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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The love every parent fears: YOUTH IN REVOLT (2009), ENDLESS LOVE (1980)

Being blown away by SCOTT PILGRIM I had to check out YOUTH IN REVOLT which promised to fully answer the question: can Michael Cera play anything other than his squirmy ectomorphic sexually-frustrated pansexual 'self'? PILGRIM seemed to indicate yes, but REVOLT answers uh... non.

Cera's essentially playing a dual character: his Nick Twisp (the usual shy Cera) and his 'dangerous' alterego--Francois Dillinger--who is clearly borne of obsessive desire for a sweet neighbor girl whose sexual boldness blows the normal Twisp clear into oblivion. Wearing a pencil-thin mustache with white slacks and an ever-present cigarette (does he ever inhale?), Francois is Cera's chance to cowboy up but he's still talking barely above a whisper. Dillinger never really materializes as a separate 'ballsy' character, just basically a pyromaniac with a dirty mouth and extra confidence, and proves, PILGRIM aside, Cera is still the Stu Erwin of his generation, the Eddie Bracken with less small-town corn and more art film savvy.

Why Cera? The Cera-phenom didn't start with JUNO or SUPERBAD --it began with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but in that series he was a confused hormonal kid trying get out from under the avalanche of contradictory instruction from his micro-managing father. JUNO and SUPERBAD made it A-OK for Cera's brand of high-voiced stream of consciousness to enter the realm of the horny nerd, and emboldened the horny nerd in the process to have interests beyond peering at dirty magazines. Now in between all the dick jokes  they can discuss Welles, Bresson, Fellini, Argento, Wood -- they even know that Ozu directed TOKYO STORY, not Mizoguchi. Tres intellique!

While REVOLT's pranks are less dorky and more property-damaging than the typical virginity-losing teen sex comedy's, touching that vein of troubled boarding school loss as it does, the film's source template emerges (as TAXI DRIVER was the template for Jody Hill's underappreciated OBSERVE AND REPORT) as nothing other than Bertolucci's ENDLESS LOVE (1981), a drama of tortured love and torched property. It was similarly about a lovestruck arsonist-pursuing his forbidden underage rich debutante, in his case the world's obsession of the moment, Brooke Shields.

In the late 1970s, Shields launched the popularity of skin-tight 'designer' jeans with a campaign for Calvin Klein ("Nothing comes between me and my Calivns").  And she was 14, which is hard to believe in this day and age when Hannah Montana can be blasted to hell for showing her shoulder on a magazine cover. Shields won even more moral outrage playing a child prostitute in PRETTY BABY (1978, age 13) and going topless at age 15 in THE BLUE LAGOON (she had to testify a body double was used due to child pornography accusations), then in ENDLESS LOVE at 16, playing a sexually budding debutante in Franco Zeffirelli's worst film and biggest box office success.

I never really understood Shields' flash of appeal, being just 14 myself and more into older women like Cheryl Tiegs, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, and Farrah Fawcett, but I remember the film's avalanche of hype: sexual movie posters and commercials and playground word-of-mouth, and so-- apparently--does REVOLT's director Miguel Arteta (THE GOOD GIRL, CHUCK AND BUCK) who was Brooke's age when ENDLESS LOVE came out and thus wouldn't have been allowed to see it without legal guardian. Bad as Zeffirelli's film may be, at least it has the courage of its sickly softcore convictions. As much about Shields' nymphet stardom as Zeffirelli's desire to recreate the box office success of his 1968 counterculture-approved ROMEO AND JULIET, it was what it wasn't. Something talked about endlessly so seen to be part of the conversation. Straddling the difference between the new wave heralding outlaw romance  BREATHLESS's insouciance, the indie quirk-studded suburban character ensemble comedies of the era, and ENDLESS LOVE's Franco Zeffirelli mania (there's some good scenes with Justin Long as a Zen-shroomer older brother), YOUTH IN REVOLT ends up being drawn and quartered in its saddle.

No offense to true romance, but as I've said before, John Cusak standing outside your window in the dead of night blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox over his head is called stalking. Every time a girl says that scene (from SAY ANYTHING) is romantic, another girl pays the price as some obsessive maniac takes her rejection as a challenge to keep pursuing, burning down buildings, lacing drinks, blinding horses, breaking into dorms, killing rivals, and even taking telescopic pictures while listening to that "la-la-la-la" Ennio Morricone soundtrack (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo).  Stand skeeved by their methodology if you're me, but "In Your Eyes" has become the song every parent fears. And then of course there's the rich history of society helping abused women get clear of their abuser men, only to watch in horror as the women wind up going back to them anyway.

Stop encouraging him
In movies, at least, the stalker attitude is a sign of a romantic ideal where a million true loves await your ceaseless internet trawling, and you can't quite pick one, so you go for the one you can't have. Better to have stalked and lost than won and so become forever barred from the comforting safety of her neighbor's bushes.

REVOLT's reptilian adhesion to formality and mammalian desire for characters and change is akin to yesterday's Roger Corman films, studded with interesting characters but robbed of Corman's streak of true, genuine revolution. Random violence in the service of love is not true love, but obsession. Roger knows that. Arrereta doesn't. It's like that itch on your back and your lover scratches it and it feels good for less than a fraction of a second before the itch moves on. It was never about the itch; the itch was where your incompleteness. The itch was meant to keep you scratching, shopping, drinking, hungering, writing lots of tortured poetry and sighing over LA BOUT DE SOUFFLE, CRAZY LOVE, TRUE ROMANCE, and the song: "My.... endless... love."

The girl of REVOLT, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) understands this and 'creates' the drama version of the 'angry bed' to test her wannabe Lancelot, but she's never deluded into believing the tests are anything more than mere amusement. The tragedy is that in the end the film itself believes the delusions created by her need for drama--as evinced in the final thought of our unreliable narrator: "After all that, Nick Twisp was enough." One is tempted to shout back at the screen: "No, he wasn't!" Neither character is even 'present' --how can any girl be expected to love a vertical plane of self-conscious neediness and ectomorphic myopia so deluded into thinking it's a 'person'?

And the same goes for Cera's Francois Dillinger, who turns out to be little more than a gimmick, though Cera's dirty talk and French accent has its moments, such as "I want to wrap your legs around my head and wear you like the crown that you are." Nice work. There is after all a difference between the well-laid bluntness of Serge Gainsbourg and the bitter smuttiness of the perennial virgin. For all the bravado, Francois can only skim the edges of the former.

The oxymoronic impression YOUTH gives off, of 'trying' to be effortless, manifests right off the bat in the dopey claymation credits sequence, which seems to beg the audience to see this as JUNO II.  But at least Diablo Cody had the courage to get out there and do the things she writes about, to get the grody details right. Here, aside from a later shroom-lucination or two, the animation is too sophomoric and obvious, too on-the-nose. Effort could have been put into subtle changes like making the walls breathe, ala THE BLACK SWAN, but the YOUTH's too busy making dumb sex comedy jokes.  It's why all the best artists are fearless self-examiners, exorcising their demons in public, screaming and howling and trashing hotel rooms, all to keep the crap of self-delusion and obsessive denial of death from fogging up their windshield and making it impossible to see their road from any kind of genuinely artistic vantage point.  If you look at two other 'portrait of an evil doppelganger as a young artist' films, THE BLACK SWAN and FIGHT CLUB, the pedestrian safehood of REVOLT--even with shrooms and arson--becomes a timid, sad second, the kid who rather than jumped off the cliff into the lake with everyone else, stayed up there, alone, and has been making films rationalizing his cowardice as macho road-not-taken chutzpah ever since.

Twisp's epiphany that it was "him" all along misses the whole point: magic bullet clinginess is not true love. Doing crazy things for love is fine if you bear in mind that love earned that way isn't going to last more than a night. Concentrate and you can feel an undying soul connection to anything -- a cat or a teddy bear even-- and then it's *Poof!* c'est finis. The moment ends, your attention focuses back on the TV, the cat skulks off into the other room, Cera gets out of jail and finds none of the expected sparks and crashing trains when he finally shacks up uncontested with Sheeni. Rather than realize the error of his unrealistic expectations, Twisp will undoubtedly suspect Sheeni's sleeping with someone else and that's why he's not "happily ever after." If there was one lesson he could have gleaned from reading Cahiers du Cinema or listening to Serge, that was it. Twisp gleaned it not! Coupez spot publicitaire!

The guys in the above video exemplify here that you can be scrawny and white and nebbishy and still kick every ass in the room. Francois, if you're going to wear mirror shades and a so-silly mustache, take a lesson from "The Chief!"


  1. I havent seen Endless Love in years, wouldnt mind checking it out one of these days. Youth in Revolt also brought to mind Fight Club, with the alternate ego supplying the main characters "darker side", though in Youth in Revolt you feel like Cera needed to revolt a little more then he did in my opinion anyways.

  2. When I saw Endless Love the only thing I liked was Shields brother. I thought he might turn into a really good actor if he got more roles. My judgement was good because her brother was played by James Spader in his first major role.


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