Sunday, January 09, 2011
I recently watched the Coen Bros re-envisioning of True Grit, and I liked watching it. I had fun. There was shooting, and snappy dialog and a comically hyper-competent 14 year old girl, and Jeff Bridges out-crusting the Duke. And yet...after watching it I was left with the same feeling I had after watching Winter's Bone. I knew that I had just witnessed a superbly crafted entertainment: well acted, masterfully directed, rich with themes and evocative imagery but...there was just something missing. For the longest time I was unable to put a finger on what I really felt was lacking, but reading some reviews of my preliminary favorite film of 2010, Black Swan, has led me to a revelation. These movies just aren't trashy enough.
A whole bunch of reviewers have referred to Black Swan as trash: high-toned, well-made trash, but trash nonetheless. One of these reviews (which was a rave, BTW) defined "trash" cinema as film-making that seeks to combine elements of high culture and low culture. Along with this definition, the review listed a number of examples of great trash cinema, including my favorite film from last year, Inglourious Basterds. This year, I preferred a piece of well-executed trash (Swan) to the consensus "best" movie of the year, Winter's Bone. Last year, I preferred a piece of well-executed trash (Basterds) to the consensus "best" movie of that year, Hurt Locker. And those were both, roughly defined, war movies. Hurt Locker is a very good movie that I enjoyed a great deal, but there is an essential difference between it and Basterds (the same difference between Black Swan and Winter's Bone). That is: Inglourious Basterds and Black Swan are HIGH WIRE ACTS. They take RISKS. Making a movie about World War Two and the Holocaust, two of the most hallowed subjects in contemporary memory, and filling it with a bunch of meta-textual tomfuckery, not to mention shooting Hitler in the face with a submachine gun, runs the risk of alienating a huge chunk of your audience and being dismissed as crap by discerning viewers. On the other hand, a verite, grunts-eye view of the Iraq War is pretty much a can't miss proposition for the cultural gatekeepers, and if you doubt me, Katherine Bigelow's got the Oscars to prove it. The same can be said for a fevered, horror-movie take on ballet compared to a restrained docu-realist examination of Ozark culture. What's there to dislike about a note-perfect excavation of a corner of America that most of us didn't even know still exists? Nothing. But by the same token, there's also not much to love. No, I reserve my love for movies that risk driving away discerning viewers through resolute applications of tastelessness and boundary-pushing. Not the boundaries of content, really, since there's nothing that burnishes the "new classic" credentials of a would-be masterpiece like graphic, ratings-challenging content. More the boundaries of taste, of decorum, of accepted filmic structure. That's why Adaptation will always have a special place in my heart: that movie is willing to burn down everything it's created w/r/t character and plot just to make it's point about the impossibility of expressing truth in narrative cinema.
The beauty of trash cinema is that is can be found in every genre, unlike the restrained virtues of tasteful film-making. Take a piece of action trash like 2007's Shoot 'em Up. Instead of satisfying itself with generic blood-letting, writer-director Mark Davis risks turning his whole film into a bad joke by emphasizing the cartoonish nature of action movie tropes and, most daringly, by strapping the film with a heavy-handed pro-gun control message. Now, the film's ostensible ideological content is silly: how can a movie that that's basically a 90 minute shoot out dare to criticize gun culture! But the inherent conflict between the pro-gun control text of the film and the blood-drenched subtext brings into focus the unacknowledged ideology of all action movies. Making an anti-gun action movie is silly BECAUSE ACTION MOVIES ARE INHERENTLY PRO GUN AND PRO VIOLENCE-AS-PROBLEM-SOLVER! Shoot 'em Up is willing to look stupid for making a pro-gun control argument in the interest of revealing the implicit pro-GUN argument of action films in general. That's the sort of ideological jujitsu you can only pull off if you're willing to make a fool of yourself. When a trashy film fails, it's an embarrassment to all involved. When it succeeds, it not only provides the giddy rush of genre thrills, but also the additional layered goodness of critical incisiveness and the audacious awesomeness of Knievel-like ballsiness.