A recent post by the unique and sensational Cinetrix, pulling the otherwise unstoppable Dan Callahan in The House Next Door to the curb over a piece about 'rich girl cinema' reminded me I had this semi-self-righteous rant tucked away in my 'drafts' file. Too snobby and self-righteous? You decide!
I'm not prejudiced against rich kids, they're some of my best friends! But if they've never been slumming for a substantially Sullivan-ish length of time, or bummed around Europe for a summer, or whatever, it becomes pretty obvious when they go to make a film about 'real life' that they've no idea what it is!
Being rich gives kids like J.L. Godard, Sofia and Roman Coppola, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shamylan, Alex Payne, and Jason Reitman a strange obsession with the non-jet set, and a vague hand-that-feeds-them biting self-loathing disguised as knowledge of 'common people' and their 'real' problems. What was it William Shatner 'sang' about 'common people?'
For me that works in the case of Wes Anderson as he deliberately avoids 'real life' unless it's viewed through the lens of the super rich (like the respectful objectification of the brothers in DARJEELING UNLIMITED, j'adore). And Sophia Coppola is exquisite at capturing Tokyo hotel ennui with Harrison Ford while Spike was off with Cameron Diaz, so the story behind LOST IN TRANSLATION goes. There's also a stretch of 20 minutes or so in VIRGIN SUICIDES that's totally awesome, you know the stretch I mean... but then Sofia thinks she can pull off MARIE ANTOINETTE just by gathering some of her friends together in a big castle with fancy wigs and her favorite 1980s music on the soundtrack. America recognized a boondoggle when they saw one.
No offense to him personally, but Jason Reitman to me is the worst of the lot (I hear he's a lovely fella in person). I've not been able to wade more than a reel or two into either UP IN THE AIR or JUNO, and I love Ellen Page and Vera Farmiga. Reitman seems to me to be a director who hasn't flown coach in his entire life, who's never had to wait in line for a bagel, or change a light bulb --you can just tell in the abstract dialogue, even the movements of the characters through their lives, it all feels wrong.
As a recovering alcoholic for example, I can tell when the actor portraying an alcoholic onscreen doesn't know shit about what being alcoholic is like. Similarly, when an inexperienced rich kid makes a film that tries to tag a happy ending onto a film 'about real life' you feel like you're being taught sex techniques by a virgin.
When anti-Apartheid campaigning was all the rage in the late 1980s, I remember being at an anti-Apartheid rally at the outdoor theater up in Syracuse that was run by this beautiful blonde girl, Christena (not her real name), a rich, blonde, pampered Single White Female type from Connecticut who proceeded to lecture a largely black, Rastafarian male audience about what it was like to be non-white in South Africa ("Imagine.. row after row of shanty towns."). I don't know if the rows upon rows of Rastafari felt as embarrassed for her as I did, but it was kind of emblematic... of something. And then a band came on after her and the bassist was 100 x better than I was, and my band was next... and I freaked out and ran home to take an 1/8 of mushrooms on the off chance it would make me 'play' music better. It didn't work, and that's why I blame society, and Jason Reitman.
Hey - does anyone remember that movie CQ (2001, above, and top)? Roman Coppola directed it, and man oh man, is it excruciating. And yet, it's so almost good it hurts, kind of like BARBARELLA, a film CQ clearly apes around the edges. Roman's cousin Jason Schwarzman is hilarious as a faux Jean Rollin, but the protagonist is a horrifically pretentious dullard played by hand-talker Jeremy Davies. Rather than blow our minds with a De Laurentis-ish sci fi sex epic, Davies wants to make a tedious documentary of his life, in grainy black and white, so we can all bask in the mundanity of his cliche'd ex-pat in Paris spoiled film student existence. Jean Eustache he aint!
|Tout va Bien - (1972)|
For around a year or so I knew quintessential Park Slope co-op kind of guy who freaked out if his roommate set the heater above 65 degrees in winter, or used the AC at all in summer -- he'd bicycle every day across the Manhattan bridge to school, even in the rain, all the better to lecture everyone about greenhouse gasses. He'd drone on about organic food at the Park Slope co-op, and then, once a month, he'd go home to his super wealthy upper crust WASP family to get his allowance.
When being a film analyst it's important to keep all that in mind, as it illuminates the underpinnings of trust-fund Marxism. Do they care about 'the people' or are they like Sturges' Sullivan, merely idealizing that which they are not in order to piss off their parents (or parent corporation)? I mean, it's fine to do that, just be aware of the glaring irony. The blue collar guys aint gonna see yer pitcher. They think you're artsy sermons are bullshit. They want to see cartoons.
I recall this quote from Sullivan's butler, which I found on IMDB:
You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches - as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunnedIn short, my rich kid cinema critique isn't mean to champion the working class, or the unemployed, homeless, etc., in fact I hate them. I hate the characters of directors like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and John Sayles that try and 'justify' their wealth by patronizing the proletariat with that 'Barton Fink feeling.' Also, just because they can afford to keep meddling producers at bay, ensuring the true stamp of auteur (rather than the committee film making that comes when you need too many backers), doesn't mean they don't need script doctors. It seems to me that since they didn't 'earn' their wealth, they have this need to retroactively prove themselves worthy of it, and cinema is a hard thing to fool. We can peer right through the curtains at an auteur's motivations. We'd know you were a rich kid filmmaker even if you signed your name 'R. Mutt' or Alan Smithee.
Still, I'd much rather roll with the rich kids in cool parties like the ones in Bertolucci's STEALING BEAUTY than mope around somebody's idea of working class Bristol. And besides, to get films finished you need money: cinema has a respect for finished films and without a fall-back income source, budding auteurs can get slammed into the dirt by budget issues, even inches from the finish line, having to crawl into bed with litigious distributors who tie up the DVD rights for centuries just because they can.
Lastly, not all rich kid auteurs are bad: there's a purity of voice in Wes Anderson, for example, a unity of taste and mood, that you can't get in a film that's leveraged to the hilt with a dozen different film company backers; Noah Baumbach brings strong doses of scathingly honest bitchiness and bravely hilarious moral ambivalence to his loosely autobiographical skewerings; Alexander Payne works on telling a 'small' but well-detailed stories, entertaining and moving the audience without worrying about stamping his signature on it. Best of all, Payne is a satirist, and if he has low income protags, he'd rather dump them into a sea of embarrassment than romanticize their mundane squalor.
|Darjeeling Limited (2007)|
The thing is, ultimately, if an auteur has enough money + is a recognized name, he can easily surround himself with sycophants for whom is every lame idea is brilliant. The results? THE HAPPENING and THE LADY IN THE WATER (below).
I call attention to this not to blame these kids for silver spoons, but on the other hand to point out these kids might benefit from some time out on the bread line, ala SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Let John Sayles get conked on the head and do time in the chain gangs, so he can realize that the average 'worker' is a boorish thug; and Reitman needs one of those Michael Douglas-type THE GAME experiences, or a serious iboga trip. Let Fincher, a real auteur who understands humanity darn well, have him for a couple of weeks. Send Roman Coppola to boyscout camp, send him to the ayahuasca communities of the rain forest in San Paolo, or send him to the marines. Most of all, make these punters realize that what they think of as 'normal' is to us as rarefied as a bird with crystal lite plumage. Would we try and teach them how to party at Ibiza? Or how to ask their parents for money? Then don't let them teach us how to suffer and yearn for self-expression as they fly around the world in their first class haze. Then again, people seem to love Jason Reitman... so maybe I'm the rich yob after all.