Monday, September 24, 2012

From the Mouth of a Wooden Clown

Tomorrow, Criterion will be releasing Paul Bartel's 1982 satire Eating Raoul and David Fincher's 1997 thriller The Game on DVD and Blu-ray, and it's interesting to note that both films, which are wildly divergent from each other in pretty much every other conceivable way, deal in some way with money, either the not having of it and how that can effect a person, or having a whole mess of it and how that can effect a person. I don't know, maybe there's been something in the news recently that can explain this coincidence. Anyhow, I'd seen both films before, many years ago, and had what I considered pretty ironclad reasons for disliking them: Eating Raoul wasn't funny, and The Game was stupid. But Bartel's film has always had some level of critical/cult acceptance, and while the film seems to have been somewhat forgotten over the years, this Criterion release will, I suppose, either reinvigorate the love some have for this really very modest little comedy, or prove that Eating Raoul did indeed have a very specific sell-by date, one that has long since passed. For myself, I was perfectly happy to give it another look and see what there was to see. As for The Game, as Fincher's place among living, working, and vital American directors has risen, so has the reputation for this movie, which was not exactly embraced in 1997, though it now enjoys a reasonably healthy cult status. Fincher had just come off of Seven, would go on to make Fight Club after, and so obviously, if you love those two films as much as so many people seem to (I don't, but I do like Fincher), The Game simply can't represent as significant a dip as it appeared. It just can't. Some people are doing a pretty good job of making a case for the film, as Mike D'Angelo does in this piece, so, again, bring it on, says I.
And so what am I left with? Well, in the case of Eating Raoul, I can say that the film is not not funny, but it's also mostly not funny. If you get me. Starring Bartel and long-time associate Mary Woronov as a married couple, Paul and Mary Bland (see, they're bland), the film, which was co-written by Bartel and Richard Blackburn (who in 1973 had previously written and directed the strange horror film Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, is the kind of satire that aims to take on every side at once. The Blands are boring, and judgmental towards the swingers that populate their apartment building, and the swingers are mostly stupid, cretinous, selfish animals. The Blands dream is to open up a restaurant, but since neither of them make much money they have to get money by either selling off part of Paul's treasured wine collection, only to have the buyer rip Paul off, or to apply for a bank loan, only to have the bank manager (Buck Henry) turn out to be another swinger who basically tries to rape Mary. Then one night, Paul and Mary find themselves being assaulted by a particularly aggressive swinger, and Paul kills him with a frying pan. Swingers tend to be well off -- otherwise how could they live such carefree lives? -- and this one, the dead one, turns out to be no different. The Blands think nothing of emptying his wallet before disposing of the body. This leads them to the idea of luring swingers to their home with the promise of dominatrix-type swinging, provided by a frequently costumed Woronov, where the customer will be murdered, robbed, and disappeared. This also leads them to Raoul (Robert Beltran), a shady locksmith who wants in on their scheme, and who seduces the repressed Mary.

This kind of satire, the kind that sprays its bullets, is fine by me. It's also interesting to watch the film again and realize that the big joke is not, in fact, the one given away by the title, and that the film is not a riff on the Sweeney Todd story. That's the punchline, but not the joke. The joke, the big joke, the joke that the film more or less hinges on, is how easily the characters kill people. There's never a moral hiccup, there's almost never even a thought about jail. It's the most casual thing -- we won't go to jail because we'll get rid of the body and no one will ever miss this freak. This joke is set up early on in a scene with Paul at his job at a liqour store. A man comes in to rob the place while Paul is being chewed out by his boss, who pulls a gun and shoots the robber, then picks up the conversation where he'd left off. So get whatever you want by whatever means necessary, because it doesn't matter. No one cares about anyone but themselves, after all. The problem with this as a target for satire -- and I almost think this is a problem for satire in general -- is that Bartel and Blackburn make it easy on everybody by depicting all of the victims as scumbags. There's very little sting if everybody is the butt of the joke. Unless the joke is perhaps complex enough to include the possibility that by making the audience as uncaring about the bodies piling up as Paul and Mary, Bartel and Blackburn's point has sort of been made.

But is it funny, though? Sometimes. There aren't a lot of films that can be as filled with rotten jokes as Eating Raoul but can also casually throw out any number of genuinely good ones. My favorite is after Bartel has killed one of Mary's customers, who apparently had some sort of hospital/nurse fetish he was paying Mary to fulfill, he says "The consolation is that if you'd done what he wanted, he would have died anyway." But mostly not. Bartel and Woronov came from the experimental wing of the 1960s counterculture, and that's not a wing I think of as having produced a lot of great comedy. The humor that came from that world tended to be an uneasy mix of the psychedelic and/or surreal, the campy, and the broad -- slapstick on mushrooms, I guess somebody might very well have probably called it once. And it's very much not for me. It's not jokes so much as things that appear to be jokes. I never like novels that feature physical slapstick, because describing slapstick almost never works -- slapstick works if the performer knows how to time a specific kind of recklessness (something like that). Writing a description of a pratfall by definition cuts out the joke. The kind of comedy that dominates Eating Raoul somehow manages to be the cinematic, visual equivalent of that. I realize this doesn't make any sense, but that is the effect. A translation of a translation, perhaps. Anyway.
As for Fincher's film, I'm afraid my opinion of that one is essentially exactly the same as it was in 1997. The Game is essentially a paranoid thriller of the kind they used to make in the 1970s, but with the twist-ending hook that really started to take hold of, and strangle, American genre movies in the 90s. Admittedly, the difference between The Game's twist and that of, say, Identity, is that while the later film was transparently reverse-engineered to have a twist ("Here's my story idea, how do we tangle it up so that the idea itself becomes a shocking surprise?"), the Fincher film, which was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, with an uncredited pass or two by Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, has its twist built in -- it cannot end any way other than the way it does. There is no other way to tell this story, that I can see anyway. The problem is that as an idea it's fundamentally flawed, in that the filmmakers are asking the audience to buy into a relentless form of weird intrigue that they know means precisely jack shit, in the hopes that the audience will be willing and able to drop it all in favor of a large sack of Big Themes, which will be nervously and sweatily handed to them with about twenty minutes left in the film.

But it's pretty good for about forty minutes, minus the Daniel Schorr cameo. In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an enormously wealthy man who also seems like he might be kind of a snooty dickwad. Not an outright villain, but a man who lives in a world very far removed from the one most of us live in, and he knows it, and he prefers it that way. Or maybe he only thinks he does, because his life as depicted in the early goings of The Game seems pretty dull and unhappy, even antiseptic. Outside of his professional life, which even though it’s showing some cracks doesn’t appear to be the kind of pumped up beehive that might conceivably cause a person to become addicted to it, Van Orton’s only close personal relationship is with his housekeeper (hey it’s Carroll Baker), and even that one could stand a defrosting or two. So one day, on Nicholas’s birthday in fact, he gets a call from his free-wheeling, former fuck-up of a brother Conrad (Sean Penn), the two meet for lunch, and Conrad gives him a gift. It’s a gift certificate to a company called Consumer Recreation Services, and the gist of the services they provide is that they turn their customer’s life into a thrilling game. Only it’s supposedly more than that, because Conrad, and later two men at Nicholas’s club who he overhears discussing CSR, claim it’s not just fun, but rather a wonderful, life-changing experience. So despite himself, Nicholas goes to the local CSR offices, is led through the registration process by a jokey, confident salesman (very ably played by James Rebhorn), and then, gradually at first but then with increasing intensity, the game kicks off. And it’s an all-consuming game – every facet of Nicholas’s life is involved, and the CSR people seem to be everywhere, and able to do anything, from changing the lock on his briefcase to delivering messages to him through the national news on TV. Nicholas goes from being uneasily intrigued, to just uneasy, to terrified, as he comes to believe, and with good reason, that CSR is not trying to change his life, but to ruin it.

As I say, it’s pretty good for the first forty minutes. Fincher and Co. use some tried and true creepy imagery, such as a large clown doll, to draw everybody into it, and the persistent question “What the hell is going on here?” gives the film its engine. But a host of problems are introduced with the character played by Deborah Kara Unger, none of which have anything to do with Deborah Kara Unger herself. First of all, because Hollywood – and I don’t know if you know this – has a tendency to pick up on things that worked in other movies and cram them into other movies that might not really be built for them, her character (a waitress named Christine who seems involved with the CSR shenanigans in some way but also doesn’t seem to realize it) and Douglas’s become hitched together on his journey to figure all this out, and because their initial meeting wasn’t exactly amiable, but they do feel attracted to each other, etc. You know the routine. It’s around this time that the film starts adding jokes, and though The Game never really threatens to shed its ominous mood and become Romancing the Stone, the idea does seem to have crossed somebody’s mind, and Fincher put in just enough to satisfy that person and mildly wound his film. Not that I actually know if that’s what happened, but it sure feels like it. Besides that, while Christine is a vital plot component, she’s nothing else. The ending tries to make her something else, but no one seems to have realized that the chemistry between Unger and Douglas never took, possibly because on film both performers give off a certain iciness. So it’s hard to care if these two snappy, unemotional people ever make it work in this crazy world. This isn’t even my main gripe, but it’s a symptom. The film unwinds its tension not at the end, but towards the middle, by focusing on things far less interesting than what it’s leaving behind. Knowing how the film ended, and not liking how it ended, I was surprised to realize that if I was watching The Game for the first time, after a while I would have been no more interested in what the film was pretending to be than what it actually turned out to be. When the stakes are raised, and CSR’s tactics become more aggressive, this leads (inevitably? To some, maybe, but it shouldn’t be) to shots of CSR vans, and CSR agents, I guess, piling out with machine guns to spray bullets up at the apartment where they know Nicholas is hiding. This is uninteresting and boring. Cliché thought it may be, the wooden clown that kicks this whole thing off is miles more intriguing than the knowledge that these CSR guys are (but actually aren’t) corporate thugs, or the mob hiding behind a corporate guise, or whatever those uniforms and guns and surveillance vans signify. So at least the ending brings something I hadn’t seen before into the mix, even if it’s something kind of slim. And stupid, but mainly stupid in retrospect. I’d incorrectly remembered the upshot of all this was an attempt to make Nicholas a nicer person, when in fact that’s just one of the presumed side effects. It just now occurs to me that The Game is sort of like A Christmas Carol in this way, and I wonder if that connection occurred to anyone making the film. Regardless, it’s worth thinking about in that way, as it might make some of the stupidness go down easier, but I imagine not much easier. The ending of the film invites all sorts of questions that begin with “But how could they have known…” Mine is “But how could they have known he’d go to the roof?” This isn’t the sort of question I find myself asking of too many films (I’m not very inquisitive, perhaps) but when you create a – and I use this word for the sake of simplicity – villain that can seemingly do anything, and then part of your big reveal is how, in its way, pedestrian the whole thing is, the audience is going to wonder how they manage to seemingly do anything. And plus, what the hell is this shit anyway? A massive, boundlessly wealthy corporation bent to one task: making other boundlessly wealthy people learn a little humility? This is the problem with twists – the complaint often is not, or shouldn’t be, “That would never happen” but rather “I don’t believe what you’ve just told me.” By structuring the film as a twisty thriller, Fincher and the screenwriters end up with something that’s nonsensical. If they’d wanted to explore their idea more directly, this maybe wouldn’t be an issue. It would almost certainly have been a different movie, obviously, but what’s the core idea of The Game that made people want to make it, and how is that idea best served?

But it’s well-made, as you’d expect from Fincher. I’ve become a fan of the guy, the turning point being Zodiac, one of my favorite films, but no amount of Zodiacs or Social Networks or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoos (underrated, in my view) can change my mind about the first half of his career, which to me remains slick, professional, stylish, self-important, and kind of goofy. Another person I’ve had a change of heart about since 1997 is Michael Douglas, who I used to dislike. However, a lightbulb switched on when I was reading William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, where he quite logically lays out that the only problem with Douglas is that he’s often miscast. Douglas projects a few very specific things, having to do with race, wealth, and class. Within those few things, there’s a lot of variety and room to move about, but it’s hard to take those qualities and plunk them down in a movie like The Ghost and the Darkness (the film that got Goldman on this topic). The Game, though, is squarely in Douglas’s wheelhouse, and it provides him a good role, which he nails. It’s the movie that lets him down.

1 comment:

Patricia Perry said...

I wonder if your response to EATING RAOUL might be a case of the film not holding up well over the years. I saw it exactly once - in a theatre in 1982 - and thought it was subversive and funny and that's its low-budget production values were part of its charm.

But there wasn't much of an indie film scene yet in 1982 and both the film's scruffiness and its particular kind of black comedy have become commonplace since. I do think your point about the cheap and easy nature of the satire (swingers= all bad, Mary and Paul= good)is well taken though.