Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Woman Under the Influence

If we accept the idea that, deep down, all American movies are stories of consumerist wish fulfillment, then the rags-to-riches genre could be the great Hollywood meta-narrative, the fantasy that undergirds all the others. These films perform that fundamental Hollywood promise: If we can simply tap into our reserves of indomitable brilliance, we can transcend our daily lives and enter a utopia of romance and wealth and, well, happiness. If this unlikely but lovable hero can beat the odds through sheer grit and charisma, the dream whispers, then so can you. David O. Russell, once an indie idiosyncrat, has lately been taking a tour of the venerable old-Hollywood genres. He's made his sports movie (The Fighter), his rom-com (Silver Linings Playbook) and his prestige picture (American Hustle); it shouldn't surprise us that rags-to-riches is next.

On its face, Joy hews closely to the conventions of the genre. Jennifer Lawrence is a deeply harried divorcee and working mom struggling to hold a dysfunctional family together. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is an agoraphobic, silk nightgowned diva who spends her time in bed, almost fully absorbed in a "Dynasty"-ish nighttime soap opera. Joy's ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), an under-employed nightclub singer, lives in her basement, as does her father, a volatile, paternalistic ("colorful" might be the euphemism) Robert de Niro type, played by Robert de Niro. Also in Joy's orbit are Peggy, the resentful half-sister, Trudy, the miserly stepmother, played with majestic, alien witchery by Isabella Rossellini (as if she could do it any other way) and children doing their childlike things. This family bickers in the screwballish, hyper-verbal way that we have come to expect from Russell's families. And all of this energy--the complaints, the grievances, the stream of expectation and demand--converges on Joy. She is the only adult in the room, the family's provider, mediator and problem-solver.

We learn in a series of dreamy flashbacks narrated by Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) that Joy was a touched child. She was the valedictorian of her class; she crafted deeply realized imaginary worlds; she had a gift for invention and ingenuity. Nevertheless, Mimi's dreams for Joy never stray too far from the domestic: "You are going to be a smart, strong young woman," she tells the young Joy, "go to school, meet a fine young man, have beautiful children of your own and you're gonna build wonderful things that you do in your room."[sic]

But that dream of domestic ease (it must simply be a dream of wealth--how else could working motherhood come off so pastorally?) has been lost in the struggle to survive. Joy has been thoroughly ensnared in the demands of lower-middle-class family life. Her gifts and potential seem to have gone unrealized. Unrealized, that is, until, in a burst of inspiration, she invents the miracle mop. Using every ounce of her charisma and moxie, she charms a powerful QVC executive named Neil Walker (played by Bradley Cooper, Lawrence's old foil) into giving her and her mop a shot. Despite her family's poisonously low expectations, despite the burdens of debt and trademark law, despite daunting economies of scale and the ruthlessness of her competitors, not to mention a gnarly case of stage fright, Joy rises to fame and fortune, a trailblazer for other housewife/entrepreneurs after her.

Call it optimism or call it conservatism, but rags-to-riches films have typically displayed a credulous faith in American social mobility. And Joy, on the surface at least, is no different. It is a fable attesting to the transcendant power of entrepreneurial talent, a paean to the domestic and an allegory of spiritual-capitalist predestination.

Seems pretty straightforward. But what's strange is that while the the film's last act, in which our hero triumphantly overcomes the odds etc, is essentially a cobbled together mess of deuses-ex-machina and miraculous reversals of fortune, Russell invests the full freight of his cinematic ingenuity in depicting Joy's domestic confinement. He intertwines memory and present-day reality within the same spatial-temporal plane. The camera pans from scenes of Joy's childhood to the present day. The former provides commentary on the latter, pointing out the contrast between her youthful promise and the perpetual crisis that is her adult life. The border between them is fluid, as if to illustrate the ease with which youth slides into adulthood, with which possibilities become foreclosed. And the comic surrealism of Joy's present day is vintage Russell. Joy's house rings with the noise of needy children and bickering grown-ups--while, all the while, Terry lounges queenlike (though utterly dependent on Joy), her soap-operatic fantasy world endlessly streaming from the TV. The space is a little too small and ramshackle for the emotional and physical chaos it contains. The scene plays as comedy but it is a comedy that reverberates with anxiety--in this case, the anxiety produced by surfeits of energy and money and time, by the all-too-familiar overwhelm of domestic life.

The whole tableau trembles with a kind of madcap surreality. When Terri's compulsive hair-brushing results in a clogged pipe, Joy brusquely rips a hole in the floor and begins pounding away, water spraying everywhere, even as her family's noise continues unabated. It's as if the architecture of Joy's life were crumbling away, as if reality had become a farce. It's a perfect illustration of what Lauren Berlant calls "crisis ordinariness," that condition of perpetual economic and social precarity so endemic to contemporary everyday life. It is what happens "when the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it has meant to 'have a life' that adjustment seems like an accomplishment."

Given all of this, it's hard not to see Joy's appearances on QVC, like Terry's soap opera, as simply another mediated dream. Joy stands on a rotating soundstage outfitted to project a fantasy of order, cleanliness and domestic beauty. She is selling a mop, but the floor is already sparkling and spotless. There are no kids, no bickering adults, no holes in the floor. It is silent, save for the pacifying muzak and the music of Joy's deep, Long Island rasp. Sure, Joy rejects the costume department's glamorizing outfits in favor of her own uniform of a button-down blouse and slacks. But this only contributes to the fantasy of earthy comfort. How easy life could be in this kitchen with this mop! The charm and luxury it could provide!  The divergence of this fantasy from Joy's home life seems to reveal it as another false promise, just another ode to consumption--not to mention female domestic labor--as a means to happiness. That Joy is attempting to realize her dream of the good life from within the conditions of her own confinement, that she is doubling down on a fantasy that has already proven bankrupt, is an irony that the film passes over in silence.

This irony is made darker and more salient by the speed and violence with which Joy's entrepreneurial dream comes crashing down around her. In the film's most savage scene, Joy's family confronts her with the news that, despite her mop's success, bad legal advice has made bankruptcy inevitable. "It's my fault," says her father. "I gave her the confidence to think that she was more than just an unemployed housewife selling plastic kitchen stuff to other unemployed housewives on a junk cable channel...It was my mistake to make me think that she was more than she was." The moment seems to refute the possibility of class mobility and economic hope and even the very idea of a woman aspiring to more than domestic servitude. With her father, her lawyers, and the now-ghoulish Trudy looming over her, Joy signs her business away. She turns to her young daughter and calmly rebukes her for holding fast to Mimi's fantasy. "The world does not give you opportunities," she says. "It destroys your opportunities. And it breaks your heart."

Which makes the film's final act even stranger and more unbelievable. In a stirring research montage (fundamental elements include: protagonist in glasses gasping epiphanically over a crucial document), Joy discovers a fraud perpetrated by one of her creditors. She flies to Dallas to confront him, unleashes a torrent of wit and emerges victorious, contract in hand, her capitalist destiny restored. Flash forward to a quick montage of Joy as the scion of an empire, shrewdly cutting deals, luxuriating in that realized dream of wealthy, tranquil domesticity and doling out opportunities to other harried moms with good ideas. Roll credits.

Suffice it to say, this smacks of narrative desperation. The sudden, frankly incredible stroke of fortune only reveals the story's basic unbelievability. Because Joy's situation is impossible. And in its impossibility, it powerfully depicts the forces arrayed against a working woman's hope for economic advancement--forces of time and space and economy and patriarchal expectation. Only a kind of genius, a woman touched with almost supernatural (or cinematic) gifts of ingenuity, charisma and verbal dexterity could possibly overcome these odds. The fact that the story is based on the life of an actual, living person does not make this observation any less true. Indeed, in the magic of the ending, the film almost acknowledges the preposterousness of the story it wants to tell: the story of the virtuous, self-made woman, the benevolent meritocrat.

In many ways, American Hustle is another telling of this very story. Like Joy, it depicts the way in which survival on capitalism's margins requires ingenious verbal performance and a kind of fantastical self-reinvention. But in American Hustle that self-reinvention becomes outright self-deception. In that version of the story, those margins are morally chaotic; navigating them entails a massive compromise of personal integrity. American Hustle seemed to be indicting capitalism for its inherent tendency toward corruption and moral distortion. In this light, Joy's story of virtuous self-advancement seems all the more naive. Despite the two films' similarities, Joy seems exactly like the kind of yarn that American Hustle was created to repudiate.

"Why," Berlant wonders, "do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies--say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work--when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?" Joy presents that very evidence and yet is unable to resist the fantasy's allure. The film redoubles its investment in a failed economy and in a vision of domestic enchantment demonstrably alien from anything resembling real life. Indeed, Russell's own work has put the lie to this very fantasy. One wonders: Why is he telling this story?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Infinite Justice

Is there a filmmaker alive as adept as Quentin Tarantino at simultaneously delivering pleasure and befuddlement? His virtuosic narrative ability is matched by his willingness to rip the viewer out of their trance with abrupt tone shifts and genre reversals. His worship of cinema history encompasses masterpieces like Stagecoach and Band of Outsiders as well as B-List curiosities like Zorro's Fighting Heroes and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. His fluency in the aesthetics of cinematic violence produces work that is all at once horrifying and beautiful, hilarious and revolting.

And then there is the chutzpah. Isn't it absurd and offensive on its face to even propose the idea of a Samurai revenge treatment of Schindler's List, or a blaxploitation/spaghetti western retelling of Twelve Years a Slave? Our relationship with aestheticized violence is troubled enough as it is; how are we supposed to feel about it in the context of American slavery or the Holocaust? Are we really willing to see these movies as serious engagements with history? And if we don't, are they not just the crassest kind of exploitation? If its a joke, its a pretty profane one. If its art, its fucking bewildering.

The strangeness is heightened by the fact that both of the films referenced above, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, toggle between scenes of horrifying, not-at-all beautiful or funny violence and scenes of spectacular, cartoonish violence. Tarantino's claim to pop-postmodernism is well established and it is nowhere more evident than in his tendency to switch genres without warning within the same film, to segue from art-house character drama to old Hollywood blockbuster, to exploitation flick and back again. It's a technique that he put to thrilling use in the Kill Bill movies and that is significantly more jarring in his history films. After being asked to endure two hours of beatings, whippings and other depictions of antebellum hell, for instance, it is truly strange to see Jaimie Foxx transform into RoboCop and begin mowing down plantation henchmen.

There are a lot of problems at work here: the celebration of violence as a form of historical justice; the cavalier ventriloquism of a white man speaking for oppressed others; the profligate n-bombs; not to mention Tarantino's breezy, dismissive attitude about all of the above. But as his penchant for grand pastiche suggests, Tarantino is a master of meta-cinematic narrative. These films are more than simple homages to trash cinema. Take, for instance, Inglorious Basterds. Yes, we are asked to swallow a counterfactual revenge fantasy in which a platoon of Jewish soldiers mercilessly slaughters German soldiers and in which Hitler dies in a hail of bullets and fire. But that final scene takes place in a movie theater. The all-Nazi audience breathlessly applauds a violent propaganda film about a heroic German soldier, a film that looks suspiciously like the American B war movies that are Inglorious Basterds' aesthetic ancestors. And consider that those cheering Nazis die when the film stock that is the movie's very physical substance is set ablaze, engulfing the theater in flames. When Brad Pitt carves a swastika in Christoph Walz's forehead, are meant to cheer the act of comeuppance? Or reflect on the possibility that, in their lust for revenge, the Americans have become inhuman torturers? Or both? Or consider that in Django, a film whose last act is a riot of cartoonish violence, we watch a room full of Southern gents pay money to see two black men pound each other to death. Yes, the violence is cathartic and spectacular. But in both films our own spectatorship, our own consumption of violent spectacle, is a primary text.

The Hateful Eight is no different. Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, a bounty-hunter attempting to transport a spectacularly foul-mouthed prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, Wyoming where she will, presumably, be hanged. On the way, the two encounter a black union officer and fellow bounty-hunter named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as a former rebel named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Both men hitch a ride in Ruth's carriage. Waylaid by a blizzard, they hole up in Minnie's Haberdashery, a barroom, inn and general store. To their surprise, Minnie is nowhere to be found. In her place are four shady figures: an Englishman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who claims to be Red Rock's hangman; an aging, terminally racist Confederate general/war criminal (Bruce Dern); Bob, the Mexican stable-hand (Demien Bichir); and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy who whiles away the time by scribbling in his diary.  The cabin quickly becomes a crucible for simmering antagonisms: Union and Confederate, lawman and outlaw, white and black. Where is Millie? Who has designs on poaching Daisy from Ruth and claiming her $10,000 bounty? Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Who will crack first?

Almost as quickly, a rather obvious metaphor begins to take shape. As tensions between Warren, Ruth, and the two Confederates mount, Mobray proposes dividing the cabin into two halves, North and South, Union and reb. We seem to be setting the scene for a re-staging of the Civil War. But things begin to unravel. The characters form unpredictable alliances. They assume new identities and discard what would seem to be their most essential political commitments. As Richard Brody points out in his astute essay on the film, "The Hateful Eight turns the stagecoach into a stage, the saloon into a stage, and the occupants into performers telling tales that serve their purposes, such as they are." Every identity is a performance. No story, no artifact is quite what it seems.

The combination of high stakes, constricted space and imperfect information creates a thick, escalating tension. The Hateful Eight is almost a film-length extension of the Mexican standoff, that longtime Tarantino staple. But this suspense is only a catalyst for another jarring genre transformation. Because the last third of The Hateful Eight is a total bloodbath. What was a tense drawing room mystery suddenly becomes a splatterfest. Characters vomit buckets of blood. Limbs are severed. Heads, chests, testicles explode. There is shrieking and carnage; it is totally insane.

The brutally tense first two hours seemed to be leading us toward some great cataclysm on the scale of the Civil War itself. And the last act is indeed cataclysmic, only not in the way that the film has prepared us for. It is silly and excessive, a gross-out rather than a horror, more Evil Dead  than Apocalypse Now. It's too much of what we want, like washing down a fine, six-course tasting menu with a gallon of McDonald's milkshake. In its camp and slapstick elements, it is almost a parody of the narrative payoff we have been expecting--less like tragedy, more like farce.

It feels a bit as if, in subjecting the Civil War, the so-called "second American revolution," to such low-born treatment, Tarantino is profaning hallowed ground. But let's remember: The Civil War was pretty profane itself. Maybe the war was too catastrophically surreal--picture, you know, rivers running with blood, acres of meadow filled with bloated, teenaged American corpses--to ever be adequately represented on-screen, at least in the typically reverent way. Maybe The Hateful Eight is suggesting that our political ideals and our national identity, are founded on a violence so extreme--from the Native American genocide through slavery and the Civil War--that it renders our high toned rhetoric of justice, democracy and virtue absurd. Maybe it takes a burlesque to depict such absurdity with any degree of truthfulness.

The fact that all of the characters' ideological commitments and sectional allegiances fall away in the face of that overwhelming violence--to the point that Mannix, the lost cause warrior, and Warren, the black Union officer, end up allied against the Domergue gang--is, to me, a claim that violence is our most salient national characteristic, the ideology that trumps all others. This is why I'm not convinced by the argument that that Mannix and Warren's alliance is an argument for racial solidarity. The movie is called "the hateful eight," after all. Even Warren, the character we are asked to identify with most strongly, whose vengeance against the Confederacy is one of the film's primary texts, is a mass murderer and a sadist who once marched a naked man for hours through the cold and snow, sexually assaulted him in exchange for a blanket...and then didn't give him the blanket.

And while the viewer gets the satisfaction of seeing the Confederate mercenary of Warren's story forced into abjection and of seeing Daisy bloodied and hanged, Mobray, the putative hangman, has already told us everything we need to know about such satisfaction. "Now the good part about frontier justice is it's very thirst quenching. The bad part is its apt to be wrong as right." 

We begin to feel, as Mannix and Warren chortle, bleeding to death in a house full of mangled corpses, Daisy swinging above them with Ruth's severed arm dangling from her wrist, that this is, let's say, a pyrrhic victory. Doesn't their laughter and their satisfaction feel a little hollow, a little grotesque? It is hard to accept the premise that justice has been done. Here it's worth considering the second part of Mobray's line on frontier justice. Under the rule of law, he says, "the man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice." When we recall that this proclamation on the nature of justice is offered by a murderer impersonating an officer of the law, it's easy to smell the irony. Doesn't this lead the viewer to suspect that, in this film's world at least, idealized talk of justice is inherently deceptive, merely a rationalization of violence? Taken together with the final scene, the line begs the question: How different, really, are the hangman and the vigilante? Are Ruth and Mannix and Warren really in any position to administer justice? After all of the shifts in identity, the unravelling of stories, the hedging of allegiances, we're left with the possibility that the only meaningful social fact is violence itself. If The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's answer to Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it is in this way: The film ultimately questions the idea that justice is even possible, that the law is anything but a cover for rapacity, that there is any kind of ideology or politics that rises above the level of simple murder.

*   *   *

But there's a problem here and that problem is Daisy. Jennifer Jason Leigh has, as Slate's Dana Stevens has said, "an excessive outsider-ish quality, a solitary, feral energy." And in the The Hateful Eight, that surplus of subliminal, witchy charisma becomes fully, outlandishly realized. Leigh's Daisy is a racist, foul-mouthed, rotten-toothed maniac. And by the end of the movie, she is a shrieking, bloody wraith. The performance is somehow both mysterious and over-the-top, both comedic and terrifying. There something deeply human about Daisy's pain. She is battered and bloodied, chained to her captor and then to a dead man. Each new wound raises the pitch of her histrionics and expands scope of her fury. The courage and force of the performance, the ability to depict physical suffering as a kind of mania...well, it's just awe-inspiring.

Warren, Ruth and Mannix (and Tarantino himself, the unmoved mover of The Hateful Eight's universe) heap unconscionable levels of violence on Daisy. What's more, in the tradition of the exploitation films whose aesthetic Tarantino is mining here, the violence is explicitly gendered: Every violent act against Daisy is accompanied by one of the male characters calling her a bitch. What's maybe even more troubling is that these moments are structured as comedy. When Ruth elbows Daisy in the face, the audience (at least when I saw the film) let out a shocked laugh, as they did when Warren punches her so hard that she flies out of the stagecoach. As they did when Mannix shoots her in the foot.

When violence arises suddenly out of long periods of stasis and talk, as it does so often in Tarantino's films, it reveals itself as a punchline; it takes advantage of the same relationship of expectation and surprise that structures comedy. We are unable to fathom what has happened and our response, as in so much camp horror, is to laugh or scream or both. We are led to laugh at Daisy's pain or to thrill at it or to recoil from it. Maybe we feel shame at our own laughter and our own cathartic pleasure; maybe we feel disgust at the sadism on display. I obviously cannot speak for every audience member's emotional experience. But as a lover of cinema and a committed suspender of disbelief, but one who is maybe a little bit soft when it comes to violence and who also feels, you know, sympathy for the suffering of other human beings, I felt all of these things.

This brings us into a puzzled relationship with Daisy's fate. Because, on the one hand, the film seems to be suggesting that the standards of justice justifying her execution are deeply degraded. On the other hand, she's the bad guy. She's a murderer, a Confederate sympathizer and a terrible racist. It's in the service of her rescue that the movie's most heinous crimes--the murder of Minnie, Sweet Dave and the rest--are committed. The film's narrative structure pushes us to desire that Warren, the film's hero, bring her to (frontier) justice.

Furthermore, we can't ignore the fact that, despite Leigh's transcendent performance, Daisy's humanity is not rewarded. The historical wrong of gendered violence--and the specific, narrative fact of the violence done against Daisy's body--gains no redress. And despite the irony of the film's ending, despite the affective complexity of the violence done against her, Tarantino still delivers that pleasure and narrative satisfaction at Daisy's expense. I mean, the audience is supposed to enjoy this movie; if it weren't, we'd be talking about Funny Games and not about a spaghetti western gorefest. Tarantino thinks that cinematic violence is cool and he wants the viewer to think its cool too. Can he really be delivering pleasure with such skill while also undoing the premise of that pleasure? Can he actually be as smitten as he is with cinematic violence and also profess to be "on the side of the murdered"?

Tarantino's first love is the aesthetic utopia of American cinema. His imagination is nourished on it; it is his primary language. Although he ironizes legal justice and even the naivete of a cinematic morality in which evil is punished and heroism prevails, he never quite escapes that world's symbolic economy or its complex of desire and catharsis. It is within this realm, in which blood functions as moral currency, that he levels his critique of American politics and plays out his desire for justice. Tarantino wants to have it both ways. He wants us to take his political critique seriously, while still viewing the violence as a purely aesthetic element, a tool for delivering cinematic pleasure. But if we take the social message seriously, as I believe we should, then we have to take the violence against Daisy seriously too. Because while Tarantino has crafted an aptly nihilistic parable about the violence and injustice suffered by African-Americans at the hands of American power, he has done so at the expense of leaving another old yarn intact: the one in which female bodies absorb the brunt of our need for catharsis. Only in this realm--a realm, I might add, typically willed into being by white dudes like Tarantino--could Daisy's punishment makes sense, could the torture of another human being ever deliver moral satisfaction. Tarantino may have unraveled the fantasies of American political idealism, but we have Jennifer Jason Leigh to thank for unraveling Tarantino's own fantasy. Because in her drawls and wails, in her charismatic presence, Leigh's Daisy exposes her own humanity. In so doing, she transcends the moral logic of violent cinematic escapism and reveals the sadism at its heart.