Thursday, April 8, 2021

Batman Returns




Batman Returns (1992)
Dir. Tim Burton
Written by Sam Hamm, Daniel Waters, Wesley Stick
Starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough

 

Originally published on Letterboxd, where the majority of my reviews now go. Included here for posterity.

 

In a way, it's kind of comforting to see that the Achilles’ heel of modern huge-budget franchise IP movies --too many overbearing egos pulling them in too many directions and winding up with scripts rewritten into chaotic incoherence-- was vividly present even here, at the very inception of the concept of a big-budget comic book movie franchise.* BATMAN RETURNS (to cinemas, presumably, since there's no suggestion the character has been anything but a continuous presence in Gotham City) isn't just haphazardly plotted, it barely has anything which could even be called a plot, and its few absent-minded gestures in that direction (most of which materialize only well past the halfway point, and still peter out before the arbitrary "climax") certainly have nothing whatsoever to with each other --or any character named "Batman," for that matter. This makes for a movie which is fundamentally and unavoidably broken, a movie which we can parse for any meaning only in the manner of archaeology, by interpreting and extrapolating from tantalizing artifacts which survived the presumed dozens of re-writes, and offer hints at what actual intent might have once flourished before being buried in a mountain of arbitrary wheel-spinning. And of course, because it's me, that's exactly what we're going to do. What, you have better ways to spend your time?

In this case, we don't have to dig very deep before we find that others have pondered the film before us, and come to a pretty consistent conclusion. The consensus as to what was being attempted here --which emerged concurrently with the movie and has only solidified since-- is that director Tim Burton believed himself to be making a movie about the experience of social misfits, or at least decided that whatever the suits eventually decided about the script, he would make a movie about freaks and misfits and just sort of ignore anything --plot, for example-- which might get in the way of that goal.

There's some evidence for this interpretation which survives even in the script; the famous exchange where Penguin contemptuously tells Batman ”You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” to which Batman sadly assents; Alfred pointedly asking Bruce "Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”; Selina Kyle's lament that "It's the so-called 'normal' guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me. Least they're committed." But that's honestly about it for textual evidence; most of the rest of the dialogue is devoted to weirdly sexual quipping or "plot" mechanics. It’s weird, in a way, that a movie could get a point across so strongly despite the fact that it occurs almost nowhere in the script or story. But the sentiment comes through loud and clear in the direction, particularly its almost fetishis --did I say "almost"?-- its blatantly fetishistic interest in its deviant, not-all-there protagonists, namely Penguin and Catwoman. And lest you wonder if I mistakenly left somebody out, I want to point out that in the original Daniel Waters script, the word "Penguin" appears 465 times, as opposed to a mere 342 for "Batman," including the title.**

 


 


So it is our villains, then, who will be the focus of the movie, to the point that it's dubious to even call them villains at all. Despite how overwhelmingly repellent he is, the movie is weirdly sympathetic towards Penguin, an outcast from his very birth --where the movie begins, as perhaps the only film in history to begin with the birth of its apparent antagonist-- who longs, it seems, in equal measure, for both acceptance by a society which shunned him and for violent revenge against them. And it's even more sympathetic to Catwoman, a put-upon wallflower*** who finally just snaps and starts lashing out at the world, which the movie clearly posits as an empowerment fantasy. Whether or not the movie validates their behavior, it at least understands, and is much more interested in understanding than judging. Whatever the script may say about them (and it’s too all-over-the-place to really say anything specific), Burton as director hones in on their pain and their feelings of persecution and rejection in a way that feels deeply personal. The 90's was the decade for wallowing in self-pity and feeling like an unfairly ignored misfit, and certainly no director seems to have more fully embraced that zeitgeist than Burton, who was at the time--and it's hard to remember this now that he’s spent the better part of the last two decades becoming a garish parody of himself—considered a genuinely subversive and eccentric auteur, the cinematic patron saint of macabre weirdos. EDWARD SCISSOR-HANDS is more concentrated in its fixation on outsider-dom at the hands of suffocating bourgeois normalcy, and ED WOOD is a better parable of a misunderstood artist, but BATMAN RETURNS is, without question, the pinnacle of Burton's fixation on --and, of course, fetishization of-- social deviance as empowerment.

Burton is even less interested in punching than he is in Batman, so that empowerment is not manifested in grandiose action, but in sexual capital. The movie is overtly, startlingly sexual; not just surprising for a PG-13 movie about a comic book character, but for a Burton movie in general. Burton is almost categorically an unsexy director. I don’t think I can even name another director anywhere near his level of success and ubiquity who has left behind such a thoroughly sexless body of work; even the fetish-y Ed Wood or the heaving bosoms in SLEEPY HOLLOW or PLANET OF THE APES**** play out with an almost naïve, childlike lack of kink. But here, the movie's erotic fixation on Catwoman is almost uncomfortable in its intensity. I'm not sure Penguin says a single thing to her that isn't overtly sexual, and while Batman/Bruce Wayne's interest in her is (a little) more refined, the entirety of their relationship is about their desire for each other. Curiously, the costumed thing comes between them, rather than bringing them together, and I think I know why: Catwoman is, like Penguin, a "genuine freak" (she may, in fact, be some kind of zombie?), uninhibited both in and out of costume. But Batman is still in the closet; he's not ready to give up on being respectable, dorky Bruce Wayne and admit that he's a full-fledged freak. For all his money and cool cars and stuff, his hesitation to commit to either lifestyle is isolating him; his relationship with last movie’s love interest, we are told, couldn't survive his being Batman, and now his relationship with kooky dominatrix Catwoman can't survive his being tethered to Bruce Wayne. He's not a normie, but he's not quite a fully committed freak, either. He lacks the courage to embrace who he really is, and consequently is never 100% present in his own story. No wonder Burton so openly doesn't care about him. 

 

 


 

Of course, this sort of defeats the purpose of making a movie ostensibly about, you know, Batman. Batman is fundamentally a juvenile macho power fantasy –just look at the fevered testosterone-driven nightmare by Frank Miller from which BATMAN RETURNS almost certainly derives its name--, and if you don’t find Batman’s butch fascism appealing, or find Bruce Wayne very interesting, there’s simply just not much for the character to do. I hear this has more action than the 1989 BATMAN, which is frankly kind of mind-boggling; there are maybe a handful of halfhearted action beats in here, but Batman barely has anything to do because there isn’t really much to do. Penguin is sort of the villain, but his evil plan is barely hinted at until the last 20 minutes of the movie, and Batman foils it with some weird abstract anti-cinematic computer program that mostly happens off-screen. Catwoman doesn’t have any kind of arc at all, and in fact her storyline barely even involves Batman and gets resolved without even a glancing intervention on his part. There’s barely any conflict here, and most of the movie finds its characters idling around (in one case, literally; it’s pretty funny to see the Batmobile just cruising around the city under the speed limit) without any clear long-term objective or any reason to get involved in each others’ lives. In fact, a huge chunk of the movie, probably pound for pound the most screentime of any of its six or seven plots, is spent on the political machinations of Penguin and greedy capitalist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a very, very weird and self-defeating decision for a movie which claims to be about an action hero, but an equally self-defeating one for a movie which stubbornly insists on itself as a fairy tale (more on that later). 

This weird diversion into politics, and really the character of Shreck himself, is the apotheosis of the film’s wildly divergent, contradictory impulses. Shreck’s role here is obvious; he’s the one character who’s not a freak, and consequently the one Burton feels most comfortable identifying as a clear villain. He is venal and debased in strictly normal, aggressively mundane ways (his evil plan, barely even mentioned, is, I guess, to secure city permission to build some kind of energy-stealing power plant?). He represents the oppressive, stagnant forces of straight society, comfortably asserting himself around mayors and rich, well-connected socialites in a way that Penguin and Catwoman could never dream of, and Bruce Wayne has little interest in. Unfortunately, this means that he must serve as antagonist for all three of our freaks, making him the only person in the movie who seems in any way active or meaningfully consequential to conflict of any kind. He’s the character who’s designed to be a dull foil for our colorful heroes, and yet he’s the one who motivates virtually every single bit of action. 

 And this is made even worse because he’s played by Christopher Walken, by far the most “genuine freak” anywhere around, who undermines the character’s bourgeois venality by playing him as a total fucking weirdo (kudos to Andrew Bryniarski, who plays his son Chip with a committed and pretty hilarious Walken impersonation). As with most of the movie, including its inexplicable political interlude, there are good ideas here; framing the movie as outcasts vs establishment is a solid idea, and putting Christopher Walken in there is always a good bet to make things more entertaining. Unfortunately, these are two ideas which not only don’t work together, they actively cancel each other out. Either Shreck is a despicable stuffed shirt or an entertaining weirdo; he cannot be both, and the movie posits that he must be for it to work. It does not work.

 


 

 

Much of the movie, then, cancels itself out; it's an action premise without almost any significant action, it’s a movie about fetishy outcasts which never actually gets around to examining what that might mean, it’s a Batman movie which is mostly uninterested in Batman, it’s unbearably plotty without ever actually establishing a plot. That leaves the content almost a complete wash.

Fortunately, in swoops the style to save the day! While Burton was neglecting the plot, it seems, he was not idle; instead, he was constructing gigantic art deco dreamscapes full of towering statuary, neon kitsch, and gothic menace, a world so potently evocative that, especially when draped in Danny Elfman’s iconic, career-defining score, it actually manages to conjure meaning and purpose to a movie which otherwise has none. It’s pure alchemy, but it’s there. The script may disagree, the title might disagree, but the style informs us decisively and with a focused confidence otherwise completely absent from the movie: this is a macabre fairy tale, a tragedy in the original sense of the word, about people The Fates have plucked from obscurity for an arbitrary, cruel odyssey through life. From the film’s mythic opening to its melancholy final shot, Burton tells us through pure cinema what he cannot through narrative cinema: it’s lonely out there for a freak. That is the pervading sense one gets from BATMAN RETURNS; one of timeless, lugubrious hopelessness, of disconnection and desperation and frustration, about sad people groping out –or lashing out—to find each other, and failing. Even if Batman foils the Penguin’s evil plot, this is a movie about failure, about not getting the girl, about not getting the job, about being too broken to transcend your pain, about searching for a place that doesn’t exist in a society that doesn’t want you, only to find yourself right back where you started after the dust settles.

It is a strange thing to find at the heart of a movie with BATMAN in its title, but it’s equally indisputable and unmissable; it is the movie; everything else is just window dressing. I cannot in good conscience call BATMAN RETURNS a good movie, but I also can’t deny that if all that window dressing is messy and incoherent, the movie’s heart and soul are as vivid and affecting as any movie ever made. It’s a masterpiece hidden inside a corporate junkheap, its greatness nearly always obscured, but always palpably near, a diffuse warm glow behind a frost-covered window pane. I’ve never been sure how much of a “genuine freak” Burton actually is, but there’s a howl of lonesome despair in BATMAN RETURNS which is as genuine as anything as you’ll find in mainstream cinema. It’s an inarticulate howl, but it echos back to us throughout the entire film, giving definition to the dark spaces in-between the silly plot where our eyes can’t quite reach. It allows us to plunge on into that darkness with this reverberating echo as a guide.

Like a bat.



Speaking of which, what’s up with casting Michael Keaton as Batman, it really doesn’t make any you know what, this review is running kinda long actually let’s just end it there.





*Strictly speaking, The 1978 SUPERMAN and its three sequels and one spinoff probably ought to be considered the genesis of the modern comic book franchise, but for reasons we could reasonably debate, the consensus seems to be against that reading.

** Including "Bruce Wayne" pushes the character to a narrow lead, but still.

*** Read: "That unbelievably gorgeous supermodel has glasses"

**** Estella Warren, not the Apes. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Monrovia, Indiana

 

Monrovia, Indiana (2018)

Dir. Frederick Wiseman

 

This is my first experience with a Frederick Wiseman documentary, but, from what I understand, it’s something of an outlier in his long filmography (more than fifty films since his 1967 directorial debut!). Wiseman, I am told, is a beloved chronicler of American institutions, a creator of dispassionate, observational documentaries which capture the natural rhythms of the world, a stalwart acolyte of the cinéma verité tradition of documentarians. But MONROVIA, INDIANA doesn’t quite fit that description. I mean, it's not exactly a big-budget blockbuster either; it's certainly dispassionate and observational --even clinical-- in the way one might expect from Wiseman. But I'm not sure it's entirely objective, for reasons I'll get into in a bit. Of course, just a quick look at Wiseman’s wikipedia page reveals that he never claimed any such thing about himself in the first place. In his own words, "All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ... My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie"

That's an important thing to have in mind, because making a documentary about Monrovia, Indiana, smack dab in the middle of the Trump era, is an inherently unobjective thing to do. In an era of bitter cultural divide, there is very little chance of any viewer --at least, any viewer likely to watch a Frederick Wiseman documentary-- failing to recognize that this zero-stop-light semi-rural* farming community --97% white, comfortably (though not monolithically) politically conservative, earnestly religious-- reads unmistakably as a pristine exemplar of the "real America" that American Conservatives, and especially Trump, so eagerly romanticize. Which makes the film inherently political: if the town comes across well, it's a de facto propaganda piece for an idealized, regressive conservative vision of society. If they come across poorly, it's a stinging rebuke to that idealized "real America" (courtesy of a Boston-born, Yale-educated East-coast ivory tower elitist with a shelf full of film awards from institutions one in this town has ever heard of). The possibility that this will simply be a modest document of modern rural living is simply not on the table; we’ve all been drafted into the propaganda arm of the culture war whether we asked to be or not, and, just as “all aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice, and are therefor manipulative,” so too our viewing choices, and our reactions to them, inherently speak to our beliefs and aspirations. There’s no dodging the issue; if we’re watching this, we’re going to have to ask ourselves if the people of Monrovia, Indiana are with us or against us.

It is, then, a little confusing when they come across as simply boring. The AV Club review blasted Wiseman for his "maddeningly evasive" and "apolitical" take on the apparently red-hot “political” issue of what daily life is like in Monrovia, Indiana. And it’s true! The film simply refuses to come out and explain what the moral is. Wiseman doesn't interview his subjects, he simply observes them, and, as the AV Club critic so dubiously points out, "people rarely launch into political diatribes unless prompted," so other than a few shots of right-wing slogans on T-shirts at a local festival, national politics go entirely unmentioned. Instead, people just putter about with their lives; we get to observe several excruciatingly banal local town council meetings, watch the locals get their hair cut, get married, stock supermarket shelves, assemble pizzas in the sole downtown restaurant, window shop at the gun store, chit-chat over coffee about their health. Nothing incendiary is said; no dark secrets are uncovered. 

 


 

You could certainly read the film’s careful documentation of harmless banality as a repudiation of Liberal paranoia that these presumable Trump voters are violent, unhinged racists (one IMDB comment fumes, “this movie's timid Ford-Foundation-approved portrayal of arch-conservative gun-hoarding Indianans as good-hearted and simple soybean folk was not exactly what 2018 demands.”). And yet, it's hardly a glorification of this way of life, either (tellingly, another comment sniffs that it’s [un]flattering” to the townsfolk). In fact, though there is no narration and no explicit theme, I feel quite confident that the film does have an opinion about life in Monrovia, Indiana, and not a particularly positive one. But that opinion has little --though not nothing-- to do with the politics of its inhabitants; instead, it's a very subtle, low-key, and not entirely unsympathetic dismay at the all-pervasive stagnation of spirit the camera records. The portrait that emerges is not of a town which clings to the past in the nostalgic, reactionary way that we associate with the politicization of "Real America," but rather one which is mired in its past because the present offers so little of any meaning.

 

Near the start of the film, we encounter a schoolteacher expounding at great length about Monrovia's legacy of basketball greatness, personified by former Monrovia resident, basketball hall-of-famer and Indiana University Basketball coach Branch McCracken. McCracken is, seemingly, everywhere in Monrovia; the high school gym bears his name, among numerous other markers, including his grave.** But McCracken died in 1970; his days of glory as a player were in the 1920s! Little wonder that the students listening to this lecture are openly bored by it, obviously much more concerned about how they're coming off for the camera (one young lady keeps adorably adjusting her shirt, obviously unsure how much shoulder she wants to show off for the movie).

 

This is one of the first little slice-of-life vinegettes we see in the movie, but it will not be the last time we observe an audience which is palpably disinterested in what they're observing. Throughout the course of the film, we'll witness a series of speakers talk at an audience which is politely half-listening; preachers, friends, council members, customers, mattress salesmen. These speakers are, more often than not, spectacularly dull, but there’s more to it than that; there’s a profound, palpable detachment on the part of the listeners which makes one suspect that so little registers with them that it’s hardly worth the bother of saying anything interesting in the first place. In one case, the product testimonial of a CBD oil vendor at a local fair takes a shocking turn when her claims about its use as an insomnia cure includes an anecdote about her own experience waking up to discover her husband's corpse in bed with her! If the startlingly grim and personal nature of this story (not to mention the strangeness of bringing it up as an aside during a pitch for CBD oil at a county fair) seems unusual to her potential customers, we see no evidence of it; her small audience treats this admission with the same barely-attentive glazed look they affected for her claims as to its efficaciousness for combating fatigue. They're not really very interested, but in the absence of anything else to engage their interest, it's not really worth the effort it's going to take to leave the conversation, as opposed to simply tune it out. And this feeling of hazy disengagement permeates nearly every encounter in the film.


 

 This, I think, is at the heart of what Wiseman found in Monrovia: not the angry people at Trump rallies, but the bored ones who mostly don't bother to vote at all. People for whom life has become an anesthetizing waking dream that they barely even notice. People without direction or purpose or motivation, who drift through life mindlessly consuming without particularly enjoying or even noticing the things they consume, emptily reenacting the rituals of the past simply because there's so little in the present worth investing in that doing so is the path of least resistance.

 

Tim Brayton saw a town that "isn't so much ‘dying’ as ‘dead’, and it simply hasn't figured it out yet," but that's not exactly what I see; instead, I see a place which has become entirely automated, a machine which mindlessly cycles through its various pre-programmed functions simply because no one has bothered to shut it off. It's not a "dying" town in the traditional sense (in fact, there is a contingent of the city council which is monomaniacally concerned about the town growing too much) but, at least as far as we see in the film, it is so empty of purpose that the metaphor of a zombie certainly does suggest itself.

 

But even a zombie seems more animated than some of the human interactions we observe here. Zombies, after all, want something, even if it’s on a level removed from sentient thought. Not so here, as far as we can see. This is a document of a consumer culture where even consumption has become a tiresome habitude. In fact, we watch again and again as people seem utterly overwhelmed by the very idea of having to choose a consumer product. One of the more comical scenes in the movie involves a high school fundraiser that takes the surreal form of a mattress sale in the Branch McCracken gymnasium. The camera watches the strange spectacle of fully-clothed adults drifting from one mattress to the next, reclining, and trying fruitlessly to decide how they feel. Completely bewildered by the prospect of having to make a decision, they gratefully turn to a real shark of a mattress salesman (far and away the most dynamic speaker in the whole film) for expert guidance he is only too happy to offer. Perhaps the most fundamental tenet of consumerism holds that it provides the consumer with choice, which empowers them to specifically tailor their consumption towards individual fulfillment. That assumes, though, that people have a clear enough idea of themselves to innately understand what they want; in the absence of that, the whole system is reduced to absurdity. Meaningful consumerism, it turns out, requires a surprisingly thorough understanding of self, which, paradoxically, this particular consumer society seems utterly unable to support. This is, ultimately, what the movie is documenting: a culture so denuded of its own identity --individually and collectively-- that it has ceased to make sense, even on the basest level.

 

Elsewhere, we see shoppers in a supermarket tentatively examine the endless array of mass-produced consumables as a affectless voices inanely chimes over the PA system; positively somnambulistic crowds at an auction for enormous, hundred-thousand-dollar agricultural vehicles; dazed window-shoppers at the county fair. By far the most engaged shoppers are at the local gun store, where one customer prattles on effusively for minutes on end about the technical bona fides of various models to a disinterested proprietor. Yet even here, the specter of noncommittal consumerism is never far away, as other, silent customers wander the gun racks, picking up one gun after another, briefly aiming it, trying to imagine what it would be like to own it, and mechanically putting it back down. Most do not buy.


 

Crucially, none of the things being consumed are visibly associated with Monrovia, which despite its agricultural economy does not seem to produce much for its own consumption. We see pigs and cows being corralled and loaded onto trucks, but wherever they go from there doesn’t appear to be in Monrovia. Is that meat in the supermarket from the local beef cows? If so, there’s no indication of it; it arrives at the meat department in the same clear plastic packaging you’d see at a grocer’s in downtown Manhattan, from which it is removed, run through a tenderizing machine, and then individually repackaged. We see titanic volumes of corn being produced, and, from a brief visit to the waste disposal plant, we see that it had made its way, more or less unaltered, into people’s feces (proving that even a 90-year-old auteur documentarian is not above a subtle poop joke). But where it goes in-between is a mystery. We see no farmer’s markets, no subsistence farmers happily feasting on their own produce. Even the vendors at the county fair appear to be overwhelmingly hawking T-shirts and bumper stickers almost certainly produced thousands of miles away. Agriculture may be the heart of the local economy, but it is produced on an industrial scale, and shipped off somewhere else to become the processed final product which makes its way back to supermarket shelves. Despite the omnipresent crop fields, there’s little sense that people feel connected to the land and the produce around them. Their whole world is one little stop along the assembly line, and they might as well be producing automotive widgets or cardboard boxes, for all they’re emotionally invested in the process.

 

It’s such a dipshit thing to say, but there’s no getting around saying it: this is a portrait of suffocating, soul-deadening Marxian alienation. People doing work, --working hard, even—but so completely disassociated from the meaning and value of that work that it’s not just separated from any emotional significance, but actively stifling. Despite the agricultural milieu, this is a thoroughly mechanized world, as far removed from the natural world as any Rust Belt manufacturing plant. To whit: the camera watches with interest the harvesting of a hay field, which involves not just one but several huge, sophisticated machines; one to cut the plants, another to collect them, a third to bale them, a fourth to pick up the bales, a fifth to assemble them into giant pallets and lift them onto a waiting truck. At no point do human hands enter the process; one cannot help but imagine the machine’s driver himself will be entirely superfluous within the lifetime of these farms. A significant portion of another man’s workday appears to be to manipulating a lever which releases oceans of dried corn kernels from a unthinkably vast holding tank into another holding tank, and then a huge truck.*** Despite the setting, these men more closely resembles industrial workers in a factory than the straw-hatted family farmer of the American popular imagination.

 

And things look no better in other industries. The silent, endlessly repetitive process of packaging dozens of portions of meat for the supermarket, and the robotic, eerily rapid work of assembling pizzas in the kitchen of the sole downtown restaurant have an unsettling quality of watching humans turned into machines.**** But it’s not just the jobs that are mechanized and dehumanizing: witness an endless ceremony at the local Masonic lodge, all of it structured around obviously unfamiliar pre-scripted texts that the members struggle through with mechanical incomprehension. Virtually everyone in in attendance looks upwards of 40; it is the very opposite of a portrait of an organization with any vitality, or even emotional investment. Which is odd, because what they’re engaged in is a ceremony to honor a man for his 50th year as a Masonic brother; one would have no choice to assume that they do care, that at the very least the familiarity of this man who has certainly been present throughout their entire association with this organization, would spark some affection. Perhaps they’re simply too disconnected to feel anything at all in this context, period, but I suspect –and I think the Wiseman feels the same way—that the rigid, prescriptive formality of the ceremony is the stumbling block here, discouraging more authentic human interaction making it impossible to engage emotionally.


 

 

That same sense of rigid ceremonial structure stifling real human engagement is also visible in several visits to different church functions. Even two major life events –a wedding and a funeral— display a striking reserve on the part of the participants, as the presiding religious figure delivers an impersonal oration on broad, abstract topics which seem far removed from the real human beings ostensibly being celebrated by the occasion. Unlike the Masonic ceremony, the church events are in contemporary, plainspoken vernacular, but the end result is the same: an event that makes the participants into passive observers, politely listening to a lecture rather than meaningfully participating in the event they’re ostensibly celebrating. The funeral, in particular, offers a strange and heartbreaking spectacle; a minister delivering a eulogy which focuses intensely on the joys of the afterlife (especially the “mansions” he says Jesus promises his followers), peppered, somewhat awkwardly, with a comparably tiny handful of anecdotes about the deceased which he’s obviously repeating second-hand. It has the uncomfortable feeling of a form letter, a familiar spiel he’s repeated so many times that it has a practiced, performative quality, with the dead woman’s name simply inserted in the appropriate blanks. Meanwhile, the camera occasionally pans to the bereaved family, sitting in the front row, fiercely struggling to suppress their emotion while yet another smarmy salesperson makes a pitch to them about the luxury goods awaiting believers upon death. It’s a rare moment where the raw humanity that is surely present in this population bubbles to the surface, only to be forcibly tamped down in the name of propriety. Not only do these ceremonies seem emotionally inadequate, they suggest a culture which actively discourages serious emotional engagement with life, asks adherents to repress messy emotions for the sake of convenience and decorum.

 

Ironically, the place we see people most engaged is in a lengthy series of town council meetings. Here, people are at least feisty and active in a way we seldom see anywhere else, even if they’re mostly talking past each other rather than wholly engaging. But the low-simmering anger which is very perceptible at the table is so wholly inappropriate given the absurd mundanities which are actually up for discussion (a road linking two existing roads; the frequency with which residential fire hydrants are flushed) that the specter of displaced malaise is omnipresent here, too. The argument is never really about the banal topic at hand; instead, it’s dominated by a fundamental disagreement about the future of the town. A new housing development called “Homestead” has triggered a real backlash among some members of the council, who clearly see an influx of newcomers as an existential threat to the local character. It is, at the heart, a debate not about roads and hydrants but about "who we are," and whether the fundamental nature of Monrovia is capable of any kind of growth or change. None of this is said aloud, but everyone present seems to understand the basic conflict. One pro-Homestead council member makes a point of emphasizing that the “newcomers” are, at least in some cases, actually native Monrovians who have “come back”, but the anti-Homesteaders aren’t having it, subtly suggesting the newcomers are potentially untrustworthy and criminal. The council is divided on this matter; several members delicately point out that young people are leaving town for better prospects elsewhere (indeed, there appears to be a missing generation, a gap between the youngsters we see in school and the older crowd who seem to make up the bulk of the townsfolk), that without population growth, the town can’t hope to grow economically. But the naysayers are intractable, and absolutely single-minded. Monrovia is what it is, and to change it is to destroy it.

 



These council meetings***** are lengthy, and feel, to some degree, like the heart of the film (certainly, they’re the only vignette which contains any kind of conflict, and are consequently dramatically compelling in a way that simple footage of local events are not), the center of Wiseman’s thesis about what is broken in Monrovia (if that is, indeed, the thesis). If much of the film documents the many ways that the townsfolk seem alienated and detached from life and work, this may be the reason why:  It's easy for us to see that the locals' resistance to change has trapped them in a prescriptive, stifling purgatory, but then again, nobody seems able to imagine a more appealing alternative. A sense of local identity in continuity with history may not be an especially nourishing for the soul, but at least it’s something. What can the more forward-looking council members offer to replace it? A slight tick upwards in local economic growth? Cheap housing developments with phony fire hydrants? The past half-century is not lacking in examples of small towns who sold out their unique local character in exchange for pre-assembled strip malls and ubiquitous Wal-Marts. That is unequivocally not an adequate solution to Monrovia’s existential crisis. And without a tempting path forward, what is there to do but hold onto the past, with its fading but still tangible meaning, as hard as you can?

 

Which brings me to something I haven’t mentioned yet: this is somewhat personal for me. I was born a half-hour drive from Monrovia. My parents currently live about an hour’s drive to the South. I have relatives all over the state. Though I haven't lived in the state since childhood, it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that I’ve driven through Monrovia. Certainly, I’ve spent plenty of time in small Indiana towns exactly like it.

 

I’ve never for a single moment been tempted to go back. So much for objectivity! Just driving through the countryside between the Indianapolis airport and my parents’ house fills me with a desperate, heartsick loathing. A visceral horror wells up within me as I pass through, a crushing sense of the inescapable emptiness silently screaming out at me from all around. You can feel that slow, inexorable hollowing out of the human soul that Wiseman documents so carefully here. That sense of communities slowly fading and fraying and, most painfully, utterly bereft of any hope that the future holds anything better. It’s that hopelessness that hangs so heavy, I think; that sense of something slippery and vital that was lost somewhere along the way, leaving behind nothing to replace it except hollow nostalgia and a corrosive bitterness at... at what? The forces that snuffed out that sense of optimism and community (if it ever really existed, though I, for one, at least feel strongly that it did) are so abstract and pervasive and indefinable that you’re even denied a clear antagonist, refused a satisfying narrative to explain how things ended up this way. And so you end up in a simmering fury over fire hydrants, or an all-consuming rage at the whole of modernity. Or, unable to sustain that kind of helpless anger, you simply burn out and drift through life as a blank, apathetic automation, mechanically going through the motions of a prescriptive way of life that has ceased to have any emotional utility but still retains enough cultural hegemony to limit other options.  

 

I needn’t belabor the point by explicitly tying that cycle of rage and apathy to national politics. And I don’t mean to imply that mindless consumerism, mechanical dehumanization, and decaying social connections are exclusively a problem of small-town America. Far from it – we feel that way in the big city, too. Monrovia's soul-sickness is an expression of America's; we’re all feeling the lack of something integral to the sustenance of the spirit, all lashing about desperately for a sense of connection and meaning, all tied into a dehumanizing consumerist system which promises satisfaction that it is intrinsically incapable of delivering. But at least in the booming modern metropolis --the implied "Phony America" where I've spent most of my life--, that loss was compensated with a new vision of ourselves as global beings, living in an infinitely complex world full of new ways to invent ourselves and new projects to give us purpose. False hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless. The endlessly malleable cosmopolitan landscape, constantly in a state of destruction and renewal, proved better able to re-imagine itself as the world changed, while Monrovia simply gripped the past ever tighter. And in doing so, it simply got left behind, its institutions and its entire reason for being gradually sapped of relevance. It didn’t die in the practical sense –it’s still functional, and nothing suggests that it won’t remain sustainable into the foreseeable future—but maybe its soul did. And we have reached, I think, something of a breaking point; these two worlds cannot continue to diverge and still expect to productively co-exist. Either we invent an inviting, nourishing future for everyone, or we’re going to end up a broken, crippled society, and that hopelessness and alienation is going to turn into violence.

 

 This is not an academic point; the misery of Monrovia, Indiana is our misery too. We either salve it, or accept a grim future where every review of a simple, slice-of-life documentary ends up as pretentious and pedantic as this one. A chilling thought, indeed. But if that happens, at least Wiseman will hopefully be around to make a few more documentaries about it. MONROVIA, INDIANA may not presume objectivity, but rarely if ever has two+ hours of mild, closely observed daily minutia affected me so profoundly.  




* Which is, I note, only a half-hour outside metropolitan Indianapolis, the 17th-largest city by population in the US, larger Seattle, DC, Boston, and Detroit.

 

** Well, technically the grave is in nearby Hall, Indiana, but it's where the movie ends, so we'll count it.

 

*** And it’s not just the harvesting process which is governed by artificial forces; the seeds, the water, the fertilizer, the very genes in the plants themselves are owned and provided by giant corporations somewhere far away. That’s not in the movie, but it’s a part of what’s going on here that can’t be overlooked. The entire process has been set up to remove nature as far from the equation as physically possible.

 

**** And I’ll remind you: I’m not just some sheltered prep school kid shocked and repulsed by the idea of an honest day's work. I’ve worked both these jobs myself! Literally, I’ve worked at both a grocery store and in the kitchen of a pizza place! But what struck me about this footage is the brusque, unnatural focus of the work; my memories of those jobs are full of big personalities, irreverent conversation, the natural camaraderie born from working together at a job that sucks. In Monrovia, they don’t even listen to music. From what the movie shows us, they’re working in total silence outside of a few curt bits of necessary communication. It’s so antithetical to my experience that I’m tempted to wonder if Wiseman is cheating a little here to prove his point; if this really is “a fair account of the experience I’ve had,” then the residents of Monrovia may literally be Pod People.

 

***** Meetings are, apparently, something of a Wiseman staple, which makes sense as a good technique to capture the local spirit, if you’re not going to directly interview people directly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Tainted: The Problem with the 90's, Part 2


Tainted (1998) 

Dir. Brian Evans

Written by Sean Farley

Starring Dean Chekvala, Greg James, Sean Farley

 

 


 

 

“Somebody there is having stupid sandwiches, and that’s for damn sure”

           

           

            Ah, and here we discover the other side of the 1990’s. With I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, we had an opportunity to examine the bland, homogenizing corporate iron curtain that descended upon the culture in the second half of the decade. But with TAINTED, we have something quite different: a relic of the multi-media indie boom that shattered the recursive stasis of the remnant 80’s culture and briefly infused the American artistic scene with some energy and unpredictability. There is a side of the 90’s that was Boy Bands and WB teen dramas, but there was another side that was PULP FICTION, FARGO, CLERKS, Twin Peaks, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, Public Enemy, Digable Planets. Legitimately offbeat, adventurous art with a hip, self-aware edge and a plethora of distinct artistic voices so unexpected and compelling that for a few years in the early 90’s they managed to knock the corporate behemoth back on its heels. Movie and record execs never saw it coming, and responded by fumbling around, blindly handing out checks to every new weirdo who showed up with some new project they didn’t understand but seemed hip, disaffected, and dangerous. 

 

            This was for the best, all things considered, and some of the defining art of my life came from this period. But of course, you can’t have the kind of success that these (initially) independent artists enjoyed without everyone else wanting a piece of the pie. Imitators quickly surged into the newly-opened space, beguiled by that most persistent and compelling of questions: If Kevin Smith can do it, why not me?

 

            TAINTED is a pretty definitive answer to that question. You cannot do it, it turns out, because you are not Kevin Smith. Very few people these days would be eager to defend the idea that Smith is a visionary artistic genius or that CHASING AMY has held up well, but on the other hand, he does have something. There’s a voice there, a point-of-view, and, more than anything, a relentless drive to get that point of view out there, so strong, in fact, that Smith has more or less abandoned cinema altogether and become a podcaster, cutting out the middle man and just getting to deliver his monologues directly. In short, he made CLERKS not because he had any expectation that it would make money and cement a comfortable three-decades-long career as a cultural fixture; he made it because he had to, because he was compelled by something inside him that could not be ignored. You can argue about the merits of the art he produced, but you cannot argue about the specificity of his voice, or the compulsion that produced it. Like much of the art of the 90’s, its value was in its distinctness: it was produced wholly and without reservation from the subconscious of a genuine weirdo, and not something you could fake or recreate.

 

            But faking and recreating it was exactly what the next wave of indie wannabes had in mind. They were inspired by Smith and Tarantino and Nirvana and NWA, but they were not compelled the same way the best of the 90’s indie artists were, and so they sought to imitate, rather than produce their own unique vision. They didn’t, by and large, have their own vision, they just recognized something cool and thought it looked easy enough that they could do it too.

 

Hell yeah, NADJA

 

            Hence, TAINTED, which wears its influence so proudly that it’s all but impossible to ignore. In its seven-sentence writeup of TAINTED, VideoHound namechecks CLERKS in the very first sentence. I mention this because it’s the reason I watched the film. Around 20 years ago, I, like the protagonists here and like Randall in CLERKS, was employed at an independent video store, and back then, since you weren’t gonna see IMDB unless you dialed into your desktop PC browser at home, we had a physical media substitute: VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever “The Complete Guide To Movies on Videocassette, DVD, and Laserdisc” (which I’m just now discovering is still an annual print publication to this very day!). Much of my workday back then was spent trawling through this book for new movie suggestions, and here, in their brief write-up of TAINTED, I found something that sounded kind of interesting. “Script has many laughs, lots of attitude, and plenty of pop culture knowledge,” raves the review (which is what we wanted back then), and I thought I’d give it a try. Except that I never found it available anywhere. Our normal supplier didn’t have it. Our arch-enemy Blockbuster Video didn’t have it. Hollywood Video didn’t have it. Nextflix, when it came along as a mail-order-service, didn’t have it, and has never gotten it. So this year, I figured I’d waited long enough, and ordered it from Troma (who distributed, but were not involved in its production). So this review is, in a way, the culmination of a 20-year quest.

 


 

             My confidence in VideoHound’s bullish assessment of the film’s merits –which had left such a strong impression on me all those years ago-- was quickly thrown into question when my buddy noticed that there is an extremely prominent product placement in the one of the first scenes… for none other than VideoHound! Uh-oh. Possibly a little conflict of interest here. Not a great sign. And the assertion that the “script has many laughs” quickly began to seem dubious as well, as the introduction of our arguable protagonist Ryan (Greg James, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA “Submarine Sailor, uncredited”) finds him awkwardly kicking a one-night-stand out of his apartment (“Willing to bet you never pull any sensitivity muscles, huh?” she fumes) and then turning to the camera to deliver a monologue about easy women so harrowingly wrongheaded and smugly certain that it’s an in-your-face bit of ballsy truth-telling that it might just turn your hair white. A little sample, which is as much as I can bring myself to transcribe:

 

“I didn’t promise her a thing. I stuck my dick in her! Last time I checked, that wasn’t proposing!...There’s no way you can respect, let alone commit, to a woman who will sleep with you on the first date! Am I wrong or what?”

 

It probably doesn’t help that he has the long-on-top-short-in-back-parted-down-the-middle haircut that every dipshit had when I was in middle school, but this Ryan has to be one of the most unwittingly intolerable characters this era produced, and there’s no shortage of competition. This is the kind of thing I need you to warn me about, VideoHound. 

 

#HoundGate #CorruptionInVideoReviews

 

             In short, this monologue (and basically every line that follows it during the unhurried and uneventful 98 minute runtime) sums up the fundamental problem with this era of indie outsiders clambering out of the shadows and into the spotlight: they had all listened to a little too much Bill Hicks. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Bill Hicks too – remember, I grew up in the 90’s, these are my people. But having emerged from the fatuous 80’s –an era so culturally regressive and conservative that people were genuinely scared of Heavy Metal bands that now seem about as dangerous as Benny Goodman—we emerged with a burning, insatiable desire to cut through the stifling niceties and tell it like it is. This was a laudable impulse, and a much-needed course correction after spending a whole decade where the most dangerous thing in music was, like, Phil Collins. The problem, in retrospect, was that when “we” –the legion of disaffected, largely white male artistes and pop-culture nerds who gained ascendency in the 90’s indie boom— got a yin to tell it like it is, we may not have known what it is as much as we assumed. That’s how you can end up with a movie that kicks off with a lecture about clingy one-night stands, as if we’re just going to naturally be on board with that. Or, for that matter, a movie entirely set and filmed in the Detroit area which has exactly zero black people in it, (give or take the prominent placement of a mural which I believe to be Detroit Pistons’ small forward Grant Hill, based on his #33 uniform). Or a gay vampire who delivers his own cringe-worthy monologue about “fence-sitting” bisexuals.

 

            Oh yeah, the movie is about vampires. Probably should have led with that. I mean, it’s really about the late 1990s, of course, but the plot is literally CLERKS meet Anne Rice: intolerable deadwood Ryan and his sarcastic, noticeably Randall-like video-store co-worker J.T. (screenwriter Sean Farley, who apparently had a small role in fellow Michigander Sam Raimi’s ill-fated CRIMEWAVE) hitch a ride to a midnight showing of BLADE RUNNER with their new colleague Alex (Dusan “Dean” Chekvala, who would revisit the vampire game years later with a run in True Blood), only to get dragged into an underworld of unflashy midwestern vampires when Alex reveals he’s a bloodsucker and gets embroiled in a plot by a crazed vampire to contaminate (or, “taint” if you will) the city’s blood supply.

 

            That’s the plot, and it’s largely structured as a kind of vampire procedural, where Alex, with an unwilling Ryan and J.T. in tow, travels around to various secret vampire locations and shakes down the locals for info on the rogue vamp.* But in practice, this is all very transparently a flimsy excuse to set up an endless series of painfully overwritten pop culture diatribes, in which no idea is ever stated in five words that could not be overstated in 50. This is lamentable, but perhaps more understandable in context: people forget this today, but there was a time --and not all that long ago!-- where bickering all day about comic books or sci-fi movies was not looked upon as a socially acceptable activity. It was the province of weird, socially awkward outsiders, and if you were known to engage in this sort of tomfoolery, you were likely to be branded a “nerd,” which back then was an epithet with the power to significantly limit your social options, rather than something gorgeous celebrities call themselves as they do press tours for 250-million-dollar comic book adaptations. 

 

Would you believe there was a time that this guy wasn't considered cool?

 

Back in the 90’s, though, the conventional social order was deep in the throes of a violent upheaval. CLERKS, of course, had blazed the trail, turning unabashedly nerdy conversations which had previously been confined to basements and comic-book shops into something that played on-screen as a little bit edgy and rebellious, which was exactly what the kids were looking for. And when the movie became a minor hit, the culture noticed, and the gatekeepers eagerly ushered the once-maligned nerds (and their wallets, fattened with disposable income by a burgeoning tech industry and no dependents) into the mainstream. By the late 90’s, the nerds, emboldened by Tarantino and Smith’s nonstop pop-culture pontification, hadn’t just gotten their revenge, but were well on their way to overthrowing the popular kids altogether and establishing their brutal hegemony over the culture which persists to this day.

 

            Even by 1998, however, it wasn’t obvious that the tide had turned, and that in just a little under two decades, BLADE RUNNER would have a sequel with a budget of 150 million bucks, while nobody under the age of 30 would know who Jennifer Love Hewitt was. The nerds were still feeling newly liberated from the unwanted margins of society, and ready to flaunt their newfound countercultural chic, by, for example, making a movie where two video store clerks and their vampire pal blather on endlessly about the merits of RAISING ARIZONA and BLADE RUNNER and smugly trash the hoi polloi who fail to adequately appreciate their charms.

 

That trashing is an important thread here, because if part of this newfound feeling of liberation took the form of celebration, it also had a darker side, as newly empowered dorks turned to some sadistic score-settling with old enemies. The most immediate and deeply resented of those enemies were women, who by 1998 were being dealt the opening salvo of a relentless, bone-deep campaign of misogyny perpetrated by the bitter beta-males they had ignored in high school, but who had finally seized some power of their own and were anxious to pay back with interest the indignities they felt they had suffered as unwanted adolescents with no social skills. Consequently, the 90’s was a time of roiling, omnipresent misogyny, barely concealed beneath a cresting wave of smug sarcasm and edgy provocations. And thus it is that we wind up with the situation at hand, which cheerfully introduces us to its protagonist reciting a bitter harangue against women who would have the gall to sleep with him and expect him to remember their name the next day, as though this was a lot of impish fun.

 

I mean, this fuckin' guy, amiright?

 

In the defense of TAINTED, I would point out that it took time before it was clear that the balance of power had shifted, and that the nerds had definitively shifted from taking cathartic pot shots at their social betters to ugly, sadistic punching down. They still felt powerless, and their own misery blinded them somewhat to their burgeoning position to do real harm.

 

In fact, that misery is a key element to understanding the form this cultural shift took. The angsty early 90’s had turned self-destructive anguish into something akin to heroism, and the culture was ready to lean into it. Even at their most savagely misogynistic, the nerds knew, at least on some level, that their grievances were more deeply rooted in self-hatred than in unfair oppression. In yet another cringy monologue, TAINTED’s J.T. drives away a friendly female bar patron with his caustic self-loathing, and the movie clearly recognizes that he’s the problem, not her. But at the same time, it’s so consumed by his self-sabotaging unhappiness that it’s utterly incapable of imagining her as a being with any inner life whatsoever. Ryan has a similar scene just minutes later, when another former one-night stand excoriates him for… well, again it’s not really clear, exactly. The movie seems to vaguely understand from pop culture that women want you to call them back after sex, but has no more explanation as to why that might be than it has explanation for why women are so desperate to sleep with this doofus in the first place. Women are, if not actively hostile, at least alien creatures whose desires and motivations are inscrutable to the point of meaningless abstraction. These scenes are about the boys’ feelings about themselves – the women are just props, objects by which the men to evaluate their relative strengths and weaknesses. The movie wants Ryan to have some conflict over his status as an unmoored lothario –something it obviously takes from CLERKS**, which locates its own pathos in its characters self-destructive misery—but the point is to foreground his own alienation, not to seriously interrogate his behavior and its consequences for others. Which has the effect of seriously limiting TAINTED's perspective. It understands why socially awkward pop-culture nerds feel alienated and put-upon, but is utterly unable to see anything beyond them. It's why the movie so persistently mistakes whiny sarcasm for comedic truth-telling. Self-flagellation, it turns out, is a kind of all-consuming narcissism in its own right. Telling it like it is sounds great, but you also reveal something about yourself by what subjects you choose to tell about, and what subjects you ignore. 

 

The cumulative effect is of a film –and a time and place—which feels itself to be on the bleeding edge of woke canniness, and yet constantly reveals the unexamined ignorance of its creators –and, by extension, the ethos of its era. It’s a tragic portrait of people eager to speak truth, but too unable to see beyond the limits of their own navel-gazing to discern the truth they want to proclaim. To whit: the movie is very proud of itself for its openly gay vampire –which, in 1998, was at least a little edgy and provocative—but its idea of portraying an out-and-proud, in-your-face gay character is to have him arrogantly bash bisexuals, just to let you know the movie isn’t fucking around with any watered-down half-assed gayness. It recalls Willem Dafoe’s equally cringey homophobic gay character in THE BOONDOCK SAINTS; obviously intended to shake up the squares and dispel some lazy stereotypes about gay men, but at the same time so profoundly lacking in any real understanding of their life and circumstances that it ends up feeling empty and ignorant. It is as clear a case as any you could hope to create as to why simple on-screen representation is not enough. I genuinely believe the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place, and they showcased a gay character with the intention destigmatizing and challenging stereotypes (as well as showing off how cool and down with it they are), but without any genuine insight into this culture, it just comes off as performative and phony. It certainly makes one consider that there’s a possible upside to having no black characters in the script at all.

 

The only black person in the movie. Sorry, Grant Hill. Your tenure with the Pistons didn't turn out so hot, but you deserved better than this.
 

 

The movie’s inability to consider the perspective of anyone other than its perpetually adolescent white pop culture nerds unfortunately extends to its generic elements as well; for all the time spent bumbling through the vampiric underworld of the Detroit suburbs, it feels disappointingly underdeveloped. And that’s a shame, because there was something potentially kind of funny, maybe even genuinely subversive here. The low budget means that these vamps must eschew the standard Eurotrash decadence we associate with the trope, and tend to lurk in drab apartments and aging, dingy commercial properties. They’re Midwestern vampires; unglamorous, gloomily polite, suffused with a nameless sense of glacial, inevitable societal decay. They’re mostly unhappy but resigned to their vampiric condition, more interested in trying to live semi-normal lives than embracing their supernatural otherness. Here, at least, the filmmakers are on more familiar footing, even if they're not necessarily aware of that fact enough to make much of it. I don’t think this is intentional, but they do somewhat capture the scrappy, mordant angst of the real-life lower-class Rust Belt white people who are more or less playing themselves here. There’s a sense of being quietly damned that comes along with this milieu, the inheritors of a fifty-year-long backslide from dimly remembered glory days, but also a kind of ramshackle pride at soldiering on and building a life amidst the ruins. Vampirism turns out to be a worthwhile evocation of that spirit, and so it’s a shame that the surface is only barely scratched, mostly for the purposes of tin-eared exposition. The movie, of course, never seems remotely aware that it might actually be onto something subtly interesting here; all the protagonists want to do is get back to bickering about BLADE RUNNER. Figures.

 

Consequently, all things considered, TAINTED does not offer the good time promised by VideoHound. But it is something of a timely warning about how wretchedly miserable the 90s were. And not just in terms of amateurishness and stylistic awkwardness and way, way too much agonizingly overwritten "clever" dialogue --although also those things, and very very much of all of them—but just in the sense of how myopic and self-centered much of the vaunted 90’s indie wave was. Part of its initial charm was in the foregrounding of distinct artistic voices, but that turned out to have something of an unforeseen dark side, as the very distinctness of those voices was frequently an effect of their unrelenting self-absorption. Kurt Cobain was a hero to so many young people because of how deeply in touch he was with his own pain – but that very insight was so overwhelming that it made him selfish, in a way, so unable to see beyond his own pain that he ended up killing himself, in the process orphaning his two-year-old daughter. A suitable metaphor, maybe for the whole decade: taking stock of one’s own inner world was a necessary course correction after the punishing emotional superficiality of the preceding Reagan years, and arguably a step towards a kinder, more empathetic culture. But, in retrospect, also a good signpost of how much further we had to go before that same intense awareness of our own pain could be broadened out to include other people.

 

Still, at least Nirvana rocked. TAINTED very much does not rock. It isn’t even mic’d adequately. What few appealing ideas it possesses get completely lost in a sea of bloviating pop culture doggerel and petty sarcasm, which it disastrously offers as entertainment. Maybe in 1998, it really was a little bit exciting for nerds like me to see ourselves on screen – but today, in 2020, it reads more like a wince-inducing cautionary tale of just how intolerable people like me are capable of being, especially when they were trying to emulate others. Speaking of which, the credits end with an extensive list of “Thank yous” to other artists, “for their inspiration.” The list includes the expected Kevin Smith and Tarantino, along with David Fincher (who had only just released THE GAME), Tim Burton, um, Dennis Miller (?), and Martin Brest (BEVERLY HILLS COP, MEET JOE BLACK[?], GIGLI). But also Ken Russell, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers, Peter Greenaway, Abel Ferrara, John Woo, and Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS). Honestly, it's a pretty good list of inspirations. Those guys were, by and large, the real deal.

 

Proof enough that you can like the right things and still not get it at all.

 


 

 

Still, the movie begins with a Sarah McLachlan quote, apparently in complete earnestness. That's just barely lame enough to be endearing, and I find myself unable to wholly condemn it. It's pretty rough watching, but it's also a little unfair for me to saddle this one tiny indie flick with the accumulated social problems of an entire era. And after all, I'm just some asshole writing reviews on the internet; these guys actually did what I desperately wanted to back in 1998: they made a film. A film that looks a heck of a lot like it probably would have looked if I had scraped together enough pennies to shoot one of my own impossibly-pleased-with-its-own-cleverness teenage pitches. If it's hard to watch, it's at least in part due to my own chagrin at this time-capsule mirror into my own myopic adolescence. I take it, then, as a humbling opportunity to do what TAINTED can't: introspect. Take stock of where I am, what I'm doing to others, and how far I still have to go to get where I should be. After all, in 20 years I'll probably be looking back at myself and whatever the 2020 equivalent of TAINTED might be with just as much disgust. 

 

Even so, I like to think that if I'd made this movie I'd at least have got some gore in there somewhere. I mean, I'm not a monster. The 90's were bad, and that's not TAINTED's fault. But at least they usually had more whammy than this. 

 

             

 

*In fact, the movie it most structurally resembles is Steven Seagal’s OUT FOR JUSTICE. But it really makes one realize that the Aikido, and possibly the ponytail, were a big part of what makes that one good.

 

** Since his influence is never far from the movie, I think it’s worth noting that whatever Kevin Smith’s problems may be, I don’t think this sort of passive misogyny is among them. The female characters in his films are typically about as well-drawn as his male characters, which makes sense, given that everyone in a Kevin Smith movie, regardless of sex, race or creed, all just talk like Kevin Smith anyway. Still, it’s worth noting that the vanguard of the indie film boom of the 90’s featured more interesting and varied female roles than most of the films that subsequently tried to rip them off.

 

 

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2020 CHECKLIST!

The Man Who Queue Too Much

 

TAGLINE

If it ever had one, it’s not included on the blatantly misleading Troma DVD cover, which depicts two buxom vampires who are absolutely not in the movie.

TITLE ACCURACY

The plot sort of centers around a vampire “tainting” the water supply, although it’s a weird title any way you want to look at it

LITERARY ADAPTATION?

No

SEQUEL?

None 

REMAKE?

None

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN

USA

HORROR SUB-GENRE

Vampires, horror-comedy

SLUMMING A-LISTER?

None

BELOVED HORROR ICON?

None

NUDITY? 

None.

SEXUAL ASSAULT?

None; although Ryan is depicted as a bit of a cad, there’s never any suggestion that his sexual encounters were anything but wholeheartedly consensual.

WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!

No animals

GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?

None

POSSESSION?

No

CREEPY DOLLS?

Nope

EVIL CULT?

None

MADNESS?

None

TRANSMOGRIFICATION?

None, as far as we know these vamps cannot turn into bats or wolves or anything

VOYEURISM?

A short, and unusually adequately-constructed, stalking sequence opens the film

MORAL OF THE STORY

The cooler something seems at the time, the more embarrassing it’s going to seem 20 years later.