Tuesday, 17 August 2010

On the greatness of Tommy Wiseau's The Room

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“You must be kidding, underwear – I got the picture!”

The Room is a celebrated cult phenomenon (the latest in a long line of movies dubbed the ‘worst ever’) and, as such, has unsurprisingly spawned a great deal of discussion. I want to take a slightly different approach to it than many, however. Rather than focussing on a run-down of its countless dreadful pleasures or the participatory culture that has sprung up around it, I want to look in detail at one short sequence to try to explain something of how it works, and what this can tell us about the film as a whole. I have a few reasons for doing this.

Firstly: although one of the great things about the kind of cult fandom The Room has attracted is that it encourages a focus on details (The spoons! The football!), I haven’t read many accounts of the movie that try to discuss how these details add up to form patterns of (wonderfully absurd) meaning within sequences or the film as a whole. Secondly, one thing I find slightly offputting about fan screenings of the film is that they tend to fetishise these marvellous individual details to the point where noticing them (and yelling out the traditional responses to indicate that they have been noticed) drowns out any sense of the peculiarly unorganically-organic flow of their scenes, and of the movie more generally. The extreme oddness of how The Room’s scenes feel as scenes (not merely as successions of quirks) is one of the things that makes the film so brilliant, and I think a close analysis should allow me to capture some of the feeling of this.


Finally, I want to look at The Room in this way partly simply to reward it for being the extraordinarily entertaining and fascinating thing that it is. In her excellent blog entry about teaching the film to students, Amanda Ann Klein suggests that watching ‘bad’ films like this one “makes us feel better about ourselves”, arguing that “when we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying ‘I am better than this. I am superior to this’.” There is doubtless an element of truth to this: the very act of enjoying something for its ‘failings’ does necessarily involve a kind of assumption about one’s own superiority. Yet a part of me also wants to resist this characterisation of my relationship to the film. I can honestly say that I deeply love this movie in no less a sense than I deeply love, say, Vertigo (which, incidentally, as another San Francisco-set tale of romantic obsession, has its parallels in The Room: the two even share some locations!). The nature of this love is certainly different, but it is no less real. This is an important point to make about cult pleasure in general. As with Trapped in the Closet, I value The Room not because it is ‘bad’, but because it is ‘bad’ in very special and very strange ways – ways that are unique to it alone, and which, even after multiple viewings, I still can’t quite master. In order to feel superior to something one must first feel one understands it; I am far from being able to say this of The Room. Close analysis is a way for a critic to show that s/he is not above a film, passing judgment from on high, but rather wants to live up to it by briefly existing within it, exploring its intricate workings, honouring it with time and attention. For me, The Room most certainly deserves such treatment.

So – to begin.

Some context: the film tells the story of Johnny (Tommy Wiseau - also the writer and director) and the way in which his life unravels after discovering that his fiancé (or, as she is only ever called, “future wife”), Lisa (Juliette Daniel), is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Gregg Sestero). From this basic set-up Wiseau is able to weave a rich tapestry of confusing secondary characters, sub-plots, and superfluous scenes; I want to look in detail at one of these scenes. It’s approximately two minutes long, takes place around forty-five minutes into the film, and is structured around Johnny’s friend Mike (Mike Homes) recounting to Johnny something we saw in an earlier scene about fifteen minutes previously – specifically: that (a) he and his girlfriend were caught almost in flagrante by Lisa’s mother (Carolyn Minnott), (b) they left quickly, only for Mike to realise that he had left behind his underwear, upon which he (c) embarrassedly returned to retrieve it, only for (d) Lisa's mother to embarrass him by snatching the boxers from his hand and holding them up to inspect them publicly.




It is a scene whose many glorious mysteries I have (despite the grandiloquence of my build-up and the length of what follows!) only begun to get to grips with. Let’s break our consideration of this scene down into a few parts. First:

Redundancy

The first thing to say about the scene is that it is entirely redundant to the plot. This is also partly why it can stand as a beautifully representative moment of the film, since excessive narrative redundancy is one of The Room’s defining and most endearing characteristics. This scene, however, is not merely redundant in the way that, say, Denny’s dramatic encounter with a drug dealer is (which, like Claudette’s revelation that “I definitely have breast cancer”, establishes a major sub-plot that is never to be revisited) – no: this scene takes redundancy to the next level by existing solely in order that we may be retold of something which we have already witnessed: Mike’s “underwear issue”. To pile inconsequence upon yet further inconsequence, the original event to which the anecdote refers was itself wholly surplus to narrative requirement, a moment of ‘comic relief’ whose relevance we have already likely had cause to wonder at. Indeed, since Mike takes part in no other significant action throughout the entire film, the whole reason for his character existing – as difficult as this is to countenance – seems to be solely to take part in the original incident, and then tell us about it again.

As such, one of the most magnificent things about the sequence is that it forces us to grapple with the question of why, in a film so prepared to summarily drop what in any other movie would be major plot points, are we being subjected to such a lengthy reminder of something this meaningless? Our bewilderment is only heightened as the scene continues: we are already initially surprised when Mike begins to tell Johnny about the incident, and grow moreso the longer he goes on (“Go on, I’m listening,” urges Johnny, and later, “Tell me more…”); then, when Denny enters the discussion continues, our surprise now heightening to become incredulity; finally Mark arrives and the characters are, somehow, still talking about Mike’s underwear. By this point our inner Aristotlean, who craves order and motivation in our art, is screaming, “NO! NO!! NOOOO!!!” while at the same time the mischievous part of us that desires precisely this kind of assault on storytelling logic – the part that deeply loves The Room – is satisfyingly murmuring, “Yes, oh yes, OH MY, YES…”


So why is this scene in the movie? One answer seems to be that it is an attempt to show day-to-day life, and, as such, needs to be understood in the context of the way in which The Room constantly seeks – and spectacularly fails – to achieve a sense of naturalism.

Naturalism and performance style

On one level the scene is clearly meant to be a demonstration of the minutiae of everyday life, which here consists of friends chatting about the funny things that have happened to them lately, and – crucially – a casual catch-and-throw football session. This activity famously crops up an awful lot in The Room (leading to the ubiquity of American footballs at fan screenings). Indeed, throwing a football around seems intended by Wiseau to almost be a basic signifier of ‘normality’: this is, the film suggests, simply what men do when they get together. Unfortunately (by which I of course mean fortunately), two things significantly scupper this sense. Firstly, there is the fact that it happens quite so emphatically often, thus highlighting the extent to which it is being used as a flashing sign that reads “This Is Usual, This Is Real Life – You Probably Do This Too”. Secondly, there is the notorious tininess of the distances that the ball is always being thrown, which draws attention to the fact that the action’s other function is to serve as a strikingly strange answer to the perennial question faced by film directors: what should characters be doing whilst talking? (The games of catch don’t just accompany throwaway ‘comic’ sequences like this: at other points it also goes hand-in-hand with serious heart-to-hearts.) First and foremost, the characters need to be close to each other when throwing a ball so that dialogue can take place; the resulting oddness is merely a brilliant side-effect.


What the attempted naturalism also causes is an awkwardness brought on by what appears to be the extensive improvisation going on in the scene, leading to odd, mis-chosen words and phrases. For example: Mike setting up his story by saying “I’ve got a little bit of a – a tragedy on my hands…”; the bizarre wonderfulness of “me underwears” (that strange mis-hitting of casualness again); Mark’s weird questioning, “Underwear? What’s that? Underwear, man…?”, and so on. Of course, what makes all this quite so peculiar is the clash with the extreme un-naturalism of everything surrounding such statements. It would be difficult to find many melodramas that fail harder than The Room does at convincing us that they are presenting a credible world, yet here its actors are, visibly straining to replicate the messiness of real-life conversation. Maybe in another film, with other actors, lines like “I don’t study like that” / “He doesn’t” might convey the awkwardness of speech, but here they convey the awkwardness of Tommy Wiseau’s unique conception of filmed drama. If it has not been felt already, the unbridgeable gulf between these two modes – ‘naturalism’ and whatever it is that The Room offers – comes crashing spectacularly and deliriously into focus when Mark somehow manages to send Mike flying into the trash can, supposedly causing him to be hurt badly enough for someone to ask whether he needs a doctor.

Ending scenes

Speaking of the ‘accident’, this needs to be seen in relation to the great difficulty The Room has with ending its scenes. Apparently completely unwilling to indulge in (or perhaps functionally unaware of) the accepted convention of cutting away from a scene which has run its course, Wiseau instead seems to feel the need to have characters exit the space where a scene has taken place. As well as the ubiquitous “Oh, hi!” which will often begin sequences, “I gotta go” is one of the most repeated phrases of the movie (as this montage makes clear). It is almost as if Wiseau is afraid that the viewer will be confused unless s/he has been explicitly told scenes have begun and finished. Occasionally, as in this scene (as well as in another entirely extraneous football-throwing-gone-awry sequence) Wiseau even resorts to an act of unexpected violence to bring the action to a close. These mini climaxes come at the expense of earthly motivation, and have precisely the opposite effect to the one intended: far from providing closure for the scenes they belong to, such moments open up whole new sets of questions – “For what conceivable reason did that just happen?” being chief among them. (The confusion is even more extreme here because of the shift in tone caused by the music, which changes in the final seconds from the comic oompah-pah that helpfully underlined the joviality of the football-throwing, into the dark, moody strings that accompany Mike’s treacherous tumble. How seriously are we being encouraged to take this injury?)


The wonderfulness of Johnny

So why does this ‘accident’ take place? One answer comes in the scene’s final moments. “Mike, listen,” says Johnny as he helps his friend up from the floor, “if you need anything call me – anytime, alright?” With this it becomes clear that this moment is another of many in the film which serve to reinforce quite what an outstandingly great guy Johnny is. Mike needs to be hurt, in part, so that Johnny can show him compassion. The same thing motivates the whole discussion of the underwear: it is Johnny’s desire to be a good friend that prompts Mike to keep talking (“I’m listening…”), as well as Tommy’s exclamation “That’s life,” which is delivered with a mysterious and undue emphasis on the word “life”, transforming throwaway platitude into wistful philosophical observation. (In retrospect it might remind us of his later pained cry to Lisa, “Do you understand LIFE? DO you?!” Clearly Johnny does understand life only too well, and knows that it sadly necessarily consists of such things as underwear “tragedies”.)

One the most fundamental pleasures of The Room is the way in which it unsuccessfully tries to be a bizarre paean from Wiseau to himself, presenting him as a great and loving man who becomes the undeserving victim of all around him (“Everybody betrayed me!” is his later anguished exclamation). Yet, as this scene shows, his character’s goodness is often expressed in ways that are by turns unimpressively conventional (buying Lisa red roses and calling her his “princess”), awkwardly expressed (being a good customer and kind to animals, always being interested in friends’ problems), and deeply weird (sort-of adopting a teenage boy [Denny], letting friends [like Mike] use his apartment for sex). The ultimate result of this is that the film comes to feel like a parody of the masculinist narcissism that lies at the heart of its conscious project, exposing the fact that this troubling ideology is troubling, and opening it to ridicule. This is one of the many things that contributes to making The Room not just a ‘failure’ but a fascinating “passionate failure” (one of Sontag’s descriptions of camp). Wiseau has poured his heart and soul into this fevered tribute to himself, and it is a mark of his specialness as an artist that his heart and soul can produce a tribute that ended up feeling this consistently baffling, and this unintentionally self-critical. I do not say this ironically.


Intention and the greatness of Wiseau

As I have suggested before, trying to work out a filmmaker’s intentions is a very important part of the process of cult pleasure; but the matter doesn’t stop there. We certainly need to assume that Wiseau was not intending to make a self-parodic comedy in order to laugh at The Room in the way that we do, but does appreciating the film for reasons other than those intended necessarily mean that we should automatically call Wiseau a ‘bad’ artist? Although the wholesale removal of the ‘intentional fallacy’ from our critical appreciation of art can certainly go too far (causing us to forget that artworks are indeed made up of a series of decisions) we are nevertheless surely long past the point at which we consider greatness to reside wholly in an artist’s conscious intentions.

To return briefly to Vertigo, my earlier example of a film which I love in a more ‘straightforward’ way: most of my admiration for this film comes from my appreciation for what I take to be Hitchcock’s extreme skill as a filmmaker, but by no means all (ignoring, too, any arguments we might want to make about collaboration). I don't know, for instance, to what extent Vertigo is the product of Hitchcock consciously working through his troubling psychological issues with women, or precisely how aware he was of the extent of the damning critique the film offers of masculine possessiveness and domination – nor, importantly, do I need to know. The film is a great work of art regardless of such matters, and Hitchcock is a great artist for having made it. In order to appreciate The Room as a great work of art, and Wiseau as a great artist for having made it, I would admittedly need to disregard the link between greatness and intention to a significantly larger extent than I do in the case of Vertigo. The principle, however, appears to be the same, and the judgment could seem to require me simply to place the two films at different ends of one single, sliding scale – not to use two different scales altogether (say, one scale charting ‘happy accidents’ and their beneficiaries, and another measuring ‘great artworks’ and their creators). As with Hitchcock and Vertigo, whether intentional or not, the endless complexity, fascination and enjoyment that I gain from The Room would, finally, simply not be there were it not for Wiseau - and, while I have no doubt that it will seem to many (perhaps most?!) that I am already giving this film far too much credit, I would maintain that I still haven’t managed to get very far in explaining the beauties of even this scene.

When I am this sure of the hidden treasures a film holds – when I feel a desire this strong to rewatch, discuss and explore – I find it hard to resist the temptation to say that I am in the presence of great art. Those who don't agree are invited either to leave their stupid comments in their pockets, or alternatively write them below.
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Thursday, 5 August 2010

Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism

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Another quick post, this time to announce the launch of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, a freely-accessible online relaunch of the seminal – but recently dormant – British film journal MOVIE, of whose editorial board I am extraordinarily proud to be a member. I am also very happy that Issue 1 features a piece by me (my first published peer-reviewed article, in fact!) – an essay on the concept of ‘quirky’ in American indie cinema. The journal will be published bi-annually, and will aim to continue MOVIE’s tradition of providing a forum for perceptive analyses of film and television grounded in close textual criticism.

Speaking personally, it is especially pleasing that the journal is being provided in an ‘open access’ format (rather than by paid subscription) since this ensures its availability not only to film scholars and students, but also to the interested general reader. One of MOVIE’s many great strengths – and something that always set it apart from most of its peers – was its commitment to remaining accessible to a non-academic readership even after the development of Film Studies as a discipline. Blogs and free journals now provide the opportunity for the resurrection of a critical terrain that sits somewhere between the poles of academia and journalism – an entirely necessary and desirable space that has for too long been too sparsely populated. It is to be hoped that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism will be able to play a significant role within this new context, and will once again be valued for promoting a critical practice whose belief in the necessity of detailed textual evidence (not to mention rhetorical elegance) invariably makes it not only nuanced and revealing, but also eminently readable.

With that said – I hope you all enjoy Issue 1!
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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Notes on Metamodernism & Glory At Sea

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Just a quick post to point you in the direction of the new blog Notes on Metamodernism, whose ranks I have recently joined. The blog is dedicated to trying to make various inroads into the question of where arts and culture is headed after the end of postmodernism, suggesting that one productive answer lies in something like a perpetual oscillation between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony. My first post is about the wonderful short film Glory At Sea (2008).
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Monday, 26 April 2010

A telling chance encounter

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A brief entry while you’re waiting with baited breath for the promised (and by now almost certainly over-hyped!) post on The Room

Yesterday I witnessed a comically stark warning against the smug sense of superiority that can sometimes haunt contemporary responses to older cultural objects. On the website College Humor I came across the following hosted video, labelled ‘Misogynistic Coffee Commercial’:



Fair enough: an amusingly/outrageously dated and embarrassing example of a sexist 50s (or early 60s?) impulse to position women as single-mindedly domestic housewives (the discussion with the friend taking place in the kitchen too, of course – no work, or even life outside the home, for this character).

However, imagine my amazement when this video immediately segued (College Humor being a site funded by advertisements) into the following new commercial for Twix:



The irony, I think you’ll agree, is painful. It’s all too easy to reassure ourselves about the supposedly more enlightened era we live in by sneering at the shortcomings of the past, but we should always remain wary of such complacency. In some ways, the contemporary commercial is even more depressing than its older counterpart: not only does it casually treat the very idea of a woman's political commitment as risible, its point of view also places us firmly within the mind of this chauvinist chump, while the coffee ad’s female focus at least allows us a glimpse into some of the anxieties underlying this marriage's sexual economy (that constant threat of “the girls at the office”!).

What's more, this latest ad appears in a cultural moment when received post-PC knowledge routinely tells us that it is now men who are getting unfairly treated by advertising (as claimed by this typically outraged Daily Mail article). This is certainly a complex issue, but, as this chance meeting across the decades reminds us, we are definitely still a long way from being able to consign institutionalised sexism to Folgers’ anachronistic world of black-and-white film stock and high-neck, floral-patterned shirts.
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Saturday, 27 March 2010

Apologies...

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I owe an apology to any readers I may have for the embarrassingly long silence, particularly since it came in the middle of what I promised would be a series of posts. Life – or, rather, doctoral study – has intervened of late. I just wanted to shoot off this quick communiqué to let you all know that I'm still alive, and that I have a number of entries in the pipeline which will start appearing soon. You can expect one on Tommy Wiseau’s incomparable The Room, one trying to come to terms with the inexplicable After Last Season, as well as one assessing some of the significantly more classical pleasures of Gilda.
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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

“Crazier than a fish with titties”: Naïve and deliberate cult in Trapped in the Closet

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[This is part two of a series of posts on and around the idea of cult pleasure; part one is here, and I have written more on Trapped in the Closet here. ]

Trapped in the Closet is the name collectively given to a bizarre (to put it mildly) series of music videos created by and starring the R & B lothario R. Kelly. It began life as a cycle of songs which together told a slowly unfolding story, divided into chapters, and featuring the same backing track and sung melody. It was later developed into a 41 minute video called Trapped in the Closet Chapters 1-12, released in the Summer of 2005. The songs and video told the dramatic saga of a group of couples whose lives are gradually revealed to be intertwined by one another’s infidelities. Each chapter ended with a pointed cliffhanger – a surprising revelation intended to keep the viewer eager to know what will happen next. Kelly is both star and narrator of the video, and all other characters are also voiced by him.

The apparently unintentional hilarity of Chapters 1-12 caused the video to quickly become a viral cult hit on the internet. It was widely viewed and shared through the then-newly-created Youtube, blogged about by enthusiasts, screened at sing-along parties, championed by pop culture commentators like Adam and Joe and Charlie Brooker, and repeatedly spoofed (never quite successfully, in my opinion) both by fans, and professionally by Weird Al Yankovich, Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Mad TV, and South Park. In short: its reputation as an enjoyable cult object was clearly very much built around its seeming naïveté and the idea that Kelly didn’t, for the most part, intend the video to be comic.


In 2007, ten more chapters were released on the independent film website IFC.com. The tone of these chapters seemed different, and there was apparently little doubt that Kelly now seemed to be often attempting a broad comic style. I liked them far less.

In this post I will both detail some of the pleasures that make Chapters 1-12 so enjoyable, and also suggest that their lack makes Chapters 13-22 less successful. I will argue too that the cult pleasures afforded by the first group of chapters, and resisted by the second, are deeply tied up with assumptions about authorial intention. As such, I will be claiming that the difficult question of intention can often have a very important role to play in the success or failure of cult pleasure.

The particular kind of cult pleasure I’m concerned with can be linked with Susan Sontag’s famous definition of camp as usually constituting a “failed seriousness”, specifically one marked by “the proper mix of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve”. Also relevant is Sontag’s distinction between ‘naïve’ and ‘deliberate’ camp; as she puts it:

Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying.

These points are important not only because I think we can see Trapped in the Closet as straddling both these forms of camp, but also because of their implicit claim that intention – even if only imaginary – can play a major role in how we respond to cult objects.

Chapters 1-12

Before I get into this, though, you will need to see at least some of Trapped in the Closet for yourself, if you haven’t before, since it is almost impossible to describe to the uninitiated (personally, I would strongly endorse watching the first 12 chapters in full). The moment below comes from Chapter 2, and takes place after Sylvester, played by Kelly, has been found hiding in a closet by the man whose wife he slept with the night before.



This scene is fairly representative of the tone of the first batch of chapters: although the action is over-dramatic, there are no overt gags, and emphasis seems to generally be firmly placed upon trying to convey the emotions of the characters. By and large, chapters 1-12 are are played, as we might say, with a straight face. For one thing, the acting is relatively naturalistic throughout: indeed, one of the incredible things about the first half is that the actors actually manage to look rather convincing whilst ‘speaking’ Kelly’s words - as if their characters were merely talking normally and believably, but their real-life soundtrack has for some reason been dubbed over with a melodramatic R & B track that is synchronised perfectly to their words. There is little mugging, little over-the-top comic physicality, and little campy caricature.

Secondly, there are very few 'gags', and when jokes are made, they tend to be jokes shared between characters in the world of the fiction, which are then laughed about. The fact that these jokes aren’t funny, yet the characters think they are, is actually one of the sources of pleasure of the first half. For example, Kelly and his wife fall about laughing when he adds that, on top of a whole list of other traumas he’s experienced that day, he was also given a speeding ticket:

"Baby, first of all: I got a hangover, been trapped in a closet, slept with who-knows, threatened to kill a pastor..."/ She says "What?!"/ "Baby this is no lie: he had a lover, turns out to be a gay guy!"/ She says "Damn, you've been through a lot of shit..."/"Plus I got a ticket!"


Finally, the story itself is relatively naturalistic: it takes place mainly in domestic spaces, involves conventional themes of family drama like adultery and marital jealousy, and – although full of surprises and excessively violence-prone characters – stays just about within the bounds of believable fiction.

Overall, its intention seems primarily to be to tell an engaging, surprising story, full of twists and turns – not to mock the telling of that story. Although the infamous appearance of a midget hiding in a cabinet in Chapter 10 stretches plausibility, and is certainly intended to be funny and shocking, we have to ask for what reason he is supposed to be funny.


'Big Man' isn’t intended, I don’t think, as a device that shatters the illusion that what we are seeing is a believable drama – though this, coupled with a hysterically un-PC laugh of disbelief, is precisely his effect. His appearance doesn’t seem to be in quotation marks; instead he seems meant to be surprising first and comic second – and this comedy, far from seeming ironic or self-conscious about its offensiveness, instead feels raucous and excitable. This plot development is, I think, intended to be ‘crazy’ in the sense of ‘wild’ or ‘unforeseeable’ rather than ‘insane’ – or, put another way: it is meant to make us think that it is the characters’ situation, rather than the film we’re watching, that is crazy.

Chapters 13-22

Now let's look at a quick clip from Chapter 13, the first chapter of the second crop, in which Kelly is now playing both Sylvester and the previously unseen character of an elderly husband, Randolph. (Note: the clip is preceded by a framing device that I'll be addressing in a moment).


The contrast with the first clip is, I think, obvious: we now have Kelly wearing an abundantly fake belly, and a beard that seems to almost fall off; we have the use of exaggerated voices and physical comedy; we have pauses in the dialogue being used for comic effect; we have the sometimes almost surreal comedy dialogue; furthermore, the whole scene with Rosie and Randolph is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, so can be seen mainly as an independent comic set-piece.

Admittedly, this scene is a relatively extreme example of the kind of comedy in the second lot of chapters; but, in Chapters 1-12, even where overt comedy exists – and it does exist – it is nowhere as broad as it is here; by contrast, recognisably comic details such as those I just outlined are inserted continually throughout Chapters 13-22.

The second batch of chapters takes the raucousness that appeared so late in the first (with the midget) and runs with it. We now meet aggressively over-the-top characters (like the one Kelly plays here), wishing birds would shit on their wive’s faces, and a stuttering, massively caricatured, pimp (also played by Kelly) who vows to never stop “p-p-p-pimpin’ all these hoes”. We have other highly stylised characters too, like a fat Sicilian mob boss eating a giant plate of pasta, a James-Brown-in-Blues-Brothers-esque preacher, and a gold-toothed ‘gangsta’ named Streets.

As these characters suggest, the plot too becomes far less naturalistic, taking in mob movies, urban 'gangsta' pictures, and even film noir – each of which are pastiched for all their genres are worth. Also, while the story of the first half was, for all its inspired madness, actually very tight and focused, the second half constantly diverges from its main plot for unconnected comic set pieces like Rosie and Randolph’s or Pimp Lucious's.


Finally, the music and lyrics themselves are often used for clearly comic effect, the beat sometimes cutting out at moments to add to comic timing, and the 'dialogue' now containing lines like “You must be crazier than a fish with titties if you think I’m gonna let you smoke that shit up in my car...!”

There were a number of reasons why these new chapters disappointed much of Trapped’s cult fan base, myself included, but an important one was the sense that much of it had been created with comic intent due to the cult appreciation of the first chapters. In short, it seemed to be attempting to create ‘deliberate cult’. Speaking as a fan, I wasn’t disappointed because the comedy of the second half somehow suggested that the first half was also intended as comedy – I was disappointed that this intentional comedy wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the apparently unintentional comedy of the first 12 chapters. Kelly seemed to have tried to give us what he thought we wanted, but instead made Trapped into a parody of itself.

Intention

However, following the release of Chapters 13-22, a number of journalists began suggesting that Kelly had always intended the series to be intentional parody, and that those cult fans who believed it to be unintentionally funny were (a) missing the point, and (b) merely expressing a condescendingly superior attitude. The fact that the second batch of chapters were released on IFC.com, and that each was preceded by an interview between Kelly and a white, bespectacled, 20-something host, also made commentators uncomfortable – some essentially accusing those who wished to see the video as naïve of a veiled form of racism being practiced by, as one writer put it, “silver-spoon hipsters”.

One of the arguments used to back up this view is that Kelly is known, within the R & B community, as an artist who does sometimes use humour as a tool within his music – something that might not be known by many fans of Trapped who weren’t previously R & B fans. Another is that, at least in the second batch of chapters, it often seems as if Kelly is trying to ape the style of what’s sometimes known as 'chitlin’ circuit' theatre: a style of broad comic theatre, created mainly by and for African Americans, which often uses instantly recognisable archetypal characters and an exaggeratedly comic performance style.


These debates are clearly centred around the question of intention. It has often been argued that it doesn’t matter what the intention behind a work is – or, equally, that we can never know it for certain, so it’s meaningless to debate it. Discussions of authorial intention have become increasingly unfashionable within the academic study of the humanities ever since the publication of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in 1946, and the concept has received more and more apparently deadly blows over the last forty years, from Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ to postmodernism’s challenges to the very concept of coherent textual meaning. Nevertheless, I think that there are still many contexts in which the issue of intention can still be seen to be relevant – if never simple – and one of these is in the area of cult.

I say this because it is very common indeed for a film to achieve cult status through the reception of fans who see their appreciation of the film as being opposed to, or in some sense other than, the work’s original intentions. In the introduction to their Cult Film Reader, Ernest Mathius and Xavier Mendick write that

Traditional fandom remains largely respectful to a film’s interpretive integrity, but other ways of commitment involve challenges to its interpretation, either by robbing it of its meaning, or replacing it with one that may counter its intentions.

While this talk of challenges to interpretive integrity has the ring of a reader-response criticism and the rejection of singular textual meaning, it also in an important sense assumes that we can know – or presume to know – what the authorial intention of a work is in the first place.

I must confess that I’m not an expert on cult theory, but it seems to me from the research I’ve done that the issue of intention may be an under-explored area in cult studies. I say this because, speaking as a ‘fan-critic’ (to use I. Q. Hunter’s term), it is important for me – as it is for other fans of Trapped in the Closet – to be able to see Kelly as 'naïve' in order for the cult pleasure I gain from chapters 1-12 to feel valid.


Seeing Kelly as 'naive' means, for one thing, that I can construct an image of him as a fascinating and rampant egoist based on the evidence of Trapped. He wrote, produced, co-directed, sings, and stars in the video, giving him Ed Wood-level of creative control, and thus potential self-absorption. On top of this there is the fact that in chapters 1-12 he appears not merely as one character, but two: the main protagonist, Sylvester (which is, incidentally, Kelly’s middle name) and the story’s nameless narrator who comments on the action from chapter 8 onwards. Combine with these factors the film’s main conceit, that he also sings every other character’s part too, and Trapped thus consists of one R. Kelly relating to us a narrative in which another R. Kelly comments of the actions of a third R. Kelly, who is constantly having arguments with characters who all sing with the voice of R. Kelly. One seeming byproduct of this is that he seems to become confused by all this himself at times, since he will sometimes refer to his protagonist in the third person, as Sylvester, and sometimes in the first person, as “Me”.

It’s also important that I see Kelly as 'naïve' for Trapped to appear to be, as Sontag puts it, a “passionate failure”. In the commentary, Kelly tells us that, the more he delved into the story and its themes, the more he realised how profound they are – how we are all, in a sense, trapped in closets, and that there exists, in his words, “this global closet thing…” Such vague delusions of grandeur seem unbelievable and instantly comical; they also, however make me love the man a little too. In much the same way as, say, Glen or Glenda’s confessional nature makes it into a strangely moving experience, so does Trapped in the Closet’s apparent basis in an attempt to say something meaningful make it seem charmingly, touchingly, bad.

It's particularly vital for my appreciation of chapters 1-12 that I am able to assume that its plot is not calculatedly ridiculous, but that it relies upon a mesmerizingly child-like conception of storytelling, character-motivation and tone - one that values surprise over cause-and-effect, and action over traditional forms of plausibility. It’s important that I am able to conclude that drama in Kelly’s mind appears to be synonymous with potential danger, and that, in order to achieve potential danger, he must create characters who are unimaginably highly-strung, constantly on the edge of launching into violent frenzy, and who perennially own and carry weapons. The first example of this bizarre narrative tendency comes at the end of the very first Chapter, when Kelly is about to be discovered hiding in the closet: his immediate reaction is to “pull my Beretta out”. At this point we didn’t yet know that he even had a Beretta, let alone can we see why it should be appropriate to instinctively brandish it now. This continues to happen throughout, usually at hilariously unnecessary moments: when Sylvester learns that Rufus is gay, when James thinks he hears Gwendolyn crying, when Sylvester hears an apparently inoffensive knock at his front door, and so on, and so on…


Even more than this, it's important that I am able to assume that the chain of events in 1-12 shows that Kelly has never thought particularly hard about how to tell a story that flows in conventional narrative terms - or is even physically possible. There are numerous instances that seem to display a bizarre grasp of storytelling basics, containing many incidents that are simply impossibilities (such as a policeman flashing down Kelly from behind when it later transpires that he must just have come from the direction Kelly is driving), or unfeasible, such as Bridget’s decision to call a random telephone number she found in her husband’s pocket at a moment of crisis.

Being trapped in a world that operates in this bizarre way – a way that suggests not mere bad writing, but rather an entirely different conception of our world’s logic – is addictive, intriguing, and thrilling. One of the main things that makes chapters 1-12 so fascinating is that they seem to be not just another example of something that is so-bad-it’s-good: rather the specific ways in which they seem to be ‘bad’ are so peculiar, so unique, and so baffling, that they practically require judgment by a whole new set of criteria. As a fan, I have put a lot of stock in the idea that this must be because it is the brainchild of a man whose mind works in a very different way to the kind of person who we usually find telling stories. This seems to be a man who doesn’t consider the very concept of a 41 minute hip-hopera voiced entirely by one person a funny concept, but does think that calling a decrepit, spatula-weilding old woman “a G, no doubt” is hilarious. It is important that Kelly’s mind appears to be a twilight zone – one that it is infinitely entertaining to feel one is getting a glimpse into.

So have I just had my elitist, condescending cult fun stopped and am petulantly aggrieved? Have the new chapters simply made plain what was always there – an essentially spoof-like nature – and I just don’t want to admit this fact? Because of the huge cult pleasure I’ve derived from the first 12 chapters, I have a great deal emotionally and intellectually invested in answering No, since this would not only irretrievably alter the way in which I’m able to enjoy chapters 1-12, but would also suggest that my original pleasure was not only misguided, but also rather arrogant and distasteful.

I also, however, genuinely believe that this isn’t the case, and that I can demonstrate this by pointing to things such as Kelly’s director’s commentary, in which he talks about the “intensity” and “realism” of the video far more than its comedy – and when he does discuss comedy, he’s usually claiming that he had to lighten the mood with a comic set-piece because we’ve just undergone a particularly "intense" series of scenes.


More important for my broader argument, though, is the very fact that I feel I need to convince you of this at all. This is because whether Trapped is an instance of naïve or deliberate camp makes a huge difference both to the ways in which I can value it, and to the validity of that judgment. I want to be able to treat it as naïve camp because I gain so much pleasure, fascination, and excitement from understanding that its brilliance is at least partly accidental. I appreciate the idea that it is akin to the poignant unintentional camp of Ed Wood much more than the notion that it’s a lesser version of the intentional camp of, say, John Waters – to which it has also been compared. If the latter were the case, I wouldn’t be able to love it nearly as much as I do (and camp taste is always, as Sontag says, “a kind of love”). Equally, if I am mistaking a work of deliberate camp for naïve camp then that opens me up to accusations of, not just critical narrowness, but cultural insensitivity – or even racial prejudice. I strongly believe I’m not making this mistake, but it’s nevertheless important that I have been forced to address the possibility that I could be.

I believe that it is sometimes imperative to try to deduce the intentions of a work – if not necessarily the intention of the author, then at least what Umberto Eco called the “intention of the text”. As Eco warns us in The Limits of Interpretation, even if we admit that texts are open to multiple readings – as we must – we must simultaneously acknowledge that these potential readings aren’t unbounded, and we can’t make a text mean simply anything. We can at the very least often see what kinds of meanings a text discourages; for example, it would be rather meaningless to argue that, say, Double Indemnity is a musical, or that Singin’ in the Rain is a film noir, because we can plainly judge that their intentions are unconcerned with these genres. This is a caricatured example, but it illustrates that we are in fact making assumptions about intention in different ways and on different levels all the time. Whether it’s possible to ever come to a definitive conclusion in a particular case or not, attempting to do so is sometimes inescapable, since confronting intention is often an important, indeed necessary, part of the process of cult pleasure.
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Monday, 25 January 2010

Thoughts on cult pleasure

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This will be the first of a series of entries on and around the idea of cult pleasure. As an earlier post about the brilliance of an incidental element of Twilight: New Moon may have hinted, I am someone who is periodically drawn to a kind of film appreciation that could be called cult – specifically: I occasionally praise the joys of the perplexingly terrible, the thrillingly awful. My desire to write about this subject comes, in one sense, simply from the fact that I feel a need to share my deep enthusiasm for a few things that most people would likely agree are ‘bad’. Another reason, however, is that I find cult pleasure a fascinating phenomenon in itself, and believe it has the potential to encourage film criticism to address a number of important issues. For instance…

Evaluation

Value is too often the unacknowledged spectre at the film studies feast. Regularly functioning implicitly (sometimes seemingly unconsciously) rather than being openly engaged with, the question of artistic value will often be ignored in favour of a supposedly more ‘objective’ tone. Yet, try as we might, we can – of course – never wholly avoid it. One benefit of the kind of cult pleasure I’m concerned with is that it manages to place evaluation front and centre, demanding we address and interrogate the concept. Firstly, if we are calling something ‘bad’ then we immediately face the responsibility of justifying why: for whom? according to what criteria? Secondly, if we then wish to claim that something is pleasurable (or interesting, or valuable) despite being ‘bad’, our reassessment will be based around matters that were clearly not taken into account by the original evaluation. Given that cults are by definition grounded in taste communities, they also require that we acknowledge the irreducibly personal (and indeed social) nature of value. This leads me on to another issue...

Passion

Although it would hypothetically be possible to write about a cult object which you yourself didn’t share in the cult of, I would imagine that it would be both rather difficult and rather tedious. Given this, cult pleasure has the power to inject passion and love into the critical act – particularly since the pleasure of the so-bad-it’s-good also seems absolutely to require explanation and elaboration. In the same way as cult fans construct communities in order to share their passion with like-minded people, so can cult pleasure push the critic to be similarly generous.

Intention

Finally, another supposedly hoary critical concept with the potential to be revitalised by thinking about cult pleasure is artistic intention – a concept that has been unfashionable in the academic discussion of the arts for around half a century. While the idea of gay audiences reappropriating Rock Hudson movies or college students getting stoned in front of anti-drug morality tales may seem to fly the flag for the instability of textual meaning, what such cult appreciation also quite obviously presupposes is that we can accurately gauge the original intention of these films. This should by rights make us revisit this most fundamental – and, again, largely ignored – issue for criticism: to what extent can we presume to prove or infer intention, given that we clearly and necessarily do so regularly?

Over the next week or two I will be trying to probe some of these questions and issues. I should say that I’m choosing to do this now since, coming up, I’m scheduled to attend screenings of two of my own favourite pieces of cult phenomena: The Room and After Last Season. My next post, though, will be about R. Kelly’s infamous Trapped in the Closet, so for now I will simply leave you with a clip from this masterpiece of absurdity. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Kreativ Blogger Award!

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I’m extremely flattered that Catherine Grant at Film Studies For Free has thought of me for this award. While I usually share her skepticism of most things resembling a 'chain letter', who can be expected to turn down such an ego boost!?

As such, in accordance with the rules (as laid out on Catherine's blog), here are seven (vaguely film-related) facts about me:

1. I am in the final year of my PhD at the University of Warwick. My thesis is on the Hollywood ‘happy ending’. (Could this blog be a procrastination technique? Surely not...)

2. In 2002 I made a pilgrimage to the bowling alley in Buffalo where a key sequence of Buffalo ’66 was shot. I bowled on the lane Vincent Gallo plays on in the film.

3. I am on the editorial board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, a new, freely-accessible online incarnation of the journal Movie, which will be going live soon.

4. At age 16 I made a mockumentary called The Blair Witch Project Project. It was about me and a friend going to see The Blair Witch Project at the cinema on Halloween, venturing into a local park in order to scare ourselves, and, in the process, losing our camera. It was hilarious.

5. I currently live in a flat whose previous tenant was Gemma Arterton. I so badly want her to make a film I admire so I can be more proud to be occasionally receiving her mail.

6. In 2003 I travelled to Bruges specifically to see the directorial debut of the lead singer of what was at the time my favourite band (the Belgian group dEUS). The film (Any Way the Wind Blows) was in Flemish, without subtitles, and didn’t appear to be particularly good.

7. I recently covered (and combined) ‘You Give a Little Love’ from Bugsy Malone and the main theme from Jurassic Park for a friend’s wedding.



And now, the seven blogs I am in turn nominating (none of whom, I’m sure, needs my championing):

1. James Zborowski’s wide-ranging and penetrating Between Sympathy and Detachment.

2. Jeffrey Sconce’s always thoughtful and often hilarious Ludic Despair.

3. The prolific and gorgeously presented Precious Bodily Fluids.

4. David Lowery’s Drifting, in part a companion to his beautiful movies.

5. Dave Kehr, whose comments section hosts some of the most extended and stimulating film discussion on the net.

6. The Enemies of Reason, for its scabrously funny critiques of the British press.

7. Amanda Ann Klein’s Judgmental Observer, which makes me want to be taking her courses.
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Friday, 15 January 2010

Stepped Over: John Cazale

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Fredo – well… He’s got a good heart. But he’s weak, and he’s stupid. And this is life and death.

-Michael, The Godfather Part 2

John Cazale has what is probably the most impressive complete resumé in Hollywood history. He appeared in only five films before succumbing to bone cancer at the age of 42; those films, however, were The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation. Whatever one may personally think of them, it is difficult to think of another actor who appeared solely in movies that have been so consistently highly praised; apart from anything, each one was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and three won.

Last year a short documentary called I Knew it was You was made about Cazale’s life and career (watch it here). It features interviews with those one would expect, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep (whom Cazale was dating at the time of his death), and Al Pacino – who claims he learned more about acting from Cazale than from anyone else he has ever worked with. It also features testimonials from a number of younger actors equally eager to praise him for his craft, such as Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The overall thrust of the documentary, hinted at in its title, is to suggest how unfair it is that Cazale is not more well known, given his talent and track record. While I certainly agree with this, I would also suggest that it is in a sense unsurprising – and even somehow perhaps sadly fitting – given the roles he played and his films’ treatment of his characters.

In his seminal book Stars, Richard Dyer says that, “Stars… are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.” Cazale’s career suggests that this holds both for those figures who are constructed to embody such dreams, and for those who are required to embody their lack or failure. While Cazale was emphatically not a ‘star’ in the conventional sense, this fact is in itself telling in relation to the kinds of roles he played, and holds a special significance for Cazale’s relationship to the kinds of needs and drives Dyer is referring to.

All of the five films John Cazale appeared in during his short career can be seen as indicative of the well-documented sense of malaise that was so observable in certain corners of the post-Vietnam American cinema. They are all films that, in different ways, asked demoralising questions about what it took, and meant, to achieve that form of success so often referred to in mythic terms as ‘The American Dream’. In each film he plays a supporting role to a major Hollywood star which, in pre-Vietnam cinema, could easily have been comic: each has the potential to be the role of the dim-witted friend or side-kick who amuses with his charming ignorance. These, however, were films of the 1970s ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – films that often attempted to reflect the extent to which Vietnam and had given the U.S. a sense of its own mortality, and the possibility of failure: films in which pursuit of the American Dream was a dangerous, and perhaps doomed, matter of “life and death”. I want to look briefly at how Cazale’s characters are treated in two of these films: The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon. (I should say, if such a warning is needed for these films, that there will be spoilers...)

In both The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon Cazale's characters are continually being undermined, in different ways, by the star of both films, Al Pacino. This happens on the level of plot, but it is also happening consistently stylistically. For instance, one way in which The Godfather Part 2 often communicates Cazale’s inferiority to Pacino is through framing. We can see this, for example, in the scene in which Michael disowns Fredo (watch it here). In the scene’s long shots Fredo is seen sprawled on a recliner along the bottom right-hand side of the frame while Michael towers over him, commanding the eye.



This power relationship is carried over into the scene’s medium shots too, which show Fredo only in high-angles that mean we share a similar view of him to Michael’s: he is being both metaphorically and literally looked down upon.





Similarly, in a previous scene in which Michael is subtly testing Fredo’s loyalty over drinks in an outdoor café in Havana, the shots of Cazale demand that he share the frame with a background of many constantly-moving extras – including, in an especially extreme act of undermining, a wandering band playing “Guantananera”.



Any extras in Pacino’s frame, meanwhile, are seldom and so far away as to be too out-of-focus to be conspicuous.



This ensures that the shots of Cazale are far more cluttered to look at, reducing his visual command within them and generally treating him in a manner that is almost as undignified as the banana dacquiri he is drinking (and which protrudes unfortunately from the bottom of his frame).

The more aesthetically free-wheeling Dog Day Afternoon often communicates the same basic message using camera movement and editing. A recurring visual motif in the film is for Cazale to be given very quick insert shots in scenes in which Pacino is energetically engaging in some classically Pacino-esque histrionics. For example, in the famous “Attica! Attica!” moment Pacino paces outside the bank and whips up the crowd and, more importantly, the camera, into a frenzy (it follows him unblinkingly, handheld and seemingly enthralled by its star), while Cazale, inside, receives one incredibly short, static shot of him craning his neck, trying to see what his showboating partner is up to.









The reason for this one-sided power relationship in both films is that Pacino’s characters represent everything that Cazale’s lack. Firstly, Fredo has to live daily with the fact that, being the eldest living Corleone son, he should be the head of the family but was “stepped over” in favour of Michael because of his inferior smarts. The bane of his life, his stupidity, is continually illustrated throughout the film – an example from the Havana scene being his confusion over the correct Spanish translation of “banana daicquiri”. This of course ultimately culminates in his final, fatal, error of collaborating with Hyman Roth: he is shown not even to be able to betray properly. Similarly, in Dog Day Afternoon Sal’s ignorance is constantly stressed, as in the moment when he announces he wants to fly to refuge in Wyoming because he believes it to be a foreign country.

Secondly, neither Fredo nor Sal is offered as being anywhere near as charismatic or appealing as Michael or Sonny. To begin with, Cazale just does not have the ‘movie star looks’ in the same way Pacino does: with his wiry frame, slightly balding head, and overall sickly-appearance, he is simply not as conventionally attractive as his co-star. This is perhaps most obvious in Dog Day Afternoon, in which Pacino is looking his unkempt, androgynous best.



Regardless of natural beauty, however, Cazale is also made to look especially unappealing through costume. In the café scene in The Godfather Part 2 he wears a rather tacky pink suit, while in the disowning scene his costume is as crumpled and dishevelled as both his conscience and his pose – an old-looking polo shirt and cardigan contrasting pointedly with Pacino’s sharp, formal suit. Whereas Pacino is presented as the classically-handsome, smooth, dark Italian American male, Cazale is suggested to be a long way off such an ideal. This is symptomatic of the status of his characters, but also of Cazale himself and his position as a perennial supporting ‘character actor’ rather than a star: he lacks the look and style (and perhaps the inclination) to be a Pacino – to be successful in that way.

A third trait that Fredo and Sal share is what the films suggest to be a naïve and pitiable religious belief. In Dog Day Afternoon Cazale’s biggest scene is one in which he tells a bank employee that she shouldn’t start smoking because “the body is the temple of the lord” (an admonition he delivers so weakly that he can barely look the woman in the eye).



This suggestion is treated with a similar derision as greeted another pious character’s complaint that those around her should stop swearing because “I’m a Christian and my ears are not garbage cans”. In The Godfather Part 2 Fredo too possesses an almost childlike conception of religion, as we discover near the film’s close when he is teaching Michael’s young son, Anthony, the ways of fishing: the secret, he says, is to say a “Hail Mary” before casting your line. Cazale delivers this advice with such a sincerity that he gives us to understand he truly, deeply believes it (and, indeed, he does go on to say a “Hail Mary” himself out on the lake, seconds before his death).



One knows – to continue the comparison between Cazale and Pacino’s characters – that Michael would not believe the juvenile story of the “Hail Mary” for one second: his success has taught him the necessity of cynicism.

What all this undermining of Cazale’s characters does is set them up as people whom we find pathetic, yet also sympathetic. They are characters we do not admire, but whom we certainly don’t believe deserve to die. However, the film worlds in which Fredo and Sal live are not forgiving ones: these are worlds created by the Hollywood Renaissance cinema, in which the myth of the simpleton overcoming all odds does not exist. Only the strongest, the privileged – the stars – can survive the desolate landscape, and even then they must be arrested, or bankrupt themselves morally, in order to do so. Pacino’s Sonny is momentarily able to live a version of the ‘American Dream’ in Dog Day Afternoon (media adoration, money, power) while Sal stands in the wings, watches, and eventually dies. Equally, Michael is really the epitome of the ‘Dream’ (he has wealth, control, he has bettered himself), and Fredo must be sacrificed in order to maintain it. Both films present a view of an America in which the wounded are not carried: the weak and stupid are left to die.

The attitude of these films doesn’t seem to be that this is good or bad, but simply that it is. The death of Sal at the climax of Dog Day Afternoon does not feel tragic: it feels numbing. We are used to seeing the deserved death of the evil and the heroic death of the good, but not the inevitable, truthful, death of the weak. Fredo’s killing too is dealt with ambiguously, as Robert Johnson says in his book Francis Ford Coppola: “Cazale’s Fredo ends up exasperating us because we come to realize that Michael’s punishment of him is both wrong and, somehow, just”. We do not want him to die, and yet we know – as Michael does – that he must. We know, apart from anything else, that a man who believes all one need do in order to catch a fish is pray to the virgin Mary does not belong in this world (and, perhaps, we simultaneously long for a time and a world in which we didn’t). Cazale in this way is used as a virtual embodiment of the disillusionment of the Hollywood Renaissance, relied upon to show what can happen to the innocent – or ignorant – at a time of “life and death”.


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Monday, 11 January 2010

Twilight: New Moon and the joys of Face Punch

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There are many potentially interesting things to be said about New Moon and the staggeringly successful vampire-romance saga Twilight more generally. For instance: have we ever seen a romance movie (let alone a romance movie series) more unwaveringly committed to showing a woman who wants so badly to simply jump someone’s bones? Say what you will about the anti-feminist message seemingly inbuilt into Bella’s relentless hero-worship of her lover Edward (and I would argue that last year’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife was far more guilty in this regard: she waits lovingly at home while he tours across the months and years? This is the old settling/wandering, passive/active, division of gender roles written offensively large)... The combination of Twilight’s central premise (Edward’s inability to let himself become too passionate with Bella for fear of killing her) and Kristen Stewart’s absurdly lustful performance style (seldom has an actress bitten her bottom lip more licentiously, nor more frequently) have meant that these films offer images of unremitting (though frustrated) female sexual desire the likes of which are very uncommon in contemporary Hollywood cinema. We can, and should, obviously debate the films’ sexual politics beyond this structuring principle, but this fact alone makes the saga at the very least interesting, and surely goes a long way towards explaining its popularity with a female audience so starved for cinematic depictions of what happens ‘when the woman looks’.

This isn’t what I want to talk about here, however, because – aside from areas of interest like this – what New Moon also happens to contain is something that I simply cannot let pass without comment: perhaps one of the most bizarre, hilarious, and spectacularly ill-judged incarnations of the convention of the film-within-a-film ever committed to celluloid.

Asking what kinds of films exist within the world of a film is often an intriguing way into matters of how a movie views itself and how it is asking to be viewed by us. For example: when, in a horror film, events start happening that clearly resemble other horror films (say, teenagers being killed one by one, or bodies showing up with mysterious bite marks on their necks), one question will immediately be raised: are the characters in this film’s world familiar with horror movies? If they aren’t, then this clearly separates them and their world unambiguously from ours, which in turn encourages us to view them in a different way than we would characters who express incredulity at finding themselves in situations they’ve previously only encountered in fiction. Of course, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules governing this, and a film can exploit cinematic awareness in more or less self-conscious ways. The werewolf movie Ginger Snaps, for instance, briskly acknowledges then dispenses with its character’s film knowledge: Brigitte discovers the popular lore regarding werewolves doesn’t apply to her sister’s lycanthropy, leading her to “forget the Hollywood rules,” and move on to finding different solutions. A film like Scream, on the other hand, repeatedly uses its characters’ knowledge of slasher films in order to first announce, and then either enact or buck, the clichés of its genre – all the time asking us to recognize that this is precisely what it is doing.

New Moon does something very different and very, very strange with the idea of the film-within-a-film. About a third of the way into the movie we reach a scene in the school cafeteria that sees Bella rejoin her group of friends after the period of self-imposed isolation that followed her latest abandonment by her true love, Edward. Happy to see her again, Bella’s friend Mike (who has always very clearly had a crush on her) asks if she would like to go to the cinema with him. “We could check out, um, Love Spelled Backwards is Love,” he offers, “You know, it’s a dumb title, but… It’s a romantic comedy – it’s supposed to be good…” “No – no romance,” says Bella, who wants nothing less than to be reminded about her own romantic heartbreak. “How about Face… Punch?” she asks, “you heard of that?” “Well, that’s an action movie,” responds Mike. “Yeah, it’s perfect – guns, adrenaline: it’s my thing…”

So, let us rewind and pause for a minute. Face Punch. Just let the gloriousness of this made-up title roll around in your head… Face Punch.

Now turning to the rest of her friends at the table, Bella invites them along to what she obviously wants to become less a date than a movie night. “How about it – do you guys want to go see… Face Punch?" The only other boy at the table, Eric, responds positively: “Oh, Face Punch – yeah!” he exclaims enthusiastically, “We were supposed to go see that, you remember?” he asks Mike, “The trailer’s all like ‘pow, pow,’… punch faces…”

In the next scene, Mike stands awkwardly outside the cinema next to Jacob, the most recent dark and mysterious man to make romantic demands of Bella; sexual rivalry is unmistakably in the air. “So… Face Punch,” Jacob says, somewhat derisively, “You like action movies?” “Not really,” replies Mike. “I heard it sucks – bad,” offers Jacob.

Let’s mull over this title again, which the characters insist on continually repeating: this film is called Face Punch.

In the cinema, the characters are now watching the movie. We hear the following dialogue intoned in voices that can only be described as sub-sub-sub-Sylvester Stallone:

Voice 1: Put your gun down!

Voice 2: Put YOUR gun down, or I’m gonna blow your frickin head off!

Voice 3: BOTH of you put BOTH of your guns down or I’m gonna blow BOTH of your frickin’ heads off!

Voice 1: Alright, forget it – let’s DO THIS!

(Sounds of gunshots and explosions fill the cinema.)


Face Punch. This is a truly, truly strange use of the convention of the film-within-a-film. Clearly, this imagined film (and Love Spelled Backwards is Love) is intended as a satirical side-swipe at the crassness of contemporary Hollywood. But what on God’s green earth, you might ask, is such satire doing – and doing so suddenly – in a film like New Moon? In what kind of a film world might films with titles like these exist?

In Film as Film, V. F. Perkins rightly says that a film’s credibility relies upon “the inner consistency of the created world”:

In a context where people are known to burst into song on the tops of trolley-buses, with the full support of invisible orchestras, or sprint down hillsides actively pursued by bouncing boulders, or drag wild leopards up the steps of Connecticut jails (and I would be the last to suggest they cease exhibiting such fine accomplishments), the concept of credibility needs careful definition. As an illusion-spinning medium, film is not bound by the familiar, or the probable, but only by the conceivable. All that matters is to preserve the illusion.

He develops his point with reference to Hitchcock's The Birds:

It is important that we avoid confusing credibility with authenticity... We can make no difficulty about the fact that the feathered kingdom is seen to declare war on humanity. That is given. But it is also given that the attackers are ordinary, familiar birds. Nothing in our experience or in the film's premises permits them to develop intermittent outlines of luminous blue as they swoop, or to propel themselves in a manner that defies the observable laws of winged flight.

In short, as Perkins says, “the created world must obey its own logic”. The title Face Punch punctures the inner consistency of New Moon so fantastically oddly because it flies inelegantly, but gloriously, in the face of its world’s logic in a similar manner to Hitchcock's birds. In the context of the film’s created world, the existence of werewolves is entirely acceptable. The existence of a film called Face Punch is not.

This is because, other than its mythical creatures, there is little to separate New Moon’s universe from ours: in fact, the very normalcy of everyday life is constantly stressed in order to highlight how exceptional and exciting Bella’s initiation into the supernatural realm is (and, it is worth saying, the actors’ performances also feel more consciously ‘naturalistic’ here than in the original Twilight). As such, this world frankly just does not seem at all as if it is one in which a person could write, many other people could make, and many more still could go to see, a film with the title Face Punch. This title is so ridiculous as to absolutely demand a ridiculous reality.

For it to be credible, the world of New Moon would probably need to resemble something like the hilariously dumbed-down future U.S. imagined by Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy, in which big Oscar contenders have names like Ass, and the number one television show is called Ow! My Balls! Both Idiocracy’s world (an exaggeratedly stupid future) and its genre (absurdist satire) admit these kinds of jokes with ease; those of New Moon – a relatively naturalistic present day placed in the context of a moody teen romance/horror crossover – plainly, obviously, emphatically, do not.


What is perhaps going on here is an appeal to the film’s core audience of young readers/viewers, who (it seems to be assumed) might be flattered by joining in the mockery of a ‘dumb’ mainstream culture they can enjoy feeling superior to. They are, after all, watching a ‘sensitive’ film about doomed love that has already made an appeal to tragic status by quoting Romeo and Juliet (Bella is studying it in school); New Moon, the film seems to be implying, is no Face Punch. Yet this is also, lest we forget, a film featuring gigantic werewolves fighting one another, and moments like Bella complimenting Jacob on how warm his body is by telling him, “You’re like your own sun”. To aim stones at the loopiness of popular culture from within this glass house seems a very risky strategy.

If the film does still want to do this, though, it would need to be done with a modicum more subtlety than Face Punch affords – a gag as smack-you-in-the-face obvious as the very thing it’s parodying. For one thing: this isn’t even a throwaway moment – we’re forced to contend with the troubling concept of Face Punch for a good five minutes of screen time. Equally – and this is particularly difficult to accept – the scene at the cinema serves a number of important narrative functions: that it’s an action film continues Bella’s adrenaline addiction; that she goes with both guys shows her split between ‘normality’ (Mike) and the supernatural underworld (Jacob); that Mike is made queasy by the film reinforces his (and normality’s) unsuitability; that Jacob enjoys it and clashes with Mike develops his aggressive side, and so on. The fact that these narrative developments all rest on the shoulders of something as weird as Face Punch gives the joke far more significance than it could ever hope to withstand: we can’t just laugh and move on – we have to keep thinking about it, asking again and again, “Really? Really…?!”

It somehow makes the whole incident yet more odd that the characters themselves are shown to be aware of how absurd these names are: Mike acknowledges the terribleness of Love Spelled Backwards is Love (honestly, Mike: “dumb” doesn’t even begin to cover it – “unthinkable” would be closer to the mark), and Bella gives an absolutely precious faltering pause in between “Face” and “Punch” the first time she hears herself about to say the words out loud. While this should in theory probably make the titles feel more credible, it actually has virtually the opposite effect, making it instead seem almost as if the characters are either (a) making them up on the spot, (b) suddenly struck by the weirdness of living in a world that could allow such titles to exist, or (c) channeling the embarrassment of the actors who suddenly find themselves in the unenviable position of being contractually obliged to vocalize these names.

However – while we can talk about this little slip of genre/world/register as a failing all we like (and it most assuredly, most unambiguously, is a failing) – I can’t help but feel very happy that Face Punch managed, against all odds of good taste and common sense, to somehow make it into this movie. (That’s another thought: how many people had to give the OK to this little joke in order to ensure it was included in the final draft of the script, rehearsed, shot, and kept in the finished movie?! The mind boggles…) This isn’t just any old failing: this is the kind of magisterially beautiful blunder that can actually enrich our viewing experience with its idiosyncrasy, creating little shocks of indefinable feeling, encouraging the mind to wander in directions it otherwise wouldn’t have done. The value of such failures is that they can’t be explained away or resolved, but rather remain stubbornly, productively confusing. If the film-within-a-film had been called, say, Firefight, New Moon would certainly have felt rather more coherent, but it would also have missed this golden opportunity for such confounding, disorientating, delicious oddness. As a fan of cinema that has the power to surprise me and make me consider matters important to the medium, I can finally only be truly thankful for this quite monumental lapse in coherence – a lapse that, coincidentally, does indeed feel rather like a (particularly enjoyable) punch to the face.
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