[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Bob Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/26/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor). Thanks to Gelderblom and Keith Uhlich for giving their blessing to this collaboration.]
Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the two pivotal figures of American cinema in the 1970s, both rose from the turmoil of the transition from studio-based to independent production, to emerge as leading forces in film production as well as film style. Each eventually formed his own production company – Altman’s Lion’s Gate, Coppola’s American Zoetrope – and patronized the work of aspiring young film-makers (such as Altman’s nurturing of Alan Rudolph and Coppola’s of Caleb Deschanel).
Though Altman’s films compare with Coppola’s as chamber music does with grand opera, their work in the 1970s exemplifies what ultimately became the prevailing style of American film direction in that era: maverick resistance to studio-imposed time and budget constraints, insistence on directorial authorship, reliance on location shooting, use of improvisational acting, an emphasis on ensemble playing rather than star performances, Fordian gatherings – weddings, church services, parties, dinners – as exponents of group character (both Altman and Coppola had Catholic upbringings), and a revisionist approach to the mythic archetypes of the Hollywood genre film.
When I got on the phone with Tim Robbins, who was doing a day of interviews to publicize his new film, The Lucky Ones, he began with all the energy of a guy doing just another job, giving out answers that had the feeling of a familiar response practiced over numerous interviews. I have to take some of that blame myself â€“ you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same answers â€“ but it also felt like the outspoken Robbins was holding his own political view in check so as not to distract from the film, in which he plays an Iraq veteran trying to get home after his tour of duty and ending up on a road trip with a pair of younger soldiers on 30-day leave. I was supposed to get ten minutes and was hoping to get at least a couple of interesting comments from the Oscar-winning actor (for MysticRiver) and Oscar-nominated director (for Dead Man Walking). And sure enough, once we got beyond The Lucky Ones and into other areas, such as his work in the theater, he seemed to come alive. Strangely enough, I never got around to talking about either MysticRiver or Dead Man Walking, or his talent for playing closely-guarded characters, but we get started on Cradle Will Rock, his last film as a director, before he was called off for another interview. Some of the interview ended up in the short “A Moment With Tim Robbins” mini-feature for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rest of it is here.
The character Colee, played by Rachel McAdams, calls your group “The Lucky Ones” because you survived battle. How lucky can they be if their definition of luck is simply survival?
I don’t know if that’s what the title means. It could be that they’ve found each other. One of the things that I responded to immediately with the script was that this story was very human feel to it and had compassion for the struggle and the challenge for returning home to the country after serving overseas. That’s a story that I think is important to tell, it’s a story that involves opening a door to something that not a lot of us have to think about. My main concern with it was, I wanted to make a film that veterans could see and appreciate.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
I’ve been talking to veterans and people in the armed services and family members of people in the armed services for a long time, since I did Top Gun, so I’ve come to know quite a few people in the military, everyone from gung-ho Republicans to people that were Republicans and are now against the war to Democrats to liberals to activists. There’s a wide spectrum of people in the military, they don’t all think the same way, and I have a deep respect who make that kind of sacrifice. I think it’s import that we understand that part of support for the troops is advocacy when they return, not only when also they’re there but when they return, and there’s an awful lot of challenges facing people coming home and this comes from my conversations with veterans and family members. I would hope the film perhaps makes people more sensitive to some of the needs of our veterans.
The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.
Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.
Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.
Battle in Seattle, the directorial debut of Irish actor Stuart Townsend, is a well-meaning history lesson that looks at the 1999 WTO protests in Settle through a series of exceedingly conventional fictional stories. The film, which premiered a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and later became the most apropos opening night film in the history of the Seattle International Film Festival, is finally getting its release, to fairly tepid and critical reviews. And while I can understand the criticisms — the sloganeering, the mundane fictional stories, the inevitable simplifications, not to mention too many embarrassing performances and a script that substitutes symbolic gestures for action and debate — I’m also impressed with what he got in there, namely the sense of organization and planning that turned this loose confederation of activists and protest groups into the most effective organized protest in recent history. He makes a serious effort to explain what the WTO is and the criticisms of the organization that would rouse tens of thousands of protesters to gather in Seattle, and he celebrates the success for what it is. I’m not quite sure what to make of the irony of Townsend shooting largely in Vancouver, Canada, a necessity given the Canadian financing (he couldn’t find American support – what does that say about our film culture that Canada is more willing to make a film about American political protest than Hollywood is?) but an irony in a film that tackles issues of globalization and then outsources an American story to Canada. (I wrote about the film in my SIFF coverage for GreenCine and review it this week for the Seattle P-I.)
I had the opportunity to talk with Townsend in a phone interview for a feature story for the Seattle P-I. What was scheduled as a twenty minutes interview continued for almost twice that long and we covered a lot of territory that I couldn’t fit into the P-I piece, so here is the balance of the interview.
You’ve said that you didn’t interview anyone involved in the WTO protests. How did you research the film?
It was one of the first major events that was really covered by the Internet, so there was a lot of research there. There were a lot of books, a lot of documentaries made, a lot of news footage to see. I would have loved to have talked to activists and authorities but I just didn’t really know how to go about doing it. And actually, in retrospect, I think it was good because I didn’t have any interference from any other political viewpoint or anything like that, I just came out from a very non-partisan place.
I researched it for a year and a half and I was reading globalization books, like pro-free trade book by people like Thomas Friedman and other books that were critical of free trade, and trying to balance the arguments and find out where I stood on this and what I wanted to say, and then I wrote the script and went shopping and people seemed to gravitate toward the idea but no one jumped at the script, so then I went back and I spent a year and a half doing some pretty substantial rewrites. And I took the three documentaries made about the event and I made my own 15-minute film, cut to music, as a visual to the script, and I think that’s really what helped: people could suddenly see what this film might look like, visually, and how intense it got. That’s when I got financed.
I had the opportunity to talk to Alan Ball about Towelhead, his first feature-film script after American Beauty and his feature directing debut, when he presented the film at the Seattle International Film Festival in June, 2008. Now that the film is getting a limited release in New York and L.A. (with a wider release to follow), I share our talk about Towelhead, Six Feet Under and the differences in writing for TV and film.
Be warned: we discuss key scenes of the film and there are spoilers here.
Why did you choose this novel, Towelhead, about a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl dealing with adolescence in a culture inundated with Desert Storm, as your next feature project and your directorial debut?
You know, it’s interesting. I actually had a spec screenplay that I was ready to go out with, it’s a screwball comedy set in the thirties and I was just putting the finishing touches on that when my agent called me and said, ‘I have this manuscript that I just got and I think you might respond to it,’ so he sent it over and I read it and I couldn’t put it down. There was something about the story and the characters and the tone of it that just really spoke to me and I could see the movie totally in my head when I was reading it. And I loved the story. I loved the fact that it was a not hysterical take on what is a very common experience for a lot of young women, and young men, for that matter, and also that when I got to the end of it, the character of Jasira had not been destroyed by what she went through. I found that really sort of refreshing, because usually any story that’s told about a young girl who has some sort of improper sexual interaction with an older man, the feeling at the end of that story is, ‘That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her,’ and she’s destroyed. Not the case when it’s about a young boy and an older woman, then it’s like, ‘Oh-ho, score!’ And so I found that there was something really interesting about that aspect of the story and that this traumatic experience she goes through kind of makes her a stronger, deeper person and also allows her to take control over her own life and her own body in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to had this not happened to her and I found that really kind of refreshing and I don’t want to use a word like revolutionary, but it did make me realize that I’d never really seen a story of this nature told in that way that didn’t fetishize the victim status of the girl and also was kind of sex positive and also presented a young female character who was curious and sexually assertive without punishing her for it or making it seem like she was “asking for it.” I just really responded to it so I called my agent on Monday and said, ‘I would love to option this book. I want to do it myself, I don’t want to take it to studio because I can only imagine what trying to develop this in a studio would lead to.’
With the arrival of Sarah Palin, American politics has strayed deep into Wag the Dog territory, but it wasnâ€™t until last night, as even ad hoc members of Alaskaâ€™s First Family were lined up for her speech, that I realized that if I were Levi Johnston, I’d be very, very worried. Squinting your eyes, you can just about see the future of Sex on Skates:
His Face Book profile (in which he says he has no plans to get married) has already been taken down. Next, I think he’ll be out drinkin’, prolly with Track or some other buddies, get bleary, blotto drunk, and wake up the next morning to find that somehow, although he can’t remember it, he has enlisted in the U.S. Army.
His protests will get him nowhere; in record time, he’ll find himself in a still-dangerous corner of Afghanistan where, suddenly, somehow a stray bullet will end his young life.
This casket will be photographed. His pregnant grieving widow will meet the plane, most likely still hauling around Trig, since that seems to be her job; his (would-be) mother-in-law will meet the plane; the honor guard will be there. God knows John McCain will be there. There’ll be talk of burial at Arlington Cemetery, although in the end, Alaska will win with its claims of unlimited fuel reserves for the Eternal Flame.
All of us who know and love Wag the Dog will recognize this as the Old Shoe moment brought to life. For the rest, there’s Netflix.
What was it about the book, â€œFive Roundabouts to Heaven,â€ that made you say: â€œThis is my next project.â€?
Iâ€™ve always been interested in psychological stories and character-driven stories. Right before I started working on this, Iâ€™d seen a lot of Joan Crawford movies and Bette Davis movies and Barbara Stanwyck movies and Fred MacMurray movies, a kind of old-fashioned storytelling that was usually over-the-top and larger-than-life in terms of the plot, but something about them really resonated for me personally. So I decided thatâ€™s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make one of those kinds of films without being a retro film. I just liked the way those stories were told. I spent a summer reading old pulp mysteries. People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because thereâ€™s something more you can play with. And what I liked about this book particularly was that in the course of the story, when you learn more about each of the characters, you realize that, at its heart, itâ€™s a really humanist story about relationships. Even though itâ€™s a genre film, itâ€™s also a humanist film. What I thought was quite true about the emotional stakes of these people within their marriages, even again if itâ€™s over the top in its structure, it resonated for me personally within my own relationships.
Last year, in a piece I wrote for GreenCine, I dreamed up my fantasy list of box sets and special editions I wanted to see (heck, I wanted to OWN) in the coming years. Less than year later, two of those dream DVD sets have been announced. (I doubt my piece had much to do with them, but hey, it was a dream list and I can fantasize about its impact.)
Universal is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil with a two-disc special edition featuring all three versions of the film (the 1958 release version, the longer preview cut discovered in the mid-seventies, and the 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction), plus commentary on each disc by different folks, the complete Welles memo, a couple of featurette, interviews and such. This will be the first time either of the those earlier two versions have actually been home video in their original state (the old VHS and laserdisc releases of the film were of a studio job that combined footage from both of those old versions into one hybrid version). The anniversary branding explains the delay in the release, something fans have been expecting ever since the Murch-helmed reconstruction. The release date October 7. See the press release for the complete details on the release.
A release sure to receive less publicity but one that is equally exciting to me, however, is Sony’s Budd Boetticher Box Set, a collection of the Columbia “Ranown” films directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The release has been long in the coming as only a couple of the films had been released to VHS (and those on substandard Goodtimes videos). Paramount’s 2005 DVD release of Seven Men From Now, the first collaboration between Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, only whetted my appetite for the rest of the films.
Seven Men From Now (1956) set the tone and lean style for series, as if it was carved it in the stone-like visage of Randolph Scott’s weatherbeaten face. Boetticher had just come off a two-year stint with Universal, where he cranked out journeyman assignments (including his first westerns) with a muscular sense of action and place, and the austere little crime thriller The Killer Is Loose when producer John handed him the terse script by Burt Kennedy. More than perfect fit with Boetticher, it brought the best in the director. Boetticher pares himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenches up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. He makes Kennedyâ€™s dialogue sing like lyrics and turns Scott â€œlimitationsâ€ as an actor into an expressive element of character: inexpressive and inflexible, hard, his voice that masks his feelings and his lanky body is perfectly at ease setting a horse or handling a gun but less sure in moments of emotional intimacy.
Producer/star Scott realized that he had a winning combination and immediately signed Boetticher up to direct for his own company at Columbia Pictures, where he cranked out low budget westernsthat made enormous profits. The made five films together at Columbia â€“ The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) â€“ three of them scripted by Kennedy. From The Tall T to Comanche Station, you can see Boetticher and Kennedy honing the style and structure established in 7 Men to a laconic austerity. That cycle stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford: tight, taut, often savage little pictures that are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character.
David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.
Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture â€“ heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.
In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.
Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.
It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.
I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows(aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song â€“ but of course â€“ and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)
I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.
You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy.There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.
With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.
In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?
It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.
Don Quixote is one “lost” Welles film that is surely doomed to remain that way: unfinished, fragmented, a puzzle with pieces that have been recut so many times they simply don’t fit together. Welles jokingly renamed the film “When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote?” because he continued to rewrite and reconceptualize the film as he went along. It’s as if the act of creating in the moment was the point, not the finished production. Financed solely by himself, it perhaps became a project so personal that he couldn’t finish, and it remained in fragments when he died in 1985.
The DVD release of the 1992 “reconstruction” haphazardly cobbled together by legendary exploitation director turned indifferent B-movie hack Jesus Franco (he was an assistant to Welles during some of the principle photography) isn’t about to change that. Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse/partner/collaborator for the final decades of his life, sold the rights to the footage in her possession to Franco and producer Patxi Irigoyen (they also acquired the footage from Suzanne Cloutier), but was terribly disappointed at the resulting film. According to longtime Welles cameraman and friend Gary Graver, Franco and Irigoyen used practically every scrap of footage they had, including sequences he had shot for a Spanish TV documentary he made in the middle of production (another little project to get more production funds). Certainly it’s hard enough to guess at Welles’ intentions from the notes and partially-edited footage (in various stages of rough cut) left behind over the course of a decade of shooting on the run and dragging the footage around from country to country as he tinkered with the editing, but there is little evidence of any serious attempt at a legitimate reconstruction from the film on display, and it’s missing vital footage that remains in the possession of the film’s original editor, Mauro Bonanni, who was not invited to participate in the project.
From what I know about Welles and the history of the film, Franco’s version is not even an approximation, never mind a reconstruction. There’s no story here, simply a random succession of events and images and a whole lot of narrative detours. But even as a visual record of Welles’ raw footage it’s a travesty. It’s a given that much of the existing rough cut footage is in rough condition, showing the signs of wear and tear from years of tinkering on moviolas and dragging the reels from country to country. But Franco and company have, if anything, compounded the problems with hazy, blurry copies of the master footage and video noise introduced as a result of the project’s most egregious crimes against Welles: the video manipulation of footage to layer images one on another. At one point, the sails of a windmill are stretched across the screen (to suggest a windmill come to life and reach out to Quixote? was that in the notes, Franco, or was it all your inspiration?). The soundtrack is no better. Franco uses fragments of recorded dialogue (with Welles providing the voices of both Quixote and Sancho as well as the narration) and fills in the rest of the film with voices that barely resemble Welles’ work. You have to have to watch the mouths move just to pick out the speakers in this dissonant audio mess.
I was tempted to title this posting “When the f**k did we get ice cream?” to honor one of the funniest, most surprising lines of dialogue from The Ringer, the underrated, frequently hilarious Johnny Knoxville comedy from 2005. Like many of the best lines in the film (and kudos to screenwriter Ricky Blitt for providing them in abundance), this one’s delivered by a character who is developmentally disabled. It has to be heard in context to appreciate the perfect delivery by mentally challenged actor Geoffrey Arend, but one of the main reasons it earns a big laugh is because it implies a certain degree of fast-thinking wit (and in this case, a gentle hint of oblivious distraction) in the character Arend is playing. Like most of Knoxville’s co-stars, Arend’s character (named Winston) is a competitior in the Special Olympics, and with his fellow athletes he’s a well-chosen foil for Knoxville’s character, Steve, a relatively normal (i.e. not “special”) underachiever who has reluctantly agreed to pass himself off as mentally challenged in order to fix the Special Olympics — the assumption being that Steve’s a guaranteed winner against a roster of “feebs” and “retards,” as the Special Olympians are crudely defined by Steve’s crass and classless uncle Gary (perfectly played by Brian Cox), who concocted the fraudulent scheme to pay off a high-stakes gambling debt.
I mention The Ringer, of course, because it’s the antidote to the poisonous “retard” humor in Tropic Thunder, which I wrote about in my previous post. Where the developmentally disabled are concerned, the humor in Tropic Thunder is not intentionally offensive, but anyone who sees the film would have to agree that it’s insensitive and unnecessarily cruel. Oh, sure, I get the joke…it’s just not funny. So why is The Ringer so praiseworthy in comparison? It all has to do with the attitude behind the humor, and the context within which the word “retard” is being used. It’s very easy to laugh at “Simple Jack” and the other (relatively brief) scenes of “retard” humor in Tropic Thunder, but there’s no escaping the fact that the attitude behind that humor is derogatory, dismissive, and damaging. There’s nothing positive or even remotely understanding in the film’s attitude toward the developmentally disabled. Now, you could argue this is Ben Stiller’s right as the film’s co-writer and director — that he’s free to be offensive with no apologies necessary. I’m OK with that, because I despise any form of censorship on the basis of political correctness. But when a popular comedy promotes a destructive attitude, or perpetuates a negative image of a minority group with no apparent consideration for the potential consequences, well…that’s when I start feeling uneasy about the “comedy.”
With regard to understanding, accepting and appreciating the developmentally disabled, The Ringer is everything that Tropic Thunder is not. From start to finish, Ricky Blitt’s screenplay and Barry Blaustein’s direction are based on progressive assumptions consistent with the pro-disability attitudes found in the comedies by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who co-produced The Ringer. Warm-hearted, open-minded and altogether refreshing in its accurate and sincere embrace of the developmentally disabled, The Ringer presents its central squad of Special Olympians as smarter than we assume them to be; possessing skills and intelligence that defy our expectations (and those of Knoxville’s character); and prone to precisely the same emotions, desires, foibles, and faults of “normal” people. Granted, most the actors chosen to co-star with Knoxville are “high-functioning” (in the parlance of disability experts), so we’re not witnessing the full spectrum of mental retardation, but the movie’s message is clear: Underestimate these fine, respectable people at your peril. Knoxville’s character learns that lesson with appropriate humility, setting up a feel-good ending that’s well-earned and infectiously progressive in its attitude.
Tropic Thunder is never intentionally offensive toward the mentally challenged, but that doesn’t get Stiller & Co. off the hook. Even if its “retard” humor is relatively brief — and even though it’s implicitly understood (by most viewers, I hope) that there’s a “wrongness” about its underlying attitude — it’s still hard to escape the film’s not-so-subtle suggestion that mental retardation is a curse on humanity. That gives Tropic Thunder the stench of bad karma — the polar opposite of the big-hearted acceptance that graces every frame of The Ringer.
Way back in the original Star Wars (before it was branded with a “IV” and subtitled “A New Hope”), it did not escape notice that at the end of the film, it was human heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo who got the glory while the non-humans – the wookie, Chewbacca, and the two robots – stood to the side to watch the royal blessing laid upon the Republic’s two great white hopes.
After six feature and countless spin-off reiterations, not much has changed. The Jedis (mostly human, though at least those ranks are not completely Caucasian) roam around the galaxy like the master race, swooping in to save the lesser races with their gift of protection and leadership. There are a few token races sprinkled through the supporting parts, mostly providing exposition and exclamations, and only Yoda has any real authority or distinction among them. The droids are essentially happy slaves. These robots talk and offer opinions and often suggest emotions, while R2D2 and C3PO have distinctive personalities. They’re offered up as characters as real as the humans, but in the scheme of this enlightened era of interstellar unity, they are treated as servants or pets at best and cannon fodder at worst. Decades after Blade Runner and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a little arrogant to give a robot personality and self-awareness without suggesting they might be, in their own way, people.
All right, maybe that’s picking apart a little point, but the last two Star Wars features introduced the Clone Army, a race of genetically hatched humanoid soldiers designed solely to fight. They are treated, essentially, as organic robots, flesh and blood slaves sent to fight the Republic’s battles.
I’m sure Lucas never thought any of this through, which is really the point. What began as his paean to the innocent attitudes of the old sci-fi serials and the swashbuckling thrills of classic Hollywood adventures and pirate movies feels more and more like Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist adventurers in the stars. Keep Reading
Many thanks to Roger Ebert and his website editor Jim Emerson for posting my letter to the editor regarding the protests by some disability advocates over the “retard” humor in TropicThunder. As stated in my letter, I think most people will see the film and understand that its target of satire is not the developmentally disabled but rather the silliness of Hollywood, specifically the spoiled-brat nature of pampered stars and the venality of devious agents and greedy producers. As far as it goes, the Hollywood satire in Tropic Thunder is spot-on and, for the most part, hilarious. Ben Stiller really knows what he’s doing here, and clearly this is his most ambitious film to date. Which is to say, I enjoyed the film on its merits and I’m pretty much aligned with Ebert’s 3 ½-star review. And while I have no intention of using this blog as a political forum, it must be stated that these protests — over the frequent use of the word “retard” and the film’s demeaning depiction of developmental disabilities — are worthy of serious mainstream attention. But, as always happens with protests by minority groups that the majority don’t appreciate or understand, the objections over Tropic Thunder have already been swept under the carpet, as far as the public and mainstream media are concerned. It’s obvious (from Stiller’s promotional appearances on “The Daily Show” and elsewhere) that DreamWorks publicists have declared the protests off limits for discussion — either that, or the talk-show hosts have no desire to prod Stiller (and others in the film) with questions about the controversy. One way or the other, discussion of this matter has been effectively squelched by those in charge of the film’s promotion. As a result, it’s not much of a controversy as far as the public is concerned; it’s already risen and faded in the course of the past few days.
Now, I happen to believe that when it comes to humor, nothing is sacred and nothing should be sacred. Everything and everone is fair game, and we (the public) have the luxury of deciding what’s funny and what’s offensive. I’m not easily offended, so most of Tropic Thunder was right down my alley…and really, isn’t it about time someone applied some satirical payback to Willem Dafoe’s Christ-like death in Platoon? One of the joys of watching Tropic Thunder is seeing how Stiller & Co. dismantle the symbolic excess of that scene and Oliver Stone’s heavy-handed direction of it.
So, when Stiller first shows us a clip from “Simple Jack” — this movie’s answer to Sean Penn’s Oscar-baiting performance in I Am Sam — it seemed clear (to me at least) that the satire was (1) way over the top and devoid of malice, and (2) the target of satire is the fact that Stiller’s character, whose film career is slumping, has made a last-ditch effort at respectability by playing a character who’s mentally retarded, since everybody knows the running joke that playing disabled is a fast-track to an Oscar nomination.
Is it just me, or does Robert Downey, Jr., seem to be channeling the the great character actor Robert DoQui (of Nashville and Robocop fame) in Tropic Thunder? Mind you, I haven’t seen the film yet, but I do know that he plays a method actor in the movie who goes to extreme measures to play an African American (in the movie within the movie), apparently drawing his examples from American exploitation cinema of the seventies. But all I saw in the previews was an uncanny resemblance to Robert DoQui, who passed away in February of 2008.