Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER

After thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, then meeting a friend to watch AMERICAN GANGSTER later that night at the cinema, I come home feeling the need to scrub America off me with a wire brush. Russell Crowe's honest cop is the descendant of SERPICO, Popeye Doyle and Travis in TAXI DRIVER. They're janitors in a sewer with a mop and pail, and they're the only ones clean. They're obsessive-compulsive that way, the rest of the world has to suffer and get saved, grudgingly, by these control freaks. We keep hoping Denzel Washington's gangster will start sass-talking like Harvey Keitel (as Sport, that damned elusive pimp to Nell!), but Denzel prefers to stay emotionless, in a suit with lapels too thin that's way too chalky gray for the era, a representative of 00's corporate culture returned through time to buy up as much cheap pre-Giuliani real estate as the traffic will allow, sneering at the hideous polyester knits around him as he goes. Denzel bitch-slaps his underlings when they try to pimp up their outerwear, but he seldom bothers to correct them when they slip out of time (the film is set between 1968-1973) and use black lingo that didn't exit until Run DMC coined it in the late 1980's. Ridley's writers should've listened close to Lightnin' Rod's Hustler's Convention while writing the dialogue, instead of Eminem.

Another problem is that Ridley Scott and co. don't trust the audience's attention span: so much money is thrown at the screen that you hope they're planning a future extended cut to run about 34 hours. A whole trip to Vietnam and back--replete with massive poppy fields and decadent US-occupied Saigon streets--whisks by in perhaps five minutes. You feel for the hundreds of extras, slaving day after day, topless, over white powder while Ridley stomps around and changes his mind, and then their scene is cut down to a single minute. We don't get to know anything tangible about any of the vast cast of characters, except grandma likes money. They're even worse than blank slates; they're cliches out of time.

Crowe may be a composite of 70's antiheroes and to his credit, actually seems to from and in the decade, but Denzel is a composite only of past Denzel, more at the well-dressed end of the spectrum, which means early 00s. But if he thought he could play his psychological hand close-to-the-vest the way, say, Pacino was allowed to do in THE GODFATHER II and have it work, he was mistaken. Coppola knew when his actors were doing interesting stuff, and he trusted the audience to stay with it (or was that Robert Evans?). But now, instead of the colorful method acting at the Corleone table we get the relentless second-guessing of Ridley, who whittles things down in the editing room until there's nothing left but little actions from different eras, each with a complete new costume change and lens filter. More than anything, what Ridley has wrought is the home shopping network of bling: he throws open the closets of yesterday's rich and infamous, and when it all starts to get tiresome, he takes an expensive fur coat and hurls it on the fire. Did Ridley really burn that expensive ass coat? And does it matter, since that day's catering bill alone was probably more expensive than a dozen such garments?

Many are my maddening questions. Robert Evans is not on the producer's list and too bad, because he would have made Ridley throw on the brakes, and maybe even try for some original touches rather than ratcheting together FRENCH CONNECTION/SERPICO gritty momentum and the sort of insecure crosscutting that worked in the GODFATHERs but showed to be a real bad habit for Coppola in every film since (Gregory Hines tap dancing as gangsters are killed outside in COTTON CLUB? Why?). Like Coppola, Ridley's got the "second-guess" disease, like the sort of nervous mother-in-law that plans every last drop of life out of her daughter's wedding. He can't just have a big sting operation with micro-second cross-cuts between the cops in the hall, the crack factory workers inside, gunsels, and so forth, it has to go down right as the head bad guy is at church, ala GODFATHER II, and there has to be a baby bouncing a ball in the tenement hallway right where the shooting's about to start. Surely Scott could've spliced in a sexy wife tossing and turning in bed, waking up with the premonition something bad's about to happen and trying to talk her man out of going to work? And maybe a scene of hunters about to shoot down a high-flying hawk? And the old lady having a heart attack, and the ambulance coming in slow motion? Come on, Ridley. You're getting lazy!

I wouldn't mind if this was a result of giddy fanboy homage to POTEMKIN and INTOLERANCE as it was once with De Palma, but there's no giddy fanboy joy here, just nervous second-guessing, which I can only guess led to swiping, copying other kids' tests at school rather than trusting those old DUELIST instincts. With so much $$ involved, I can only accuse them all of bowing down to a corporate "memo" mentality. No one wants to stick their neck out, so everything is groupthink, and in the end, no one has any faith in any one single moment in the film. In Ridley's case, that means no faith in the scene as it is, no realization that any further additions is going to overpainting.

Every scene--except maybe big Oscar-bait moments with momma schooling her errant son--is cut away from before its allowed to develop organically, in an original direction. Can't risk it, man. So every shot, has to have been proven in past classics. Ditto for Denzel and his white co-star, now a Thanksgiving tradition - wasn't last year his tangle with Clive Owen in INSIDE MAN? And before that with little Ethan Hawke in TRAINING DAY? Ridley's version is careful to include nearly everything that worked from both those movies: Temptation of a cop with easy bundles of money? Check! Hot Latina babe as the spouse? Check! Dog, leopard, cuckatoo, or other pet? Check, mate!

Washington's interest in this sort of rote-a-role is understandable, as it's a well-respected course around which he can outrace the white man and not piss off the red state box office. As history records, a black actor with excessive pride and intellect as opposed to mere posture and dignity can create big waves unless he's given a sturdy white cliff to bash his rageful tide against;2 Washington is the waviest since Paul Robeson and he knows it. He even invites the spirit of Robeson into him for key moments, but is careful not to overdo it, to not step out of the careful blocking for the shot and go with the mood deeper than originally planned. In that, Ridley Scott is the perfect Thanksgiving director, hurtling through the action like he's racing to catch his plane, making silent eye contact to the rest of his immediate family--all of them as anxious to split as he is as they sit, scattered along the table playing with the remnants of their flavorless pumpkin pie--earning their grateful smile by silently pointing at his watch and mouthing "ten minutes." Keeping an eye on the stove all the while, Ridley lifts Denzel off the burner the second he starts to blacken.

Crowe on the other hand is the opposite to Washington's tailored-out-of-time look; Crowe makes himself all mangy and disrespectful, punchy and greased-up -- and thus he is all the more kingly. He's the legit patriarch, a pitbull's jaw of a man. Denzel's gangster has to keep stockpiling the long green or else he's simply a cipher, but Crowe stays Crowe. He's a man's man actor, a person who in real life you can tell has faced himself in the mirror; he's had drinking contests with his inner demons; he's earned the right to be a stand-up guy who can look the world in the eye. In that he's the closest thing we have to Bogart or John Wayne this decade. In TRAINING DAY, Denzel proved he could access some of that same sort of noble power, but there he was the bad guy so it was okay to loom bigger than life; when strait-jacketed in the "savior of the neighborhood-but-also-a-smack-dealer" double bind, he keeps trying add some well-tempered Poitier and it just seems to stall his development as Denzel the persona, whomever that may be. Poitier could roar when need be. "They call me Mister Pibbs" is justifiably legendary. But it wouldn't be if he shouted his way through the movie like he's teaching a rowdy class of East London mods. He kept the dignity as a bush from which to as a serpent strike when most effective. Denzel on the other hand plays the coiled serpent in the bush so long he forgets the coiled serpent is supposed to rattle and strike occasionally.

It's easy to forget, but Sydney Poitier radiated a sense of the polished intellectual because he was one. Characters were created with him in mind to fill them, but like James Dean, he was forging ground in himself as well as the culture with each role, for the term 'intellectual' was not always the bourgeois throw pillow it is now. That's what one's craft should be for: any field or action is a potential vehicle for self-discovery. Nowadays we assume the actors who dared bring this sense of enlightened entitlement to the screen were merely posturing to set an example, to lift their lottery-addicted brethren out of the ghetto and into a nice dry dark space, and on the other side of town, to show whites that the black people were capable of highbrow sophistication. The Civil Rights struggle made their kids understandably join the Panthers and stop debating Freud with us in our candle-lit bebop cafes. Today it seems unreal that anyone--let alone African Americans--could have had the courage to be classy and live by their own convictions. Bill Cosby is remembered for his sweaters and Godfrey Cambridge is forgotten altogether. Race performers like Willie Best are debated about and set as victims of Hollywood's bigotry, but what about the amazing Clarence Muse? Robeson? Even Poitier, certainly Cicely Tyson on the female side, were able to put big personal statements, vast tomes of depth far beyond merely being a victim or fighting against stereotyping. Washington occasionally seems to forget that it's not enough to not perpetuate black stereotypes: you have to invent something new, that is to say, a self that transcends limitations such as cultural, educational, class, and racially-tinged pre-perceptions.

Labels are what we use as bookmarks in the lifetime reading of our true selves. We inevitably get lazy, stop reading and just focus on the bookmarks. Denzel is an actor who is forever trying to get by on just reading the bookmarks of his heroes and forerunners. In his inner boxing ring, Robeson burns and fumes and punches the air from one corner, Poitier reads the New York Times in the other, and the bell to start the fight is never struck. Denzel just stands there, alert and inert, waiting for the credits to chopper him out of the ring. But his suit -- it's perfect, right?

Like CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, another holiday film about crooks and the cops who love them, AMERICAN GANGSTER presents two main characters who are fearless and therefore somewhat uninvolving; their bravery has no merit as there is nothing to overcome. We don't see the inner fire that makes Denzel's kingpin so calm about carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars into the jungles at the height of the Vietnam war or shooting a rival in broad daylight on the Harlem streets and then going back to his breakfast. Instead of the air of a coiled panther, Denzel has the air only of a man who has already read the script of his own life, already seen the GODFATHERS, twice, not to mention SCARFACE, GOODFELLAS, BLOW and even MASTERS OF WAR. When he first sees the tall Latina hottie in the foyer even he knows that in three brief courtship-spanning edits, she will be drinking champagne with him in the evening sun on some exotic beach, and in another two cuts, married or in bed or both. When life is this certain, why even feign surprise?

There are good things about AMERICAN GANGSTER, mostly what it chooses to leave out: unlike earlier versions of this true story, such as Larry Cohen's blaxploitation-era hit, BLACK CEASER, or the recent rap-centric gangster films too numerous to mention, there are only a handful of cliche'd pop songs used as shorthand to indicate time and place tropes in the film. And until Vin Diesel resurfaces, I'm nominating Josh Brolin as the coolest up and comer tough guy actor around. His sleazy cop on the take is a beam of unprocessed realness: he can stretch out the seconds he's on screen in such a way that he can relax and convey great comfort in the stress he causes others. That's something that comes from him, Josh Brolin, not from a focus group, three rounds of memos, second-guesswork, and a cliche handbook. Brolin just has something unique, something he was allowed to radiate and may not even know consciously he was doing. Lucky Ridley didn't notice it, or he would have probably felt the urge to call attention to it more, until it was as stale as hearing "All Along the Watchtower" over a montage of 60s imagery and a voiceover talking about "a time when anything went.. and often did."

Maybe what these Hollywood types need is to be able to smoke cigarettes in their offices again, smoke pot and take LSD and listen to the rest of Electric Ladyland, not just the focus group-sanctioned hits. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between the bans on smoking and the overall decline in American intelligence? In the 1970s people were still smoking in the doctor's waiting room. There were ashtrays in the grocery stores. Now we have our health, but at what cost? We've lost that loving, intellectual maturity. We've lost faith in our fellow man's ability to perceive the obvious. Instead of learning guitar, we're playing GUITAR HERO. Instead of dancing in the fires of creation and destruction, we're recycling... and recycling... until the slightest expression of originality sounds like the threatening cries of the wasteful heretic.

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