Sunday, December 30, 2018

More on Mandy, plus my issue with geek culture

Okay, I tried Mandy again last night.

As you may gather from my previous post, I have some hostility towards what I regard as the fanboy mentality. There's an element of "wouldn't-it-be-awesome," prurient giggling idiocy afoot within so-called "fan culture" that I find irritating and unwelcome and best avoided. Much as I love movies, and horror movies and science fiction movies in particular, I very seldom visit stores that cater to their fandom, never go to fan expos, and never even look at websites like Ain't It Cool or such which promote what "movie geeks" are taken to like, these days. Perusing the headlines at Ain't It Cool just now, I see things like "Holy Shit! The new trailer for Dark Phoenix looks awesome!" Or, say, "Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Theme Park Opening Announced with a Video!"  But I know nothing of Dark Phoenix - don't even know what it is; have found Disney vaguely repugnant since childhood; never go to theme parks; and gave up on Star Wars about five movies ago, I think - after the one where Darth Vader is "born." (which websites like Ain't it Cool actually regarded as a good film, sealing the deal that they are meant for someone else). The sort of stuff that "geeks" of that self-described sort ejaculate all over - Pacific Rim, Ready Player One, what-have-you - seems loud and annoying and trivial to me, mostly, and I'm mostly content to stay away.

None of that is to say that there's anything WRONG with being a geek. I'm not judging. I'm all wrapped up in popular culture too, and if you flash back to my friends and I in the 1980's, we were quipping lines from Repo Man at each other - often involving pointing out "ordinary fucking people" in our proximity - or using "I take your fucking bullets!" like a private idiom, whenever the social circumstance (figuratively) permitted it. ("You stupid fuck, look at you now" was easier to adapt socially, actually, as I recall). We recited dialogue from Carpenter's The Thing at one another. We were using "I'll be back" as a one-liner before Schwarzenegger's people figured out kids were doing that and tried to give him a one-liner or two in every single movie he was in. I may have grown tired of all that, or just grown up, but I still consider myself a geek, in some sense of the word that probably doesn't mesh with how it is used now.  Hell, if you go back early enough I seem to recall even having a toy light saber, and plenty of Star Wars trading cards to boot.

So it's not just that I'm being a snob, here: I like a lot of crap, too. And I don't, though it puzzles me, think that the people who ejaculate over crap culture online (I will continue to point at Ain't It Cool, as a perfect example, but there are tons of others) are insincere or cynical about doing so. There's a sense that they genuinely WANT to participate, that when the new Star Wars/ Star Trek/ Marvel Universe/ DC Universe movie comes out, they genuinely are keen for it, WANT to see it, WANT to buy the merch that goes along with it - that they think that that's what participating in popular culture entails. It's weird to me - weird to me to see grown men in superhero shirts, weird to me to see grown men shelling out fifty bucks or so for replicas from The Fly or The Thing or Spawn or such - but I don't begrudge them; I just try to stay well-clear of the things they like, because time has shown me that the current movies said geeks find most satisfying - The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Aquaman, whatever - will at best seem like a trivial amusement to me. It's  not being a geek I object to, it's just that the things that KIND of geek gets excited about do not move me at all - or move me in the opposite direction, as in, "make me want to get away from them."

Which brings us, sadly, to Mandy. There are at least a dozen things that knowingly wink out from the film, from geek filmmaker to geek audience, to forge a presumed bond. I have no doubt the people at Ain't It Cool (or Den of Geek or whatever the hell) loved it to pieces. There are heavy metal t-shirts in abundance. There are references to popular cult movies (Including use of the line, "don't you fuckin' look at me;" gee, where have I heard THAT before?). There are digressions into anime that add very little to the film that I could discern except giving it added appeal to the anime freaks out there. There are three elaborately costumed evil biker figures that obviously evoke the Cenobites of Hellraiser (but with fighting skills). There's a chainsaw fight, right out of Hooper's sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's even a killer phallus that evokes the thing the guy in the "lust" murder in Se7en is made to wear. And there's a very, very silly scene, when Cage, setting out on his revenge mission, pauses to forge his own weird-ass weapon - some critics have described it as an "Orc sword" - not because the plot demands it, not because the theme demands it, not because there is a shortage of weapons at his disposal, but because it will look "badass" to see people killed onscreen with a fancy sword. No explanation is provided, or seemingly needed, as to why a lumberjack HAS a forge for said sword in his basement, or knows how to use it, because who cares? The sword is cool to look at, and Cage can kill people in colourful ways with it, and that's really what you want to see, isn't it?

Nope, actually, it isn't.

None of this would annoy me at all - not even the unnecessary, cutesy nods to other films - if it wasn't for the things that Mandy does very, very well. If it was just some trashy compendium of in-jokes and playfully inventive gore, like Rodriguez's Planet Terror, for example, I probably wouldn't care about it much, but nor would I have any basis for judging it. It's BECAUSE it is visually and sonically brilliant in its execution and construction, it's BECAUSE it has deeper, larger ambitions than wallowing in trash cinema, it's because it seems willing to make demands of its audience, it's because it even seems to have some IDEAS in there, that its failings come as such a letdown. There are even moments where you think the film is going to be ABOUT something, that it has actual meat on its bones. Its Manson-like cult leader, played by Linus Roache, is brilliantly written, and there are two scenes in the film that stand out as being very rich, resonant, and powerful, the sort of scene you come away from the movie wanting to think about. The first - the real peak of the movie, by me - is where Jeremiah Sand gives the abducted Mandy acid, and then, in the midst of swirling, trippy, tracer-streaming visuals, puts on a record of music he wrote (he's presented as a sort of failed folk musician: his messianic ego trip is justified by his outrage, in his own mind at least, at his having been rejected as an artist). The song he plays is about himself, and as he strokes his naked body - his uncircumcised cock very much the centre of the screen - he speechifies grandiosely about how the world is his. Mandy - taking it all in, tripping - comes to a sudden, dramatic realization of how ridiculous he is. You're playing a song you wrote... and the song is about you? She bursts into laughter - humiliating, cruel, but very, very apt laughter at how absurd this little man's ego is. He cringes - and it's brilliant. The scene captures something very real and honest and interesting about psychedelics, about the freedom from ego they can afford, about the penetrating insights that can flood you; and about how badly things can go when ego reasserts itself under their use. I mentioned earlier that I preferred both van Bebber and Harkema's Manson movies to Mandy, for the insights they offer and the earnestness with which they offer them, but watching Mandy again, I have to say that at that moment, the film is on the cusp of brilliance. It's as close as it ever comes to being great, as Mandy laughs, and Jeremiah recoils, and the streamers swirl all around. The scene is lessened a little in impact by the ironic, unnecessary Blue Velvet reference that I mentioned earlier, but it still works, still has you believing that you're watching something great transpire. You don't realize that, at that moment, you've actually reached the thematic and emotional peak of the film, barely even halfway into it - that it's going to be all downhill from there.

I realized last night that I don't actually object to the bum-trip that follows, with Mandy burned to death inside a sleeping bag, as punishment for her disrespect, while the Nic Cage character is made to watch. It's an ugly and cruel thing to stick into a trip movie, and I feel sorry for anyone who watched the film on psychedelics, for what that must have felt like, but actually, it seems to me that the problem with the scene is that it pulls its punches. Because if you're going to burn the moral center of your film to death, alive and onscreen, you have to do it in a way that counts. You have to think of Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc or Ken Russell's The Devils, say. You have to cry, to suffer, to scream along with your protagonists; to convey the depth of trauma required, to make the scene have the emotional impact that is needed, you can't hide the suffering and death inside a fucking bag. Mandy's death is nowhere near as painful as it needs to be for the audience in order for it to work. Hell, you're even allowed to indulge the belief that Mandy might still be alive, that the person in the sleeping bag is someone else; there's a subplot involving a second victim, a chubby guy, and on first viewing, I suspected that maybe it would turn out that HE was the one in the bag, and that Red and Mandy would be reunited at the end - all of which you gotta lay at the hands of the director, because you don't see how Mandy GETS into the sleeping bag; you don't hear her screaming; you don't get a final exchange between her and Cage. You don't even see her face, between her laughing at Jeremiah and the bag being lit on fire. You just watch the bag burn, writhing like something is inside it, and see Cage's traumatized reaction. It's about as sanitized and abstracted and safe and gutless as a scene of someone being burned alive onscreen could possibly be. It needed to be on the level of strength that Heather Matarazzo's death scene in Hostel 2 has, needed to be nearly impossible to watch, but if anything, Cosmatos tries to make it as painless as possible.

And even still, there is potential in the film. I was still with it at that point, still willing to forgive. The scene isn't as strong as it could be, but it's strong enough, and you know there's going to be a powerful resolution ahead. Which brings us to the other peak of the film, as you might guess: the final confrontation with the cult leader at the climax of the film, where Cage - Red - humiliates him completely, reducing him to a kneeling, pathetic specimen offering to suck cock to be spared. THAT death is graphic, and satisfying, and a worthy degradation, and even if it ends up in a cinematic cliche - Cage walking away as Jeremiah's church burns behind him - it works well enough to be satisfying. 

The real problem with Mandy lies in what exists between these peak moments. A lot of reviewers, of the ones who criticize the film, harp on the "boring" opening, but the slow build is fine by me. It's gorgeous to look at, and if we don't get to go particularly deep into the characters of Mandy or Red, we get to like them well enough. Andrea Riseborough - who, I didn't realize, was in the other film I saw last night, as well, The Death of Stalin - has a very charismatic, compelling mien, and manages to convey a sense that her character has great depths of wisdom and soul even when she is given almost no interesting dialogue with which to do it. Her scar, her penetrating gaze, her paintings, her Black Sabbath shirt - it's all very nicely handled and kind of makes you love her along with Red.

No, the people who describe the first hour as boring - the fanboy contingent, drawn to the film for the promise of seeing Cage go batshit - almost all seem to like most the stuff that I like least, the stuff that begins immediately following the great little Bill Duke cameo: namely, Cage's "awesome" revenge. That's where the film panders to its fanboy audience the most, positively going Wolfcop in the endeavour, like Cosmatos polled his friends and fans and stuck stuff in that would gratify their desires, regardless of its bearing on whatever theme he might have been developing. You get the sword-making, the pretty much meaningless and unnecessary confrontation with the Cenobites (who actually are peripheral to the film's plot). You get the chainsaw battle, and the flaming head-cigarette lighter scene (as I expected, people in the theatre laughed aloud at that). The promise of the film's stunning imagery and soundtrack and that high-watermark set up all gets lost in a bunch of silly crap, that seems to exist to fill a void between the great premise and the decent climax: it's like Cosmatos came up with the two peak moments - the death of Mandy and Red's final confrontation with the cult - then shrugged and, in the absence of other ideas, just filled the film up with crap.

And it IS crap, folks. The key selling point of  the film - Cage finally in a film where his overacting is not out of place - is crap, crap sold to sniggering fanboys, without any heart or soul or value behind it. It is, I suppose, entertaining crap, if that's what you want - and it is certainly TRIPPY crap; but I couldn't give less of a fuck about Nicolas Cage doing badass shit. I wanted a move that was ABOUT something, that actually has ideas, a purpose, something to offer; that didn't just gesture at brilliance, but WAS brilliant. Lighting a cigarette on a flaming severed head isn't brilliant, it's cheap, it's a cop-out, it's an insult to the film's potential and the faith people are bringing to the theatre. The film could have been so much more. It actually makes you believe that it IS so much more, briefly; and then it isn't. I very much suspect that I'll never watch it again. I already had given away the Blu-Ray I bought of it to a friend who liked it a whole lot more than I did, before revisiting it on the big screen, and wondered if I would regret having done that, but you know what, I didn't, and I don't, and I'm done with it. Sorry, Mandy. Sorry, Panos. Sorry, fanboys - you can keep this one.  

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