Wednesday, November 27, 2013

2013 in Shit: Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain was Spring Breakers without the fucking thinkpiecey bullshit; a gaudy, glossy & cheap fuck you to America whose misanthropy coincidentally happened to reify structural oppressions. A two-note disharmony without even the faintest inclination that it intends to resolve itself. A twisted, spitting mess of class resentment and reaction crawling out of the kinetic-to-the-point-of-frantic aesthetic of director and cinematographer unleashed of tone and everything else.

I don't actually know that, though, since I walked out of Spring Breakers after about twenty minutes, at the request of a friend. Even that early I could feel the sharp edges of my own self-righteous thinkpiece emerging; thanks to him, though, I instead got to watch at a distance as everyone else's moral panic (whether in the form of condemnation or justification) coated a little corner of the internet a nice, thin, demure shade of eggshell. Luckily Pain & Gain wasn't art.

Dwayne Johnson's performance is my favorite that I've seen this year; and I again say this as someone who has zero interest or ability in judging the craft of acting. To say that he uses the skills he honed as The Rock to play a bodybuilding ex-convict and -alcoholic involved in a blundered heist is probably to give you the wrong impression. What people tend to think of as the hallmarks of acting in professional wrestling aren't what, I think, he draws on; the bombast and theater, the melodrama and blocking of the body, the utter self-involvement in the absence of a coherent self aren't the broad sketches but the bubbling undercurrent, and his bumbling naivety is beautifully highlighted (and honestly hilarious) because of it. Mark Wahlberg's rapper-cum-three-color-chameleon baggage is a bit less effective but still good, and Anthony Mackie makes the best of a bullshit role. Had Johnson not been perfect, a Cena third would've been, at least to me, a really funny choice; two white rappers and Papa Doc in a story about how bullshit the American Dream is would have a much different tenor.

The two notes that Pain & Gain never bothers to harmonize are generally, when brought together, called dark (or black, probably, in this instance) comedy; Bay, instead, holds one in the one hand and the other in the other, and seems to structure the film by hiding them behind his back and asking whoever happened by during shooting to pick a hand. It's kind of impossible to convey just how incoherent the tone of this movie is; even the narrative and aesthetic threads fray under the absolutely implacable refusal to unify itself, and even when the film expects you to laugh in horror or to cringe at a joke, its forward momentum obliterates the apparent synchronizing and peels back at its own artifice. It's the sort of movie that keeps going for no other reason than that it's a movie, which are composed of images displayed over time, and so even when it barrels right through the unity of image and time, time is an aspect. That is, the forward momentum that we usually associate with narrative is here at an almost total disjunct from the mechanical reality that time moves forward as images are shown in succession. Which, frankly, I kind of adored; it was also incidentally cool that this resonated with the overall tonal and thematic disjuncts as well, I suppose.

I worry, occasionally, that when I make these sort of broad claims about how a film fits together (or aggressively fails to) that I rely too heavily on modes of criticism developed to valorize individualist constructions of art; saying, for instance, that the disjunctiveness of Pain & Gain is not an instance of ineptitude but a totalized thematic richness dovetails too nicely with an auteurist valorization of Bay as Director for that not, I suspect, to be presumed to be my ultimate goal, at least by some. And I certainly wouldn't contend that films aren't products of individual humans working collectively, whose individuality is never quite subsumed into the enterprise (I probably have claimed and will continue to claim this -ed); except that at the same time, despite the traditions I operate according to (see: my loosely deployed jargon), I am, if anything, interested on the human level exclusively as regards what might be broadly described as the reader, not the writer. This is the lesson that I wrenched out of deconstruction, and which I don't think is quite in accordance with its aims; but I similarly don't particularly care about those. Mine is an attempt -- at least, this is how I organize myself to myself, as I am a set of words and ideas collected under a byline -- to help read, not to help write. Whether Pain & Gain is an incoherent mess worth little more than derisively ignoring or a bizarre fecund unity of antagonisms is not a question I situate with any aspect of the industrial apparatus that defines its creation, but with the way that it is capable of being approached. This is, also, primarily a question of social (and material) conditions, and my attempts to under- or over- write them, as the case may be. There is more to be said here, but whatever; anyway.

This is, of course, what is at stake in the divergent reception of two roughly identical films, the one written off and the other written on past the point of dullness and boredom. Korine's a brilliant artist, Bay a hack and a shill. Satire works in these particular ways, according to this theory of power, else it is a failure, a symptom, its artist alchemized into an analysand. Irony, rather than a constitutive aspect of language, is a degraded mode of production, one of those magical generational foci that define the affect of a decade. ANYWAY.

This thematic is reproduced in the performances as well; as Johnson draws equally on his status as an established performer and the tools he learned as a wrestler to give a bubbling undercurrent to his naivety, to make himself into something of a mixture of socially-determined manchild and evil (yet sympathetic) brute (the movie being racially coded in these terms as all fuck), his cute sociopath role is never really reconciled, and again is wonderful because of it. The scene that begs to be famous, where he grills a number of his crew’s victim's hands to remove the fingerprints while wearing an apron, manages to fall just short of inspiring revolted laughter that the whole movie seems desperately to desire. He's a little too cute, the stylistic flair a little too perfectly technically realized, the moral stakes a little too underdeveloped; the whole thing is just honestly amusing, unless you for some reason buy into the "true story" frame that the movie presents and then seems equally desperate to undermine at every possible opportunity, I suppose.

This frame is, I would guess, largely at fault (if one looks solely at the film as text rather than at the social factors I ineptly skewer above) for Pain & Gain's less-than-Breakers reception; where the latter had the dubious luxury of pure fiction to operate in many eyes as commentary, Pain at least ostensibly pretends to be concerned with the lives of real murdered individuals. The tonal disharmony, then, is much more prone to moralizing critique on the film's own grounds. On one level this is pure ineptitude, employing what is functionally little more than a marketing frame without attending to the narrative which allows that frame to operate; on another it is the pure violence of critique, for the exact same reason.

As I recall (I saw this movie months ago and have trash memory, and I am sure as hell not doing due diligence given the number of things I am set to write about from here on out) this frame is presented most aggressively in the opening scene; Wahlberg runs from the cops, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. If I'm not wrong (I probably am) the claim that this is a true story is inserted via title card as Wahlberg is hit by a cop car, his legs smashed by the grill and his face crunching against the windshield, the camera in (actual, for real) slow motion (a trick it will repeat to show us spittle a few times as characters are hit in the face with things, very abjection). If Johnson's scene is a clear attempt to synthesize that fails beautifully, then this opening is clearly the opposite. It's a Lurid Reality claim over what is unmistakably an absolutely irrealistic genre marking; it is the film's total disconnect in a single frame. Maybe it is just because I have little interest in things like memoir generally, or because my favorite examples of the genre are books like Jane Jeong Trenka's Language of Blood or Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, with the former's experimentations with form and the latter's subtitle being a ridiculous misnomer attributable to the market, or maybe because Brecht's rejoinder to Lukacs in discussing the merits of realism vs expressionism (or modernism) still has an immediacy that excites me to no end, but I feel little compulsion to scrutinize the True Story claim as an ethical concern rather than a formal tool. And damned if the form isn't shot through the whole fucking thing in the exact way it's framed: broken, noisy, jarring and gross, utterly devoid of High Artistic Unification, and an absolute joy to watch.

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