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

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Bulls Fighter: BRONSON

There's tough guys, and then there's Charlie Bronson (not the one you're thinking of). Johnny Cochran fought the law and the law won, but Bronson has fought the law for three decades, to a bloody tie. All the bulls can do is keep him locked down - the minute he's free, he starts a ruckus. And it's a bleedin' true story! He wanted to be famous and he is, and the film is gorgeous, but the whys go unanswered. Or do they now? (Yes) Who are you talking to? (you). You who? (don't let the posey fool ya).

The calling card major talent English language debut of Norway's Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008 film BRONSON's slow mo strut and staggering formalist tracking shots (timed to great classical music and shrill Pet Shop Boys disco) are CLOCKWORK ORANGE enough to wow the highbrow critics and scare the provincials (it glorifies hooliganism!) and since Kubrick's film was surely a big influence on both the man, the country and the system-- our hero's edge-of-your-zipper male persona is something that's ultimately made rather sad and tragic, not to mention slyly post-modern. Bronson is an unstable terror, but kind of a hero in that he doesn't actually kill or rape anyone, nor does he seem to pick on anyone smaller than he is; he's not a sadist or a bully, per se, yet the man ends up serving more time than most rapists or murderers have, at least in the UK, oh what a world! 

Whatever your view on violence, you got to love those tracking shots and the Wagner, right? Wait, did we all see the same film? Read all these confusing reactions by Peter Travers in ROLLING STONE:
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, known for his Pusher trilogy, pushes hard at the boundaries of banal film biography. Bronson talks directly to the camera, wears menacing clown paint and does music-hall bits. He also makes life hell for guards who interfere with his vision of himself as an artist. So much for the global petition circulating to free Bronson. Whether or not you'd sign the petition, this movie and Hardy's electrifying performance will knock you for a loop.
Guards "interfere with his vision of himself as an artist"? Man, what kind of artist is he if not the Picasso of ass kicking? Like Picasso, he likes to fight with the bulls (English slang for prison guards in this case) and when he decides to be the drawing kind of artist, he gets support from the system, so what are you talking about, Peter Travers? The verb "push" used twice in a sentence?  Why does making hell for guards (which seems inaccurate since most of the guards seem like sadists happy to indulge our hero's masochistic penchants) have anything to do with a global petition? Travers thinks "menacing clown makeup" wraps up the question of a global petition, pat, and no mention of said petition is made in the film, which ends on a very sad and depressing note. So, did Travers really even stay to the end or did he just crib from the press release?

Travers and his once-relevant rag or no, critics are unanimous in their 3 out of 4 star rating for this gutsy little opera of punching and pounding. The film is stylish and sharply observed without being derivative or suffocatingly crafty. There's an amazing powerhouse 20 minutes kicking it all off, Winding's influences are all right there in the propulsion system: Kubrick, Scorsese for momentums glacial, ceaseless, and druggy; Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson for the resonant gritty young man alienated-from-the-tools-of-the-system ferocity, and.... no destination really.... there's really nowhere to go but right to left, then left to right in those lovely musical tracking shots. Here's Ebert:
Originally sentenced to seven years ("You'll be out in three," his mother calls to him in the courtroom), he has now served 34 uninterrupted years, 30 of them in solitary confinement. Why? We don't know. The movie doesn't know. If Bronson knows, he's not telling
But Roger, he has been out once or twice, even in the film --he just couldn't handle it, then. And we do know why he's back: from making an in-house ruckus!  Just because you're in jail when you assault guards and hold people hostage doesn't stop it from adding time to your sentence. If he'd been a good boy he'd been out in four, but assault charges do add up, murder or none. So it's hard to feel like he's a victim of the system. Then again, it's more like the system is a victim of him, and that's why the film works (for me at least) even without going too deep under the skin. He's not that much of a threat to society--besides petty robbery--but he is a threat to the penal system. Brit corrections can't do a thing with a guy who actually likes being forced into prolonged periods of solitary confinement--or pretends to cuz he's just that tough. Every time he gets his act a bit together the warden cautiously grants him some privileges, only to regret it, time and again, culminating in the tragic climax wherein he holds his own art teacher hostage for 44 insane hours. Clearly he needs anti-psychotics and could benefit from modern strides in pharmacology.

My overall point of quoting the above critics is to perhaps convey how being high up in the press circle might make BRONSON more opaque, which is a sad thing to have to say, especially about ROLLING STONE magazine which, as I dimly recall, used to have its finger at least in the same town as the counterculture's pulse. A sleek, younger journal like SLANT nails it beautifully however in this piece of knowing, liquid mercury prose from Nick Schager:
As the famed inmate, whose bald head, upturned mustache, and imposing physique (usually nude or in white long-sleeved T-shirts) resembled that of a cartoon carnival strongman, Hardy is a whirlwind force of nature, stomping around a cell like a one-track pain train, leaping into battle with rabid-dog intensity (in one sequence, he actually takes on a Doberman), and in his first-person monologues, flashing unnervingly funny menace. Bronson so immediately and definitively establishes its template and character that each scene soon plays like a disturbed Loony Tunes cartoon replete with concluding punch(line). And when Bronson appears on stage with face covered in white makeup (and, in a magnificently deranged, schizo sequence, with half his face au natural and the other half done up like a mad Nurse Ratchet), Refn strikingly nails his subject as a monstrous clown, a lunatic who took great, sadistically comical pleasure from putting fists to flesh.
Love the Nurse Ratchet, monstrous clown cartoon animal strongman observations! But even here, Schager is wrong. It wasn't a wussy Doberman Bronson fought, it was a bleedin' pit bull!

Fittingly, though it's the brilliant UK writers at GUARDIAN who really nail the anguish of the man. Check out this from Erwin James, who actually met Bronson whilst serving his own life sentence:

(the) film made me think a little deeper about the real Charlie Bronson. We have had some correspondence recently. His first letter made me want to cry. "It has been nine years since I caused anyone any harm," he wrote. "Surely it must be time now to give me a chance?" I was touched by his vulnerability. Having been a prisoner with little hope once, I wanted to reach out and reassure him. For all the pain he has caused - in his prison career he has taken 11 hostages and staged nine rooftop protests - he has had an abundance of grief in return. The film, he says, has given him a new impetus for life. "It has brought me a great feeling of inner strength and self-worth. I actually feel human again." All he wants to do now is get out and concentrate on his art. "I'm a born-again artist," he says. "Through all this mad journey of institutions, I have found myself in art."

See? It would have been good to know all that in the film... or to know anything that went a bit deeper into what makes this fighter tick. Perhaps--and this is only a guess--it's something to do with latent homosexuality? The preference of male skin--even if it's only knuckles of the bulls--over the confusing, maddening touch of unknowable woman? Yes? Tom Hardy's intense, beautiful, heartbreaking, and incredibly jacked performance certainly allows for this possibility without committing one way or another. He's smashing, he is!

Also, how in the world does he manage to--apparently--keep all his teeth? He should look at least mildly Mickey Rourke-ish after a few fights... and how can he charge into battle naked and have no bulls smash a nightstick or taser to his naughty bits?  That's what I'd do, by crikey. But, it takes a Brit to know a Brit, and on that note, here's one of my new favorites, Florence, of Florence and the Machines (below). If this song was rolling over BRONSON's credits perhaps, it might have made everything a mite clearer. So... will you join me in imagining this music video re-done with tons of BRONSON footage? (though you can certainly enjoy Florence's hot little shimmy), and then raising a glass to England, where they still rage like America used to in the 1970s?

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