“’I don’t want ever to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.’”
– Peter Pan, as written by JM Barrie, Peter and Wendy
I don’t know if anyone else has been watching HBO’s Watchmen, but it’s a damn-good show. I went into it with the lowest expectations one could have: yet another adaptation of Alan Moore’s work done without his approval; this one by the same company that produced Zack Snyder’s pro-facist film adaptation; the show is run and written by Damon Lindelof, whose track record the past decade has been… dodgy at best; and trailers for the show left me wondering what the hell it had to do with Moore’s story about superheroes as the ultimate false idols.
To my pleasant surprise, the show is not only a tightly-written pulp story that follows the continuity of the comic (not Snyder’s horrible film), but this alternate reality sci-fi spends a considerable amount of time condemning the very real history of anti-Black racism and violence in the United States. It lashes out at the hypocrisy of only accepting Black heroes if you can’t see their Black faces. And it has no tolerance for the very sort of White privilege that led to the contemporary “alt-Right”. When one of the villains reveals himself, this handsome, well-manicured White man in an expensive suit can’t help but go on about how he’s “not racist”, but rather that “it is extremely difficult to be a White man in America right now.” (The woman to whom he tells this would likely fall out of her chair laughing, had his goons not strapped her to said chair.)
That guy would probably love two of this year’s most financially successful films. Both of them are the stories of self-important White men who feel the world owes them something. They almost feel like “whitelash” reactions to minority of films – and they’re still a minority – that either feature more diversity on-screen or refuse to celebrate outdated points-of-view. From Mad Max: Fury Road and Black Panther to The Babadook and Get Out, toxic (mostly White, male) fanbois will attack them with venomous resolve.
Now, they have two films that have acted as rallying cries attempting to justify their toxicity. The success of the following two films may be brief and fleeting (one can only hope), but what their success says about the state of mainstream fandom shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
“’But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
*I saw Joker in IMAX during an advanced screening on Tuesday – 2 October at the Metreon in San Francisco, CA
There’s a moment in Joker where we see lead character Arthur Fleck scribbling in his joke book. His social worker advised him to keep a personal journal, but the would-be comedian been using it to take notes on other stand-ups (“Make eye contact”, “Sexy always funny”, etc.) and jot down new material. At one point, the right-hander uses his left hand to jot down, “The funniest thing about having a mental illness is people expect you to act like you don’t.”
It’s a line both darkly comic and incredibly sad. It’s a line that dares us to empathize with our lead, but doesn’t want us to excuse the horrible crimes he commits over the course of the film. It’s a line that would – and should – be what the story is entirely about. There’s just one problem: it’s about the Joker. Had this film been about some random new character who stumbles into murder as a form of personal catharsis, then it would have been something. It would have been a decent-but-not-great film about The System failing those in need by condemning them as it simultaneously defunds and eliminated the programs that would help them. That flick wouldn’t be as good as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but there are enough good things in this film to at least make it interesting.
But it’s still about the Joker. Much the same way Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s poorly-thought-out American Psycho musical tries to justify Patrick Bateman’s toxic masculinity as it delivers fan service to film-lovers, so too does Joker take one of fiction’s most notoriously evil characters and try to paint him as the real victim. And no matter how many ill-advised times they try to do it (just look at Rob Zombie with his Halloween remakes), it all comes off as bullshit justification for a character defined by their truly unforgivable actions. It’s the same lack of these cry-babies have used for the past decade to defend the horrendous actions of characters like Thanos (claiming he’s protecting resources as he struts around in solid gold armor), Kylo Ren (aka. the incel with the lightsaber), and even Killmonger (the lone Black member).
This is why I love Sopranos creator David Chase: he refuses to put up with any apotheosis of Tony Soprano (and toxic hatred of his wife, Carmella). He makes it clear in each and every interview he’s given over the past 20 years that Tony was a terrible person and deserved to die. The only reason he didn’t was because, as the show’s creator, he thought it a worse fate for Tony to always be unsure of whether or not today would be his last day on Earth. Tony isn’t a misunderstood tough guy, he’s an evil son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t deserve lasting happiness, and it’s his own fault. The fans don’t want to hear that, but it’s no less true.
Joker director Todd Phillips feels differently. Phillips has made a career out of insecure baby-men who can’t deal with the world around them (the Hangover trilogy being the most obvious example). Despite how much money his films bring in, he can’t help but feel they would have gotten more, if not for “political correctness”. I’m not kidding: despite the fact that Joker is 1 – one of the highest-grossing films of the year, 2 – one of the highest-grossing comic book films ever, and 3 – getting a lot of Oscar buzz for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance… despite all of that, Phillips can’t be happy. And he blames it on – I shit you not – “a far-left agenda”. Just as author Chuck Palahniuk refuses to acknowledge the toxicity of Fight Club, so too does Todd Phillips blame everyone reacting to his work, rather than the work itself.
Y’know what I find funny about this not-funny movie about a clown? The fact that in its early stages, Martin Scorsese was a producer. Yes, the same Martin Scorsese who spent this year bashing comic book movies as he put out a four-hour-long crime epic that hung on the same visual F/X popularized by comic book movies. Even without that knowledge, this film reeks of a trite Scorsese knock-off, even with the casting of Robert De Niro as a talk show host, juxtaposing his original role in Scorsese’s King of Comedy.
I find that funny because Scorsese’s initial involvement shows that, at one point, the film-makers wanted to make something good; something that could stand on its own. Instead, they settled for a derivative Mean Streets knock-off that missed the point of that film. Scorsese has said in countless interviews (and in the director’s commentary) that, like Tony Soprano, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is not a hero. Todd Phillips didn’t get that part. He chose to celebrate someone at their very worst, became successful for it, and now feels the need to lash out in the midst of success.
Isn’t that funny?
“Being a racist monster isn’t a mental illness – in fact, you can be one and be a very stable genius.”
– Samantha Bee, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (August 7, 2019)
Everyone has that problematic artist they defend. They may have several. I’m no different: as much as I’ll silently judge you for dancing to Justin Timberlake’s music, I still have Nas on my phone (granted, it’s 1997 Nas, as I can’t justify current Nas); as much as you and I rock out to The Beatles, we try to put aside the ugly truth of whom John Lennon was in his personal life; and Kanye… oh, Kanye… Someday soon, I’m gonna have to talk about Kanye.
Quentin Tarantino is someone I’ve defended for 20+ years now. Just look at my review for Django Unchained. Pulp Fiction was the first film I paid to see with my own money multiple times on the big screen. I have Jackie Brown posters from my time as an usher. I have GrindHouse posters I got from Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) during the opening night screening at The Bridge in SF. I almost met the guy when he screened both parts of Kill Bill at The Castro over a decade ago. He’s talented enough to where I’ve tried to justify his cavalier use of the word “nigger/a”, the way he’ll shamelessly ape from other film-makers whilst screaming that everyone is imitating him, the White privilege he shows in making stories about Jews, Blacks, & others, and the way his notoriously delicate ego is so easily bruised.
This? This I can’t defend. This movie is as if he’d spent the last 20+ years listening to each and every criticism… and decided to make them true. This is him at his absolute worst. He’s had films that I didn’t like as much as the others, but this is the first film of his that I truly hate.
Seriously, I hate Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
This is a film with three stories. The first story is that of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a big Western tv star in the ‘50s, now stuck playing co-starring roles after an ill-advised jump to the big screen. Rick hates the way both Hollywood and the United States have changed, and that hate is what defines him.
The second story – which gets the least amount of screentime – is that of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Just as Dalton’s star is dwindling, Tate’s is on the rise. She personifies both New Hollywood and the spark of youth that Rick has long-since lost. In short, her future looks bright.
The third story is that of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a real “man’s man”. He’s the guy every dude wants to be and every woman wants to have. He’s in peak physical condition, despite being “past his prime”. He seemingly can’t be killed (though he did kill his wife). He’s nothing short of an Übermensch who chooses to stay in the background as Rick lusts for the limelight.
In other words, he’s Tyler Durden.
You can change the name all you like, it’s still Tyler Durden, just three decades prior. Whereas Tyler was the id of an anonymous narrator, Cliff is superhuman pal to the fame-hungry Rick. Whereas Tyler had multiple jobs that he did well (though with disdain), Cliff does multiple odd jobs well (though with disdain). And whereas Tyler famously struck a Bruce Lee-pose, Cliff beats up Bruce Lee.
I’m neither the first nor last to point this out, but the fantasy of Bruce Lee – portrayed here as nothing more than a blowhard just waiting to have his ass handed to him – getting his ass kicked by a wife-killing stuntman is Tarantino at his worst. Way back in my review of Creed II, I brought up Roger Ebert’s old reminiscence of watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali. I also mentioned how the character of Apollo Creed was really a racist, reductive caricature of Ali: all boasting, no politics, beaten by a White hero. Tarantino doesn’t even both with changing the name, he simply keeps the character as Bruce Lee and reduces him to a punchline.
In fact, it’s history that gets the worst of Tarantino’s retelling of the lead up to the Manson murders. Tarantino’s been quite adamant that he believes CGI “will be the death knell of cinema”. (In that same interview, he says “If I’d wanted all that computer game bullshit, I’d have gone home and stuck my dick in my Nintendo.”) He finally embraces CGI here… in the worst possible way. It’s bad enough having DiCaprio inserted into The Great Escape, but the one time he should use CGI but doesn’t is just baffling. When Sharon Tate goes to see herself in The Wrecking Crew, the lobby photos of the cinema show Margo Robbie inserted into them. But when Robbie-as-Tate watches the actual film, it shows the real Sharon Tate – as if we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Tarantino has multiple Oscars, but he was satisfied with that amateur hour bullshit?
Oh, but I’ve yet to go into the film’s poorly-thought-out climax. By now, most people know that Inglourious Basterds ends with Hitler getting the bullet-ridden death he denied the world in real life. Historically inaccurate? Yes, but incredibly cathartic. Tarantino tries to match himself here by having Cliff singlehandedly stop the Tate-LaBianca murders (yeah, Rick does something at the end, but he’s essentially useless otherwise). Here’s why that’s a problem…
Sharon Tate’s murder signaled the end of an era. It was one of the many signifiers of the end of “Old Hollywood” and the start of the new “rebel era” of the ‘80s. It was more than the Black Dahlia murder a generation prior because this was a known actress married to a popular director as both of their stars were on the rise. Tate’s murder was, like JFK’s before it, a generation’s loss of innocence, and a major turning for both the film industry and the United States. For Tarantino not to have the murders happen means that the maturity gained in the aftermath didn’t happen, leaving those who follow in a complacent state of arrested development.
Tarantino imagines a world in which the Old Hollywood that bore Rick not only stuck around, but thrived well into the ‘70s. If that had happened, then the artistic and film-making strides that paved the way for Tarantino’s own career wouldn’t have happened. Like an immature, spoiled child Tarantino sees the world his way because he thinks the world owes him something. He wants to go back to a world (and a Hollywood) that was casual in its misogyny, celebratory of toxic masculinity, dismissive of racism, and not needing to evolve because it was – in his mind – “perfect”. (I’d go into detail about the film’s grotesque misogyny, but this double-review is already too long.)
In the end, the difference between Once Upon a Time… and Tarantino’s previous films is that all of his previous work was a celebration of the things he loved – Blaxploitation, Italian Westerns, pulp crime novels, wuxia flicks, etc. – but not this one. This one is a condemnation of the things he hates. Ann Coulter once infamously said, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” Replace “Muslims” with “hippies” and “terrorists” with “the Manson Family” and you have Tarantino’s take on the “Free Love Movement”, a movement he appears to hold in utter disdain. So much so that he fantasizes about it being violently murdered by “perfect” White male in display of his masculinity.
As a Tarantino fan, that’s what I find most disappointing: he’s better than this.
The two films above remind me of why I’m glad to not be on social media anymore. The sort of hatred they promote is not only common, it’s celebrated. Like frat-boy versions of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, the creators never want to grow up mentally the way they have physically. (Incidentally, I performed in a Peter Pan satire this past February.) They’ve taken familiar characters, tropes, and even historical figures so as to pervert their legacies to suit their own myopic world views. John Carpenter has had similar bigoted fans try to reinterpret his films, but he’s quick to tell them just how wrong they are.
Todd Phillips is also wrong. Quentin Tarantino is wrong. Anyone who sympathizes with their sexism and misogyny is wrong. It doesn’t matter how many actually agree with them, they’ll always be wrong.