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 comes into clear perspective. On that note, may I recommend the three as a triple feature?

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

Let me clarify, I don't think LaBute's a misogynist, anymore than Von Trier or Herzog. They all 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 female is one of the most terrifying creatures on this or any 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 doesn't care if we root for him or not, he's got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like "reckless," "brave," "idiotic" or "inspired."

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 (based on the generic 'scary pastoral kid' poster, 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 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 or yelling into the faces of apathetic mayors. WICKER even pretends to be such a film until it suddenly springs shut with a mouse trap-snap square on the sac of our manly American values. "How'd it get burned how'd it get burned how'd it GET BURNED???!" Cage screams in progressive loops to the one girl who doesn't hate him, and we realize it's already too late, for us, for him, for everything except another season's apple or honey haul. Pointing a gun at an unarmed woman in order to steal her bike, Cage is, as one sister puts it, "quixotic." The missing child has become the new windmill.

Just as the fun of the original was in feeling the last two thousand years of Christian stigmata stains 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 patriarchal righteousness is revealed as immature bullying and violent hysteria.  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 the 'cheap shot' way to get a viewer involved, outraged, concerned, glued to the screen - as he in turn is glued). Like the hero of an action film, too, Cage is outnumbered, and we're conditioned to always consider the outnumbered lone male worrying about a missing child to be the good guy.

Alas, 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 Tura Satana's headlights.

I guess more than any other film, the 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 viewers to laugh along with him as he jibes the locals for the first 1/3 of the film. 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 social anxiety if you want to win over a crowd.

Finally, now that there's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and ANTICHRIST to situate it, however, even WICKER MAN makes gonzo 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 mood swings of Lee Sobieski; for 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 Von Trier does some pruning. Taken together the three films 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, jurisdiction be damned.  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, minority or child 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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  2. I never could face this but I'm half Brit and love the original. The region 2 DVD (2 discs:different cuts and a CD soundtrack plus wonderful extras like Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward (if you don't know CALLAN you'd better) screening the film together and remembering before we lost them both.


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