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

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Rutting Season: Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones

The new DVD set of Boardwalk Empire provides a chance for the HBO-less (like me) to finally see if Steve Buscemi can really pull off being a mob kingpin mayor (PS - he can't). Didn't anyone try and direct him? He looks and acts like a hermit crab bewildered at the loss of his shell. The real Nucky was presumably tough. Look at his shark eye stare in pic below left. There's only one or two actors in the whole series who seem genuinely menacing, who could ever convincingly threaten (naturally they're the unknowns): Stephen Graham, a terrifying but adorable Al Capone; Vincent Piazza, a poison breeze as Lucky Luciano; Michael Stuhlbarg, growing larger with every inhale as Arnold Rothstein ("ever since Rothstein 'cough' fixed the world series...'cough'")

the 'real' Nucky
 But the 'main' protagonists are a bore. Somewhere one of the show's creators felt there needed to be some moral lip service, so Nucky helps poor widows and attends temperance meetings; dirty rat layabout Michael Pitt occasionally goes home to make idle promises to his wife and kids; obsessive fed Michael Shannon's bug-eyed mask of a face clamps down in self-righteous lock around his war on booze assignment; self-appointed narc Kelly Macdonald (the Irish widow / temperance league member / all-around 'saint') flinches at every loud noise (she could use a freaking drink) and sleeps angelically with her two children instead of carnally with her lout husband, in such a icky faux-Fordian blarney way as we're forced to wonder what seedy motive is behind it all: is it male jealousy over the perfect bond between infant and mother or is she sanctifying herself in religiously sentimental poses to put the husband off his night's rutting?

And then, on the other side, the premature baby Buscemi, underloved, raised in an incubator, seeing in Macdonald a kind of moral mother he never had. So while Goodfellas was about brotherhood and Godfather was about becoming a true dark lord,  Boardwalk Empire is about gettin' boozed up in the whorehouse then feeling bad about it when mom drags you to church the next day. And that's all. 

Ah Margaret, and of course her husband beats her, for all saintly mothers are beaten by their drunk Irish laborer husbands in these sagas--so that Nucky can be saintly by thrashing him (via remote control) near to death-- and a whore gets cut up because Michael Pitt is sleeping with her (so his cocky idiocy is paid for by women, as usual) and we're forced to behold concave Buscemi wheezing his way through doggy-style sex with La Huerta. There are endless elaborate adult-themed strip shows in old theaters with far too little cigar smoke and talk of whores even when whores are not present.

This is the kind of show HBO specializes in, delivering sudden tableaux of rough sex and domestic violence in attractive period settings, all but daring us not to wince in embarrassment as women are all either naked floppy-breasted whores or floppy hat-wearing saints. Sure maybe that's how it was, in the post-code movies anyway, but these people's lives have lots of incidents they can pick from--why not go the Mad Men season one route and really get into the nuts and bolts of the business side of bootlegging? There is some of that, but when you unwind the fancy ribbons, the non-sex incidents have no purpose other than to build up to brutal misogynist violence or more mutually demeaning rear guard rutting (which amounts to the same thing). An equal opportunity offender, if we meet a black bootlegger and see his operation, we can be sure it's only so he can be killed or tortured, his whiskey still burned down, in the next scene, in racially-motivated violence, why else? Anything more complex would be too complicated.... But more complicated for whom, HBO? 'Adults?'

And of course, Marty Scorsese directs the first episode like he's still trying to capture that old Goodfella's momentum, but as usual of late he's mired in sumptuous period detail (what happens when you let your art director and cinematographer have too much input) and his insecure streak manifests in not one but TWO suspense-deadening multiple violent scene crosscut climaxes, the sort that were new and weird in the first two Godfather films, but have grown awfully trite since then. Even if Scorsese scores these murders and gunfights to a vaudeville comedy routine replete with drum rolls or a tacky 20s novelty song instead of 60s rock it's still old and overdone and doesn't work, just like it hasn't worked even for Coppola since Cotton Club.

Now, I only watched five episodes so far, but how much is enough?  I stopped because I hated freaking Margaret Schroder's smug decision to rat out the St. Patrick's green beer keg stash to the feds in E5. I subscribe to the Over the Edge credo that a kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid, and so she should have been the one who should have got cut up, not that sweet-ass ho. And then there's the Buscemi aspect to kill it cold. He can be mildly impressive, but when he has to deliver lines like "I could have you killed!" he sounds like even he doesn't believe it, like he just learned of this ability that morning in the newspaper, or found out he has an STD from someone other than a qualified physician.

In other HBO News, confirming my dark fears, Game of Thrones is just like Boardwalk Empire and Rome before it, existing in the murky realm where all the violent sexual ravishings that have occurred off-camera in every costume period movie made prior to 1970 finally explode from under their shaggy peat moss burial kilts and into their rutting medium shots. The go-to position in all these HBO series is doggy style, for maximum doggy-style shock-erotic value. On this dark channel, the strong survive and the strong don't woo, they bend their bride over and let fly while all their friends are still drooling in the corners like the no-good brothers in Ride the High Country drooling over Marriette Hartley). God knows how these women ever managed to become lubricated. And as Leonard Maltin notes of Watchmen: "deliberately extreme violence and sexuality seems pointless in this stylized but overly long comic book saga." That could surely apply to every show HBO ever made.

I know, I know: the missionary position is not friendly to the voyeur as the sexual displays occur sandwiched between two wall-like backs but the doggy style is very public and bawdy, and very much about power and submission: the man triumphantly ruts away from a kneeling position, both hands free so he can wave to the cheering throngs or sign important documents using her back as a writing surface; the woman, facing forward, all but paraded in chains down the streets of Rome, head bowed in submission, the way sleazy HBO and misogynistic jack-o-napes like Scorsese and George R. Martin like it.

Plus, the HBO modus operandi for delivering these sex scenes is the genuinely ingenious use of 'uncanny Oedipal shock'. Instead of the long, tedious build-up to softcore action set to smooth, slow soulful muzak like we used to get in late night Cinemax, these HBO sex scenes start in the middle, from jarring angles or in the background of a shot, so it takes a second or two for our objectifying voyeur defenses to activate. The effect is jarring, like accidentally walking in on your parents, or accidentally opening the door on a massive coke-fueled orgy while trying to find your coat to leave a party, or being suddenly sexually groped on a bus stop or book store, where it takes a few seconds to realize even what just happened and for the shame and fury to come roaring up, by which time the perv is long gone.

I don't mean to sound too militant feminist, but this raunchy HBO sudden shock sex stuff poses a problem for me because it is so well acted, so artfully and so skillfully rendered.  What on the page is a lewd fantasy imagined in a bored virgin mind becomes a traumatizing 'adult' reality. It's not 'real' in a novel. The Thrones, like the violations in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo probably come off much less traumatic and degrading in the privacy of the printed page. The French know these things and as Acidemic's French correspondent Severine Benzimra writes:
Sexual scenes aren't supposed to, on this side of the ocean, attract the audience. They represent a part of the life of the character that it is necessary to represent. They aren't meant to excite. Sexual excitation is linked to imagination, which can't be provided by all-audience movies (meaning not the audience of pornographic/erotic movies). This is an idea on which French people wildly discuss and disagree. Most French people would tell you that the image neutralizes the imagination in this field and suggest you to read, or ask someone to read you erotic littérature.
I feel these kind of things should always be poorly acted, or narrated in an affectless tone by one woman to another in the privacy of a Fårö boudoir. Writ in vivid Blu-ray they are simultaneously indulgent and a reprisal against indulgence. They are where the consumerism's frenzied promise of bling and commodified sex and indentured bitches sippin' Cristal go, not to die, but to see the ugly traumatic exterior of such an ugly, antiquated macho fantasy.

This is why a good moral center is so essential for sports teams. We only have to look at the whole Joe Paterno situation to see how the hierarchy of a team mentality can obliterate the feeling of responsibility to the larger society... that's why I'm glad Eli Manning is such a good boy! He-a-writes-a home-a to-a his-momma!

 Some things are better as dreams --this we know, we decadent shaggy artists. We know because we tried it all, and even when it led us nowhere but depression and despair we kept doing it, til the wheels fell off. And then, finally, we realized art was the only thing that didn't hurt someone else and leave us feeling skeevy at the end of the day, despite our libertine credo, our believing it's only social conditioning that made us feel cheap. Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire (and even Mad Men) point to a deep-set oral fixation in our country... we're looking back into past for our lost sexual freedoms, because we sure can't find them in the world of today... 

Now if a girl likes these sex/rape scenes that's fine, let them be turned on. They're allowed to. But I scoff at the argument that it's not sexist since later the girl gets even or rapes back or learns to control her lusty mate to win a kingdom. And we who haven't read the Throne books or seen more than one episode have a right to our shocked response. I liked this response from Carla DiOrio James on Think Progress:
Rather, holding the subject in a deeply personal space, I worry what good these images can do in the collective subconscious of American males. Since the spike in sexually violent images of our Hollywood culture in the 1980's, date rape has spiked accordingly. This spike has not been proven as dramatically in any other country as it has in the US, where male sexuality has become increasingly linked to hyper-violent images.
On the printed page, or in some crappy Jess Franco movie, rape and sadistic torture can be titillating mainly because they are fake-looking or confined to our imagination. In a 70s sex-horror movie, the whip bounces harmlessly off a girl's back leaving a slight trace of pinkish food coloring. The scenes scan as liberating, even paradoxically joyous, because the trauma isn't 'real', and therefore a sense of play coheres - pain and death burlesqued. As the great Joseph A. Ziemba of Bleeding Skull wrote in his review of The Possessed: "Blood and mean-spirited torment become instantly hilarious when the torturer can’t keep his wig on."  But etched so vivid by the expert and well-funded HBO craftsmen and acted by solid professionals giving it their all, the rough trade rutting and demeaning sexual servitude of Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones are just sad signs that HBO has finally exhausted the stash of sleazy taboos it looted from its now destitute grindhouse neighbors, and it still / hasn't found / what it's looking for. God knows what it will overdo next. What else is even left, outside of being real, real gentle?


  1. "He looks and acts like a hermit crab bewildered at the loss of his shell"

    Someone bought me the first season of Boardwalk Empire on DVD for Christmas. I had never even heard of it before that.

    Your description of Buscemi is so accurate as to be mind-blowing. Every time I see the show from here on out, I'm going to have to fight this image. It is so accurate that it is tough to believe it's not what he is consciously going for...

  2. tdraicer writes:

    Haven't watched Boardwalk Empire, but as for your comments on Game of Thrones, they are so off base I can't even see them as a case of missing the forest for the trees, but rather a case of missing the Amazon rainforest for a leaf. Putting aside the odd notion that the wedding night of Dany and Khal Drogo should be less traumatic, the arc of her character starts there, it doesn't end there, and in many ways she becomes the strong center of the show by season's end.

  3. Thanks Katy! And thanks tdraicer, but I think you miss understood my point... I did mention I've only seen the first episode, and I have no ethical argument against raunchy sex and violence...

    HOWEVER, I do think there's a big gap in personal reaction between reading this stuff in fantasy fiction and seeing it enacted by good actors in vivid HBO production design, where it becomes like watching someone else's ugly fantasy rather than imagining our own. My argument is less ethical/moral/political and more psychoanalytic and tied in with Freud's Oedipus complex and how it relates to early childhood 'spanking' fantasies and how being too literal in translation of these can overwhelm and traumatize sensitive guilt-wracked liberal arts majors like myself. However, I'm glad you told me Dany gets her groove on as it encourages me to watch some more episodes. My hands are clammy just thinking about it.

  4. "liberal arts major" oh dear, explains a lot


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...