Monday, April 13, 2009

A Travis for our times: OBSERVE AND REPORT

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 consumerist belly, and the one Ronnie works in, almost empty, a little on the rinky dink side, sad with that weekday emptiness malls get in late afternoons. Ronnie is immune to its ennui, seeing this ghost town of middle-America's unconsciousness as his personal kingdom, resulting in a near-Brechtian fantasia for the artistically maladjusted loner who wishes they could just knock slow fat moms with strollers out of their way; punch whom they want to punch when they want to, have 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 late inning 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, as they deserve. In BAD SANTA, we watch a man behave badly, but OBSERVE AND REPORT itself behaves badly. And that has made all the difference.

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 (1946), wherein Fields gets a job as a bank security officer; there were no malls then so he instead trashes his favorite target: small town Americana and its pinched-faced reformers. Like Jody Hill and Ronnie the Mall Cop, Fields makes films in 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 similarly have no real legal power) but nonetheless wearing detective disguises and pointing his little gun at the mirror. Billy Bob Thornton's Santa costume, by contrast, is a joke from the get-go: the clothes of a saint worn by a slovenly drunk, but the saintliness can't help but come through, like it does for those countless movies wherein gangsters or thieves hide out in nunneries or missions and eventually 'see the light.' There's no legit authority to Santa, mall cops, or security guards, 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, more than just a mall in the same sense Poe's House of Usher is more than just a house or Don Quixote's windmills more than 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 first buddy you make when you're the new kid in town, and whom you abandon 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 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 and his own resolve and belief in his warped violent persona is admirable in its purity, the way we admire Travis Bickle, or Robert Duvall in APOCALYPSE NOW.

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, 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 his soul, or that his war can't be won, and that's perhaps the greatest victory any American can have, the victory of embracing in full the Don Quixote madness that bravely and finally makes sense of our fucked-up planet (and in the process destroying it). That's why we like George W., or Sarah Palin... in crazy times, we need a crazy leader. When reality sucks, vote for the sucker. 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; Thornton in BAD SANTA was too busy "trying" to be offensive to register fully as truly bad instead of just a weary middle-aged actor in the midst of delirum tremens; 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 of delusion; 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 a cathartic abstraction of teenage rage, but watching Ronnie run down a skate punk and crack him on the back of the head for no real reason? That's catharsis. 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, looked just like it. No offense to Ortho (I was a mail room temp) - I loved the people, and got a discount on Tylenol 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, until of course Arnold's body count reads 'zero - killed' and the weird back-end morality undercuts our revelry. But it's characters like Ronnie, on the other hand, whom our big dumb war is meant for, and body count zero is just a dare. 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 drive to chew bubble gum and kick ass, the devil take the consequences and civilian casualties.

Which brings me to the third closest auteur to Hill's level of subversive deadpan comic savagery: 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). Fascism's just another word for nothing left to lose! Time to shoot the mirror and set your reflection free!


  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!


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