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

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Secrets of 2012, or the "The Day of a Million Relapses"

Sorry to be so late to the party in loving/trashing Roland Emmerich's 2012, but I got so much to say, You HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME! We're running out of time! First, First, I love the insecure way Emmerich steals bits not just from himself but from James Cameron, and Michael Bay -- they steal bits from each other, as if there was only one 99 cent bag of tired action movie cliches and they had to share it between them, and make it last three hours. Emmerich of course is the worst, stealing everything while sticking to what he knows best - destroying the world on a bigger and bigger scale and refracting the escapes and deaths through the on-the-street perspectives of an an offensively cliche'd cross section of 'everypeople'-- each a unique distillation of stock characteristics defining their Ameri-racial heritage.

There's enough great carnage in 2012 to forgive it its trespasses, of course: Las Vegas collapses into a giant flame hole, all of Los Angeles gets a long fly-over as it sinks back into the earth, the Vatican (!!), and other tourist spots collapse and a joyous time is had by all, though it's rather like having a lover who covers up the fact they don't have an erection by performing an elaborate courtship dance. 

But hey, we've all died before in other lives, we know it's hard, and Emmerich makes sure we all are represented by one stock character or the other. Me, I resonated most with Harry (Blu Mankuma), the beautiful old African American jazz man father of the bleeding heart geologist son (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The two have a nice farewell via ship-to-shore phone (Harry's pianist in residence on a cruise liner) and upon hanging up--his responsibility to his son completed--Harry grabs a Jack Daniels off a passing waiter's tray. His old sax man (George Segal) remarks: "Harry, you haven't had a drink in 25 years!"

Harry doesn't even answer, and our movie makes sure we actually get to see him drink that first drink in 25 years, a healthy swig, thus letting us know that (a) he's cool and b) he's doomed, and c) he's relapsed and doesn't give a shit! As someone with half his 'time,' I can't help but cheer!! Someone in that scriptwriting pool knows the score!

Sadly, the next time we see Harry he's not abusive or sprawled on the floor, or staggering around on his second fifth of bourbon, or even playing some mournful blues on the lounge piano as the room fills with water and waiters wade by in slow motion (they're on a cruise). So many missed opportunities... but finally a disaster movie actually put in what every sober alcoholic waits for--the unshakable excuse to relapse. There's an old saying in AA that I made up about promising to drink again when hell freezes over: one day we're bound to find ourselves on a Zamboni machine heading down into the flames.

So that's 2012 for me, and I don't even have to tell you the rest of the plot: A perennially late divorced slacker dad (John Cusak, flailing wildly) racing to pick up his kids for the weekend from hot, beachwood-aged-wife (Amanda Peet) and her shallow dork of a plastic surgeon, lawyer or stockbroker boyfriend/husband (Tom McCarthy). Cusak is one of those dads who talk baby talk to their children long past the expiration date that such condescension passes for parenting. Dude, your daughter's watching the world cave in around her and you're the one panicking like a hysterical over-acting ninny.

I'm always glad to see that Hollywood for all its smarm is deeply concerned about micro-managerial parenting and the crippling anxiety it creates -- especially in men, causing them to run away from responsibility and dread every weekend of custody, terrified the kid will slip and fall on their watch. Like Tom Cruise in Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS remake, our spazzola action movie everyman is caught at ground zero of immanent catastrophe right at the time he's most anxiety-prone: child custody weekend. His first thought once the meteors start is to return the kids asap so he can be free to die with dignity. Is this how real fathers feel, or is it what teenagers are afraid they'll feel as fathers?

I'm childless, no kids y'all, and the whole "road not taken" fascinates me,  not in a fuzzy way but in a queasy way -- like watching your friends fall into a giant threshing machine and come out looking thirty years older, but with a nice shiny 'warm-colored' patina, telling you in their pod person voices "Once you have a child, your whole outlook changes, you appreciate life." Thus, God opens the door right as the floor falls away behind you, and he expects you to jump through only at the last possible second, your mouth agape, going "Ahhhhhhhhhhh!"

Next thing I love about this film? The covert condemnation of liberal bleeding-heartedness. I mean, can we be honest? Do we really care if four billion people die, or an extra hundred crrazy idiots get to come on the ark or not? Would you really care so much, Holly, if one of those little ants down there stopped moving? Either way, why INDEPENDENCE DAY and DAY AFTER TOMORROW did this so much better was by eliminating the whole ark crap. The mad chase across the globe to fight to get on some escape craft is a kind of hack ploy to show a lot of different lands getting wiped out, but a close reading opens up all sorts of THE BOX-style Pandora-ish issues of empathy and survival instinct that  come off best either being addressed in Brechtian reflexivity or in a film noir-style survivor guilt way (ala 28 MONTHS LATER) or not at all. Don't lecture us for enjoying watching ant-sized people falling out of burning skyscrapers if that's what got us in the seats. We didn't come for character development.

The moral quandry is brought up and simultaneously side-stepped by this strategy. Ejiofor plays his bleeding horn whenever he learns someone he knows has died, demanding everyone drop their own issues to acknowledge that these people he knew had NAMES, feelings!  Meanwhile, the "self-preservation" other of the equation is Cusak as the kind of dad who promises his kids front row seats to Justin Bieber  and on arriving at the stadium (without tickets) and learning the show's sold out, panics and proceeds to storm the doors, blow the family fortune on scalpers, sneak in through the back, make a big scene with security about how much it means to his kids, cries and pleads, traumatizes everyone-- not just his kids--and eventually incites a small riot and burns down the stadium, and the kids don't even really care about Justin Beaver, at all; they hadn't the heart to tell him.

There are men who can act rationally when faced with crisis, and men can't, men who've just bled too much from their liberal martyr hearts to see the forests from the trees. These are men who will freak out because they can't find one girl's lost daddy and so righteously go around yelling even as huge fissures are erupting under the makeshift med unit and thousands are dying and burning all around. The only time this scene has been done right was in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND (left), when Scarlett walks out of the makeshift confederate army hospital to get help and just keeps going right on home, after seeing the mass carnage spreading into the horizon. But Scarlet's morality was inherently dubious, what with slavery and all, and because Selznik hewed to the book, Scarlett was, almost by a fluke, allowed to be totally mercenary and immoral. (Everyone wants to make a film as sweeping and memorable as GONE WITH THE WIND, but have they actually ever seen it? The lead character's an unrepentant bitch, y'all!) GWTW could hardly even be made like that today, with such a ruthless, self-centered heroine. If the suits remade it, Scrarlett would probably end up a saintly single mom, and then all her capricious manipulations and treacheries would be solely to care "for the child" and therefore saintly.

To show you how bad things get without ambivalence and naked self-interest, let's return to 2012 and the only two guys with any maturity in the whole picture: Woody Harrelson as a Yellowstone hippy DJ who greets the huge volcanic eruption of old Faithful with a head full of mescalin (I'm guessing) and Oliver Platt as a blustery political something or other who soon regrets inviting Ejiofor along on the ark, especially when he starts to make emotion-cracked pleas to open up the arks to the unwashed masses rioting outside. Platt screams at him: "You might have gotten us all killed but as long as your conscience is clean." Amen. When Oliver Platt is the only one with any sense, that's a sad crazy day.

My fellow Americans, many must die so that John Cusak and his two rugrats may live and have last minute escapes, one after the other until the law of averages shrugs and walks away as if from his friend's nonstop video game playing. Of course if you really really really want to live, then come on! We have to get on that plane and take off before the earth splits apart but first I have to slowly do five things! There's a saying in AA, you know you're an alcoholic when you have to choose between believing in God or dying drunk, and need time to think about it. If to live you had to endure John Cusak's overacting, there shouldn't be a second thought.

Like, am I the only one who just wishes everyone died in this film? Why be loyal and liberal bleeding hearty to CGI stick figures? Let them die! That's what they're for!!! I remember in 6th grade, my friend and I drew stick figures killing and dying elaborate horrible deaths in each other's notebooks during class - it helped blow off steam. The teacher thought the drawings were cool (it was 1978) but we should pay more attention to class topics. If we pulled that in a 6th grade class today we'd be red flagged and the parents would be called-in, and the teacher would worry and admonish the way Ejiofor does to Oliver Platt: "Those things you drew - they're just stick figures to you, but they have NAMES, feelings! They represent real people!"

Like everyone's going to crack up with cheering and weeping if Cusak (who in his Jar-Jar spazzing nearly destroys all humanity) survives. If he had been a real hero, he would have just let his ex-family die like everyone else -  he'd be spared all the running and flailing, but no, he's that kind of dad, a total victim of the idea of "proximal morality" -- that is, the condition wherein something is important based on its proximity. You might be running to stop a bomb in a crowded restaurant, but if you pass a dog with a thorn its paw, you have to stop and pull the thorn out. That dog has a NAME, feelings, people! The dog's proximity preempts the bomb in the restaurant, cancels it out -- the squeaky wheel-greaser dad in action.

Thus, the ambivalence of Scarlett lives on in a passive aggressive display of parenting anxiety: Worrying about his children exempts him from responsibility for all the billions of lives that are being left to die. In this manner Cusak's no different from Billy Zane in TITANIC (1997, left), muscling his way into a lifeboat by claiming to be the guardian of some random kid he scooped up. If it was actually his own kid, he'd be considered a saint,. And aren't we all children of God, Nic? I mean John? Now which way is the bar on this sinking tub?

POST SCRIPT: See also on Bright Lights:
Shyamalan's a Ding-dong (Will Smith is a great dad, please)
Dads of Great Adventure: A Guide to Cinema’s Post-Apocalyptic Hyper-Parent


  1. Really interesting write-up, I think. I would've been happier if someone useful ended up on the boat, not just Cusack. I mean, the one guy in his group, the doctor/pilot boyfriend of Amanda Peet for some reason, who could conceivably help someone with more than the power of love, gets axed.

  2. Interesting comparison at the end there with TITANIC.

    And what's up with MARTIAN CHILD reunion? Cusack, Amanda Peet AND Oliver Platt all in the same film together again? I guess Anjelica Huston was busy.

  3. EK:
    Wow, I just love all the ink a flick like “2012” can generate!

    As for me, I stand by the flick, not only because its exquisitely crafted scenes of mega-destruction satisfy some obdurate nihilism hardwired into my reptile brain (“Blow that shit up reeeeeeeeeeal good!”), but because--and this may be so subjective as to be alienating to others--I think the film is a sick joke of the highest order, with the gag-inducing punch-line that only the super-rich will survive. And not just survive the apocalypse, but survive everything, unscathed and with a nice bedroom.

    The movie goes through the trouble of letting us see all those bodies fall to their doom (Mr. Lime’s little dots, indeed) just to reiterate “That’s you, audience, that’s you up on the screen being DOOMED. Routinely.”

    Which is why there’s all that ridiculous and often pathetic “family dramedy” garbage on the screen, including a urine joke as the capper, because a message this bitter needs a sugar coating. (Isn’t that moppet’s hat obsession adorable?) I just took this cutesy junk to be protective camouflage to keep it under the radar of those who want no mention of class and class warfare in American movies.

    By many accounts, Mr. Emmerich’s politics are a bizarre mish-mash (much like his art) and maybe “2012” is his attempted comment on the current economic meltdown?

    Maybe I’m looking too hard, but I love it when a B-movie (albeit one with an A+++ budget) gets this sort of going-over.


  4. Well Ivan, I appreciate it that you love this film, it can't do no harm and you're right in presuming some of the class issue stuff is intentional, as is the disconnect of "damnit, a child needs her father" hysteria vs. the reality of mass death, as when Danny Glover tries to bully an ER worker to find some girl's missing father when he's trying to save a dying man and the earth is cracking all around. A president is supposed to have a better idea of triage than that.

    And Simon, you mustn't forget Cusak wrote that stupid novel about how "somehow everyone has relatives in Wisconsin" which based on those words alone is enough to make you sick. But in a country where parental guilt-hysteria is taken as holy gospel, it makes sense that a spastic Jar Jar of a father would get to come on board. I just don't understand why these ships didn't go up into space, and if they're just big boats, why not have 700 submarines all ready to go? It don't make no sense, and JD as you so ably compare it with Martian Child, which I didn't see but saw the horrible preview for like three times, I can still sympathize, as even in the short preview you can see just how much revolting baby talk sincerity Cusak brings to his hollywood fathering.


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