Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wrong kind of trash

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

So does this sound like a comedy or a tragedy? Rae, a hopeless young white nymphomaniac in a lousy Southern town, flips out when her boyfriend ships off to Iraq and starts putting it about even more than usual. At the end of a wild night she’s thrown out of a truck into the road, where she lies until dawn in a bloodied stupor. Then an aging black guy called Lazarus (a farmer and local blues singer) finds her and takes her into his shack. At first he’s just being a good guy, but he has problems of his own – his wife took off with a close friend, and he needs something to get himself back on track. Figuring in some way that her redemption might be his own, he resolves to clean her up, but she keeps wandering off, so he does, well, the only thing he can do. He secures her in his living room with a chain around her waist, oh and this is still wearing the dirty micro-top and panties she turned up in. She screams and yells, but he holds firm. And that’s the set up.

Black Snake Moan

It sounds like a comedy to me, or at least a Russ Meyer kind of concoction where you can’t tell the difference. I didn’t throw that out randomly – Meyer actually made a film called Black Snake, which came with the tagline “No man escaped her island – or her whip!” I don’t remember a thing about it now, but I’m pretty sure it was a hoot. Black Snake Moan though is by writer-director Craig Brewer, whose underlying premise in Hustle and Flow was that it really is hard for a pimp. How much worse then, for a mere nympho. And so the weirdest and worst thing about Blake Snake Moan, despite its attractively lurid title and poster and trailer, is its general ponderous sensitivity. Sure, the movie has its schlocky aspects; it eats up Ricci’s body, and punctuates the action with eye-popping memory montages that illustrate Rae’s almost constantly verge-of-orgasm mental state. But it’s also full of boring secondary characters, dawdling self-discovery dialogue, and a lot of scenes that barely seem to matter one way or another.

Isn’t something missing with that? Dana Stevens in Slate came at it as follows: “I’m sorry, but in the age of Abu Ghraib and Alberto Gonzales torture memos, it seems important to say…Chaining people and holding them against their will is not the right thing to do. By that I don’t mean, simplistically, that Jackson’s character is ‘bad’ and should be punished at the end of the film. I mean that the questions – ethical, sexual, racial, whatever – that are raised by this initial act of violence are never addressed.” Stevens’ broad point, to be trite about it, is that the film should be better. But I think maybe it’s the opposite, that it should have been worse.

Apologetically Trashy?

A movie called Black Snake Moan surely has no business directly addressing ethical, sexual or racial issues. Its better role in life is to be unapologetically trashy. But trashy – and this is the key point – in the way that the best pulp genre movies used to serve effortlessly as outlets for the submerged ideological detritus of the age. Like a zombie movie that acts as a metaphor for the sublimation of individuality in a capitalist society. Or a film noir that blows the door open on Cold War paranoia and the oppression within the bourgeois family.

You don’t get too many movies like that any more, probably because that kind of subversion needs either an industry – structure and contracts and a measure of predictability, creating crannies and shadows where subversion can percolate and occasionally spurt to the surface – or else a devil may care attitude (but that seems out of tune with current moviemaking). Eli Roth’s Hostile might have been the closest recent example of what I’m talking about – a rampantly sleazy concoction that seemed at least semi-meaningful about America’s current place in the world. A few episodes of the TV anthology Masters of Horror have come close too, perhaps because the lower budget and the relatively lower visibility loosen the constraints a bit. But really, what is Black Snake Moan up to? The image of a white woman chained by a black man still carries a greater charge than most other racial and gender permutations one could think of, but there’s never any real doubt here about the basic purity of Jackson’s motives, never any hint that the two might cross the line into some sick master-slave thing.

The film might have been concocted solely to show that it’s possible to take that premise and make a toothless movie out of it. Lazarus’s heart seems to lie not with Rae but, for God’s sake, with a kindly pharmacist played by Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson. And in the end the film is explicit that his shock therapy has given Rae the mental structure she needs to do better from then on. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but if you’re going to play around with nympho psychology, why not steer toward something more diverting? Ricci is pointlessly committed to her silly role, Jackson does his usual thing except with a worse haircut, and Justin Timberlake is very good as the boyfriend. Timberlake just gets better and more credible all the time. I even liked his album. In this movie though Jackson and Ricci do all the singing.

The Number 23

Joel Schumacher has intermittently tried to occupy more respectable territory (Tigerland, Veronica Guerin), but with The Number 23 he reverts to his customary territory as one of the worst and most annoying directors imaginable. His star Jim Carrey, as everyone knows, is even more preoccupied with artistic validation than Schumacher is, and he gamely leaps here, with misapplied earnestness, into darker waters than he’s ever previously occupied. The star and director affect a messy collision, resulting in a conventionally overdone, contrived film that nevertheless has glimmers of something more affecting.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal control officer, fundamentally dissatisfied and drifting despite being a caring husband and father, who comes across a book – “The Number 23” – that tells a story of numerology-driven mayhem, and that seems to him strangely relevant to his own life. Off the rails he goes, and the plot quickly follows – it rapidly becomes impossible to chart how one thing leads to the next, a confusion annoyingly accentuated by Schumacher’s technique, which is like listening to a garbage can lid being smashed against a wall for an hour and a half. I think this week we should have engineered a swap. Craig Brewer probably would have made something more sensitive out of The Number 23, whereas Black Snake Moan would surely have been much more acceptably campy and dumb in Schumacher’s hands. I bet he would even have got Timberlake to sing.

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