Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A heartbreaking post of staggering genius

Man, Rick McGinnis has got some awesome readers!

Take the one that wrote to him recently about the film JCVD. He (the reader) thought that JCVD was "a despicable farce" and that it would've been far more appropriately titled "Les Racines de JCVD: America in the Age of Obama."

Brilliant, what?! What an outstanding chap this reader of Rick McGinnis' sounds to be!

Rick, however, gently disagrees with his reader (whom, for the sake of simplicity, let's refer to as the Enlightened if Misunderstood Gentleman) and gives the film an uncharacteristically noncommittal review, as he did some time ago with Happy-Go-Lucky. (A movie which, if I'm any judge, the Enlightened if Misunderstood Gentleman thought a giant piece of shit too.)

He (Rick) sums up thus:
A film like JCVD is catnip for a critic, much like Being John Malkovich, or a good Woody Allen film, if you go back far enough in history. By this measure, any film can become a critical favorite as long as it harnesses that moment in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Bugs Bunny takes a break from tormenting Elmer Fudd, turns to the audience and says confidentially, "I do this sort of thing to him all through the picture."
OK ... So I shouldn't say that he's exactly noncommittal about the film. He clearly considers it to be gimmicky and overrated.

But it seems to me (and to the Enlightened if Misunderstood Gentleman as well, obviously, so that makes two of us at least) that Rick misses something extremely important in his analysis.

Indeed, to the extent that the gimmick employed by the film--that meta business, the cinematic self-reference stuff à la Being John Malkovich--to the extent, I say, that the gimmick itself fails, or anyway is fatally inconsistent, Rick is misleading us even in his attempt to dismiss the film as thin and derivative. For: while JCVD may give us its equivalent of Bugs Bunny turning to the audience and saying that he does this sort of thing all through the picture, the problem is: he doesn't do this sort of thing all through the picture. He stops after a point and does a most unBugs Bunnyish thing.

But let me just pause here for a moment in the interests of full disclosure.

You should know that I've been made privy to the full exchange of emails between Rick McGinnis and the Enlightened if Misunderstood Gentleman--hell, better just call him the EMG. And I think it's worth noting that in the last of those emails the EMG, having just read Rick's review, made a most disingenuous admission. He said:
... [I]t occurs to me that whereas some people are more inclined to rate a film according to whether or not it succeeded in being entertaining, I tend to rate them according to whether or not they succeeded in being part of an elaborate conspiracy to insult me.
Ignoring the slightly hamfisted phrasing here (the EMG, apparently, isn't always as succinct as I think he'd like to be), you'll notice that the EMG seems to be backing off his criticisms of the film out of deference to his illustrious correspondent. He prefers instead to humbly assume the role of the crank. This is understandable, perhaps, as Rick McGinnis is a talented and accomplished writer, whereas the most that can be said of the EMG, I gather, is that he didn't actually burn down an orphanage. (I.E. A little research on my part reveals that after leaving his native Luxembourg at the tender age of 18 to pursue what looked like a very promising career composing Haiku, the EMG apparently squandered his talents writing doggerel for gun and car enthusiast magazines, and now fitfully maintains a "blogspot" blog in some utterly obscure corner of the internet.)

But so moved was I by the EMG's penetrating observations about JCVD--so convinced was I that there was more to this man than Rick McGinnis's easy dismissal of him suggested--that I pressed him for more. At first he deferred self-effacingly, replying by way of a poem of his entitled "The Sneeze":
Alas, no promise of relief!
The lightly tickled membrane
(more tickled for the lightness)
suggesting ecstatic release,
is quelled by a seemingly endless,
face-curdling pause
and then nothing.

I remain, as yet, only teased
by the sneeze[d].
But I continued to hound him and eventually he gave in, sending me the following-- What can only be described as a tour de force Critique des Critiques! Indeed, it seems to me that there is a strong suggestion here that not only is the EMG not some b-list hack from the nether end of the blogosphere, but that he's something like a genius whose obscurity can only continue in a perverse, hypocritical and unforgiving world.

Dear Mr. George,

I am overwhelmed by your eloquence and charm! Here, if you insist, is a defence of my comments to Mr. McGinnis about the excremental JCVD:

Pace your effusions re. the alternative title that I came up with for the film--Les Racines de JCVD: America in the Age of Obama--I should say that it was meant more to indicate the extremity of my disgust than as a serious comment on the film's politics. It's worth noting too that I was on my fourth tallboy of Stella Artois when I wrote it, and was feeling a little--'ow you say?--uninhibited. There is, I suppose, a fiddly little argument to be made for the film's encapsulating something of the narcissism of the Obama era ethos, but let me come back to this later in the email.

Why did I think the film "a despicable farce"? Two reasons, intimately connected. The first: the film fails in all serious respects, save as a platform to show-off some of Jean-Claude Van Damme's hitherto unexploited talents as an actor. The second: while it might be the case that certain films have the power to resurrect dead careers, no film can be considered good if it serves only that purpose.

The question, then, is how does the film fail? Well, answer me this: is JCVD a black comedy, or is it an uplifting drama? A little bit of both, did I hear you say? Well quite. And that's the point: to the extent that it tries to be both of these, it does not (it cannot!) succeed in being either.

McGinnis's comparison of JCVD to
Being John Malkovich is, for this reason, an unfortunate one, as the films provide far more of a contrast. BJM is a relentless--indeed, ruthless--lampoon of the cult of celebrity and its spiritual analogue, the pursuit of immortality. The film's title character, the actor as himself, is then portrayed quite literally as a cipher; an "overrated sack of shit" at the mercy of various losers and eccentrics with privileged access to his head. The annihilation of Malkovich's ego at the film's end is brutal and decisive, as is the life-sentence given Craig Schwartz's ego for the crime of trying to hijack Malkovich's existentional nullity to supplement his own.

Now, while JCVD begins quite promisingly as a satire of celebrity in this vein, that is not how it ends. Indeed, the film comes off as more of a vindication of celebrity--or anyway of Van Damme's celebrity--to the extent that he spends so much time pofacedly repudiating it (his celebrity).

I mean: here we have this brilliant (if not entirely original) scenario of an aging, lecherous b-movie action star in debt up to his still absurdly bulging trapezius muscles, freshly rejected by his daughter in a child custody battle, who's stuck on the wuss end of a "real life" hostage-taking ... And what do we get? A vomit-inducing soliloquy--"making Hamlet sound like an extrovert" as the great Ebert puts it--lamenting America's depravity, his own shameful abandonment of his "racines", and a particularly obtuse assertion that poor people have more talent than him.

(And to those who say that, if nothing else, here is the evidence of Van Damme's as-yet-untapped acting ability, let me simply point out that this feeling likely has more to do with the fact that they'd never heard the man speak without a faltering and buffoonish accent before. It was bound to sound impressive.)

Note, furthermore, that from this point on the film disowns its tacit conceit: that it is satire on a world-beating scale. It becomes, instead, a story of manful perseverance, sacrifice and, yes,
redemption: i.e. by Van Damme's attainment of the renewed love and respect of his daughter, and a meaningful life teaching murderers, thieves and rapists karate.

Of course, as I read that last line over I see that this still sort of sounds like satire. Alas, no. The shift in tone is unmistakable; we go from remorseless cinematic-self-effacement one moment, to almost smothering sentimentality the next. And to be clear: my problem with this has nothing to do with my belief that sentimentality is a failure of feeling (and thus not a worthy object of art). Even I can admit (grudgingly) that some gruesomely maudlin films are good, and succeed as such. But the thing about sentimental films is that they are, of their nature, irony-averse; and as we all know, you can't suck and blow at the same time.

I mean, honestly! What would your reaction be to Gary Sinise's character if, in The Green Mile, he winked at the camera and referred to Michael Duncan's character as "Lennie"? Or "Malkovich", for that matter? It would be fine if the film was meant as a spoof of
Of Mice and Men. But it wasn't. (Rather, it was the touching tale of a giant retard with an army of zombie mice, who died for our sins in a novelty-sized electric chair.)

Still--I think I hear you saying--even if the film is a failure, calling it "a despicable farce" is to overstate it. You're letting your emotions get the better of you, no?

No. Though I'm having some difficulty trying to think of a fitting way of illustrating why a film that raises the stakes as high as JCVD deserves to lose everything if it doesn't have a really, really good hand ... That is, I'm having difficulty illustrating it with something other than a gambling metaphor.

Consider it this way:

Let's imagine for a moment that I don't exist. That is to say: Let's imagine that the email contained within this blog post is, in fact,
wholly a creation of yours and not--as it is--of our respective hands. So let us imagine, then, that I am an elaborate device you've fashioned to make a very simple point about the dishonesty of using one type of bad art to condemn another type of bad art.

Now imagine the reaction of your readers when they discover after reading 1,833 words, that the substance of your argument resides more in its form than in does in its content. That, furthermore, the 1,258 words following the 799th word of this post serve no real purpose beyond lending a little verisimilitude to the oh-so-clever conceit of those first 799 words. That, indeed, the 1,258 words following the 799th word were written more to emphasize what they don't get around to talking about--namely, the whole America in the Age of Obama business--than what they do.

... That's a whole lot of reading for a whole little point, what? And the device doesn't even have the virtue of being original! Don't you think your readers would get angry about this? Don't you think they might wonder who exactly you thought you were impressing? A critic, was it?

That's more than just a farce. It's despicable too. And Q.E.D.

Anyway, I had intended to say more, but that's as much as I can manage for you I'm afraid. I spend my evenings volunteering (natch), teaching immigrants ESL
and you've made me late for tonight's class. My output has been a little thin recently, as you noted, but I have reason to hope that some new projects of mine might make their way into one or two publications of note. I'll send you a link and perhaps you'll return the favour by sending it on to somebody with a proper readership.


Enlightened if Misunderstood Gentleman]