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notes on seeing a bad movie

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It shouldn’t be that hard to make a decent movie. It’s getting to the point where they all look like the last decade’s worth of Woody Allen’s stuff. I haven’t seen many first-run movies since I got to London: There Will Be Blood, Blindness, Revolutionary Road, a couple others. All complete and utter shit. (For some reason, I see decent to good stuff when visiting the US: Synechdoche, NY and Slumdog Millionaire were brilliant and fine, respectively.)

But those that I’ve seen in London make me wonder what exactly is wrong with the American movie industry – or even what (else) is wrong with America itself. Bad-to-middling movies used to be bad-to-middling, but rarely this bad. I’m busily retrofitting myself (seriously) as a Bordieuvian institutionalist, but I can’t quite write all this off as simply a meta-effect of corporate control, aesthetic champs and the money that makes their grass grow. Go see Revolutionary Road, seriously, and you’ll see what I mean. This is beyond moneytaint; this is something more akin to mass aesthetic brain damage, narrative aphasia.

The reviews are largely right, nothing much happens in the film, and this the first and easy way to describe the problem at hand. But it has to be more than this. Nothing much happens all the time and in all sorts of ways; it merits examination just how and why and to what end in each specific case. So here’s my stab at the problem – which is a tricky one, a hiding in plain sight sort of issue.

The primary characters are locked in a Major Crisis that is both a crisis of the couple as a dyad and of both members of the couple individually. All three crises (hers, his, theirs) feed on one another. (Spoiler warnings – seriously, who fucking cares!) And the movie flits along from one cliched enactment of this crisis to another: a community theater play that goes badly, an affair with a secretary, a neurotic decision to “change their lives,” screaming and yelling and crying, a new pregnancy that will then won’t then will be aborted, an affair with a neighbor, more screaming and yelling and hysterical over-reaction, and blood-dripping unlikely death.

Fine. Lots of terrible plot action to work with. But somehow, startingly, the film never gets outside all of these tears and near-fisticuffs, morning-after shots with lovers, and bad days at work. In a sense, like a marriage in crisis or a person in crisis, like the severely depressed, it sets itself on autopilot, too lazy or mindfucked to get outside of all this strictly cliched nonsense, can’t somehow find a way to register either the crisis’s lack of objective correlative (as when TSE leaves Hamlet a babbling neurotic here) or the crisis’s material foundations. (The film gestures unconvincingly, extremely unconvincingly, in the direction of unfulfilling work – but in the end signals to take this direction seriously would be to be as permanently adolescent as the protagonists themselves). Rather, it holds the shot, it plays along, it tries to force affect out of overacting, enlightenment out of the darkness of depressive repetition.

I actually think there is something startingly and performatively (in the bad sense) dystopian about a movie that allows itself to be this obvious and cliched without worrying about the fact, as if the entire issue of self-monitoring and, well, effort to say new things is well beyond its control. There’s a simple way to link together the string of good HBO shows – they were to a one aimed at genre renewal. The Sopranos brought among lots else social contextualization / analogization to the mob drama, Sex and the City brought vibrators to the sit-com, Deadwood brought eloquence and politics to the western, The Wire brought the dialectic to the cop show, and so on. The basic appeal of the programs is that they took the effort (or had the institutional opportunity) to do something new with old forms. Revolutionary Road, conversely, harrowingly, suggests a reversal of the tides, a yang to the ying of HBO. What if instead of vivification, we take the cards dealt by genre, arrange them on the table one after another, ace through king, and made not a single modification?

Revolutionary Road twice brings a “madman” onto the screen – a math Ph.D., son of the local real estate agent, who has been institutionalized and electroshocked until the math went away, but not the despair. But he’s not that scary; the opposite really as he is, perfectly according convention, the only person capable in the film of calling things by their proper names. But this is bullshit. Everyone knows that the truly frightening madman isn’t the one who brings enlightenment, but repetition, who ceaselessly breaks the basic contract of communication to keep saying the same thing over and over, the repeat long past anyone’s willing to listen. In this case, yes, it’s the characters who are mad but not as mad as Sam Mendes, the director, who fostered their performance without even the slightest registration of destructive irony.

The saving grace of the entire evening was standing outside the door of the cinema as my wife powdered her nose and listening as each and every fellow viewer voiced a variation on the same thing that I said: What the fuck was that? Thank god. One can easily, if one has a dark projective imagination, conjure another scene: this movie plays and you look around to notice the sympathetic tears and cathartic smiles of the other citizens in the hall. But then again, that is basically what it felt like to live in America for much of the last decade. The worst enactments of the most stale and conventional crises and the concommitant plotmoves (this time on the stage of domestic or international affairs), doused with cynical sangfroid or worse, mindless and heartless belief, would be again and again accepted by the others around you – family, the people they show on television, the people who vote, in some cases intelligent friends – with a smile or a smirk or a tear in the eye or even, in the worst cases, a flat, affectless, distractedly staring face.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

Posted in distraction, movies

6 Responses

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  1. I think your criticisms ABOUT THE FILM are valid…but, if I were you, I’d stick to critiquing the film instead of vomiting anti-American sentiments…those British films are really something, huh? Man…Joe Wright…he’s really pushing the envelope with his selection of Victorian adaptations…of course pop movies suck…the lame pseudo-philosophical critique of pop-culture has become more cliche-ridden than the content of your verbal frothing…at least critique a film that’s an honest attempt at being artistic…


    February 9, 2009 at 2:44 am

  2. Jeff, you really should lay off the panty-bunching, dear. If you remember correctly, the author was contrasting this particular example of American drivel not to British films, but to another aspect of American film/tv, ie HBO as a paragon of originality. I’m not entirely sure I’d agree with that characterization, but if you’re going to take the time to troll a lit/crit-blog, at least bother to read what it is you’re slamming.


    February 9, 2009 at 3:17 am

  3. I’ve not seen Rev. Road, and really have no intention of going out of my way to do so, the book being enough, so I will neither pile on nor defend it. I will only note that your final sentence, in a sense anyway, expresses the book’s (and presumably the movie’s) point. That the characters and situations and arguments are hopelessly formulaic, and that the characters themselves are not really object of envy or pity, seemed to me anyway to be Ford’s intention. That each had become formulaic and pitiless are objects of his scorn.

    Now arguably, neither he nor Mendes express this well. Or, even more arguable, Mendes’ elaboration is, at best, no longer necessary, with the meaningless and vacuousness of middle-class America already writ large in its pharmaceutical records & popular culture iteraions (Mad Men, Weeds, etc.).

    I guess what I’m saying, or better yet, since you’ve seen the movie and I’ve not, to what extent might we construe Rev. Road‘s ‘badness’ to be an attempt at performativity?

    Brad Johnson

    February 9, 2009 at 4:11 am

  4. Brad,

    Ah! Exactly. You know, the original version of this post played out the eyewinking notion that RevRoad was actually a performative reiteration – or in fact the performative fulfillment of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But it got, um, a little high concept so I rewrote it this way.

    I am going to write a follow-up to this, maybe later today, about performativity (or “irony,” or “satire”) and what you need to tell it’s going on. It’s actually, I think, a REALLY, REALLY difficult thing to do. We generally work from hunches, small hints, and (perhaps unfairly) trust in the artist.

    I wish I’d read the novel; this might have been a very different post. Maybe I’ll read the novel – just won’t have time right now. But I’m thinking, from what you’ve said, that it might have helped on this point in order to show the lever that Mendes fails to build into the machine.

    More soon I hope!


    Thanks for coming to my defense!


    Ha! You didn’t see the point of this post! I’m worrying about the minimal artness of the minimally artistic. One expects certain things from these films, a minimal level of something. Here – nothing at all.


    February 9, 2009 at 9:04 am

  5. “That the characters and situations and arguments are hopelessly formulaic, and that the characters themselves are not really object of envy or pity, seemed to me anyway to be Ford’s intention. That each had become formulaic and pitiless are objects of his scorn.”

    RE the above: Who is Ford? Do you mean Yates?

    Brad K.

    February 9, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  6. Yes. Yates. Sorry. Big fat brain fart last night.

    Brad Johnson

    February 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm

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