Talking Movies

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

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November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

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The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

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