Thursday, December 25, 2008

Kill the poor (with kindness?): Out at the movies with the people down the tracks!

So I saw the story of Randy "Ram Jam" today and it ended, obviously, and it leaves you dangling but if you feel dangled like an old broken down piece of meat, that means it got you to care. And the whole act of caring for or about Ram Jam is weird in itself. There's a knee-jerk cynicism in film and life criticism (because the two invariably intersect even while sometimes canceling each other out (because how can someone else's criticism totally relate to what just went through your sensory and mental processors?)) that suggests any time a westerner dabbles in the third world it's a form of privileged, condescending tourism with a smug, self-satisfying orientalist grin. Any transgression of class or GDP barriers places the auteur, or whatever, in a precarious balancing act where the hurdle between the point and its audience is the people paid to decide for the audience whether the hurdle is worth jumping. You find cliched but impassioned movies about stuff getting the short shrift from critics but love from festival auds.

Not just east west, though. Rich/poor, bourgie/proletariat. Darren Aronofsky seems like a rich kid from an Ivy who got his legs in shape making art house cheese platters. I obviously don't know him, but every time I wanted to care for decrepit, desolate, destitute old Ram Jam I wondered how can an Ivy brat suddenly create such a genuine, sympathetic portrait of an old junkie wrestler in a trailer park without having been poor? Or unfairly demonized as white trash? And how could I hold him accountable for it if I was never poor or unfairly demonized as white trash? I mean, this film makes poetry out of what etiquette coaches and professionals in blandly civilized discourse would write off as low class communication problems unless told not to do so by austere cultural critics (I have so many targets floating in my head I wonder if all of them are real?).

What's great about The Wrestler is it doesn't give Ram Jam some kind of skill, like piano playing, to make his white trashiness seem totally undeserved. It makes his being human reason enough to make "white trashiness" seem undeserved. More on that later, as I haven't seen Five Easy Pieces or Fingers or Finding Forrester, but there's always some need for a serious film about the poor to have this artistic crutch that all of a sudden allows the main, disenfranchised subject to finally be welcomed into the pantheon of real human beings. "They thought he was the trash he was hired to take out, until they accidentally discovered his maguffin of an arbitrary artistic skill" because they are maguffins, who gives a shit what this person can do or where they're from? As long as they pass the checklist we were wrong for thinking they were poor and stupid, which obviously they would be if they weren't so brilliant at whatever-whatever.

Basically, Mickey Rourke, who's real life is some kind of noxious, lacerating mouthwash of a rock star turmoil, plays Randy the Ram. An old wrestler revered and respected by youngins and upstarts inside and in close proximity to the ring but nowhere else. Locked out of his trailer by a park manager who thinks he's never good for the rent because he only is when pressed, estranged from his daughter because he was too busy being a wrestler to be a father, and barely connected to a stripper (Marisa Tomei) who herself gets derided for her age by slick bro types with ties and engagement rings out for a night of misogynistic objectifiable partying before they have to cut off their bachelorhood for that one eternal black hole (i'm play-acting).

What's weird is how both Rourke and Tomei both fall into their roles like alternate universe versions of themselves. Tomei plays a character who pushes her body for commission, and it's like she's putting a nail in the coffin of the image she's cultivated baring herself in almost every outing of hers i've ever seen. Every moment her body palefaces into motherhood and camel's back you get the meta-heavy heaves of her realizing this is what her life has come to. Rourke on the other hand is lumpen, misshapen scar tissue pumped full of fake cartilege and drugs, his barely beating heart being pummeled by every bad decision he's made in his life at once, and right now. He wants to feel something other than the visceral pleasure and adrenaline rush of ringside pain but his own life keeps on showing up at every shed tear.

The only real asshole in the movie is the grocery store manager, played by Todd Barry, turning his laconic lackadasia into lacerating manageria (it's a disease). Wrestling, which i've always considered a joke, some testosterone fueled melodrama that plays like soaps for fucktards, is totally given it's due here. The wrestlers, in amiable, humorous, and conciliatory manner ask each other how they want the fights to play out. They hug and joke with each other in a totally non-jockish, humbling way. It's almost insane artifice that you have to wonder if it's trumping reality more than capturing it. But it's so sweet! They do it for the crowds, and for the rent, and for each other, because they have this community, too. And when they die a little, it dies a little (a totally devastating scene later on where Ram Jam, post-op, is at some community center convention with barely any show ups, noticing all these other old wrestlers with some kind of disability from their end's gravity approaching like thunder).

Another movie that totally got me was Ballast, made by Lance Hammer, whose blaxploitaiton-baiting name totally threw me off guard when I found out he was white. There was another chasm, another transgressive exploration of another socio-economic status, this one compounded by race! A young white filmmaker making a soulful, sympathetic, and no-bullshit non-condescending portrait of life for broken black family in the mississippi delta. It made my dad throw up, but not because of it's realness, it was all over the shoulder shots that let you lean on the characters a bit, leer and hang out with them while their turmoil figured itself out.

Armond White called it a white and middle class dream dressed up like an exploration of poor blacks. He could be right, but the movie never settles, it's always uneasy, up until its final shot. What's impressive about it is that while it was made by a white filmmaker, is obviously under a white filmmaker's gaze, it was workshopped with the actors. Non-professionals hired based on being who they were, black and Delta poor. I can hear auctioneering! and coercion! being yelled from deconstructionist protests in the back, but really how else can a young white filmmaker get someone from another socially constructed race to represent themselves on camera without being a purposely defeatist occidentalist and giving up?

"It really wasn’t about bringing something out; it was about preventing them from putting something out there that wasn’t them. So my singular goal in the direction of actors, was to have the actors behave as they are at all times…I wanted them. This is straight out of Robert Bresson – you cast people for them. It’s not acting. I don’t want them to act."

The film starts off with two suicides, one successful, one attempted. The attempted suicide is later confronted by his own gun by a kid run afoul of local crack dealers while his mother works a dead end convenience store job. There's long silences, little to no dialogue, and loads and loads of atmosphere and emotion. To suggest it's impressionistic for the sake of artsy exuberance is to miss the point. Apparently: "I ended up in the Delta and was just blown away. I can’t describe the sensation, because it lives in a world that is beyond verbal articulation – and that’s precisely the thing, I wanted to try to convey that, and I knew writing a novel or poetry wouldn’t capture that feeling… I was determined to make a film that somehow captured the presence of this place. It dealt specifically with sorrow, and it dealt specifically with a patient endurance in the face of suffering, and the dignity of this endurance just moved me tremendously."

Ballast, too, doesn't saddle its protagonists with some lame-brained artistic trick to turn for the genteels, it just hangs out with them. Follows them, lets you in on them as far as you can go without being them, or hearing their innermost thoughts. They're heavily guarded, all you've got are binoculars, no x-ray specs. Come down for a day, say a word or two, or pass on through a gas station with nothing but a thank you. It's all good, they'll still be there, maybe.

At the same time it doesn't contextualize them in a torrential stream of abstract polemics about institutions. Impassioned speeches are fine and all, but these characters, as fake-actual real people, have emotions too. Have other affairs. The destitution and structural racism might hang in the air, but it doesn't manifest itself every time black skin encounters white. What's revolutionary about the film and it's character's actions is they somewhat bypass institutional action, the hierarchic, dependency-inducing service industry of charity and social work.

In passing it's mentioned how schools are nothing but concrete shams meants to hold kids for 12 years before dumping them back onto the streets with nothing but reflexive self-loathing and obedience. It's not mentioned explicitly in the terms put to use by John Taylor Gatto's Against School but a decision is made to homeschool the kid instead. It's kind of a decentralization of uplift and recovery, in which each interpersonal reliance, mutual aid, is given the preferential treatment instead of another "economically down on my knees, time to commit unlawful transgression." Which is fine and all, but not everyone's a crack dealer.

Part Two, in which I watch Fingers and Five Easy Pieces and ruminate on movies that need hotel lobby tricks to care about their protagonists, to come whenever I get the ability to write clearly.