This week on the Poz Button, Borzoi invites Hank and Hans of Myth of the 20th Century to examine if Office Space and Visioneers are psyops, the psychic terror of the office environment, and swap stories from the wasteland that is Woke Capital.
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The Pozitive Feelings Button 63 – Office Space / Visioneers
This week on the Poz Button, Borzoi invites Hank and Hans of Myth of the 20th Century to examine if Office Space and Visioneers are psyops, the psychic terror of the office environment, and swap stories from the wasteland that is Woke Capital. RSS Feed Check out the Poz Button website! And the Poz Button...
In this latest episode, the Substandard discusses the new Avengers trailer, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and the Netflix gambit. Sonny loves Office Space, JVL shares theories about the Avengers, and Vic shows off his Rainbow Loom bracelet—plus a possible connection between gout and salad?
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The Substandard on The Disaster Artist and Cult Classics
(”Office Space” is briefly mentioned in this.)
On this disaster of an episode, the Substandard discusses The Disaster Artist and cult classics. From Kentucky Fried Movie to Office Space, what counts and what doesn’t? And speaking of episodes, one of the hosts suffers a major breakdown that leaves the studio in chaos. Plus tips on how to handle a Traveling Santa—all on this heavily edited and censored episode of the Substandard!
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Some say the role of art is to show us what is in the future by amplifying what we refuse to notice about the present. Idiocracy takes on this task by showing us what happens to a egalitarian, sex-obsessed, entertainment-besotted and distraction-oriented culture over five centuries.
Set in 2505, Idiocracy follows the story of two people chosen for a crionics experiment because they are average in intelligence, physical ability and motivation. Absolutely expendable in the present time, they spend a half-millennium in cryostasis and emerge into a changed world.
Following the long tradition of hyperbolic absurdist comedy, Idiocracy portrays the world in broad brush strokes and basic colors. It does this because if it got any subtler, we would recognize America 2015 A.D. in this mess. In the future, the Dunning-Kruger effect — by which the stupid are arrogantly confident and the intelligent timorously hesitant — leads to a population of morons.
In the future world, society is ruled by entertainment of the most Beavis and Butthead variety, constant sexual and masturbatory stimulus, and the type of consumer hell that was imagined by 1980s thrash bands. People are not only brick stupid, but hopelessly vapid, living in a constant flood of distractions while their world crumbles around them. Idiocracy amplifies present problems to their maximum: pollution, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become not just commonplace, but dominant.
The film shadows past stories on this topic, notably Brave New World. In that novel, eugenics — the science of managing the intelligence of offspring — was controlled by government to produce leaders, artisans and drones. In the idiocratic world all eugenics has been abandoned and people survive through the buildup of technology which manages the world for them, having grown too stupid to do more than press buttons. As in Demolition Man, which alludes to the Huxley book, future authorities depend on maintaining the appearance of order through the absence of conflict. Citizens are threatened by insane police, bribed with sex and money, and kept distracted by Roman empire style circuses with a technological edge.
What this film does well is to show us a vision of hell. It keeps this vision on the line between what we recognize and what we can imagine, but the allusions to our present world are too close to be ignored. The future culture represents a cross between pro-wrestling, redneck culture, barrio living and urban lifestyles. Consistently the lowest common denominator is revealed in everything. The future population seems to be mostly Hispanic and white, with relatively few African-Americans but a health number of people of indeterminate mixed origins. This fits the theme of this movie, which is taking America A.D. 2005 and exaggerating it to reveal the natural end result of the path it is on.
In the intervening decade, the gap between reality and Idiocracy has narrowed to an alarming degree. What cannot be denied is that the future, like the present, is insufferable. People are fools, but if anyone smarter than they are arrives, they call him an idiot and metaphorically crucify him for their own entertainment. Arguing with them is like talking to people on the internet who cite Wikipedia and big media articles, but do not understand them, creating a kind of circular debate where the only people who understand it are in the minority and as a result are ignored. People lack awareness of anything more than their immediate needs in their immediate future, and have not only a lack of empathy but something worse than apathy, which is total obliviousness toward all consequences which cannot be immediately visualized. In Idiocracy, ignorance wins out over knowledge and intelligence every time, and the only way to get anything done is to lie to people and play to their superstitions and ignorance. It is a cynical and yet strikingly accurate view of the future.
Where this movie becomes difficult is that it is a cross between political polemic and cartoon, although it is not animated. There is no subtlety, no depth of character other than vague goodwill, and every scene exists to prove a point on the outline of an essay which might be titled Too Much of a Good Thing: How Humanity Won All Challenges and Atrophied Into Mental Retardation. The underlying pro-eugenics theme does not focus, as most of them do or movies such as Gattaca flirt with, on the production of superior beings so much as on the proliferation of average ones, and how that in turn induces average to consistently lower itself to avoid excluding anyone. The most crushing scene occurs when lead character Joe Bauers attempts to explain simple reality to a group of future-idiots, and is mocked for his trouble by those who rely on supposed “superior” knowledge.
I doubt this movie will find any fans in our established elites, for whom the idiots of this hypothetical — and it is best to put a big fat question mark next to that word — future seem like ideal constituents. Nor will it find many political supporters, since it avoids taking a side and instead points numbly and ardently at the elephant in the room. It is however most effective as a type of conditioning, in that after watching this movie the traits of people around in stand revealed in their full selfishness/narcissism, denial and manipulative distraction. For that reason, it fits within the metal worldview of seeing our society as a hugbox of denial of its own decline, and the rot coming from within and being masked by — not helped by — the rhetoric of peace, love, equality, subsidy and happiness which is the opiate of our fellow citizens as they zone out and wait to become idiots of the future.
Some movies one chooses to entertain. Some one chooses to feel profound. Others are chosen because they take a grim reality and make a kind of beauty of it. Something, Anything looks into the void of modern life from a passive perspective, and absent two major flaws, evokes what more of us should be thinking about, and what is gratifying to see clarified in such a striking way.
The film centers on Margaret Montgomery, a recently-married woman with a job in real-estate who starts to have doubts about… well, everything. Her husband is distant because he views her as a means to an end, her job is directed at personal profit at the expense of others, and her friends view her as a social distraction or dolls for their own manipulative playhouses. The result is that in the midst of much activity, Margaret is completely alone. When a life-changing event comes her way, she scoots out of the disaster and retreats to a solitary life with a relatively menial job, small apartment and simple schedule. At the same time, she is distracted by a letter from a monk, who writes what may be the only authentic sentiment she hears in the film, and becomes fascinated by the monastic lifestyle, even discarding most of her worldly possessions in order to get better clarity in her own mind. The film contrasts external freedom, with money/job/popularity, to internal freedom or the ability to know oneself and through that, to be able to see the world clearly.
The film possesses two fatal flaws. The first is its Christian tendency which would not be offensive except in that it directs the film toward a pity object, namely English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, which is another form of grotesque empathy for the third world that lost white Christians use to convince themselves they have found meaning. The second is the ending, which relies on broad strokes of a brush in a film that has made a point of evading those in favor of introspection, but this is understandable as it is very difficult to convey internal development onto the screen. These glitches drop this movie from a recommendation to a passing phenomenon, because otherwise it perfectly portrays the emptiness and false choices of an externalized modern life, in a cross between Steppenwolf and Office Space.
Something, Anything is not a happy film. It is a film about how we fail to do any soul-searching, and make ourselves into plastic cutouts that stumble through life reacting to perceived needs without any knowledge of why we do these things and thus no ability to appreciate them. Like the best of modernity-critical works, it shows us how people essentially use each other as means to an end, and how there is never a goal beyond personal desires and it is suffocating people. Filmed sparsely and with deliberate attention to minimalistic detail, the film is visually beautiful and accurately represents the brainless emptiness of this time in a way that channels the viewer toward wanting to demand more instead of simply laughing, burping and purchasing something else to distract the numb brain for another few hours.
Mike Judge’s long-awaited second live-action feature, IDIOCRACY, debuted last weekend. What, you didn’t know that? Did you get the memo? You must live in such out-of-the-way hix nix towns as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston … y’know … cities where people wouldn’t “get” Mike Judge and where OFFICE SPACE tanked because his scathing satire on work and bureaucracy was completely alien to them. Remember that moment in SPINAL TAP when the manager tells them the Boston gig fell through because it’s not much of a college town? That was awesome.
My bud Bilge at Nerve.comexcoriates the suits at 20th Century Fox (over and over) for dumping IDIOCRACY, and for what sounds like really good reasons like messing with Judge’s cut, and sitting on it for two years before dumping, etc. So, the film came with the aura of failure, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two stats suffice — (1) as I type this about 845pm Monday, the new Mike Judge film on opening weekend still doesn’t have five IMDb votes; (2) if you go to the Fox site, there is no mention of IDIOCRACY. At all. Really.
Now I’m a pretty hard-core realist when it comes to selling movies and I don’t think studios have any obligation to lose money or throw good money after bad. I’m not under any illusion that Judge has made a potential gazillion-dollar blockbuster. And it’s certainly possible that Judge made a stinker (Homer nods; Hitchcock made THE PARADINE CASE, etc.).
But do American studios any longer know how to market a small movie to a niche audience, except through their boutique divisions like … um … Fox Searchlight? “Un Film de Mike Judge,” “from the creator of OFFICE SPACE” [or BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD or KING OF THE HILL] has got to be worth enough tickets to make at least a half-ass push worthwhile. OFFICE SPACE wasn’t a big hit (Fox didn’t do very well by that film either, but I was able to see it in Augusta, Ga., fercryinoutloud), but subsequent word of mouth has turned it into one of the defining cult films of its era.
Right now on my IM system at work (and I swear this is a coincidence), the public greeting reads “Remember to put the cover sheet in your TPS reports.” Others on my menu include “Where’s my stapler” and “yeeeeah … welllll … I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.” Another person at work has his public message right now as “sounds like a case of the Mondays” and others on his menu have included “did you get that memo.” There’s at least a half-dozen people in the newsroom with whom I regularly exchange OFFICE SPACE lines. And it’s not a slam at any particular workplace or supervisor — OFFICE SPACE is golden to anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy.
Do the suits at Fox realize what kind of Cult Status all three of Judge’s major works have? All have their own universe of devoted cultists. The rewards come later than opening weekend of course, and they require patience because they depend on word of mouth, so they won’t affect the quarterly balance. But the DVD sales and multiple editions “with flair,” etc. do come and in a veritable torrent by the standards of two, three, or four years later. And it’s not as though Judge’s movies cost $200 million to make. But Fox still can go through the motions for MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND and JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE (info still on the front page at the Fox Movies site) and let’s not forget the upcoming masterpiece THE MARINE starring beefcake model/pro wrestler John Cena. So if THE IDIOCRATS isn’t the absolute indisputable worst movie of the year, or ever, this treatment is absolutely unconscionable.
And it’s an insult to the artist who created BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD and OFFICE SPACE and who (most inexplicably of all) has gotten good ratings for Fox TV with his KING OF THE HILL. One wonders why Judge would continue to have a relationship with Fox TV after this shitty treatment. Maybe a key is Judge’s personality, at least as portrayed in this profile in the June issue of Esquire. He doesn’t seem like the intransigent, self-destructive perfectionist, like a Tarkovsky or a Dreyer. I don’t blame him, by any means, and it may very well be that the personality portrayed in Esquire is the beaten-down one of a dog that’s taken one too many whippings. Or at best, he’s triaged THE IDIOCRATS in the hopes that playing ball and not being difficult, things’ll be better next time.
THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY [Wedding Daze] (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)
Crass Stupidity, Part I. I understand that the guidebook for a film festival needs to make every film sound appetizing, so I know better than to blame the Toronto Festival’s writers if a movie turns out to be bad. But there still is an implicit moral contract of a certain amount of truth-in-advertising. I knew this was a commercial comedy going in. I was not prepared for how utterly crass and juvenile THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY was — pace these explicit words of Noah Cowan: “Black’s timing and rhythm is unerringly precise. He takes a sophisticated, adult approach to situations that might otherwise yield cheap laughs.” THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a yarmulke-wearing character who designs such toys as “Jew-nicorns” (get it) and “Jew-la hoops” in the shape of the Star of David (get it … “Jew-la” … rhymes with “hula”). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a father talks to his newly-engaged son about marriage and what he needs to know about the facts of life. But now Dad can pass down to Son his favorite cock ring, for when he needs extra endurance (it did not help that the son is played by Jason Biggs, who starred in a great but identical-in-premise scene in AMERICAN PIE opposite “father” Eugene Levy). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a newly-engaged couple on a bus put their ears up against a woman’s bulging belly. This is the exchange close as I can recall: “I feel it kicking … I can hear a heartbeat … When is the baby due? … I’m not pregnant.” Yes, that’s the sophisticated, adult approach that doesn’t go far cheap laughs. Now, my complaint is not that I did not laugh and I found THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY unbearably crass and nihilistic (though I did … and I could rant all day about this film’s worldview and understanding of love). What I find funny is not Cowan’s or TIFF’s responsibility. Nor is it my point that I never enjoy cheap laughs and/or the turning off of adult sophistication — I still rather like PORKY’S, 25 years later. But there is noway, nohow, no two opinions on whether PLEASURE’s approach to humor is “cheap” or “sophisticated,” and thus the festival’s description is a lie. Noway otherwise. Nohow.
COEURS [Private Fears in Public Places] (Alain Resnais, France, 9)
This film may be profitting by the dogs surrounding it, but I rather doubt it. Even the people who don’t embrace COEURS as full-on-great like I do — like “Lee Walker,” Michael Sicinski (pan down to the 14th) and Theo acknowledge that Resnais’ direction and Eric Gauthier’s cinematography are nothing short of flawless and there is much to like in this movie, even if they don’t think it quite comes together, as I do. It’s a very English film, with a strong resemblance to BRIEF ENCOUNTER — covering a lot of the same emotional ground, within the same reserved emotional register and a similar “life goes on as we endure unhappily” ending. Stylewise, COEURS is simply an unimpeachable treat — loading up on the unnaturally dazzling and color-saturated images, but with light schemes like the fluorescent light tubes at bars, the glass-with-Macs look at an office, etc., which give that dazzling look a reality.
As for content, I’m not ready to make the “Alain Resnais has found religion” speech (though I have some notes for a rough draft), but there’s no doubt that mortality casts its shadow over everything in this film by this 84-year-old Master. COUERS is filled with snow … all the fades between scenes are of fades to falling snow rather than the usual black (with IS used to great contrasting effect to mark the divisions among acts). It’s an image of winter, a memento mori, and an annual reminder that everything in this world ends, and not always on the terms we’d like. There is a scene between Charlotte and Lionel (brilliantly played by Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi) in which the two discuss religion and Hell, which suddenly blinks from a familiar interior set to a snow-bound one. Charlotte is a rare figure in contemporary movies — a conventionally religious woman, a Catholic, who is never made a mockery of or the object of satire therein. She has a past, which is used to some comic effect, but … trying to vague … her sin doesn’t work as planned and it’s clearly shown as a one-off. But in this gentle snowbound exchange on the existence of Hell, she plainly has the upper hand as COEURS presents it. It’s a lovely scene but the one where I welled up the most was one in which Lionel described to Charlotte why he’s taking care of this comic tyrant of an old father. It’s unostentatious, dutiful and quietly moving in a way that middle-class middlebrow tragedy. Charlotte says at another point that “God blesses us with trials,” and neither COUERS nor the Toronto audience took it as a laugh line.
I obviously did not find NOT ON THE LIPS to be off-puttingly stylized to the point of aggravation or alienation. But some did, and you can rest easy on that front (you might not like COEURS obviously, but *that* should not be a problem). There’s no mugging, no fourth-wall breaking, no rhyming couplets or songs, though there’s some very stylized lighting and Resnais keeps the seven principal characters within about a half-dozen settings, and within what-I-take-to-be Alan Ayckbourne’s structure. And I see I’ve written a lot about this film without mentioning the brilliant performance by Lambert Wilson, who goes from depressed to jaunty without changing a thing or overdoing it; the way the film does a Hong Song-soo by recapitulating romantic relationships (admittedly among an ensemble) from one act to the next; or the way the three videotapes Charlotte loans to Thierry (Andre Dussolier — another brilliant performance) change both in meaning and in content, for her, for him and his girlfriend. There’s just that much to love.
OUTSOURCED (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)
Crass Stupidity, Part II. Despite its title, this movie just uses the phenomenon of shipping service jobs abroad as an excuse to get The Innocent Abroad for a culture-clash romantic comedy, of a very rote pedigree. But Jeffcoat is not Mark Twain, though. We get the driver assuring the American arriving in India, to train his call-service office’s replacements, that “our town is very clean.” Cut to man peeing against the wall. Ho ho ho. The hero’s name is “Todd,” but the Indians call him “Mr. Toad” (there’s a lot more in this vein. Apu on THE SIMPSONS speaks better English than most of these Indians, thankyouvirrymuch). We get jokes about having to rent the Kama Sutra Suite at the hotel, misunderstandings over what hand to use to eat versus to wipe your ass (I saw another movie with that same joke earlier today), and attempts to explain the differences between rubbers, erasers and condoms. Yuk yuk yuk. And it wouldn’t be a movie about India without a failed attempt to get beef or The Innocent Abroad wondering why there is a cow wandering about someplace incongruous. If any of this description sounds funny to you, by all means rush out and see OUTSOURCED. There is one scene that works, in which the romantic leads, Josh Hamilton (not a bad match for Ron Livingston in OFFICE SPACE) and Ayesha Dharker (best remembered by me for the great Tamil film THE TERRORIST) are on a ferry trip. They recite each’s stereotypes of the other in the other’s accents. Dharker’s American English is near-perfect and Hamilton’s Indian English is at least broad enough and self-aware to be funny. They’re an attractive couple, and the scene works because it crackles with wit and spontaneity rather than 100 bad standup routines.
STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)
I capped off a wildly uneven day with this film, which was hastily-added for two days after its surprising win at Venice, where it took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. STILL LIFE has a scene where a rotating fan starts to move from right to left, but the fan blades don’t start to turn for a couple of seconds. Those couple of seconds sum up this snoozefest — lots of panning, but feeling nothing because the engine is dead. Some friends were convinced there were some video/color-correction issues. But obviously the film had arresting images of the effects of China’s plan to dam up the Yangtze River, flooding large areas in the resulting artificial lakes. Thus requiring a lot of demolition workers, the milieu through which the principal “character” moves in a quest to find his lost family from long ago (METAPHOR ALERT!!!!). And I enjoyed some of the images of buildings being demolished, and Jia’s framing of one demolition through the ripped hole in another building’s wall. Plus the sheer wtf-ness of a building suddenly blasting off into space. In other words, Jia has made a movie that would be really interesting if it weren’t boring as ass. To quote Mike D’Angelo apropos another film: “there are no human beings in [this] movie” (actually, there is one: the young man who tries to act like Chow Yun-fat. He disappears from the movie in its only moment of emotional heft). Everyone else mopes through this movie like a brain-damaged zombie on Ritalin. Double-dose. It’s as if Jia thinks that landscapes can create character. They cannot. And after a while, his attempts to substitute landscapes for things like incisive dialogue and psychology — both absent from these depressive undead/lumps of dead air — gets irritating. Impressive though it was, the dialogue when the central couple finally meet and discuss a divorce is so thumpingly banal that the (admittedly interesting in concept) way that the background changes as the camera tracks/pans around them didn’t impress me. It just aggravated me. At least, it was better than the top-prize winner at Cannes. But not as good as Berlin (TC).
Nearly as perverse as THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY and actually more explicit (believe it or not), but also near-comic as Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hayley Squires act and talk like normal people in the midst of all the stylized behavior and dialogue in the store, which pushes the material from the polished high-tone of BURGUNDY into “unintentional” farce here. Squires’ request for a refund for the dress is a classic comic howler, as is everything involving the Strickland equivalent of OFFICE SPACE’s Bobs, Jean-Baptiste’s blind dates, the TV ads, everything involving washing machines, both action and dialog. And yet ... this is by any reasonable definition a horror movie, a diptych around a cursed object and the most perversely creepy and attractive store since A CHRISTMAS STORY. A measure of Strickland’s mad method, also seen in BURGUNDY, is that certain objects (answering machines; TV resolution) would seem to date the film clearly (1980s) while other such dating objects (cars, explicit dialog and IRL events, clothes) are either perversely kept semi-offscreen or absent. IN FABRIC doesn’t really feel like it belongs in any period. Everything about this eccentric film works as long as you’re on Strickland’s wavelength, and the only reason I’m holding back on a 9 is that ... I’m not sure FABRIC, unlike BURGUNDY, is really about anything beyond its own method. Open to being convinced otherwise...
My reaction to this movie is, rationally speaking, impossible. BORN AND BRED is a 100-minute movie. For the first 98 minutes of it, I was completely uninterested in it. Oh, I didn’t hate it — BORN AND BRED is professionally made, professionally acted, technically competent, not morally repulsive or otherwise objectionable per se. I was just utterly indifferent. The early part of the film plays like a Haneke depiction of a well-off Buenos Aires bourgeois couple with their perfect child — only as shot by a TV-movie crew and a network dramedy writing team. I knew that something would happen to burst this perfect (and perfectly inert) bubble. Sure enough it does, and once I realized what had happened next and that the movie on my mind should have been BLUE, I knew where BORN AND BRED would go. And one (very well-telegraphed) difference from the Kieslowski aside, that’s exactly what happened. Fitfully. And with little of interest happening through the slog, though someone with more interest in landscapes and scenery than me might enjoy the vistas of either southern Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego. But then the last scene happened (and it’s not a scene that’s unexpected or otherwise recodes the first 98 minutes), and I felt a lump in the throat. I was actually kinda moved by the reunion, though I should not have been. Not moved enough to recommend BORN AND BRED or to be interested in seeing it again to see if I missed something. But there it is. I report; you decide.
OFFSIDE (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 8 )
Mike D’Angelo once dismissed an Iranian movie, saying (close as I recall) “why do the women in this set-in-Iran movie act as if they don’t know that the status of women in Iran is shit.” If Mike wasn’t referring to Panahi’s THE CIRCLE, he should (also) have been, and that’s what makes OFFSIDE such a step forward over that piece of feminist hand-wringing masquerading as a movie. These Iranian women know their status, and the basic plot premise is about their efforts to get around it and do something particular that men take for granted, in this case (though obviously it stands for more than itself) by getting into Tehran’s national soccer stadium for a World Cup qualifying game against Bahrain. (One word of advice for soccer geeks — don’t keep score during the drama.) Like Panahi’s WHITE BALLOON and CRIMSON GOLD, it’s a simple premise that gets developed to the fullest in the course of a long day. There are lengthy sequences of 20-plus minutes (here, taking a woman to the bathroom, like CRIMSON GOLD’s pizza man stuck on the street while a vice raid is going on) that actually use plausible drama rather than a soapbox to illustrate how Iranians live with/don’t live with/undermine their theocratic regime’s stifling restrictions on women. To its eternal credit, OFFSIDE also shows how the women are actually real soccer fans and Iranian patriots first — when Iran scores, they chant “Iran forever” and sing the same frenzied cheers the men do (“Iran blankets you with goals” — which I assume sounds better in the original). This is not only more believable — I remember waiting to see Pope John Paul, standing for four hours next to a Brazilian woman who knew as much about soccer and was as opinionated about it as I — but OFFSIDE thus shows how national pride matters. It not only isn’t dimmed by an oppressive regime, but (and I will be vague) such nationalism even offers a space for dissent or undermining such a tyranny. And God bless him, Panahi never pushes that point as such, though it’s plain to anyone with two eyes.
CASHBACK (Sean Ellis, Britain, 4)
I didn’t see the same-titled short film that this grew out of, but now I do want to — and not for a particularly good reason. I was assured by fellow film geek Jason Overbeck that the short CASHBACK doesn’t have the most aggravating facet of the feature CASHBACK. That score. Gawd is it ever incessant. We get the standard “Bolero” and Bellini’s “Norma” interpolations (which is obviously fine music in itself) and a lot of piano-tinkling mickey-mousing. A lot. In fact, the music is practically wall-to-wall, particularly during the incessant slo-mo sequences about how you want to freeze time to snatch and savor all the beauty in it — to the point that the music became the dominant fact about the film for me. Imagine the paper-bag sequence from AMERICAN BEAUTY. Now imagine it for about 40 minutes of a 90-minute movie. It’s supposed to evoke all sorts of romantic heartache and longing, but it mostly gave me an ache somewhere else and left me longing for a stiff drink. I began to sympathize with people who say Wong Kar-wai used Yumeji’s Theme too much (but come on … that’s way better music, and it accompanies Maggie sashaying in a qipao). It’s as if Ellis didn’t have enough confidence in his drama — and supporting this thesis, CASHBACK also has a great deal of voiceover narration. Pity. The basic premise (and what the short is) is an OFFICE-SPACE like portrayal of My Strange Workmates at the Supermarket Overnight Shift. Had potential — there are some real eccentrics here. But Ellis tries to flesh it out with backstory into a low-budget romantic comedy. The material was way too thin for that.
If I had to put my finger on the defining feature of contemporary American life, it would be anger. Everyone is angry about something, and in many cases, it is often an individual’s most defining characteristic. Mainstream conservatives are convinced that they have somehow been cheated out of their birthright, because liberals just won’t get with the program, and mainstream liberals are convinced that America would transform into utopia overnight, were it not for those other people with their nasty (and admittedly superficial, for the most part) hang-ups about tradition and morality and so forth. An entire cottage industry has sprung up around tapping into – and of course, making money off of – this anger, on both the “left” and the “right” (I put those terms in quotes since there is no genuine left/right dichotomy in the United States today, but only two branches of liberalism with slightly different priorities). The latest product to roll off the assembly line of anger is the film, God Bless America.
The film’s story, such as it is, is extremely basic: Frank, a middle-aged, divorced White office worker in Syracuse, New York, is hit with a double-dose of disaster, first being fired, and then being told by his doctor that he has a fatal brain tumor. Fed up with the state of America, Frank decides to use his remaining time on this Earth to rid the country of people whom he thinks are having a bad effect on it. He begins by tracking down the starlet of a popular reality TV show, a girl who got upset on-screen with her parents over the choice of car they gave to her for her birthday. Frank finds her at her high school and guns her down, in the process meeting up with a 16-year-old girl named Roxy, who is inspired by Frank’s actions and insists on coming with him. Together, the two begin crisscrossing the country, killing various media figures who they don’t like, and, predictably, becoming martyrs to their “cause” on the set of another reality TV show (obviously an imitation of American Idol).
The film starts out with some potential, resembling what might happen if Office Space were to meet Falling Down, following the formula of an entirely average office drone living a life of quiet desperation until, one day, he snaps. It’s not original in any way, but potentially interesting. The film quickly goes off the rails, however, when Roxy is introduced, and never makes it back on. The story and characters meander without any real point or apparent forethought by the film’s writers, basically being about a middle-aged man fed up with the fact that Americans aren’t “nice” enough to suit him anymore (he has no stated political motivation), trying to get along with a teen who seems to have little reason to be homicidally angry other than because America doesn’t live up to her NPR-liberal’s idea about what it should be (she continually harps on about “people who won’t let gay people get married,” surely the root of all America’s evils).
The finger is pointed at the usual bogeymen: reality TV, Fox News, and even George W. Bush (apparently, three years on, he’s still responsible for America’s entire cultural situation). But there are no real insights into any of it, and nothing ever gets resolved – we’re just supposed to cheer as the duo gun people down, since surely, we are just as frustrated and lacking in real solutions as they are. Certainly, there are lots of problems in America today, and this film briefly touches on a few of them, but by the end of the film, the two characters, and presumably the film’s writers as well, are just as clueless about their real causes or what to do about them as they are at the beginning. Apparently, they think it’s enough to just blow off a little steam with some mindless violence, and then go on about our empty lives, supporting the American Moloch.
This raises an interesting question: why are Americans incapable of imagining a solution to our social and cultural ills that rises beyond going on a shooting spree (something we already have more than enough of in real life, thank you)? Have our collective imaginations been so dulled, and our attention spans been so shortened, that we can’t imagine solving a problem in any other way? Films like this certainly seem to indicate that. In earlier times, it was understood that bringing about social change meant a lot of contemplation, study, time, dedication and hard work, not to mention an ability for self-criticism (something these characters, like most Americans today, are too self-righteous to be capable of). But that’s too much trouble – it’s much more satisfying to just indulge in random acts of violence against our perceived enemies.
The other thing that irked me about the film is that television is the story’s primary demon, and yet the protagonists, in spite of their professed hatred for what’s on it, can’t stop watching it, and often express themselves in terms of references to popular TV shows and movies. This seems indicative of a strange paradox present throughout American life today. People complain about reality TV, or Fox News, or whatever, and yet they clearly possess detailed and up-to-the-minute knowledge about what they profess to hate, which they use to make themselves even angrier about “the state of America.”
Here’s a novel idea: TURN THE DAMN THING OFF! The last I checked, TV viewing isn’t yet compulsory in America. But the “off” button seems beyond the capacity of the average American’s imagination, these days. Everyone wants to be jacked in to something 24 hours a day. Apparently, it beats living.
It’s easy enough to make short shrift of this film, but I still find myself wondering about all this anger, which seems endemic throughout America today. I first began to notice this coming to prominence of anger in American life during the Clinton years. Conservatives hated Clinton with a passion I had not yet seen up to that point in my life. They hated him with a fervor typically reserved for a high school nerd’s jealousy of the prom king.
Although the real spark was the contentious 2000 election. This resulted in liberals feeling cheated and victimized for the next eight years, and conservatives becoming convinced that their opponents were out to sabotage the country by any means necessary. And throwing 9/11 into the equation was like adding lighter fluid. American political “discourse,” such as it is, has been white-hot ever since.
With Obama’s election, the paradigm simply reversed itself, but to me, it seems that the nation has been in an apocalyptic rage continuously since 2000. And I imagine this is now the norm, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
This anger is simply a distraction from the genuine issues, which most Americans are too stupid, timid and/or lazy to face – mainly because the average American hasn’t yet begun to feel the deep pain that is coming our way from the real, and much more disturbing, problems on the horizon. And few people are willing to wake up to the fact that both mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives are equally clueless about, not to mention culpable in, driving America toward the yawning gorge into which it Is soon to plunge, irrevocably so.
And the media industry is more than happy to help out, offering distraction after distraction while lining their pockets with the fruits of the people’s frustration. Besides, Americans are constantly on the edge of boredom and demand continual amusement – and politics is still the best show in town. Fox News and MSNBC are just modern forms of the Romans’ infamous bread and circuses (and, ironically, this is a point that is also made in God Bless America, in one of its few cogent moments).
I’m sure there is a great film waiting to be made about the American cultural predicament, but this isn’t it. I was reminded of the 1976 classic Network, which thematically overlaps with God Bless America in many ways, and how insightful and prophetic it was about the role that television was beginning to take in American cultural, economic and social life. I imagine there aren’t many filmmakers today who are capable of making a film of such depth.
God Bless America is just pornography for White middle-class liberals, essentially Bill Maher taken to a (more) ridiculous level. I just hope that a real critique can get made before it’s too late – if it isn’t already. Time is running out.
Note: this was written during the 2008 season.
For the would be-fabulous young woman on the move in New York City, “Sex and the City” is to “30 Rock” what:
(a) Vogue is to Ladies Home Journal.
(b) “Fight Club” is to “Office Space.”
(c) Anne Hathaway is to Kathy Bates.
(d) Ninjas are to tollbooth workers.
Answer: (e), all of the above. I cheated, the same way the city cheats the expectations of the shiploads of smart women who scramble off the gangplanks every hour searching for cool media jobs and darkly alluring men. What happens when you actually clamber to the top and find no one to share the view except other women and gay men?
“30 Rock” is one of the liveliest comedies on TV, freshening the familiar — one relatively sane person dealing with a swirl of nutjobs —- with a jazzy rhythm of unexpected allusions and surreal cutaways. Creator/star Tina Fey wants it to be more than that, though. She wants it to say something.
What it says is that professional girl life isn’t “Sex and the City.” That show, which was created by one gay man (Darren Star) and largely run by another (Michael Patrick King) was an odd mix of believable single-gal horror stories and gay fantasy in a skirt; the scene from this summer’s “Sex and the City” movie in which the camera gazes upon the mating equipment of Samantha’s hunky neighbor as he showers outdoors could have been lifted from a porno called Soapy Stallions.
When asked by an adoption agency how often she entertains “gentlemen sex guests,” “30 Rock”’s winsome TV writer Liz Lemon (Fey) replied, “Once a year.” All that is left of the sex buffet is picked-over scraps: “Liz—I’m getting drinks with recently divorced camera guy—are you in? Legally separated sound guy’s gonna be there.”
Liz, like much of the city’s female professional class, isn’t particularly young (Fey is 38), works 60 to 80 hours a week, is not only unmarried but often boyfriendless and, despite having a much better job than Carrie Bradshaw ever did, is more IKEA than DKNY. Economically speaking, her show accessorizes the malaise years as well as “SATC” did the investment-banking era.
Liz reels the single-girl imagery back to Bridget Jones-land. (She has a thing for Colin Firth movies). As her boss Jack Donaghy (a redoubtable Alec Baldwin) put it to Liz in season two, “Big night, Lemon? Let me guess. Meatball sub, extra bread? Bottle of Nyquil? TiVo Top Chef, a little Miss Bonnie Raitt, lights out.” You won’t find a crueler satire of single women anywhere on TV.
“30 Rock” isn’t about glass ceilings or unequal treatment. When Jack asked Liz if she had ever been sexually harassed, the two looked at each other for a moment, then replied in unison, “Of course not.” When Liz contemplates dating a 20-year-old, Jack tells her, “A youthful companion is the ultimate status accessory.” Liz is the one who says, “Maybe you can pull that off. You’re a man. It’s different for women.” “That is so sexist of you!” Jack says—and it’s funny because she’s right and he’s ridiculous.
Liz is past all the feminist stuff, if a little guilty about it. The most pointed episode to date came last year when Liz met her idol – Rosemary (Carrie Fisher), a pioneering comedy writer – who turned out to be an angry, penniless old battleax who dreamed of writing movies about “Women in their 50s [who] join the army and get laid by a bunch of grateful 18 year olds.” As Liz begins to back away, Rosemary cries, like a menopausal Princess Leia, “I broke barriers for you….I didn’t have any kids. You’re my kid. You’re my kid that never calls! Help me, Liz Lemon, you’re my only hope!” Liz goes on to tell Jack, “Rosemary says that women become obsolete in this business when there’s no one left that wants to see them naked.” But, she decides: So what?
Season three began with theme music that parodied the score of “Sex and the City” as Liz strutted and took a catcall from a man in a limo. Mr. Big? No, Mr. Weird — Jack, her freaky boss. Liz was dressed up (to the best of her abilities) for a meeting with the adoption agency she called in the course, apparently, of giving up on ever finding love. “If my home evaluation goes well I’ll be a mother by the time I’m 50,” Liz mused. “We really can have it all.” Somewhere, a viewer is getting spooked and popping in the “Sex and the City” DVD so she can reassure herself that a hunky zillionaire will lovingly build her her own shoe closet.
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