Sunday, September 29, 2013

Spectrum of Ambition

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2008)

It’s hard not to like Kevin Smith, the writer-director-sometime actor. He might cram his movies with dirty talk, but you know he wouldn’t hurt a fly. I don’t recall whether anyone ever held a gun in any of his films, but if they did, I’m sure it came across as a toy store prop. Of all high-profile American filmmakers, he’s probably the one working most consistently in the “write what you know” vein. And it’s not even so aggravating that he doesn’t seem to know very much. His cinema’s increasingly static quality seems to me an increasingly intriguing touchstone, for those of us who find ourselves in a bemused, no-direction-home middle age.

Kevin Smith

A few years ago, Smith conspicuously announced he was done with the whole Jay and Silent Bob thing, announcing Jersey Girl as the demarcation of his new mature phase. That movie went nowhere, and he soon retrenched to (and there’s an almost defiant quality to this unashamed announcement of reversing fortune) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Embracing being stuck in reverse, he then went back to his very first film, making Clerks II. Like I say, it’s easy enough to enjoy this stuff. Especially I imagine if you’re stuck in a dead end job, and the extent of your life’s ambition is to buy up the dead end job, put up a nicer sign, meet some strippers, marry a blue-collar princess, and develop a good repertoire of scatological heckler’s retorts. And who among us, sometimes at least, wouldn’t sign up for that?

His new film Zack and Miri Make a Porno sounds like progress, no?  Nah, don’t be fooled. Zack and Miri are platonic best friends, sharing a rental, barely keeping afloat via their dead-end jobs (here we go again), who devise a good idea to raise some dough – make a porn movie, centering on their own first (business-only) coupling: they figure the sales to people who knew them in school alone will get them into the black. So they assemble a posse of porn wanna-bes and away they go…except it’s not so easy to make a porno, logistically nor, if you have unaddressed feelings regarding your co-star, emotionally.

Zack and Miri

Many people have commented on how Smith almost seems marginalized in his own movie by the spirit of Judd Apatow, who’s taken out the lease on the slacker male territory – Apatow’s frequent co-star Seth Rogan plays Zack. It’s especially evident because Smith’s forte – his skill at making dialogue that evokes a talking toilet (and yet never the same way twice!) - seems muted here. The porn milieu provides some obvious scope for riffing on pop culture (of these inventions, Star Whores is the only repeatable one that comes to mind), but what really gets Smith’s creative motor going – not for the first time – is gay sex. Even at the climactic moment of Zack’s big declaration to Miri (if I spoiled the suspense for you there, you definitely need to get out more), he’s suddenly talking to someone else about a male mutual pleasuring technique. It’s awfully tempting at times to see all this as a massive exercise in displacement (especially since it always seems a little odd to me how Smith casts his real-life wife, Jennifer, in horribly unflattering roles).

But even suggesting that much complexity and nuance tends to oversell the movie’s merits. Smith has a good (if over-studied) feel for economically marginal lifestyles, and he keeps things rattling efficiently along. But he’s never learned a thing about camera language – a limitation that, again, almost starts to seem defiant by now. Zack and Miri is emotionally a little fuller than most of his films, in large part because of Elizabeth Banks as Miri. But his attempt to turn the porn-makers into a plucky community of the marginalized (as if in a threadbare homage to Boogie Nights) falls very flat, and I cringed early on at how Smith whips up a painfully contrived monologue about racial insensitivity.

So why watch it, and why write about it even to the extent I have? Because, all these reservations notwithstanding, Kevin Smith is interesting. Close on forty now, he has it made by many measures, but you can’t imagine he either wants to or would be allowed to keep making films in this mode. So I admit I’m intrigued by the question – what will he do? In part because for all his lack of artistic resonance, there’s a bit of me that says Smith’s answer to that question might be relevant to my own. I mean, I’m not very much like him, but I have the same uncertainty about how to evaluate the journey so far, how to take it from here. I was thinking about porn too, but now I’ve dropped that idea.

Slumdog Millionaire

Conventional wisdom suggests I should have been writing instead about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s winner of the Toronto festival People’s Choice Award, viewed as a feel-good long-shot Oscar contender. Shot in Mumbai by the director of Trainspotting and Sunshine, it pivots on a lowly call-centre employee on the verge of winning it all in the local Who Wants to be a Millionaire, for which he’s hauled off to the cops under suspicion of cheating. Turns out the questions all tied into key moments in his life – a life encompassing torture, child exploitation, rampant crime, and all manner of misery. There’s more style and imagination in any five minutes of this film than in all of Zach and Miri – it’s the product of creative imaginations working as if at their limit.

But I just didn’t care for the film. It’s a close cousin to the other festival triumph (and subsequent Oscar-winner) Tsotsi – another movie that shows something of the reality of life in a wretched time and place, but then zooms in on one plucky protagonist, puts him through a string of implausible events, and purports thereby to be illustrating something about that dreaded phrase “the human spirit” (like Rocky, but with more aesthetically bracing suffering).  Slumdog Millionaire is the more egregious of the two – it’s massively contrived, and crammed full of cheap villainy that might as well belong to any Hollywood B action movie. At the end the population appears united in celebrating his triumph, but I find it hard to enjoy seeing India’s grim reality used as an aesthetically zesty backdrop to a story that says nothing about their prospects, or ours. Almost everyone likes the movie, and I guess India itself (despite coming across as a bona fide hellhole) would be grateful for the business, but I find the whole calculation hard to trust. Sometimes, wild ambition and over-achieving energy are just off-putting, even if you’re not a slacker.

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