Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Sullivan's Jet Travels: Rich Kid Cinema

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!

I'm not prejudiced against rich kids, they're some of my best friends! But if they've never been slumming for a substantially Sullivan-ish length of time, or bummed around Europe for a summer, or whatever, it becomes pretty obvious when they go to make a film about 'real life' that they've no idea what it is!

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.

Anecdote Time:

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)
The main offender in all this--to my mind the classic example--is Godard, who comes from a silver spoon Swiss family, a source of income he's returned to throughout his career when he needs 'help' to finish a film (one presumes). Meanwhile, what are his films about? The evils of capitalism!  I love, love, love Godard, don't get me wrong. And he's brilliant enough that he didn't let his 70s Maoist phase derail his deadpan absurd comic genius. BUT - I do question the motivations behind his attacks on consumerism, especially as film costs money, honey. Is his Commie phase a kind of French filmmaker equivalent to a rich girl bringing home a black guy over break to freak out her parents, so that they wont complain when she later brings home a deadbeat white kid musician the way my drummer's girlfriend once did? Or is he like Charles Foster Kane answering Thatcher's question about what he would have liked to have been ("Everything you hate")? Has a member of the proletariat ever watched a Godard film all the way to the end, even if they appeared in it?

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.

Another anecdote:
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 shunned
In 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)
But then there's M. Night Shyamalan, whose parents funded his early films, like TO SLEEP WITH ANGER. Now that he's surely lost most of his SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS money with his string of bombs I wonder if they're helping him again, because he's still churning out the shit. Alas, Hollywood is very forgiving once an auteur's name reaches the collective consciousness. You can recoil from Shyamalan's AmEx commercial which posits him as the hippest purveyor of trick ending spookiness since Rod Serling, or you can just guffaw at his amok ego. One thing you can't doubt: the man has no real life experience to bring to his films, just the right 'twist' - one inevitably cobbled from other earlier sources.

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.

CQ (2001)
Soooo let me backtrack: as long as your pampered innocence doesn't result in the kind of black and white self-indulgent wankery that Jeremy Davies makes in CQ, who am I to judge? As the great Woody Guthrie once sang, "It takes a worried man / to sing a worried song." And sometimes even then, who wants to hear it? Not the worried man, that's certain. You know what I want to hear? Kathryn Bigelow singing about bomb disposal in Iraq; Darren Aronofsky singing about the madness of the one performance that truly makes it; PT Anderson singing about the dawn of big oil. Sing, in short, of subject matter and stories that fascinate and impel you.. not what you think you 'owe' to the little people your grandfather swindled so you could have a $25K a month trust fund. Being true to yourself doesn't mean filming a mirror, Roman! Such surfaces--for all their shiny luster--doth distort, warp, and drown all meaning in a sea of empty gestures.

Somewhere (2010)


  1. Of course this is brilliant. Why wouldn't it be?

    But really, now many great directors started from little can you count on two hands? You pretty much outline that, though.

    Right. Well done.

  2. Minor correction: Jason Reitman is the director of JUNO and UP IN THE AIR, not his father Ivan. From all accounts pere Ivan spent a lot of time scrapping to make his first few films, so he wouldn't count as rich kid cinema. His son Jason, on the other hand, well...son of popular director, same amount of entree value and curious goodwill that allowed Sofia Coppola entrance to the directing realm: that's applicable.

    1. Jason,
      didn't scrap. he "slummed" by making a boatload of commercials to cut his teeth. BTW do you know that commercial directors make upwards of 20K/ day? So while cuttting his teeth, he was able to 'Earn" a very nice living. Most filmmkers can't mak 20K a year and have to give it up to feed themselves and family.

  3. Go tell it on the mountain, brother!

    Two bits of this article almost had me standing up and applauding (unfortunately I'm reading it on the QT at work so I have to keep my demonic glee in check):

    1) Jeremy Davies as a "hand talker". Oh, man, you have singularly defined this actor!

    2) Hatred of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Me and you both. I'm from a working class background (granddad: miner; dad: truck driver) and I just don't recognise the characters in their work, no matter how much the Guardian-reading liberal middle classes bang on about Leigh and Loach as the voice of the working class. My arse! 'The Full Monty' is a more accurate and perceptive depiction of working class attitudes, colloquy and cameraderie - 'The Full Monty' for God's sake!!!

  4. God bless you, Simon! I can't count a single director who didn't come from the Hollywood system of the 1920s-30s, that is...

    Thanks for catching that, Marc! Jason, of course. Ivan's actually pretty good. Ghostbusters! Stripes! I'm going to change that right now.. but keep your comment.

    And Neil, damn right! But though I don't know much about the Guardian, they seem witty enough to be forgiven for middle-class pandering. Not that that's any excuse. hell, I didn't even like TOPSY TURVY. What was the fuss all about? Broadbent in whiteface? Deliver! Thanks for your post


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