on earth to a misogynist. And here 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 us like an extra dose of gravity.

Having finally shrunk my balls enough to reach the end of LaBute's film, I see what a fool I was, and what a genius Nic Cage is to be so terrible. That's the main issue that throws people off this film, I think. We're used to the central figure of manly authority being the 'good guy' - but here he's the villain, and he has to go. And yet his Nic Cage-iness is the exact same as it would be if he was going after the Declaration of Independence.

That is his genius.

Without the people of Summers' Isle kowtowing to his manly whims, Nic Cage's "A Child is Missing, damn you!" righteousness is revealed as the macho bullying it really is and always has been.  Cage here is like the sister's boorish boyfriend in REPULSION or the sleazy neighbor in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, only here he's outnumbered, powerless, and roaring like an old pervert crushed to death under the headlights of a Russ Meyer supervixen.

It's a little like Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1974) in that sense, and it offers a similar story arc: 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 calling the film sexist. You can imagine LaBute feeling the same misunderstood confusion over the criticism of WICKER MAN. In a critique of the patriarchy, one must apparently never be ambiguous or stir up unresolved castration anxiety.

Snip snip!

Well, now that there's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and ANTICHRIST to explain matters, and so WICKER MAN makes perfect crazy sense: BAD director Herzog is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by the forces of nature, forces reflected in BAD's flood-faded colors and Post-Katrina New Orleans water lines; LaBute  is terrified/ambivalent/enthrallment towards women, reflected in the patronizing warmth of Ellen Burstyn or the sudden emotional swings of Lee Sobieski; 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. Isn't it sad to realize the 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 trimming).

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. It still doesn't work.

In the original, the idea was that the victim must be a Christian and a virgin, but in LaBute's remake, Christianity has nothing do with it, except as far as it underwrites the barbaric "normalcy" of the rest of America. The victim need only be unconscious, male, and self-righteous. 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 at the edge of sanity. 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.

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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