Sunday, November 26, 2006

My So-Called Vida Loca or “Blink & You Missed It in Theaters”

      I’m a huge Christian Bale fan, through good movies (Velvet Goldmine; Batman Begins), bad movies (Shaft… though the great Jeffrey Wright is who made that piece of shit watchable), the enjoyably stupid (Reign of Fire) and the highly over-rated (American Psycho), but I had absolutely no desire to see Harsh Times. I’m fairly certain the poster tagline, “From the creator of Training Day,” is Tagalog for your-broke-ass-ain’t-got-nothing-better-to-do-with-eleven-dollars? But a friend who’s going through hard times wanted to see it, so it was my treat.
      Written and directed by David Ayer (whose screenwriting credits, in addition to Training Day, include S.W.A.T. and the Fast and the Furious), and executive produced by Bale, the film follows a couple of debauched, violent and depressing days in the life of Jim Davis (Bale), an Iraqi war vet. The film opens inside one of Jim’s wartime flashbacks (which feels tacked on like a post-test-screening afterthought), then without warning drops the viewer down in contemporary L.A., a place the film depicts as a hyper-violent Latino-scribed zone. Random cholos run down the street firing at one another; throats are slit in neighborhood bars for no apparent reason, with the assailant mumbling Spanish. Jim hangs with his Mexican homeboy, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez, of Six Feet Under) who’s job hunting while being supported by his lawyer girlfriend (played by Eva Longoria) who hates Jim for being a psycho loser. The two pals roam the city, boozing, smoking out, pulling assorted scams and getting mired in heavy-handed, plot-contrived violence. But Jim is also waiting to hear back from the LAPD on whether or not he qualifies to be a cop. (The great and grim joke of the film is that of course his crazy ass does. Only a stint with the NYPD would be as good a fit.) When that option falls through, however, he gets a surprise phone call letting him know he’s fallen up in life in ways that only racist, criminally psychotic white boys can.
      Where to begin with what’s wrong with this film?
      Christian Bale’s accent, which is the most unconvincing and Acting 101 thing he’s ever done, is a start. And it opens the door for examining the film’s numerous other flaws. I normally like films that actually don’t spell everything out, that leave ambiguity and room for audience meditation. But this white guy, Jim, whom the film immerses in Latino culture (he only fucks Latinas, speaks flawless Spanish, lives in an apartment building otherwise populated only with Latinos and has as his best friend a Mexican American), is too much a cypher. Where does he come from? How did he come to be this proxy-Mexican who gets all these barrio passes, and for whom his brown best friend is willing to beat down other brown folk? We’re supposed to understand that Jim has long been a crazed fuck up, so when did he learn the fluent Korean he speaks before terrorizing a Korean shop owner? When did he learn the flawless Arabic he speaks with a federal official? We get no clues. Instead of the viewer thinking that Jim is a complex, layered character, the script and direction come off as lazy, riddled with holes.
      I mean, color-blind friendship is one thing, but in a film set against a backdrop of brown skin and Latino culture, in which a deranged white boy with a firing gun repeatedly fucks or fucks over brown folk, what inadvertently emerges are the wild, wild west fears and fantasies of a pseudo-down white boy (writer-director David Ayer) being passed off as edgy insights.
      The film wants to paint this apocalyptic vision of L.A., where violent and or irresponsible Latinos make up the bulk of the city’s residents. It's a place whose brown women – from fine ass cholas to aged Latina whores to naïve Mexican nationals – have fallen to the power of white dick (and the one female who hasn’t succumbed to the allure of the pink skin flute, Longoria’s lawyer character, is called a “sellout” by the white-boy). But what it does most successfully (and seemingly accidentally) is paint a convincing picture of the resilience of white skin privilege and the ways it crops up and goes unchallenged even within so-called colorblind relationships, even with white folk who live, breathe, fuck and claim allegiance with racial “others.” At times the film almost seems aware of this dynamic; most times, however, it’s gallingly oblivious. Ayer was after some sort of great platonic, tragic, cross-colors hetero-male love story in the midst of urban apocalyptic madness. Instead, he crafted some straight up crackhead 21st Century Lone Ranger and Tonto bullshit. Don’t even get me started on the film’s nigga representation.

      I had much love for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints when I caught it at a second-run theater a few weeks ago. Told largely in captivating flashback, it’s the tale of a brilliant, tortured writer (played in grown-up form by Robert Downey Jr., and as a teenager by the insufferable Shia LaBeouf) and the great dark question at the core of his being. By the time that question is actually articulated at film’s end, it doesn’t ring true because it’s already been answered in such a way that makes the writer seem a clueless, self-absorbed asshole. You just want to smack him. But the flashback scenes that make up the bulk of the film are glorious – elliptical sketches of coming of age in multicultural ‘80s New York, with foul-mouthed, precocious teenaged girls; a hotheaded lunk who volleys the abuse he suffers at the hands of his father onto anyone who gets in his way or fucks with his friends; and a motley crew of hormone-driven fuck-ups. While the film is flawed, it’s also funny, moving and smart. And it has two of the most fuckable people currently in movies – a largely shirtless Channing Tatum and a flawless Rosario Dawson – gracing the screen with their innate fuckability.

      I couldn’t get through Happy Feet. Teeth started grinding when the film introduced the hybridized Latino penguins (a fusion of West coast eses and locas/Nuyorican mamis and papis… a sum total of talk-show-template Latinos). I was actually less offended than just bored. I’m not on some hyper-PC kick. I understand that much great comedy hinges on stereotype. But that which is offered up in Happy Feet is just lazy, tired. Boozing, partying, over-sexed, thickly-accented, Cheech & Chong-style Latino penguins? What year is this? Where’s the insert of the profanely rapping, really old white woman to complete the hilarity? Director George Miller has the progressive vision to decry the ways in which man is destroying the planet, but relies on the most creaky of racial and cultural stereotypes for cheap laughs. I’m willing to concede that the film may have done something truly interesting and radical with ethnic/racialized characters beyond the point at which I bailed, and I appreciate the larger points it is making about nature and conservation. But can’t that same progressiveness be applied to racial and cultural representation – especially in a film largely aimed at kids? Fine, keep the thick (if lame-ass) accents for easy identification of "something other than whiteness," but then at least do something more with the characterizations themselves.

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