I’ve written here before about my fondness for Blake Edwards, who died the other week at the age of 88. At his best, in films like “10” and S.O.B., he made unusually piercing movies about aging, disappointment and self-delusion, deploying his deadpan style as an unflinching microscope. I don’t think his work has always worn that well – the Pink Panther movies for instance often seem dawdling now, and he stretched out the concept long past its natural death. But then I often find Edwards’ weaker and less inspired movies to be more stimulating than his classically successful ones (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, doesn’t particularly reflect his mature style), for how they absorb and embody his affinity for desperation.
For instance, The Carey Treatment, an early-70’s medical thriller with James Coburn, isn’t particularly distinguished stuff, but Edwards’ handling of it is so unadorned, allowing Coburn to become so stylized and above it all, that it takes on an existential charge, rendering the self-absorbed institutional environment almost as abstract as the comic landscapes of the Clouseau films. And after he died, I watched Days of Wine and Roses, which he made in 1962. Another early and more self-effacing Edwards work, depicting a young couple falling into alcoholism, it’s still enormously raw and affecting, and still scary for depicting love and mutual delight becoming helplessly destructive.
I kept thinking of the film a few days later when I went to see David O Russell’s new movie The Fighter. This is the true story of Micky Ward, a Boston-area boxer slugging unproductively away in the early 90’s in the shadow of his older brother Dicky, also a fighter who achieved modest fame by once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard (or maybe Sugar Ray slipped). Between Dicky’s chronic unreliability (he’s a crack-addict) and his mother’s inexpert management, Micky’s going nowhere, until a combination of events puts him on a new path.
The movie’s been widely praised, and by all accounts it’s a major Oscar contender. Taken in opposition to The Social Network, this might be a rerun of 1976 when Rocky beat out a bunch of topical heavyweights (Network, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men). In fact, it’s almost exactly like that, because I couldn’t really list any significant way in which The Fighter advances on Rocky. Certainly not in the boxing scenes, which don’t add anything to the long cinematic inventory of such material, or in Mark Wahlberg’s sympathetic but largely blank central performance.
I suppose it aspires to a grittier texture, but a lot of it feels caricatured, if not outright condescending. For example, it presents Micky’s seven sisters as a hideous posse of dumbass harpies, good for easy laughs, but incomprehensible otherwise. Dicky’s addiction isn’t presented with much clout; his depraved life seems to consist of hanging out harmlessly with a colourful bunch of losers, and then leaping comically out of the window when Mom comes looking for him. Christian Bale, also tipped for an Oscar, plays the addled Dicky with great technical facility, but he’s not particularly interesting to watch. Likewise, Melissa Leo’s portrayal of the self-righteous mother is no doubt skillful, but frankly, I couldn’t stand the awful woman.
Of course, that’s a subjective response, and the film does convey something of her underlying vulnerability and the challenges that necessitated this hard shell, but there’s nothing remotely new to such calibrations. Director Russell, unseen for six years since overreaching with I Heart Huckabees (in the interim he got bogged down on another problem film, which remains unreleased), keeps things moving and mostly colourful, and that’s about it. Unless one is a boxing movie completist, I just can’t see any point of going to see the film; it feels like what it is, a bunch of rich people flattering themselves on doing something important. Blake Edwards knew he belonged too much to the entertainment elite to pretend otherwise, which helps makes it easy to unthinkingly dismiss his work as glossy pap. But in its own way, that’s the same kind of complacency that puts people off subtitled films. Why should artists pretend to be normal guys – isn’t it inherent to their value that they’re not?
I caught up late with Alex Gibney’s documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, an immaculate case study on the idiocy and corruption that holds America increasingly in its grip. Spitzer was the New York attorney general who showed amazing focus and effectiveness in taking on corporate crimes (in effect diagnosing many of the endemic excesses and perversions behind recent problems), fairly easily moving on to the state’s governorship. Along the way he gathered some well-connected enemies, and when he started using a premium escort service (albeit with extreme attention to secrecy and anonymity), he eventually threw them a string that could only ever end up forming a noose.
The film persuasively argues (without being able to connect every dot) that Spitzer’s transgressions would have been lost in the system without some powerful intervention: a mundane bank activity report vaulting over hundreds of others onto the desks of investigators; a local attorney general suddenly choosing to make high-priced prostitution a priority; affidavits devoting disproportionate attention to “Client 9”; helpful leaks to the media. Even then, he might have survived the disclosures (as others have in similar situations) if not for his political isolation. Spitzer, who’s interviewed in the film and answers the questions as forthrightly as you could reasonably expect, doesn’t engage in special pleading, and views might differ on how much of a loss his demise represents. What seems less debatable though is that his contributions to enforcing corporate ethics and fair dealing – which likely outweigh anyone else’s in recent times – were ultimately squashed by the sheer scale of the problem, and since no one else in the public sphere shows an iota of his focus and determination, we’re all screwed.
Even allowing for personal animosity and verbal imprecision, it’s staggering when an establishment figure says Spitzer’s place in hell should be hotter than anyone else’s (the specific grievance behind this: Spitzer’s opinion that the job of running a not-for-profit organization might not deserve a $200 million cumulative wage package). But as Obama’s recent capitulation on the millionaire tax cuts illustrated (as if the failure to rein in anything meaningful after the banking crisis hadn’t already), America has long lost any sustained grip on its corporate aristocracy (which itself does retain a perfect grip on the Tea Party stooges and other buffoons who somehow think taking care of Wall Street trickles down to safeguarding their own freedoms). At the start of Client 9, Gibney tricks us into thinking the film will be a chronicle of unbridled desire collapsing in on itself (even Spitzer likens his own story to that of Icarus, flying too close to the sun). But in the end we see New York’s glittering surfaces – along with so much of this physical and existential infrastructure we’ve built for ourselves – as traps, keeping the dazzled mice in place while the cats smoothly make off with the cheese.