A recent post by the unique and sensational Cinetrix, pulling the otherwise unstoppable Dan Callahan in The House Next Door to the curb over a piece about 'rich girl cinema' reminded me I had this semi-self-righteous rant tucked away in my 'drafts' file. Too snobby and self-righteous? You decide!
Being rich gives kids like J.L. Godard, Sofia and Roman Coppola, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shamylan, Alex Payne, and Jason Reitman a strange obsession with the non-jet set, and a vague hand-that-feeds-them biting self-loathing disguised as knowledge of 'common people' and their 'real' problems. What was it William Shatner 'sang' about 'common people?' Anyone who's dallied in their midst knows they suck.
I have no problem (or only a sporadic one) with Wes Anderson as he deliberately avoids 'real life' - preferring the eccentric rich (like the respectful objectification of the brothers in DARJEELING UNLIMITED, j'adore). And Sophia Coppola is exquisite at capturing first-class Tokyo hotel ennui with Harrison Ford while Spike was off with Cameron Diaz, so the story behind LOST IN TRANSLATION goes. There's also a stretch of 20 minutes or so in VIRGIN SUICIDES that's totally awesome, you know the stretch I mean... but then Sofia thinks she can pull off MARIE ANTOINETTE just by gathering some of her friends together on location with fancy wigs and her favorite 1980s music on the anachronistic soundtrack. America recognized a boondoggle when they saw one.
No offense to him personally, but Jason Reitman to me is the worst of the lot (I hear he's a lovely fella in person). I've not been able to wade more than a reel or two into either UP IN THE AIR or JUNO, and that's weird since I love Ellen Page and Vera Farmiga. It seems to me Reitman is the type of filmmaker who hasn't flown coach in his entire life, who's never had to wait in line for a bagel, or change a light bulb, and without those valuable life experiences, what qualifications has he to tell stories about 'life' at all? His view on how people act and even walk feels not even observed, let alone lived. This again would be fine if he was making a Godardian polemic or Wes Anderson doll house, but not if he's going to get at anything like a 'real' truth.
As a recovering alcoholic for example, I can tell when the actor portraying an alcoholic onscreen doesn't know shit about what being alcoholic is like. Similarly, when an inexperienced rich kid makes a film 'about real life' you feel like you're being taught sex techniques by a virgin. And I have been! I know all sides of it. I know a thing. And even if not, will gladly mansplain it.
When anti-Apartheid campaigning was all the rage in the late 1980s, I remember being at an anti-Apartheid rally at the outdoor theater up in Syracuse that was run by this beautiful blonde girl, Christena (not her real name), a rich, blonde, pampered Single White Female type from Connecticut who proceeded to lecture a largely black, Rastafarian male audience about what it was like to be non-white in South Africa ("Imagine.. row after row of shanty towns."). I don't know if the rows upon rows of Rastafari felt as embarrassed for her as I did, but it was kind of emblematic... of something. And then a band came on after her and the bassist was 100 x better than I was, and my band was next... and I freaked out and ran home to take an 1/8 of mushrooms on the off chance it would make me 'play' music better. It didn't work, and that's why I blame society, and Jason Reitman.
Hey - does anyone remember that movie CQ (2001, above, and top)? Roman Coppola directed it, and man oh man, is it excruciating. And yet, it's so almost good it hurts, kind of like BARBARELLA, a film CQ clearly apes around the edges; and as a director he has all the worst qualities of Roger Vadim. Roman's cousin Jason Schwarzman is hilarious as a faux Jean Rollin, but the protagonist is a horrifically pretentious dullard played by hand-talker Jeremy Davies. Rather than blow our minds with a De Laurentiis-ish sci fi sex epic, Davies wants to make a tedious documentary of his cliche'd ex-pat Paris life, in grainy black and white, so we can all bask in the mundanity of his spoiled film student existence. Jean Eustache should be rolling around in his untimely grave!
|Tout va Bien - (1972)
Then again, America never did have a Guy Debord or Brecht to call its own (unless they fled here to escape the Nazis). Maybe that's why we're so stuck when it comes to unpacking the difference between acrid satire and sour sermonizing. We deny class exists, with the result our art compels us to illuminate our own even while depicting another, like a guilty conscience.
For around a year or so I knew a quintessential Park Slope co-op kind of guy who freaked out if his roommate set the heater above 65 degrees in winter, or used the AC at all in summer, no matter how hot it got. Every day he'd bicycle every day across the Manhattan bridge to school, even in the rain, all the better to lecture everyone who'd listen about greenhouse gasses. He'd drone on about organic food at the Park Slope co-op, the evils of money and the NWO, and then, once a month, he'd go home to his super wealthy upper crust WASP family to get his allowance. Hilarious!
When being a film critic/theorist/ranter, it's important to keep all that in mind, as it illuminates the underpinnings of what I call trust-fund Marxism. Do the trust-fund Marxists care about 'the people' or are they like Sturges' Sullivan, merely idealizing the poor out of repressed guilt (the urge to 'give something back to the poor unwashed to make one's own diamond swimming pool less shame-soaked) or in order to covertly piss off his parents (or parent corporation)? I mean, it's fine to do that, just be aware of the glaring irony. The blue collar guys ain't gonna see yer pitcher. They think your artsy sermons are bullshit. They want to see cartoons.
I recall this quote from Sullivan's butler:
You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches - as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunnedIn short, my rich kid cinema critique isn't mean to champion the working class, or the unemployed, homeless, etc., in fact like Sullivan's butler, I hate them. I hate the characters of directors like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and John Sayles, those critically-lauded filmmakers that try and 'justify' their use of national endowments by patronizing the proletariat with that 'Barton Fink feeling.' Also, just because they can afford to keep meddling producers at bay, ensuring the true stamp of auteur (rather than the committee second-guessing that comes with too many producers), doesn't mean they don't need script doctors. It seems to me that since they didn't 'earn' their budget, they have this need to prove their 'stories' worth telling, and cinema is a hard thing to fool. We fancy-ass expensively-educated critics can deconstruct a blazing hole right through the curtains of any auteur's big wizard style. We'd know you were a rich kid filmmaker even if you signed your name 'R. Mutt' or Alan Smithee. We can tell because you think poor or lower middle class people are noble, humble and saintly, rather than loud, boorish and filthy. This is because you clearly have never had to fly coach. The closest you've come to meeting 'common people' is when your usual drug dealer isn't answering his pager.
As I say, except maybe for the preppie wankery of Whit Stillman, I like films by rich folks to be about rich folks. In general I'd much rather roll with the rich kids in cool parties like the ones in Bertolucci's STEALING BEAUTY than mope around some rich snob's idea of working class Bristol. And besides, to get films finished you need money, and since cinema has a respect for finished films and without a fall-back income source, budding auteurs can get slammed into the dirt by budget issues, even inches from the finish line, having to crawl into bed with litigious distributors who tie up the DVD rights for decades. It happens to Abel Ferrara all the time, which is why half his movies are unavailable in the States... ever!
Not all rich kid auteurs are bad: there's a purity of voice in Wes Anderson, for example, a unity of taste and mood that you can't get in a film that's leveraged to the hilt with a dozen different film company backers; Noah Baumbach brings strong doses of scathingly honest bitchiness and bravely hilarious moral ambivalence to his loosely autobiographical skewerings, the sort that nervous execs would probably never greenlight if they were paying the full bill; Alexander Payne is one of Middle America's true Swiftians, and if he does depict low income protagonists it's clear he'd rather dump them into a sea of embarrassment and watch bemusedly as they drown, rather than romanticize their mundane suburban prefab ennui.
|Darjeeling Limited (2007)
The thing is, ultimately, if an auteur has enough money and is a recognized name, he can easily surround himself with sycophants for whom is every lame idea he expounds is exclaimed as brilliance. The result? THE HAPPENING and THE LADY IN THE WATER (below).
I call attention to this not to blame these aforementioned rich kids for the silver of their spoons, but to point out that these kids might benefit from some time out on the real bread line, ala SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS or the very least, a trip on a public bus. Let John Sayles get conked on the head and do time in the chain gangs, so he can realize that the average 'worker' is a boorish thug; let Reitman be thrown into one of those David Fincher's THE GAME experiences, or a serious iboga trip. Send Roman Coppola to the ayahuasca communities of the rain forest in San Paolo and make him clean the vomit buckets. Most of all, make these punters realize that what they think of as 'normal' is to us as rarefied as a bird with crystal plumage. Would we try and teach them how to party at Ibiza? Or how to ask their parents for money? Then they shouldn't try and teach us how to suffer and yearn for self-expression as they fly around the world in their first class haze, romanticizing the poor like some one-man amateur mendicant society. Then again, people seem to love Jason Reitman... so maybe I'm the rich yob after all. Hmmm? I am, after all, pretty deft at asking my mom for money.