Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Late Edition to 2011 Top Ten: Red State; plus HMV rant

I have lots of good excuses for not getting to Kevin Smith's Red State until this past weekend. I'm no Kevin Smith fan, for one - Dogma was enough of a mess that I stepped well clear of the boat long before he began sticking his own face and name all over the place (for instance, with An Evening With Kevin Smith, which I always imagined subtitled, "As If You Give a Fuck!") and making movies starring his own character (who knows, maybe Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is some sort of masterpiece but I sure haven't wanted to see it). Red State sounded like an unusual film for the guy (plus Michael Parks is in it!), and the fact that Smith announced that he was going to self-distribute it and then retire from filmmaking was kind of piquant, suggesting maybe that he'd discovered he'd become a bit of an embarrassment and had, uh, grown up - but I wasn't about to go all the way into town to see the movie on the night that he presented it personally to Vancouver audiences, especially since it meant having to hang out with the guy ("dude, I want to see your movie, I don't want to be your buddy.") Then the film had the bad luck to come out on video just as video stores were closing down left-and-right. I had no such faith that I would find it interesting that I was prepared to BUY it (unless I found a copy for $5 or less, which I haven't yet). I could just torrent it but, as I've said, I have some software issues and an 81-year-old Mom to entertain who has a finicky DVD player that won't accept my home-burned discs, so a legit copy made more sense. Finally, visiting a friend on Vancouver Island for the holiday, I suggested we rent it (there are several healthy video stores still out there, like the excellent Pic-a-Flic). My, am I glad to have made that suggestion.

A few observations about Red State:

1. It has more meat on its bones politically than any other  non-documentary American film of 2011 that I'm aware of, confronting us with a very real hystrionic homophobia that flourishes in certain Christian crevices, generally completely unacknowledged, and certainly never looked at under a microscope as it is here. It shows just how intense this phenomenon can be, and does so very believably, in no small part due to the amazing, amazing performance of Michael Parks (above). It's not an easy film to watch - I have no idea what it would be like to watch it from a gay perspective, and it's a shame that it doesn't make a bit more room for there to BE a gay perspective - it's a little "straight," considering its subject matter - but it's confrontationally direct in presenting this side of American ugliness, which gives it all sorts of weight with me. The title, too, is nothing short of brilliant, considering.

2.  It is very well-crafted as cinema. Every minute of the film, you feel like you're in the hands of a man who knows how to make movies, in a way I don't remember feeling watching the few other Kevin Smith films I've seen. It has little of Smith's brand of humour, and none of it feels inappropriate. It begins in a world that we might recognize as "Kevin Smith territory" - three morally naive but very horny adolescent boys answer a sex personals ad and set off to have a group sexual experience with an older woman - but from the moment that they find themselves abducted by a homophobic and well-armed church group, it's like we're in a different filmmaker's movie. Maybe Eli Roth's, because Red State has a lot of the tension and some of the violence and visual sensibilty of the Hostel films, which is likely why the film is popping up in the "horror" section at HMV. It's more restrained than Roth's movies, however, and has a menacing quietness to it almost from the start, which makes it very, very compelling.

3. That said, it is derivative of other films, especially in terms of technique - enough so that it counts against the film. There are jagged running sequences that suggest the Saving Private Ryan/ 28 Weeks Later variety of shakycam; they're well-used but not exactly an innovation at this point, and this fact calls some attention to itself ("Aha - he got that from..."). Cribbing a bit from the look of Hostel was a very good idea, too, but it also might have been better if it hadn't been so noticeable. The ending, further, has a Joel and Ethan Coen sort of glibness to it, and perhaps is the least effective part of the movie; Red State builds to this bizarre peak of tension, ratcheting up its audaciousness and bravery to career highs for Smith, without cheating or violating its terms - and then it cops out a bit, ending behind closed doors in a sort of Burn After Reading coda that isn't quite as dramatically satisfying as one hopes. Smith may well have spoiled his own voice in cinema with some of his past excesses, so I guess it makes sense that he borrows as much as he does from other movies, but he doesn't quite have the level of mastery at stealin' shown by Tarantino, who manages to borrow from other movies in such a way that he ends up being credited for what he takes (which is quite an accomplishment). Maybe Smith just needs more practice at it...

4. But that said, it's an interesting enough ending, to a bold enough film, that I think Red State could easily be viewed again, and again, and still be thought-provoking. I certainly will be keeping an eye out for a copy (though I'm still not prepared to pay $23.99 for it, even less the 10% discount that our closing HMV is offering). ...and may I also here reiterate that Michael Parks proves himself one of the great American film actors with this role? His many Tarantino/ Rodriguez appearances have been uniformly great, but he glitters and shines with a crazed intensity in this film, and even gets to sing a few gospel songs. (Folks who took note of the eerie but marked quality of his singing in this film should check out this clip here).

It's a shame that Kevin Smith is retiring from making films. I'd rather see him retire from making public appearances and focus on making MORE FILMS LIKE THIS (which could be subtitled, perhaps, Kevin Smith Shuts the Fuck Up and Gets Serious About His Craft). With apologies to Kelly Reichardt, I think Red State deserves the place of Meek's Cutoff at the bottom of my top ten list for 2011 (see below). It might even deserve a spot a few notches up - it's actually a kinda IMPORTANT film, which, enjoyable as it is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sure isn't - but I need to look at it again to puzzle over it a bit before I make such a move.

...By the way, as a side note, isn't it kind of interesting to see that it only took at 10-20% discount on HMV's regular stock to get it to fly off the shelves? The store has been very nearly picked clean of interesting films and CDs at this point, with many areas completely denuded and blocked off; they'll no doubt be near empty by the final closure, just a couple of weeks from now. This proves, among other things, that people are in fact MORE THAN WILLING TO PAY MONEY FOR DVDs AND BLU-RAYS AND CDs, they just aren't prepared to pay the prices that are generally being asked for them. Given how fucking CHEAP it is to manufacture and distribute this stuff, and the sheer abundance of cheap-to-free media choices out there, it's a shame that the industries in question wouldn't just acknowledge reality and try LOWERING THEIR FUCKING PRICES as a strategy for survival, rather than digging in the way they have, even though it clearly has meant bankrupting the retail outlets that service them. It's kind of ridiculous that CD and DVD manufacturers (to say nothing of Blu-Ray) STILL keep asking $19.99 OR MORE for a fuckin' disc, when they'd  make a tidy profit and actually SELL the thing at half that price; $19.99 is two hours wages for some folks out there! Those looking for someone to blame for the state of the industry might want to take these observations in, before pissing and moaning about Netflix and torrenting and so forth: the industry has NOT responded to changing conditions, has in fact petulantly REFUSED to do so, and has thus needlessly sabotaged itself. Someone should spraypaint "Adapt or die, motherfuckers!" on the HMV hull, once the building is finally vacated. It won't be much satisfaction to those many people who would still be BUYING CDs and DVDs and so forth if they were just a bit more affordable... but it would have truth to it.

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