More Notes on Genre and the Virus of Sentimentality

 

REBECCA HALL, BEN AFFLECK: THE TOWN

 

It is an ongoing topic, the virus of sentimentality and how it intersects with narrative in today’s cultural output.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut of a couple years back was Gone Baby Gone, and it came as something of a shock in the sense that it was so good.  Based on the overrated Dennis Lehane  novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone was a hard- edged piece of Boston noir and featured terrific performances from Ed Harris and Amy Ryan.  It was pure genre, in the sense that the architecture of plot was never upended and the conventions of such pulp storytelling were closely adhered to. Still, by casting Casey Affleck, an off-kilter sort of actor, and asking him to play against type (a topic to which I will return below) the film had a resonance and the sentimental tropes were forgiven because one felt they were oddly kept (purposely) in the background.  It also featured a very taught and smart script.

Affleck’s new film The Town, is also based on a pulp novel and also set in Boston. Why is it so inferior? First, instead of Casey, we have Ben.  Affleck as an actor has always seemed a tad slow-witted (which is why he was so funny in Shakespeare in Love) and a bit stilted.  But his performance is hardly a problem. The real problem is in the rest of the casting, which reads like a who’s who of industry heat at the moment (Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner). These are all “good” actors (well, not Lively) but to somehow stuff them all into what is designed as a modest noir crime film somehow tosses the whole thing out of balance. Lively may be terrible, but she is actually the least culpable of destroying this film.  She (or “Gossip Girl”) is simply doing what any agent would suggest to her….stretch and find something a bit more challenging.  So, voila, she plays an oxycontin /coke whore hoody chick…and shows cleavage and too much make-up and a decent enough Boston accent. She is bad, but not awful.  Still, one wonders if she can really transfer to the big screen. There is something too flat in her eyes, too blank – and she may end up the female Don Johnson of this era. In any event, Hamm is fine….though he isn’t asked to do much. In “Mad Men” his withholding of emotion and that sense of smarts buried beneath the surface is quite compelling and he has a certain grace and a huge dose of masculine gravitas. Here he plays the FBI guy chasing Affleck. Whatever. He is okay.

Renner (who was the ONLY thing I at all liked about Hurt Locker) is rather astonishingly good. He has a wired pent-up edge and a certain vertigo in all his movements that make us want to watch him more each time he appears.  He also is one of those actors blessed with preternatural timing. He is a bit like Cagney crossed with Joe Pesci.  But then we come to the deal breaker in terms of casting; Rebecca Hall. The RADA brit (now gal pal to Sam Mendes) simply has that snarky look buried behind those big moist eyes.  Whenever she and Affleck had a scene I felt like warning too dumb Ben, man, don’t trust this bitch. I don’t know if she can shed that quality, but her prettiness is mixed with an over-ripe squishy quality, and combined with this very mannered acting, the result is unsettling.  The performance is “good”; in the sense Meryl Streep is always good. But its not even for a nano second surprising.  Her face is always a made face. Her performance is never spontaneous and her sense of “common” is condescending.

The best few moments in the entire film belong to Chris Cooper as Affleck’s bank robber dad, now doing time in Walpole. It’s simply spellbinding.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking of any number of other films that questioned how genre works.  No Country for Old Men, Animal Kindgom, or even some of those post Vietnam noirs like Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop the Rain. And these reflections on genre led me to think on the way sentimentality creeps into almost all Hollywood studio films.

A film like Animal Kingdom (or A Prophet) could be categorized as genre, but really, they aren’t at all, by virtue of simply up-ending all the conventions.  No Country fails because, finally, Cormac McCarthy probably cant be translated to the screen, and what the Coen Bros. end up with is art house genre. Meaning, I think, just a dash too much pretentiousness.

 

Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson and Caroll O'Conner in John Boorman's Point Blank

 

Films such as Bellman and True, the much neglected British bank robbery film, remain pure genre….but of a highly elevated kind. Same could be said for Point Blank, the Boorman classic from the 70s with Lee Marvin. These are both films, that in different ways, work consciously with the conventions of “crime” stories and emerge as almost fable-like achievements.  It is worth pondering exactly how this happens. In Point Blank, the surface fetishism of the culture are so finely rendered that one begins to feel that marinated-in  quality that often is felt in daily life if stuck in dense traffic on Beverly Blvd or the 605 freeway.  Also, Lee Marvin by that point in his career was iconic and allowed himself to move through the proceedings less as an actor than as pure presence.  There is a political backdrop to Point Blank (and certainly more overtly in a film like Cutter’s Way) that has to do with the atomized alienation of the populace. In The Town there is, instead, a liberal sort of slumming that creeps into both the script, the performances (some of them) and in the mise en scene. Affleck simply isn’t an intuitive director. He is workmanlike, and it begs the question who the actual auteur of Gone Baby Gone really was.
A Fritz Lang, or a Billy Wilder, are always aware, acutely, of the authority structure. They distrust it and they fear it. Affleck one would suspect never even thinks about such things. In Animal Kingdom, there is never any doubt about the various ways the society exploits and chews up people – on both sides of the criminal fence. The Coen brothers are a bit like Affleck, in the sense that they distance themselves from these realities, and if asked (even by themselves) to render such realities, they do it without resorting to real sweat and blood and tears.  It’s that faux classicism that masks a deeply bourgeois mind set.
In Gone Baby Gone, the performance of Casey Affleck offsets such shortcomings. He establishes himself from the start as against not just the other characters, but against the director as well. He is the lightning rod that helps us position ourselves in terms of  tweezing apart what matters in this confused moral landscape. This moral complexity, however, is mostly of Casey Affleck’s making, rather than director Ben.  In The Town, the moral landscape is absent. It’s not another apologia for the police state, it’s simply that those questions are kept out of the film. And again, part of this is casting. The film turns sentimental not through plot so much as through rendering a reductive universe in which the real history of Boston’s working class neighborhoods is seen as if on display in  a Disney Theme park. IF the world that is given us is one dimensional – in social terms at least – sentimentalizing will occur because ANY emotion will be disproportionate.
The universe of Bellman and True or Point Blank is one of pure irrationality, and everyone is a victim of it.  There is no room for the sentimental. Same in Winter’s Bone, the narrative is tied so closely to the social reality of the specific region, that even the characters resonate with the shared pain of their collective history.
It is as if in The Town, the ensemble cast is caught up in a rip tide created by the marketing arm of the studio – of maybe of all studios – and only Cooper (and to smaller degree Renner) manage to step away from the undertow and look at the proceedings as we, the audience, do.  The role of actor in today’s film is being re-drawn somehow.  It may relate to a surveillance society in which everyone is always caught in the gaze of the camera, or perhaps its simply a reality TV conditioned psychology at work, where the effects I describe are as much my fault as the actors.  It’s likely that both these forces, and others, are at work in this.  This brings us to the notion of “character” in film and theater today. This is a huge topic that would of necessity lead us back to Dante and Shakespeare, if not Sophocles and Homer.  Film has always trafficked in various short hands and codes. In films such as The Town, we find ourselves running smack up against the outer walls that contain what is left of the notion of traditional definitions of character. Its not the simplistic short hand of cartoons like The Blind Side (or any other of fifty films in the last three years) but of something more elusive.  Jon Hamm’s FBI agent walks through the film as if on loan from his TV show….and so he is. It’s not a cliché role, so much as a non-role. It’s barely a mannequin that we see up there on the screen. It’s only the most fragile of signifiers at work, in context, that gives us any idea about what this “character” is supposed to be doing. These signifiers have been learned through decades, now, of TV (and film).  We know when this happens, then this will follow. This is what this “character” must do – for he IS this sort of character.
One wonders if such reactions on the part of an audience translate further into our social selves. I suspect they do.  An era of reductive texting passing as communication and of constant recording of “reality” by various kinds of cameras, means just the sheer rapidity of these images and sounds have given us, even if we don’t want them, an endless semi-conscious loop that plays 24 hours a day.  We dream in signifiers now, I’m guessing.
In any event, The Town fails horribly to capture any sense of the fatalistic – in the way a Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop The Rain (or even a Nightmoves does, or certainly an Out of the Past) manage. That fatalistic dimension, what directors like Lang and Siodmak and Wilder and even Ford used as daily currency for the narrative they spun is now all but impossible to put on the screen. With films like Animal Kingdom we come close, and also in Winter’s Bone, but it’s a diluted version. Those films compensate in other ways; but the pure existential dread of directors like Boetticher or Tourneur or Lang or even  Aldrich seems gone.
Watch Point Blank again, and watch Marvin walk purposefully down the empty corridor, and hear those wingtips echo off the floor….. and think if such a scene is any longer possible.

John Steppling
Yucca Valley

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6 responses to “More Notes on Genre and the Virus of Sentimentality

  1. I like the phrase, over-ripe squishy quality, as a description of an actress’s performance. However, might I suggest refraining from parenthetical asides about said actress’s male pals as it lands such criticism on the gossip runway. Like sentimentality, gossip is a virus whose sickly puss oozes through mainstream culture.

    Hopefully, that last sentence wasn’t too squishy.

  2. Great thoughts John. Point Blank is one of my all time favorites. The interesting thing to me about that flick is that Lee Marvin had full control of it. He brought John Boorman into the studio office and deferred all his power (final cut of the film) to him. Therefore the picture seems oddly vacant of any studio/corporate control. It’s an auter’s film but without the pretentiousness (I think).

    With films like The Town and The Shirt Locker (I believe you called it) even there always seems to be some kind of overarching “message” or “sentimentality” put there to give an “answer” or make audiences “feel” something. This seems to be the big problem. We don’t have enough directors in commercial American cinema telling stories without dilution or sentimentality because studios don’t want these kinds of artists anymore. Films are nothing more than a buisness venture for massive profits.

    You mention the wonderful scene with Marvins wing tip shoes clacking the airport lobby…. The truth is, I think mass audiences (not just film auters) are STARVING for visual scenes like this (with very little to no dialogue). So to answer your question…. I think it is possible to make a scene like that again, Perhaps audiences just don’t know it yet? Even with our texting-while-driving,”reality” TV driven world that we live in, maybe there is hope for american cinema and american conciousness? Am I being too optimistic?

    (p.s.forgive the typos and grammatical fuck ups, I wrote this on a blackberry. Gotta love technology!)

  3. After seeing THE TOWN the ideas about genre that Martin Scorsese presented in his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN CINEMA (1995) came to mind. In this film, MS observes how directors like John Ford worked within the western genre, for instance, but didn’t make the same picture over and over again. The genre evolved so that STAGECOACH (1939) and THE SEARCHERS (1956) may both be westerns with western tropes but that is where the similarity ends. The first version of STAGECOACH resembles the original A STAR IS BORN (1937) in that they are both heavy on a familiar story and light on subtext; the characters get to know each other on a dangerous stagecoach journey out west, a young actress is helped to stardom by an alcoholic star in decline. By the time we reach the post World War II 1950’s the world is a very different and darker place. THE SEARCHERS touches on too many post war issues to list here but certainly racism and the effects of war on a soldier. And as Scorsese notes, Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN shines a glaring light on the cult and the prison of celebrity.

    For me THE TOWN felt like a stunted genre film that did not relate to the world from whence it came; i.e. a Boston slum or 2010. Whether we date the action in this film to the late 1990’s or the present, the film is exactly what it seems to be. There are a lot of bank robbers in Charlestown. So what. We live in a time where the bank robbers are bankers. If one chooses to make a film about petty criminals in Boston, because that’s what they are, then it’s got to be about the characters and not the cash or a romance or a fantasy get away.

    A word about “cash.” Cash no longer has cache! Whether it’s the Joker placing someone on a pile of cash in THE DARK KNIGHT or Afflect and company stuffing it into duffel bags, the images of paper money no longer mean what they used to.

    Having the Joker rob banks seemed a monumental waste of criminal genius. It’s time someone in Hollywood broke down and read some William Gibson. I know what you’re saying studio execs, “But how can we get as many guns and buns into a story where all the money is on a computer screen?”

    That’s your problem.

    THE TOWN needed a script that dealt with the characters in depth. If they had cut one of the three action scenes (like the last one) and given that screen time to character development we might have had a crime noir genre film that had something to do with the world we live in today instead of more corporate product.

    Kudos to John for bringing up the great film BELLMAN AND TRUE. I would add THE BANK JOB and SEXY BEAST to the list of heist noir films that really take this genre to another level where social class is not ignored or acted out in a quick cliche but explored and illuminated.

  4. Although I did not see GONE BABY GONE, I can guess two reasons why it was better than THE TOWN: better screenplay and no Ben onscreen. Ben Affleck’s appearances on REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER made me see him in a completely different light: he’s way more intelligent and informed and politically astute than you could ever guess from only seeing Ben the movie star. Thus, it was less of a surprise to me to hear that GBG was an excellent directorial debut than others who had not been treated to seeing Ben the surprisingly cool and likable individual. Affleck and Aaron Stockard are both credited as the screenwriters for both films (with Peter Craig as additional screenwriter on THE TOWN). So, although it’s not unreasonable to imagine that an experienced director was used as “collateral” on GBG, THE TOWN just wasn’t a particularly good script, so what would have saved it other than a complete rewrite? But also, Ben … there’s no getting around it … he just can’t act. And as star of the film he’s directing, the directing is b0und to suffer. When you add to that the common artistic “Sophomore Slump” (and the allowance that even the greatest filmmakers will make failures), then, instead of thinking GBG had a different auteur, I think he needs to be cut some slack for the time being. His third directorial effort should be a better indicator of whether GBG was a fluke or THE TOWN was a simple misfire. Disappointing as it was, I would really love to encourage him only to direct from now on.

    I did think the opening scene was dynamite, and I agree that Jeremy Renner and Chris Cooper were the best things in it. I’ve never seen MAD MEN, so it was my first time seeing John Hamm, and I was quite surprised at how — well, not exactly bad, but — uninteresting he was.

    At the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be more of an ensemble piece, and I thought how wise Mr. Affleck was to keep himself as much as possible in the background. But it was not to be, and he was front and center for the bulk of the picture. There was a moment that it seemed like the reason he was having the preposterous relationship with Rebecca Hall was to get information from her regarding what the FBI was up to and that he would ultimately double-cross her; and if they had stuck on this path, it would have been a more interesting film. But no, it was true love! Sigh. (Gag.)

    On another note, if you’re a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s book NEVER LET ME GO, then do yourself a favor and don’t see the film. Unless, that is, you can’t fathom how a film could slavishly follow the book and still produce something that has only a passing resemblance to it. It’s pretty stilted and lifeless. And is it just me, or does Keira Knightley look like a drag queen in this movie?

  5. So now I guess I have to see The Town. And I should probably hold my comments until I do, but John has done such a good job alerting me to what I already suspected that I’ll continue.

    I’m not the hugest Dennis Lehane fan, but somehow he manages to write stories that are overblown and sentimental enough to make it to the screen but manage to bring with them more read edge than we typically can find. In GBG it was Casey’s odd presence and Amy Ryan, and then some of that documentary-type stuff he cut in too that felt surprisingly real. And Ed Harris, as you mention. And I guess Lehane really does retain some class consciousness too – he knows that the real bank robbers are running the banks, definitely. And somehow his sentimentality gets him through the door and up on the screen, so to speak.

    John, your thoughts about character, and what’s happening to our ability tap more complex emotional states in our narratives, are intriguing. And it’s interesting to go back to John Ford, say, and see how with The Searchers Ford’s own mind had begun to darken. The scene where Ethan Edwards just starts slaughtering buffalo somehow retains a claim on being one of the darker moments in the history of American cinema despite the fact that you don’t even see the animals. It’s as if Ford saw the dysfunction of Western civilization and it filled him with despair because he was so deeply attached to the rituals of decency, perhaps, and the darkness comes from that disappointment. As many have observed Taxi Driver is a re-make of The Searchers, in many respects, with Scorcese foregrounding the pathology of Ethan Edwards in Travis Bickle. And it occurs to me now – and this may be a bit far fetched – that No Country also harkens back a bit to the Ford film, with Chigurh as a truly psychotic Edwards pursuing the woman (a chilling thought, actually) .

    But I think there’s something to explore here at much greater depth that has to do with representation. What it’s like to exist in a place where the urge to represent can no longer result in meaning. We begin to circle back to a pre-Romantic place where representation starts to play a very different role. The fatalistic tone of a film like Point Blank comes from a critical understanding that has become impossible. We no longer have access to that perspective. The momentum of technology and capitalism has become so huge, and so emptying, that we can scarcely imagine being free of them. And paradoxically – and it’s a huge paradox – capitalism and technology have lost their ability to even lay claim to any foundational meaning. The world of material wealth has become all powerful….but, at the same time, it has hollowed itself out and lost all credibility, even the capacity to assert credibility.

    There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write comparing this cult hit film The Room with the Leonardo DiCaprio film about the huge boring dreams – Inception. The Room is a total monstrosity, from what I hear. Not only bad in every conceivable way, but so luridly awful that it crosses over into some new awful art form that has a remarkable capacity to truly entertain. And I suspect this capacity is linked to how assaulted by representations we are, and the narratives that are based on representation…a la huge extravaganzas like Inception that deploy astonishing technology in order to sell us a stupid little lie. So, my theory goes, The Room is refreshing because it announces all its crude narrative and representational strategies minutes beforehand…and then executes them poorly…and we so appreciate that and it allows us to breath a little again…

    On the other hand, I don’t actually want to sit through The Room, so the “we” here is rhetorical. But I will try to check out The Town. I think.

    G

  6. cool comments./ Especically nancy’s…………because (and maybe this is because i just saw Money Never Sleeps…an upcoming posting…. oy vey) but the reality of global capital — of the corporate criminality that is globalization is actually the two thousand pound elephant on the couch — the Affleck fascination with the working class notwithstanding, the film (The Town) simply fails to even give us a moment’s glimpse into the dire state of neighborhoods like Charlestown.
    And yes, The Searchers…….man, I could talk endlessly about that film………one of the enduring masterpieces of american cinema. Just magisterial and mythic and a film that continues to cast its dark lacerating shadow over the narratives of the US.

    GBG did touch on some sort of working class awareness………..and some of that was casey affleck’s performance. In The Town its not just the poor script, its the cast. Renner and Cooper are exceptions to what is, actually, a terribly acted film. Its the prospectus for an actual film……movie actors playing at being working class. I guess part of this posting and its comments is to point up that Lee Marvin didnt have to look to far to find a relationship to the working class. He was working class. And that power from marvin was never more clearly on display than in Point Blank.

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