Affliction: Paul Schrader and the violence we inherit

Paul Schrader, the man who’s been fighting the Hollywood system ever since he got his hands on a pen and paper and wrote Taxi Driver to chronicle his own experience as a depressed and lonely cab driver, is now entering a new phase in his life following the success of 2017’s First Reformed and the growing popularity of his latest project, The Card Counter. I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on what I consider Schrader’s best and perhaps most personal piece of work despite it being based on someone else’s material. His Oscar nominated film, Affliction (originally a novel by Russell Banks) is one of the most powerful portrayals of family-inflicted violence and trauma and another atypical addition to Schrader’s long catalogue of ‘God’s-lonely-man’ characters.

Paul Schrader (left) on set of Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro.

The story of Wade Whitehouse and his inevitable downfall is, although perhaps not clear at first sight, another example of Schrader’s fascination with the theme of alienation. Despite the story being set in a small New Hampshire town and revolving around a tight knit community of church-going people, Affliction deals with the kind of alienation and feverish anxiety that the characters of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and John LeTour (Light Sleeper) experience in the metropolis that is New York City or Julian Kay (American Gigolo) in Los Angeles.
In this case, Wade Whitehouse (played by an exceptional Nick Nolte) is also a man haunted by a tragic past, a man who’s been trained to cover it up, smile and nod as the good people of Lawford file out of church service. He’s the local cop, the local crossing guard, the local handy-man, etc: in short, everybody knows who Wade Whitehouse is. His father, Glen Whitehouse (a fantastic late career turn from James Coburn who won an Academy Award for his performance), was and still is the town drunk and a mean son of a bitch. Wade, unlike his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) who escaped the family’s grip and set up a new life in Boston, is chained to Lawford and to his own family blood.

Wade (Nick Nolte), Glen (James Coburn) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse.

Schrader’s trick in making this by-the-numbers set-up of a man slowly yet surely walking toward his own destruction works because he knows what he’s talking about. Having grown up in a small Calvinist community in Michigan with an up-bringing strictly focused on religious principles and family-oriented education, Schrader is able to transmit the claustrophobic feeling that our protagonist has been experiencing since the day he was born. Surrounded by town drunks and abusive fathers, Schrader conveys the seemingly simple surface-level manifestations of PTSD as Wade begins to crack with each passing minute.
In essence, Wade is a good man. That’s the whole tragedy of the film. He’s a good man who wants to make things work. He wants to make his daughter happy although he hasn’t the faintest idea about parenting. He wants to make the city a safe place and be loyal to the citizens of Lawford even though people around him treat him like dirt. Less than dirt. He wants to have a normal love life, but he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. He wants to rid himself of his tyrant of a father, but something deep down tells him to be there for him, no matter what.

The natural state of being of Glen Whitehouse – the boozing, abusive father figure.

Whereas Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was an unstable sociopath wanting to cleanse the earth of sinners, Wade is intent on beating himself up over someone else’s errors. Schrader, however, blurs the lines between the two characters by boxing in Wade Whitehouse into a society of close-minded people. Even in a small town like Lawford there is corruption, greed, murder and abuse. Townspeople are at each other’s throats, keeping receipts over who owes what to whom, and whose father did what and when. And Wade is no exception. He cannot seem to shake off the generational abuse and addiction that was strapped on his back when he was little kid. Early on in the film, Wade goes into a bar for a beer and has to listen to some young punk telling someone a story he overheard about Wade’s father drunkenly abusing his two sons. Wade’s suffering is common knowledge in Lawford.
And although Paul Schrader as a director has never been known for his eye for detail, Affliction is a film that feels lived-in. It feels like it was forged and chiseled in the snowbanks and pine barrens of New Hampshire. Even a secondary character like Margie Frogg (played by Sissy Spacek), Wade’s love interest and the only person whom he is not afraid of letting into his life, exists on her own, rather than serving the sole purpose of comforting Wade when he needs a good word or two. Her reality is separated from Wade’s, as the film follows everything through Wade’s hazy point of view merging past memories with present events, seeing things that might as well not be there for anybody else to see besides Wade.

Margie is the only good thing in Wade’s life.

Throughout the entire film, Wade is haunted by a painful toothache. Nolte’s performance is tapped into this constant, dull pain that does not let up, slowly building over the course of the film. His smile turns into a grimace. He walks hunched over, broken physically as well as spiritually. For a big guy (and Nick Nolte is one hell of a big guy), Wade sports a rather timid figure. The only thing that sets him apart in a crowd of people is the ticking time bomb inside of him. The slide into darkness is inevitable as he begins to take care of his dad following his mother’s sudden passing.
Given that the film opens with Wade’s brother narrating the following passage – “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behaviour and disappearance. We who loved him no longer speak of Wade. It’s as if he never existed,” – we know that what we’re about to witness is something of incredibly mournful nature. It’s as if we’re plunged into a world that is no longer there. As if someone dropped us right into a faded postcard. In a way, we feel powerless. Wade’s destiny is sealed. We know how it ends, and yet Schrader wants us to consider how generational abuse and violence take their toll on somebody who could have had potential, could have been well liked and respected. Could have been. But wasn’t. And what’s worse is that Glen Whitehouse doesn’t see any of this. Wade’s booze-soaked father doesn’t have interest in Wade’s pain. The only interest he has is in using that pain to his own advantage and turning his son away from the few people that care about him. In a town like Lawford that’s the end for anybody.

Wade’s defeat is everybody’s defeat.


The Devil All the Time: Confronting Evil the Wrong Way

With all the unspeakable tragedies and acts of evil currently stirring our world, it seems a movie like The Devil All the Time was inevitable. Movies, and particularly Netflix-produced ones that can reach a broader audience, are often good reminders of our present day affairs. Fictional worlds tend to cut deeper when they allude to events and characters reminiscent of their real life counterparts. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we learn from these worlds, but I would argue they help us further realize certain truths about the society we belong to, and the issues that come with it. At the same time, the conclusions drawn from these movies can feel quite underwhelming.
Considering the effort and talent put into Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time, released on Netflix this past month, I couldn’t help but feel like the film did a poor job of transmitting whatever message or idea it was trying to convey about evil. Thus, today I wanted to compare Campos’ latest feature with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, as both movies treat evil in a similar fashion, however one does it considerably better than the other.

The Devil All The Time is a generational tale of violence.

The story of The Devil All the Time is a complex web of families torn apart by the brutal nature of mankind in the American Midwest. A war veteran returns home only to find himself haunted by the ghosts of the past that ultimately spur him onto a path of religiously-driven violence. This violence then is passed onto his son and the people around him. The world of The Devil All the Time is populated by men and women, housewives, preachers, cops and crooks, whose understanding of God and faith in general revolves completely around the notion of sacrifice by blood. By hurting others, these troubled characters are lead to believe in their own salvation. One of the recurring lines of this film, ”There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there. You just got to pick the right time (to hurt them),” echoes ad nauseam, to the point that the movie itself becomes a tiresome cycle of endless violence committed by people whose traumatic past is the only reason they keep moving forward.

Soon, Tom Holland’s character in The Devil All the Time gives in to acts of evil too.

This is my major issue with the movie. It works only on a single level. It views the world from a single perspective, and never even dares to contradict this worldview by injecting it with a more sophisticated reflection other than that we are the products of our environment and there is no escaping it. And this, I find inexcusable. Because commenting on important matters such as evil, violence, treachery, manipulation, in the way that Campos tries to, is often the perfect way for sweeping such matters under the rug and labeling these movies as pure entertainment. Which is a shame, because if we look at No Country for Old Men, we see that cinema can make a difference with regard to how complex fictional worlds can be.

Bardem’s Chigurh as the unstoppable force of evil in No Country for Old Men.

Similarly to The Devil All the Time, the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner of 2007 is a tale about evil inevitably finding its way into society, and how the nature of this evil, seemingly so simple and primitive, makes it an unstoppable force, a force that perhaps we will never fully understand.
Both movies have evil men in them, men whose only drive is to hurt, kill and humiliate whatever and whoever stands in their way. The main difference, however, lies in the good characters that populate these movies. In Campos’ film, there isn’t any hope for anybody. Any signs of kindness are limited to the bare minimum, because the film wants to be consistent with its nihilistic outlook on life. Kindness equals weakness. Nothing is of value. Everything and everybody dies, ”You just got to pick the right time.”
On the other hand, No Country for Old Men, though it presents us with one of the most terrifying villains in movie history, Anton Chigurh, and a grim death-filled desert landscape where laws don’t apply to everyone the same way, it also gives us characters worth believing in. Llewelyn Moss, our unlucky protagonist who finds himself in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong and with someone else’s bagful of money in his lap, is still at the very core a good man, with dreams and aspirations of building a better, more secure life for himself and his wife, Carla Jean.
Tommy Lee Jones also plays a good character, Sheriff Bell, a character that for the majority of the movie tries to grasp the extent to which evil men like Anton are willing to go for the sake of what? Money? Drugs? Fame? He can’t put a pin on it, and that is what scares him – a good, lawful man – the most.

Llewelyn and Carla Jean have each other.

And that is I think where the main difference lies between these two equally competently made films. Whereas The Devil All the Time states loud and clear that there is simply no escaping evil that surrounds you, evil that you’re born into, as Tom Holland’s protagonist, the son of a suicidal war veteran and the step brother of a girl that died at the hands of a crooked preacher, is eventually driven to inflicting the same kind of merciless violence on others, No Country for Old Men refuses to fall into a similar trap. The film takes a moral stand through its literary opening written by Cormac McCarthy (the author of the novel), when Sheriff Bell narrates about the time he put a man on the electric chair and the man, a cold blooded murderer, till the very end continued to say he would happily kill again if he were given the chance to. And in the face of this unflinching evil that has no head nor tail to make of, Bell openly admits, ” I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.

Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff trying to make sense of all this madness.

No Country for Old Men works as a moral tale because not only does it present the crumbling reality of a dying breed of men not accustomed to this kind of senseless violence and inexplicable evil – it also shows that there is a way of avoiding it, that sometimes, by not succumbing to the way of the gun, we may be able to go out on our own terms, with pride and dignity. Is this argument a little too far-fetched? A little too romanticized? Perhaps, but good movies are meant to give us options, not force us into a single, badly constructed worldview. The nihilism and dread of The Devil All the Time serve little to no purpose other than to tell a grim story of hopelessness and despair motivated by religious misconceptions. Whatever Campos and Pollock (author of the novel) tried to do in adapting the book to the screen doesn’t work. Because yes, evil exists. And yes, bad people do bad things. And sometimes good people are forcefully driven to similar acts, but if we look carefully, there should always be, no matter how slim or faint, a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

In No Country for Old Men everything comes at a price. Especially Mariachi bands.

Humphrey Bogart: Act Like Yourself

Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm  and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.

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Bogart and cigarettes: a match made in heaven.

Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,”  after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

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Dixon meeting Laurel for the first time.

In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence.  I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?

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Dixon’s violent eruptions give Bogart’s acting a new dimension.

Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.

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How well does Laurel actually know him?

In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.

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”I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Show Me a Leader: Bad Satire in Vice

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.

 

What’s Going On?

It is no secret that the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the greatest living directors. There is a reason for that. The Coens are ambitious and even though most of their films deal with nihilism (The Big Lebowski), impotence (Barton Fink), doomsday (No Country for Old Men) and failure (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens are filmmakers that try to grasp the enormity of life and the numerous trials and tribulations that come with it. Their secret lies in their ability at poking fun at everything and everybody and getting away with it. Why? Because they know there are no absolute answers. Everything is a farce. A beautiful one. Sure, in Burn After Reading the two wrote and directed a story about conspiracy, secret service, treason to showcase the insanity and the stupidity of those who are convinced of outsmarting other people. That was back in 2008, right after the economic crisis revealed holes and leakage not only in the US system, but worldwide as well. Then, a year later, the two brothers came out with one of their darker, perhaps their most underrated movie to date: A Serious Man. A totally different beast but one that might have been aimed at pointing fingers at those who always want to know one single thing: WHAT’S GOING ON?

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Larry desperately trying to modify life.

It is 1967. A suburb in the state of Minnesota. Enter Larry Gopnik: middle-aged physics professor, husband and father of two, a boy and a girl. Larry’s Jewish like the Coens, and like the Coens in their teenage years, his son is getting ready to become a man by going through a Bar Mitzvah. This involves hours of learning long religious chants in Hebrew. What Larry’s son is going through is exactly what Larry is going through himself. Confusion. An omnipresent state of confusion. However, unlike Larry, his son accepts this state of confusion: he embraces it by memorizing the sound of the words spoken by the rabbi, rather than understanding them. He spends most of his time listening to rock music instead of paying attention to what the teachers teach him in Hebrew school. Smoking weed and gazing at the glaring TV set becomes his habit: a simple way of refusing to understand and oversee the bigger picture, because why should a 13 year old boy worry about so many meaningless things?

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Manipulated by everything and everyone.

Larry, on the other hand, is a man who believes in numbers, who believes in logic and concrete evidence. He believes in Yes or No. Good or Bad. Cold or Hot. That’s it. In a time of such great social change with the Vietnam War in the distant background, cheap sci-fi shows on TV and the power of rock and roll, Larry is incapable of coping with this new reality. Each day he goes through the same routine. Each day he starts from scratch. But then, one day, Hasham strikes upon him with a series of odd and troubling events. His wife decides to leave him for his friend, a snobbish Jew by the name of Sy Ableman. Larry’s ominous neighbor starts building a shed  by crossing Larry’s property line. Then, his tenure application is threatened because of hate mail directed at Larry from an anonymous sender. Finally, a Korean student asks him to grant him a passing grade in Mathematics and leaves a bribe on his desk. When Larry tries to confront him about it, the father of the student shows up to his house and threatens to sue him. Larry looks at the man, helpless, and asks if the money on his desk was left by his son or not. The student’s father answers: ”Please. Accept the mystery.”

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Larry likes numbers.

The mystery. The mystery of what? Larry cannot figure this out. And the Coens keep pushing him into a corner. First by putting him in a car accident, then by killing off his wife’s lover and making him pay for the funeral arrangements, finally by having his brother get into trouble with the law and having him pay for his brother’s lawyer. In other words, everything is going wrong for Larry. But the Coens make it clear enough: it’s Larry’s fault. This poor, clueless sob is bringing all of this on himself. By doing what? By not accepting the mystery. In fact, the only man who Larry can relate to is his own brother, Arthur, a loner who lives at Larry’s place and keeps his own notebook, filled with mathematical schemes and formulas that are meant to solve the ”probability map of the universe.” Arthur’s quest to solve the world has driven him to insanity and physical sickness, and yet, Larry does not realize it. He is too caught up in his own quest, his own personal reasons.

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Obsession through a close-up.

Larry’s visit to the three local rabbis ends with nothing but disappointment. The first rabbi, the junior one named Scott, is not experienced enough to actually give him a reasonable answer. What he does instead is feed Larry with the same worn-out speech about changing perspectives, starting from scratch and as he puts it toward the end: ”You have to see things as expressions of God’s will. […] Just look at the parking lot, Larry.” The young rabbi, unable to really transmit any kind of profound knowledge, relies on precisely what Larry hates about the world – blind belief in something that may or may not be there. These words deepen the cut in Larry’s mind. To a man like Larry, a teacher, a mathematician, what is perspective? Why should perspective change? That is why he goes to see the second rabbi, Nachtner, the more experienced one who is also responsible for organizing Larry’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. This rabbi, as experienced as he is, believes in the power of the parable. The parable he tells Larry is about a dentist who finds himself questioning God’s message engraved on the inside of one of his patient’s teeth. Unfortunately, this parable leads nowhere, and makes Larry even more frustrated. He stands and says: ”It sounds like you don’t know anything!”  Finally, the wisest of all rabbis, Marshak, does not even grant Larry a meeting. He shuts himself in his office, like God shutting the gates to his property, and leaves Larry with nothing but a sour taste in his mouth; a taste so vile and putrid that only the magic vision of Larry’s beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Shamsky, will be able to pull away for a short while.
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As he enters Mrs. Shamsky’s place, Larry can be considered a simple mortal, finally, a serious man with a serious man’s desire to make love, to cheat and indulge in physical pleasures. The beautiful neighbor offers him marijuana and the two get high together just like Larry’s son with his friends. For a brief moment, Larry is a serious man. Perhaps, that’s all he ever wanted. But the moment does not last long. Once reality hits Larry in the head, he’s gone for good. There are cops knocking on his door, religious ceremonies waiting for his attendance, family matters that are to be taken care of, his tenure that is at risk because of rude anonymous letters, and last but not least, his ultimate quest that needs answers at all costs.

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Mrs. Shamsky, a vision or a reality?

What the Coen brothers are able to create in this movie is a sense of feverish obsession; a kind of obsession that gnaws at every aspect of our lives. This obsession takes different forms in Larry’s life: his creepy neighbor, Sy and his snobbish attitude, the rabbis, his brother’s sickness, the student’s father, the tenure committee, you name it. Through careful direction and beautiful cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins that consists of mostly close-ups and medium shots, the Coens put the audience in Larry’s shoes. Whatever Larry feels, be it a crumbling physical pain or another terrible disappointment, the audience feels it too. As viewers, we are forced to witness a man struggle to find answers to questions that obviously do matter, but perhaps do not need answering. And through their brilliant writing, the brotherly duo play with language and the inability to communicate even in such a tight knit community as the Jewish one presented in this film. The language of Hebrew, the language of the chosen people, instead of being presented as a helpful way of bonding between community members is presented as a barrier that blocks any sort of outside perspective. The world in A Serious Man is so closed, shut-off and isolated from the rest, that its characters are naturally prevented from questioning the larger aspect of life. The minimalistic stylization used by the filmmakers serves one single purpose: to make Larry feel alone. Alone with the questions.

Alone with the mystery.

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Alone with the mystery.

 

You Can’t Win Them All

Today’s topic: painful comedy. It’s a thing, I swear. How can I back it up? Billy Wilder’s best picture from 1960, The Apartment. Labeled as a comedy, the story of C.C. Baxter, an insurance worker who lends his apartment to his own superiors and their special ladies, in order to get a highly anticipated promotion became an instant hit at the box office and a classic of the genre. Wilder is known for being the ”nephew” of such comedic geniuses like Chaplin or Keaton, however the gags and awkward situations are not what he should be remembered for. The writer-director was much more than that. He had a lot to say and his voice resonated through such diverse works such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity  and Sabrina. 

All of his films were a social commentary, be it the story of a screenwriter trying to help out an aging silent film star or the story of a journalist taking advantage of a man trapped inside a mine for his own never ending fame. Some Like it Hot was met with a lot of insecurity, and the audiences weren’t sure if Wilder made that film just for comedic purposes or something deeper than that. Well, the answer could be found a year later, in the massive hit that was The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and at the time a fairly unknown Shirley MacLaine. That’s when Wilder hit the public with the unexpected: a comedy that is also a gut wrenching tragedy about the modern way of living and…loving. A tale so revolutionary and so complex that the viewers even to this day don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the credits start to roll.

Wilder creates the character of C.C. Baxter (Charles Clifford Baxter), also known as Bud, as one of the most loveable yet pathetic characters in cinematic history. Yet why does he remain dear in our minds after the viewing of this picture? Because most of us can relate to Bud. He’s elegant, well mannered, kind and simple, but he’s also naive and ingenuous, used by the higher power, the greedy superiors who we all know exist. They use his apartment for extramarital affairs, promising the poor man a highly desired promotion. That’s one of Wilder’s main points: sometimes it’s not your work ethic and your effort that make you who you are. This was a whole new concept for the people used to the hardworking 40’s and conservative 50’s. The 60’s were considered a new era, a sudden explosion in the way people lived, thought and worked.

The idea of leading a double life, in this case cheating on your wife with your secretary or simply a girl you met in a bar, was met with great shock. How could a well respected insurance businessmen have a dirty affair and have no one notice it? Bud Baxter, in Wilder’s mind, was the typical, gentle, obedient worker, one of the most common characters in today’s world. Bud, in fact, represents the generation of people who don’t have anything  valuable in their lives, no family, no lover, no memories; a new generation of people with nothing to lose. The best example is Baxter’s apartment: a few pieces of furniture, the television that airs only westerns and commercials, a record player and that’s about it. What does he eat? Pre-cooked chicken with no taste. That’s the new way of living. After hours and hours amongst his co-workers, typing figures on the computer, Bud comes to an empty apartment with only a comfortable bed waiting for him.

Lost children.
Lost children.

The only person he really cares about and falls for is Fran, or for him, the true gentleman he is, Miss Kubelik. She’s a sweet elevator girl, another example of a modern character: she found her way into a big insurance company, yet where does she end up? An elevator. The true American dream. “Oh, the irony!” screams Wilder’s screenplay. However, even an elevator girl can be the mistress of the main executive of the company, Jeff Sheldrake. The powerful meets the poor. And then again, Wilder underlines the new generation’s soft heart and innocence by forcing the character of Fran to take sleeping pills, in order to commit suicide because of her broken dreams. Feelings shouldn’t exist in the world we live in today. Everybody has a career. Everybody wants a career. Everybody runs after a career. There is no time for true love, sentimentality and empathy. What the hell is true love? A loving husband? A loving wife? In Wilder’s movie, a Christmas family photo is enough.

We laugh at Lemmon’s great sense of humour and ability to create something out of nothing, like his classic gestures and movements while using a nose spray in front of his boss. We also laugh at the crackling dialogue between Miss Kubelik and Bud in the elevator. However, we also feel for the both of them. We feel hurt because of their innocence and they way they are treated by the higher laws. In some way, they’re both lost on a foreign island.

But Wilder, known for getting to the point, says: “Shut up and deal”.

The world is unpredictable for CC Baxter.
The world is unpredictable for CC Baxter.