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My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failureby Nathan Rabin, A.V. Club
In 2007, Nathan Rabin set out to provide a revisionist look at the history of cinematic failure on a weekly basis. What began as a solitary ramble through the nooks and crannies of pop culture evolved into a way of life. My Year Of Flops collects dozens of the best-loved entries from the A.V. Club column along with bonus interviews and fifteen brand-new entries covering everything from notorious flops like The Cable Guy and Last Action Hero to bizarre obscurities like Glory Road, Johnny Cash’s poignantly homemade tribute to Jesus. Driven by a unique combination of sympathy and Schadenfreude, My Year Of Flops is an unforgettable tribute to cinematic losers, beautiful and otherwise.
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—Patton Oswalt, author of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
"Nathan Rabin is all-knowing (without being smarmy), open-and kind-hearted (without being sappy), and he'll make you laugh on every page. You can't have a better friend sitting next to you as you watch these glorious atrocities."
—Mike Sacks, author of And Here’s the Kicker and SEX: Our Bodies, Our Junk
“Jon Krakauer's writing is beyond vivid. You FEEL the cold of Everest as your read his words. Into Thin Air is a harrowing journey, well worth your time. I’ve also heard great things about Nathan Rabin's My Year of Flops.”
"Nathan Rabin's book is funnier than John Travolta's facial hair in Battlefield Earth. He's a brave man for undertaking this dangerous mission and returning alive with a highly entertaining tale."
A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
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My Year Of Flops: An Introduction
From an early age, I learned to stop worrying and love the bombs. I’ve always been a failure junkie. I get giddy over toxic buzz, noxious press, and scathing reviews. I’m fascinated by the art and sociology of flops. You can learn a lot about society by the pop culture it embraces, and just as much by what it angrily rejects. As parents are keen to remind their children, there’s no shame in failure, only in not trying. The biggest, most notorious flops generally fail because they try too hard, not because they lack ambition or audacity.
My solidarity with misfits, outsiders, and underachievers helped define my professional development. I began my film-reviewing career happily critiquing the dregs of cinema, forgotten ephemera like Chill Factor and Gone Fishing. As the first head writer of The A.V. Club, the entertainment section of The Onion, I’ve immersed myself in the dark, shadowy corners of the entertainment universe, where saner folks fear to tread: direct-to-video movies (for a column called Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory), cheaply produced books by C-listers and hangers-on (for Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club), the NOW That’s What I Call Music! series (for THEN That’s What They Called Music!), and audio commentaries on terrible films (for Commentary Tracks Of The Damned).
In The A.V. Club, I found a home and an audience willing to indulge my pop-culture masochism. Ah, but maybe “masochism” isn’t the right word, because I love what I do; a trip to the multiplex to see the latest Tyler Perry movie or not-screened-for-critics dancesploitation cheapie fills me with anticipation rather than dread. Thirteen years on, I still sometimes can’t believe I make my living writing about pop culture.
So when I decided to embark on a twice-weekly yearlong blog project in early 2007, I naturally gravitated toward an in-depth exploration of the biggest failures in cinematic history. I called the column My Year Of Flops. To qualify for My Year Of Flops, a film had to meet three unyielding/slippery criteria. It had to be a critical and commercial failure upon its release (domestically, at least). It had to have, at best, a marginal cult following. And it had to facilitate an endless procession of facile observations and labored one-liners.
Along with providing a forum for jokes, japes, and jests, My Year Of Flops had a serious goal. I wanted to fight our cultural tendency to associate commercial failure with artistic bankruptcy. I wanted to give flops something everyone deserves but precious few ever receive: a second chance. When I look at failures, cinematic and otherwise, I see myself. I welcomed the opportunity to provide a sympathetic reappraisal of some of the most reviled films of all time.
During the first year of My Year Of Flops, I found acceptance and validation from readers who cheered me on throughout my quixotic quest. Internet commenters, those nattering nabobs of negativism, transformed into perspicacious proponents of positivity. An online community that all too often resembles an easily agitated lynch mob turned into a band of angels. For I had created not just a blog project but an entire weird world of failure, regret, and bad ideas: a floposphere for pop-culture rubberneckers and schadenfreude enthusiasts. Fulfilling my wildest dreams, My Year Of Flops steadily grew to become that rarest and most wondrous of creatures: a moderately popular ongoing online feature. It was such a surprising success that readers wouldn’t let go after the initial year was over, so I was “persuaded” to continue it indefinitely as a twice-monthly feature at avclub.com. At gunpoint.
Then My Year Of Flops became something even more rare and more wonderfultastic: a book. Not just any book—the book you currently hold in your hands! That you bought! With money you earned doing chores and robbing student nurses! And are going to read! Using your brain bone and imagination!
After much consideration, consultation with our pastors, and several rolls of the 12-sided die, we here at The A.V. Club have decided to augment 35 of what SCTV’s Guy Caballero would call My Year Of Flops’ “Golden Classics” (which is to say, columns, aka Case Files, that already ran online in some form) with 15 brand-spanking-new Case Files of films too explosively floptastical for the Internet. But that isn’t all! In a bid to break up the oppressive tyranny of my literary voice, we’ve included mini-interviews with some of the people involved in the flops I’ve covered. You angrily demanded Austin Pendleton’s wry recollections of the making of Skidoo. We happily acquiesced.
The flops have been grouped according to genre, beginning with the first Case File, on Elizabethtown, which also provided the series with a ratings system dividing all films into three nebulous categories: Failure, Fiasco, and Secret Success. As Orlando Bloom stiffly declaims at the start of Elizabethtown, anyone can achieve failure, but a fiasco requires mad-prophet ambition and woeful miscalculation. At the top of the scale lie Secret Successes, films that have been slandered by history yet remain worthy of critical rehabilitation.
After chapters devoted to drama, comedy, superhero/science fiction/action films, musicals, the unsexiest sex films ever made, and family films that qualify as child abuse under the Geneva Conventions, we have a murderer’s row of the most notorious flops ever made. Even a book about flops needs a happy ending and redemptive arc, so I conclude with the fairy-tale ending that fate wouldn’t grant the films I’ve documented. There’s an entry on Joe Versus The Volcano, a life-affirming fable about a miserable Failure who becomes a Secret Success because of a Fiasco. And I close with a reconsideration of the film that began it all—Elizabethtown—and then a blow-by-blow account of the three-hour-long director’s cut of Waterworld.
I never intended My Year Of Flops to be a book about the 50 biggest flops or worst films of all time. There are plenty of books like that. This is not one of them. Rather, it’s a deeply personal, deeply idiosyncratic journey through the history of cinematic failure populated both by the usual suspects (Gigli, Battlefield Earth, Ishtar) and intriguing semi-obscurities like Johnny Cash’s Gospel Road and Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love.
I chose many of these flops not because their failure casts a huge shadow over pop culture but because they reflect the mythology of their creators and the cultural epoch they inhabited in fascinating and revealing ways. With each Case File, I set out to write about much more than the film addressed, to use an entry to explore, for example, the curious communion of Otto Preminger and the free-love movement in Skidoo or the perils and limitations of literary adaptations epitomized by The Scarlet Letter, Breakfast of Champions, and Adrian Lyne’s Lolita.
Welcome to my wonderful world of flops. I’m psyched to explore the curious geography of celluloid bombs with you. It’s a colorful realm of pee-drinking man-fish, inexplicably floating Africans, psychedelic disco/biblical freak-outs, time-traveling action heroes, an effeminate green alien only Fred Flintstone and Marlon Brando can see, and Rosie O’Donnell in leather bondage gear. Ignore all the road signs warning you to stay away. You’re in Failure Country now, with me as your disreputable guide. Enjoy the ride.
© 2010 Onion, Inc.
Bataan Death March Of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown
Originally Posted January 25, 2007
As somebody once said, there’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fee-ass-scoe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn’t. Happen. To. Them.
—Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown
After that opening piece of voice-over narration, Cameron Crowe’s 2005 flop Elizabethtown goes on to illustrate by example just what a fiasco looks and feels like. Elizabethtown was cursed from its inception. Crowe cast, then uncast, Ashton Kutcher (in the role eventually played by Orlando Bloom) and Jane Fonda (in the role Susan Sarandon ultimately played) in the lead roles: Kutcher as a soulful superstar-shoe-designer-turned-suicidal-pariah who travels to Kentucky to bury his dead father, and Fonda as his mother, an eccentric who spirals into impish lunacy once she’s widowed. Like Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown is a populist morality play about a cocky young man humanized by failure who becomes a success in life only after failing spectacularly in business. After a disastrous early screening at the Toronto Film Festival, the film was drastically shortened and its ending altered.
So by the time Elizabethtown arrived in theaters, it was already a wounded duck. Going into the film, I thought, “How bad can a Cameron Crowe movie be?” Before Elizabethtown, I could say without reservation that Crowe was one of my favorite filmmakers. I don’t just love his movies, I want to live in his world. The universe of Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Say Anything is an infinitely humane realm ruled by an endlessly benevolent deity: Crowe himself. It’s a world where no existential quandary is so great that it can’t be solved by the perfect combination of classic rock song and dream girl. It’s a world of happy pop epiphanies and gentle humanism, bravely devoid of protective irony or sneering cynicism.
In Elizabethtown, all Crowe’s formidable virtues as a filmmaker betray him. His palpable affection for his characters devolves into pathological emotional neediness. Every frame and character screams, “Love me, love me, love me!” Elizabethtown feels like an X-ray of Crowe’s soul set to the soundtrack of his life.
Crowe has never been afraid to go for big, pop-operatic moments that bound past realism in their quest for immortality. There’s nothing naturalistic about lines like Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me,” “You had me at hello,” and “Show me the money,” or John Cusack playing “In Your Eyes” on a boombox outside Ione Skye’s window in Say Anything. Yet they spoke to moviegoers’ deep, unfulfilled hunger for grand theatrical gestures and outsized declarations of love.
With Elizabethtown, Crowe subscribes to the logic that it’s never enough merely to try; no, one must try way too fucking hard. It isn’t enough that Drew is the corporate pariah behind a failed shoe; no, he has to be the man behind the greatest athletic-shoe debacle of all time, a nearly billion-dollar fuckup. Similarly, Crowe can’t just have Drew contemplate suicide; he has to have his sad-sack protagonist create a homemade suicide machine with knives affixed to the handlebars that’s 90 percent exercise bike, 10 percent gimmicky instrument of permanent self-negation. It’s like the secret love child of Dr. Kevorkian and Rube Goldberg. In Elizabethtown’s universe, even suicide can be oppressively whimsical.
And he can’t just have Drew’s mom go a little loopy following her beloved husband’s death. No, Crowe has Drew’s mom use her late husband’s memorial to introduce the world’s first You-might-be-a-widow-manic-and-raw-with-grief-if … stand-up comedy routine. For example:
If the bank teller looks at you funny because you forgot to rinse off a green facial mask before leaving home … You might be a manic widow raw with grief!
If you think a memorial for your dead husband is the appropriate place to launch your stand-up comedy and tap-dancing careers … You might be a manic widow raw with grief!
If you think it’s appropriate to tell the audience at your husband’s memorial that your next-door neighbor got a massive boner while trying to console you, then repeat the word “boner” over and over as the crowd of mourners goes into red-faced hysterics … You might be a manic widow raw with grief!
In writing and directing Elizabethtown, Crowe somehow managed to silence his inner censor and cynic, the naysayer in each of us that implores, “Don’t write that. People will make fun of you. Do you really expect a line like, ‘This loss will be met by a hurricane of love,’ to be met with anything other than a tornado of derisive snickers?” That’s both admirable and insane. Crowe never lets audiences forget that they’re watching not just a Cameron Crowe film but the Cameron Croweiest film in existence, a movie so poignantly personal it makes even the autobiographical Almost Famous look like cynical work-for-hire.
But the purest manifestation of Crowe’s need to afflict audiences with a two-hour-long hurricane of self-love lies in the unbearably twee conception of Drew’s love interest, Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Claire embodies a character type I call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (See Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example.) The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl serves as a means to an end, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! for her life’s work is done.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing proposition. Audiences either want to marry her, or commit grievous bodily harm upon her and her immediate family. Claire, for all her overly caffeinated joie de vivre, falls on the wrong side of that divide. She is a prolific disseminator of Crowe’s patented big pop-operatic moments, whether she’s keeping Drew awake and giddy during an all-night cell-phone verbal duet, or sending him on an intricately mapped-out road trip that ends the film on a note of delirious excess.
I once had a Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriend who induced terrifying Elizabethtown flashbacks. We even bonded over a marathon phone call that left us exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. Not long after we started dating, she began asking if I was falling in love with her, over and over. At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, it was the single most annoying thing in the history of the universe. It was as if she was trying to bully me into falling in love. That’s the essence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: She doesn’t ask for our love, she demands it. But love isn’t enough. She also needs to be romanticized, idealized, fetishized, worshipped, and adored. You know, all the stupid shit young men do. She glares impishly in our direction menacingly with a look that says, “You better fall in love with me, fuckface, or I will open up a big can of joy on that ass.”
Elizabethtown shows what happens when a gifted writer-director lets his heart do his brain’s work for him. Yet the film stuck with me in ways genuinely successful films haven’t. I still talk and think about it all the time. The origins of My Year Of Flops began with Elizabethtown. By the time Drew embarked on a Claire-orchestrated road trip set to a mixtape of Crowe’s favorite songs, Elizabethtown was starting to barrel through my formidable defenses. [So I vowed to rewatch it later in the project, to see if another viewing would win me over. Did it? Find out later, when I revisit Elizabethtown as the very last Case File in this here book.]
Book-Exclusive Savage In Its Barbaric Intensity Case File: The Conqueror
In his book Citizen Hughes: The Power, The Money, And The Madness, Michael Drosnin quotes extensively from a memo the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes fired off to top aide Robert Maheu, chronicling a glimpse of hell he’d spied on television. Claiming the sight “litterally and actually physically made me nauseated,” Hughes goes on to describe the nightmare vision of “the biggest, ugliest negro you ever saw in your life … covered—litterally [sic] covered from head to foot with Vaseline almost ¼ of an inch thick.”
That image alone was enough to fuel Hughes’ nightmares, but what happened next sent him into a rage. The Vaseline-smeared man-beast lurched savagely over to what Hughes describes as “an immaculately dressed white woman—sort of an English noblewoman type” and subjected her to an obscene, endless open-mouthed kiss with the power to single-handedly destroy civilization and usher in a hellscape of raging, open miscegenation.
The “biggest, ugliest negro you ever saw in your life” in question was James Earl Jones. The “English noblewoman type” was Jane Alexander. And the film was 1970’s The Great White Hope. It wasn’t the only time the terrifying prospect of miscegenation threw the easily excited tycoon into a tizzy. Hughes was so horrified at what he saw as a “sinful interracial assignation” (it was actually a light-skinned black woman dating a darker-skinned black man) on The Dating Game that he fired off another enraged memo to Maheu and put the kibosh on plans to spend $200 million to buy ABC, the network that ran The Dating Game.
What does Howard Hughes’ profound discomfort at a young James Earl Jones fiendishly rubbing his Vaseline-coated body all over the delicate ladyparts of proper white women have to do with My Year Of Flops? Judging by 1956’s The Conqueror, which Hughes produced through his RKO studio, miscegenation obsessed him well before he traded in the high life for television, solitude, and insanity.
One of the biggest, ugliest epics you never saw in your life, The Conqueror is only slightly less obsessed with the carnal possibilities of folks from different ethnicities getting it on than Interracial Gang Bang Sluts Volume 7. The Conqueror offers a mind-bending act of interracial minstrelry, as supercracker John Wayne fused DNA with the great Asian conqueror eventually known as Genghis Khan but known as Temujin here to become an odd creature known, to me at least, as John Wayneghis Khan. Marvel at this strange beast, neither Caucasian nor Asian! Gawk at the unconvincing makeup and silly Fu Manchu designed to transform a top American movie star into the living personification of what old-time folks called the Yellow Peril!
While Wayneghis Khan is not quite white and not quite Asian, the object of his intense erotic fascination, Bortai (Susan Hayward), a goddess with skin the color of bone china, is ostensibly the daughter of a Tatar leader. Yet she’s codified unmistakably as a cross between an icy Southern belle and what Hughes would describe approvingly as an “English noblewoman type.”
Hayward plays her haughty empress of the desert as the Scarlett O’Hara of Central Asia, an ice queen who must be tamed by the calloused hands and hot breath of the right savage. The film’s first half is one long intimation of sexual violence, as Wayneghis Khan violates Bortai with his eyes and defiles her with his crude words before bludgeoning his way into her heart and loins through sheer force.
In that respect, the philosophy of Wayneghis Khan echoes the personal ethos of Hughes, who didn’t court women so much as conquer them. Hughes undoubtedly saw an awful lot of himself in Genghis. Hughes was a fascinating contradiction: He was simultaneously a superhero and a supervillain, Tony Stark as Iron Man and the Mandarin, a comic-book nemesis descended, appropriately enough, from Genghis Khan. Hughes seduced movie stars and crashed experimental planes for fun and profit. It makes sense that he would be drawn to figures as outsized as Wayne and Genghis.
What did Hughes see when he looked at Wayneghis Khan in The Conqueror? Did he see a surrogate for his own boundless ambition and unrelenting determination? Or did he see a terrifying Other that would not rest until it transformed the raging hatred of an idealized White Woman into sweaty, uncontrollable lust? Did he see Genghis as a threat, or as a figure of wish fulfillment? That ambiguity is a big part of what makes The Conqueror equal parts compelling and repellent.
Actor-turned-director William Powell makes the regressive racial politics of his Far East Western apparent in an opening crawl that ushers audiences into a 12th-century Gobi desert that “seethed with unrest,” as “petty chieftains pursued their small ambitions with cunning and wanton cruelty. Plunder and rapine were a way of life, and no man trusted his brother.” Other than that, though, it was pretty chill.
The filmmakers weren’t kidding about rapine and plunder being a way of life. From the moment Wayneghis Khan spies Bortai—who’s reclining languidly atop a yak-pulled caravan with a bored look that says, “Calgon or a fiery yellow brute, take me away!”—he’s intent on having her, preferably by force.
Thus begins one of cinema’s most rapecentric romances. The purple dialogue is riddled with references to sexual assault. When Wayneghis Khan brings Bortai to meet his hunched-over crone of a mother, she counsels, “Let your slaves have their sport with her!” When Wayneghis Khan checks his internal moral compass/circulatory system to decide whether rape is the right choice for him, he reports back, “My blood says ‘take her.’” He threatens Bortai’s father by vowing, “Your treacherous head is not safe on your shoulders, nor [Bortai] in her bed!” He also warns, “While I live, while my blood burns hot, your daughter is not safe in her tent.”
“He took what he wanted, when he wanted it!” screams the film’s trailer before tastefully promising “Barbaric passions!” and “Savage conquests!” Sure enough, Wayneghis Khan expresses his fondness for Bortai by ripping off her dressing gown and vowing to soil her lady virtue.
The Conqueror’s violence isn’t limited to constant references to rape. At one point, a chieftain describes, with altogether too much relish, what is referred to as the “slow death”: “Joint by joint, from the toe and fingertip upwards, shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes, until they, too, shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures!” This is seriously nasty stuff, an ungodly cross between a lurid paperback novel (Her Savage Love!) and a porn film with the sex removed.
Powell and Hughes’ film feels dirty and borderline pornographic, and not just because of its loathsome racial politics, its rape-happy hero in yellowface, and its looming threat of sexual violence. Hughes’ millions could buy big stars and big production values, but it couldn’t buy taste or professionalism. Accordingly, an air of amateurishness hangs heavy over the film. Some of the dialogue is so unwieldy it appears to be poorly translated from Cantonese. You have to really ponder a line like, “You know ill the son of Yessugai!” (which is Wayneghis Khan’s convoluted way of saying, “Y’all don’t know me, dog!”), and you have to keep the right punctuation in mind just for it to make sense. Otherwise, it could easily be mistaken for, “You know Ill, the son of Yessugai? He just purchased a lovely new tent! He’s quite the macher, that Ill! Yessugai must be proud!”
Wayne shouts every line through clenched teeth, like an actor in a fifth-grade production whose ambition begins and ends with making sure his parents in the back row can hear him. What Wayne’s acting lacks in competence, it makes up for in volume: He doesn’t deliver his lines so much as declaim them to the heavens.
Wayneghis eventually succeeds in wearing down Bortai’s defenses. But first, they enter into an endless dance of seduction and repulsion, love and hate. In the film’s most memorable sequence, he takes Bortai to a palace where they watch exotic Mongol dancers writhe with sensual abandon. When one of their hosts inquires why Bortai seethes with such barely restrained animosity, Wayneghis Khan jokes, “Lacking the talents of these women, the sight of them irks her.”
Eager to prove him wrong, Bortai indulges in an erotic dance of her own. The untouchable ice princess is revealed to be a carnal creature after all. The sword she flings at him as a crowning gesture is The Conqueror’s idea of foreplay. Bortai can’t resist much longer. She tells his brother, “Tell me of Temujin. I know of him only that on a sudden, my hatred for him could not withstand my love.”
The Conqueror loses much of its creepy power in its second half, as the train-wreck fascination of dialogue like “Not even the mighty Kasar bends iron forged by Sorgan. There’s a secret in the dipping of it” gives way to a bloody, simple-minded, fairly conventional B-Western with Eastern epic trappings.
The Conqueror’s legacy is only partly rooted in the surreal incongruity of John Wayne turning Genghis Khan into a shit-kicking cowboy with ridiculous facial hair and its abhorrent racial/sexual politics. Much of the debacle’s infamy stems from Hughes’ decision to film the movie downwind from a nuclear testing site, a decision that might have contributed to the cancer deaths of Powell, Wayne, Hayward, and costar Agnes Moorehead.
Hughes reportedly felt so guilty about the film and the death of many of its principals that he paid $12 million for every existing print and didn’t allow it to be seen on television until 1974. The Conqueror marked the end of Hughes’ dalliance with filmmaking; he’d never produce another film (RKO put out Jet Pilot in 1957, but it was completed in 1949). The film was predictably eviscerated by critics and ignored by audiences before being embraced as Übercamp by bad-movie aficionados.
It could be argued that God delivered a final punishment to the makers of The Conqueror for their transgressions against cinema. But no one deserves to die for making a bad movie, even a film as egregiously awful as The Conqueror. Hughes was lucky enough to avoid cancer. Instead, obsessive-compulsive disorder hastened his descent into madness and paranoia. According to show-business legend, he rewatched The Conqueror repeatedly during the grim final years of his life, dreaming in the dark about a world waiting to be conquered and a legendary warrior whose savage lust for power, women, and glory must have struck him as terrifying yet familiar.
Upside Down And Starting To Like It That Way Case File #58: The End Of Violence
Originally Posted August 14, 2007
Wim Wenders’ 1997 muddle The End Of Violence surveys a United States where the government covertly spies on its own people in the name of protecting them. It anticipates a paranoid national climate of free-floating dread, where citizens are willing to sacrifice liberty for security. The attacks of September 11 and the rise of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act should lend the film an air of uncanny prescience. So why does Wenders’ moody meditation on violence feel more like the paranoid ravings of a street-corner lunatic than like a profound act of pop-art prophecy? Probably because while Wenders gets a few crucial things right, he gets nearly everything else hilariously, unbelievably, almost inconceivably wrong—particularly violence, movies, American culture, human psychology, and (oh, dear Lord) gangsta rap. Sometimes it takes foreign eyes to discern great truths about our country that are invisible to natives, like when Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita. (I discuss that book and its second film adaptation in a later chapter.) And sometimes it takes a foreigner to craft a portrayal of our culture so bizarrely off base that it borders on bad science fiction. The End Of Violence holds a funhouse mirror up to our culture’s obsession with violence, and the result is a portrait of God’s own USA that’s distorted, grotesque, and borderline unrecognizable.
Wenders’ film asks what it imagines is a deep, relevant question: How do violence merchants like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver sleep at night? I’m guessing the answer is, “Soundly, and with high-priced, 19-year-old call girls on either side of them.”
The End Of Violence centers on gruff, well-compensated Hollywood superproducer Mike Max (Bill Pullman), who decides he needs to be less like Don Simpson and more like Jesus Christ after a pair of sloppy contract killers nearly murder him. In pretentious death-of-the-soul movies like this, there’s a direct correlation between spiritual emptiness and technology usage. So it’s telling that Mike’s high-powered vulgarian is introduced alternately communicating through video conferencing, a headset, a cell phone, and a football-sized mobile phone. If Mike were even slightly more removed from nature, his feelings, and his family, he’d also be manning a CB radio (“Ten-four, good buddy, looks like the missus got herself a killer case a that, whaddyacallit, existential ennui!”).
While manning his interpersonal battle station, Mike gets distressing news from one of his underlings: Someone has dropped a 400-page file in his e-mail! On the Intern-nets! Using various tubes! Shortly thereafter, a pair of goons nearly murder Mike, and he goes on the lam as an anonymous everyman. After surviving his close call with death, he begins behaving like a hard-boiled gumshoe in a Mickey Spillane paperback. While recuperating, Mike rasps, “There’s nothing quite like a couple of killers with a shotgun to your head to make you pay attention.” So Mike gives up the Hollywood good life to toil as a humble gardener in a Latino neighborhood. He’s like a Hollywood Jesus who came back from the dead solely to finish his work as a carpenter.
Mike continues to dispense bite-sized nuggets of hard-boiled wisdom throughout the film. Here are some other choice selections from my forthcoming book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned From The Narration In The End Of Violence: “There are no enemies or strangers. Just a strange world.” “‘Perversely’: That’s one thing I think I can define now. It’s when things are upside down and you start to like them that way.” “The thing about a sudden attack is, you never know where it’s coming from.” (Also, it happens suddenly, and involves an attack.) “I guess sometimes your friends are really your enemies. Sometimes your enemies are your friends. Sometimes they’re one and the same. Who can you trust? Reminds me of what a prick I was.”
So anyway. The botched Mike assassination is linked to a mysterious FBI program run by sad-eyed ex–NASA man Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne), who spies furtively on the citizens of Los Angeles from countless unseen electronic eyes scattered throughout the city.
Even before Mike’s mysterious disappearance, his wife, Page (Andie MacDowell), seems to be suffering a terminal case of art-film ennui, a condition she expresses by lurching about in a depressed, vaguely narcotized haze and babbling spacily about how being married to Mike is like being a sentient rocketship with him at the controls. Page stares vacantly into space, mopes, and cries—first a single perfect tear, then a whole stream of them. This is somehow supposed to be distinguishable from MacDowell’s usual performances. The End Of Violence affords ample time to contemplate the enigma that is Andie MacDowell’s face: perfect, icy, remote, empty.
In Violence, people constantly undergo astonishing transformations. Mike impulsively decides that fame, riches, and power are no substitute for poverty and anonymity. Page undergoes a similarly dramatic transformation. In Mike’s absence, she morphs from a powerless Ophelia into a cold-blooded, iron-willed Lady Macbeth eager to assume leadership of her missing husband’s empire.
But these transformations pale in comparison to the spiritual metamorphosis of the film’s most deliciously ridiculous, wonderfully implausible character, a mustachioed gangsta-rap mogul, producer, and rapper named Six O One played by K. Todd Freeman, a respected theater director and actor woefully ill equipped to play a sneering studio gangsta. Six O One is clearly modeled on Dr. Dre, yet he looks and dresses like a smooth-jazz musician, is clearly pushing 40, employs slang that hasn’t been current since they stopped making breakdancing exploitation movies, and says things like, “You know my shit is phat. It’s hot, man. You gonna be using it? Or are you going to be losing it?”
After Six receives a prank call urging him to abandon violence in his lyrics, he experiences a profound existential crisis (which seems to be sweeping the greater Los Angeles area) and delivers a patchouli-scented spoken-word piece about how, like, violence is played out and wack, and being peaceful is where it’s at.
The End Of Violence is about the emptiness of popular culture from a filmmaker who apparently hasn’t picked up a magazine or listened to the radio in 15 years. As an allegorical, downbeat mood piece, the film has a certain power. As usual with Wenders’ films, it features an elegant soundtrack and superb cinematography. Narratively and psychologically, the film is so perversely upside down that I almost began to like it that way. But its singular fusion of arthouse pretension and hard-boiled posturing seems completely removed from the world on which it’s supposed to be commenting. “Why do I make films in America? I should have stayed in Europe,” frustrated filmmaker/Wenders surrogate Zoltan Kovacs (Udo Kier) muses late in the film. In spite of Wenders’ scattered successes on this side of the pond, that’s the one line in Violence that rings absolutely true.
Misunderestimated Book-Exclusive Case File: W.
All cinephiles reach a moment in their intellectual development when they realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit. I experienced that epiphany at 15 while watching The Doors. Suddenly everything about Stone and his aesthetic seemed patently ridiculous: the peyote-soaked pseudo-mysticism, the laughable pretension, the stylistic excess, the self-aggrandizing idealization of the ’60s counterculture, and the exhausting, empty hedonism. It was as if a Native American spirit guide appeared to me in the bathroom of the Lincoln Village Theater in the form of a majestic eagle and uttered the magical words, “You know this guy’s a fucking hack, don’t you? Major, major tool. The path to wisdom begins with that understanding.”
I’d grown up seeing Oliver Stone as the archetypal Serious Artist. Turns out he was simultaneously more and less than that: He was an outsized caricature of a Serious Artist. He made Important Films about Important Subjects that demanded to be capitalized, including War (Platoon), the Antiwar Movement (Born On The Fourth Of July), Business (Wall Street), The Kennedy Assassination (JFK), Violence in the Media (Natural Born Killers), and Presidential Politics (Nixon). He was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won three.
Stone’s Very Important Films about Very Important Issues both reflected and affected the zeitgeist. For almost a decade, an intense culture-wide conversation accompanied almost every Stone film. After Platoon, no one could shut the fuck up about Vietnam. Wall Street unleashed a wave of editorial hand-wringing about the excesses of capitalism. JFK incited a firestorm of controversy about the Kennedy assassination. Nixon proved that, to borrow William Faulkner’s famous line (and mix it with some Gerald Ford), the long national nightmare of Watergate is never dead; it’s not even past. Natural Born Killers gave thousands of freelance writers permission to pitch stories about the desensitizing effects of violence in the media.
Where other major filmmakers trafficked in irony and ambiguity, Stone was considerate enough to tell audiences how they should feel and think. Around the time I was visited by the Native American spirit guide, I came to realize that great art doesn’t tell you what to think—that’s propaganda’s job. Great art respects audiences enough not to bombard them with heavy-handed messages. To paraphrase the theme song to Skidoo, Stone forgot about the color that’s between the black and white, the groovy little in-between.
During his 1986 to 1994 heyday, Stone couldn’t be denied. After that, it became prohibitively difficult to take him seriously. Stone had a remarkable eight-year run as our most controversial, talked-about filmmaker, but then began a long, seemingly permanent slide into irrelevance. After his long stint as American film’s reigning enfant terrible, everyone seemed to realize he was just plain terrible.
After the failure of 2004’s Alexander, Stone delivered his most conventional film in 2006’s tastefully dull World Trade Center. Stone surprised his detractors by releasing a film about 9/11 that conservatives could embrace. He’d gotten boring and safe in his old age. With his next project, he looked to reestablish his maverick reputation by setting his sights on the most famous, controversial man in the world at the time: George W. Bush.
Stone wasn’t going to wait for history to render its verdict on Bush’s legacy. Like Haskell Wexler with Medium Cool, Stone was going to capture history as it was being written. 2008’s W. was rushed into production and filmed in just 46 days so it could hit theaters at the tail end of the presidential election. From the beginning, an air of instant obsolescence hung over the film. By October 17, 2008, the film’s release date, even George W. Bush had come to think of George W. Bush as history’s greatest monster; that “Worst. President. Ever.” bumper sticker on the back of the presidential limousine was a dead giveaway.
So I entered the preview screening of W. with mixed emotions. The 12-year-old in me that bought the media’s spin on Oliver Stone as the only filmmaker who mattered looked forward to a Bold Statement from an Important Filmmaker. The 32-year-old me dreaded a desperate stunt from an increasingly irrelevant provocateur.
The early buzz on W. was that it was both a raucous comedy and a surprisingly empathetic depiction of the man progressives loved to hate. In the spirit of Nixon, Stone was going to elicit sympathy for a preeminent political devil. Reduced to its broad outlines, W. certainly suggests a rowdy slobs-vs.-snobs farce: underachieving, hard-partying, malapropism-prone son of an uptight New England blueblood raises hell and runs amok for four solid decades before somehow ending up as the most powerful man in the world during a crucial period in the nation’s history. Then he ends up nearly destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to impress Dad. Think of it as a real-life King Ralph mixed with a Shakespearean tragedy and a soupÇon of Being There.
W. leapfrogs back and forth in time between Bush’s stint as the wildly improbable leader of the free world and his far more plausible wild years as a booze-addled fuckup. Shifting easily between a simian smirk and a grimace of sober contemplation, Josh Brolin plays W. as an idiot man-child whose life and career are defined by his relationship with his wealthy, powerful father, George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell). In an acting choice as daring as it is distracting, Cromwell makes no effort to talk or act like Bush Senior, aka “Poppy.” He merely functions as an exemplar of chilly aristocratic reserve who loudly broadcasts his disappointment with W. and expresses his preference for W.’s brother Jeb at every opportunity.
Bush Senior’s face is permanently fixed in a scowl when dealing with W., but he talks about the bottomless potential and genius of Jeb with a gleam in his eye that implicitly says, “Why, if I weren’t straight and he weren’t my son, I would so go gay for Jeb. Those big, soulful eyes; those strong, masculine hands; that devastating wit … It would just be heaven spooning with him for hours and hours and hours. What’s that, shit for brains? You just got elected governor of Texas? Good for you, though I doubt you’ll do a tenth as good a job as that wonderful Jeb Bush would.”
Before he essentially begins his life over at 40, W. lurches drunkenly from one low to another. He’s arrested for shenanigans at a football game. He drunk-drives onto Poppy’s lawn. He’s a failure as an oilman and as a candidate for the House of Representatives. Just about the only thing he succeeds in is pissing off Dad and drinking his weight in liquor every night.
Then he turns 40. The rich, they are different from you and me. For example, they get a big do-over if they’ve wasted the first four decades of their lives. W. is born again in the truest sense: He gets smashed at his 40th birthday party and falls to the ground while running. He collapses into a fetal heap and gives his life over to Jesus.
Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of W.’s life is that the humility of an alcoholic prostrating himself before God and conceding his powerlessness before his addiction morphed into the tragic arrogance of a leader behaving as if the Lord acted directly through him. After being born again, W. acts with absolute moral certainty. He’s the decider, but the Heavenly Father calls the shots.
W. clumsily acknowledges this by interminably dragging out the moment when, late in his presidency, W. is asked during a press conference what mistakes he’s made since 9/11, and what he’s learned from them. It’s a major, if not definitive, moment in the man’s life, as W. stumbles and bumbles and wastes a lot of words saying nothing. A man incapable of acknowledging mistakes and learning from them is a man incapable of grasping the complexities of the world, but the scene would be more resonant if Stone didn’t lay on the sorrowful strings and concerned reaction shots that add exclamation points to a theme he’s already spelling out in capital letters.
Once W. sets his sights first on the Texas governorship and then on the White House, the film turns into a Cliffs Notes version of his presidency, hitting all the expected notes with no poetry or grace. When Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) tells W., “You know I don’t do nuance. It’s just not my thing,” he could be channeling Stone. Everything in W. is condensed and simplified.
Why let themes and conflicts emerge organically when you can foreground them in the dialogue? Why establish through subtext the widespread perception of Desert Storm as the antidote to our crushing defeat in Southeast Asia, when you can simply have George H. W. grin big and volunteer, “I guess we finally kicked that Vietnam Syndrome”? Why subtly hint that W.’s popularity was largely attributable to his reputation as the working man’s fantasy drinking buddy, when you can simply have Karl Rove (Toby Jones) tell him, “What it all comes down to is who Joe Voter wants to sit down and have a beer with. And guess who that is?” before shooting an approving finger in W.’s direction.
Stone assembled an impressive array of ringers to round out the supporting cast, though the result plays, to borrow Woodrow Wilson’s alleged praise of Birth Of A Nation, less like history written with lightning than like a Saturday Night Live sketch in which familiar faces have a go at playing top political figures. Thandie Newton decides to give her Condoleezza Rice the excitable nasal whine and demeanor of Olive Oyl, while the brilliant Jeffrey Wright gives us the Colin Powell of liberal daydreams, the noble voice of reason and restraint, a good man in an impossible situation. He’s the angel on Bush’s shoulder, overruled by thousands of neocon devils on the other side, baying for blood and oil.
In its painful last act, W. is as lost as its subject during the final years of his presidency. W. lacks both righteous indignation and sympathy. Stone’s attitude toward his subject isn’t rage or empathy so much as passive aggression. Its attempts to generate sympathy for its subject are compromised by its reliance on clunky dumb-guy humor and an unfortunate need to shoehorn W.’s greatest verbal gaffes into strange, inaccurate contexts, like having W. deliver the famous “misunderestimating” line in a strategy meeting about the Middle East.
When considering what Stone set out to do with W.—the first and hopefully last lame-duck presidential biopic—it’s instructive to think of what Fahrenheit 9/11, another manifesto by a loud, divisive, self-publicizing lefty blowhard, actually accomplished. Fahrenheit 9/11 received the reception W. was denied. Even before its release, 9/11 transcended film and became not just a pop-culture phenomenon but also a cultural phenomenon. It was big news.
Moore chronicled the tragicomic 2000 election with a visceral intensity that felt like an old wound being ripped open. Watching Fahrenheit 9/11 was like reliving a national trauma. When Stone just barely dramatizes the run-up to the Iraq War, it feels like a rerun. Stone’s films have always been wildly, even irritatingly cinematic, but W. feels like a television movie shot on the cheap.
Stone saves his worst crimes against subtlety for the very end, during a pair of fantasy sequences. In one, George H. W. decries W.’s presidency as nothing short of a “goddamned fiasco” and bitches him out for ruining things for H. W.’s beloved, beautiful, godlike favorite son Jeb. I’d somehow missed the film’s previous 700 references to H. W. being disappointed in W. and favoring Jeb, so I appreciated Stone once again making the film’s themes extra clear. In the second fantasy sequence, W. is patrolling center field for the Texas Rangers—a team he once co-owned—and lets a home-run ball get away from him. You know, like he let greatness get away from him during his presidency, and shit.
Stone took a big risk making a biopic about the sitting president. That’s the kind of ambition I like to praise and damn with My Year Of Flops. Alas, the film everyone was going to be talking about became the film the culture more or less ignored. Let’s just hope Oliver Stone’s Palin never gets green-lit.
Richard Dreyfuss On W.
The ’70s ushered in a new era of unconventional leading men with offbeat looks and quirky personae. Richard Dreyfuss rode that wave to fame and glory as the Academy Award–winning star of hits like American Graffiti, Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, Down & Out In Beverly Hills, and Stakeout.
Richard Dreyfuss: Playing Dick Cheney was great. It was like a great meal. Unfortunately, it was done by a guy who took the politics out of the story, so it’ll have no legs. He had an opportunity to keep a very important character in the film, and that character was you and me, the ones who really were, for a while, afraid of their own president. But by deciding to keep the story in the White House, it looked like business as usual, so the character couldn’t appear. And there’s no reason to see the film after you get past the performances or whatever. Josh [Brolin] is great, [Elizabeth Banks] is great, I’m really good.
And Oliver [Stone] is a putz who screamed that I was the worst actor he’d ever worked with, and I’d ruined his film, he had to cut around me. And I said, “Oliver, you’ve made one strategic error.” He said, “What was that?” I said, “The junket has yet to come.” And then I ripped him apart at the junket. They said, “What did you think of the film?” And I went … [Grimaces.] I answered the question. And as I’m doing now, I’m continuing to do that, because he was a bully, he was graceless at the top of his lungs, and he blew a great opportunity, artistically, commercially, whatever you want to call it. And I have a just-big-enough ego. I don’t do favors for people who treat me like a pig. So as far as I’m concerned, you can lead this story off by saying, “Richard Dreyfuss still thinks Oliver is an asshole.”
Nathan Rabin: Were you able to empathize with Cheney over the course of playing him?
RD: Empathize? No. I think that he was true to himself, you know? He really did believe that the executive branch was superior to the legislative and the courts. He really did believe that the executive had the right to tell Congress to go fuck itself.
NR: It was an imperial presidency.
RD: Yeah. And he believed in the PATRIOT Act. And there was never a conspiracy with the Bush people. They never planned anything. They just waited for our outrage, which never appeared, so they took the next step. We’re the villains, because we have lost our outrage.
Book-Exclusive Patented, Pain-Free Case File: The Great Moment
In Preston Sturges’ 1941 masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels, the pampered, wildly successful comedy director behind such fanciful frivolities as Ants In Your Pants Of 1939, Hey Hey In The Hayloft, and So Long Sarong tires of pumping out mindless escapism and sets out to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a timely, socially relevant drama about the human condition. To prepare, he escapes the comforting womb of Hollywood and experiences poverty firsthand as an undercover hobo. He ends up on a chain gang for his troubles but learns he can do far more good for the ever-suffering masses as a maker of mirth than as a dour chronicler of the human condition.
In 1942, Preston Sturges, the pampered, wildly successful comedy director, set out to make a timely, socially relevant drama about the human condition and the cruelty of fate called The Great Moment. He was punished for his ambition with just about every indignity short of a stint on a chain gang.
When he made The Great Moment, Sturges was in the midst of one of the greatest streaks in American film, a five-year stretch that encompassed such unassailable apogees of cinematic comedy as The Great McGinty, Christmas In July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail The Conquering Hero. Yet Sturges’ success mattered little to his bosses over at Paramount. The debonair filmmaker watched in horror as The Great Moment was reedited against his will, his prologue discarded, the running time trimmed to 81 minutes, and the film’s title changed twice (from Triumph Over Pain to Great Without Glory to The Great Moment). Then it lingered on a shelf for years. Upon its eventual 1944 release, moviegoers ignored it and critics dismissed it.
It was the beginning of the end for one of our greatest writer-directors. After The Great Moment spelled the death of his formerly fruitful relationship with Paramount, Sturges endured a disastrous stint co-running a nonstarting film studio with Howard Hughes. He suffered from mounting debt and projects that never got off the ground. Between the release of The Great McGinty and The Great Moment, Preston Sturges went from being seen as the miracle man with the magic touch to a difficult filmmaker whose best days were behind him.
Sturges’ lively exploration of the birth of painless dentistry was fucked in myriad ways, most of them related to timing. The studio flinched at releasing a film called Triumph Over Pain during World War II. Pain was everywhere. Audiences went to movies to escape pain, not to be reminded of it. To audiences smarting from the recent Depression and a bloody world war, the pain aspect of the film’s original title negated the triumph part.
As documented in James Curtis’ Between Flops: A Biography Of Preston Sturges, the filmmaker originally began the film with a prologue that begins, “One of the most charming characteristics of Homo sapiens, the wise guy on your right, is the consistency with which he has stoned, crucified, burned at the stake, and otherwise rid himself of those who consecrated their lives to his further comfort and well-being so that all his strength and cunning might be preserved for the erection of ever larger monuments, memorial shafts, triumphal arches, pyramids, and obelisks to the eternal glory of generals on horseback, tyrants, usurpers, dictators, politicians, and other heroes who led him, usually from the rear, to dismemberment and death.”
There you have it, folks: Strap yourself in tight, eat some popcorn, put your arm around your best gal, and enjoy a film about a great man who finds himself “ridiculed, burned in effigy, ruined, and eventually driven to despair and death by the beneficiaries of his revelation.” Decades later, the original prologue still feels bracingly dark, with its bleak vision of a world where fools who send men to horrible deaths are sanctified, while people who ease pain are crucified. At the beginning of World War II, it must have seemed borderline treasonous, especially its reference to “generals on horseback” leading from the rear. It’s no surprise that the prologue was amputated from the final film.
Yet World War II was also, strangely, the perfect time to release a film about the development of anesthesia. Sturges posits that William Thomas Green Morton’s refinement of sulfuric ether as an anesthetic marked the birth of modern medicine, the moment when pain stopped being a necessary evil and became controllable. Sturges gives us a secret history of Western medicine as a half-blind grasping toward progress from a motley assortment of semi-disreputable figures. Wouldn’t Americans, especially GIs, want to learn more about the man who made it possible for them to doze dreamily during operations, oblivious to the pain of surgery? In this instance, the answer was definitely no. Ignorance was bliss.
The Great Moment deviates dramatically from the Great Man model of history by presenting its hero (Joel McCrea, also the star of Sullivan’s Travels) not as a solitary genius but as a hardworking, ambitious, but not terribly bright failed medical student who revolutionizes anesthesia by building upon the work of colleague Dr. Horace Wells (Louis Jean Heydt), who popularized nitrous oxide as a painkiller, and pompous college professor Dr. Charles Jackson (Julius Tannen).
For the film’s structure, Sturges returned to the achronological template of his screenplay for 1933’s The Power And The Glory, a critically acclaimed drama about the rise and fall of an industrialist (Spencer Tracy); it was a key influence on Citizen Kane. In Sturges’ original script, William’s story is told in flashback by his wife, Elizabeth (Betty Field), and his assistant, Eben Frost (William Demarest). They trace a reverse American success story where triumph and innovation are followed by rejection, poverty, despair, and anonymity.
In case the darkness and futility of the subject’s story aren’t evident enough, Sturges planned to have the written prologue appear in front of its protagonist’s long-forgotten gravestone. Instead, Moment opens with William being fÊted by adoring onlookers as he presides over a parade in his honor. Sturges’ jaundiced take on the fate of great men makes it on-screen in a less incendiary form via a prologue, arguing, “Of all things in nature, great men alone reverse the laws of perspective and grow smaller as one approaches them. Dwarfed by the magnitude of this revelation, reviled, hated by his fellow men, forgotten before he was remembered, Morton seems very small indeed, until the incandescent moment he ruined himself for a servant girl and gained immortality.”
This bracing cold shower of a prologue is followed by an even more despairing sequence where Eben purchases one of his boss’ medals from a pawnshop. It’s dedicated “To The Benefactor Of Mankind With The Gratitude Of Humanity.” Eben brings the medal to Elizabeth, who recounts how no one showed up at William’s funeral except herself and his children. The fight is lost before it’s even begun. We’ve buried a sad, broken, defeated man before we’ve had a chance to get to know him.
The film then flashes back to William receiving news that Congress is considering a bill to award him $100,000 as a tardy reward for his service to humanity. For reasons too convoluted and complicated to go into, our hero never receives the money and is pilloried by the media as a scheming opportunist. Poverty, disgrace, and death await.
The film’s first 10 minutes contain death, a lonely funeral, crucifixion by the press, a fortune that morphs into public humiliation, a great man’s spirit being broken, and complicated legal and legislative wrangling. It’s tragedy before triumph, the funeral before the birth of a great idea. Banking cynically on the popularity of Sturges’ previous films, Paramount tried to sell Moment as “hilarious as a whiff of laughing gas.” One can only imagine how audiences expecting another wacky Preston Sturges romp must have responded to this opening gauntlet of hopelessness and despair.
Before ether, William’s interactions with customers resemble a Mexican wrestling match more than a medical procedure. It’s all screaming and scary-looking torture devices and patients slinking away from the waiting room in abject terror. The bloodcurdling screams of patients haunt William’s nightmares and jangle his nerves. There has to be a better way.
Our hero begins to stumble toward a panacea for pain when he accosts an angry and inebriated Dr. Jackson at a bar. Jackson flaunts his contempt for what he remembers as a “rather dull student” and says, “One of the cankers of our profession is the number of youths without funds or proper background who try to worm their way into it for the rich rewards they imagine it holds.” Yet it’s Jackson who accidentally gives William the idea that will make his career when he discusses the pain-deadening qualities of sulfuric ether.
In a genre rife with hagiographies, Sturges’ biopic impishly begins its hero’s journey to greatness with him badgering a misanthropic former teacher until that teacher is willing to do anything to end their unstructured conversation, even if it means giving a lowly dentist invaluable professional advice.
The world’s first and only dental-ether tragicomedy, The Great Moment gets endless comic mileage out of ether and nitrous oxide’s mind-warping effects on patients. Demarest, a longtime fixture of Sturges’ repertory company, is a hoot as William’s first and most enthusiastic patient, a professional human guinea pig who submits to ingesting ether out of a desire to clean up on William’s double-your-money-back guarantee but continues taking it because he really, really likes getting high. The film balances physical comedy and wrenching drama in the terrifying/amusing moment when a horrified Elizabeth stumbles upon her husband, who has gotten high on his own ether supply. He’s lying at his desk with a look of narcotized contentment, marveling approvingly at the metal rod he’s jammed into his hand. If Road House has taught us anything, it’s that pain doesn’t hurt, especially when accompanied by William’s magic elixir.
William’s creation proves successful in a medical trial, but the Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors from using patent medicines with unknown ingredients, so William must decide between martyring himself for humanity’s sake and revealing his secrets, or holding on to his patents and his shot at unimaginable riches.
By beginning at the story’s tragic conclusion and working diligently toward the middle, The Great Moment ends with William’s defining moment, his decision to sacrifice his own success so that others might be spared pain. Moment opens on a sustained note of funereal gloom but rouses itself to become a funny, vibrant, deeply sad look at the way the system fails dreamers and idealists. Paramount took the film away from Sturges, but his playful spirit pervades the production.
Paramount sat on The Great Moment for two years before dumping it into theaters with a trailer breathlessly promising a far-fetched yet improbably true yarn from “Hollywood’s madcap Preston Sturges, who created that laugh riot Miracle At Morgan’s Creek.”
With its emphasis on raucous slapstick and overheated prose, the trailer is designed to mislead, yet it accidentally tells the truth. The only drama Hollywood’s madcap Preston Sturges directed doubles as a pretty terrific, surprisingly moving Preston Sturges comedy.
Testifying Book-Exclusive Case File: Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus
There once lived an icon notorious for the violent nature of his art. He was a dark, troubled soul plagued by rapacious personal demons, a man whose battles with substance abuse were legendary. Yet this tortured soul clung to faith as a life preserver in a sea of darkness. A man of fierce contradictions and even fiercer convictions, this shadowy figure used the power, money, and clout he made peddling bloody entertainment to spread the Gospel.
Ignoring the most sacrosanct commandment in all of entertainment—Thou shalt not invest thine own money—he sank much of his personal fortune into a supremely risky venture. Ignoring conventional wisdom, he traveled abroad to co-write, produce, and finance a movie about Jesus. Jesus had saved this tormented soul from himself and his compulsions; now he wanted to share that redemption with the secular world.
We all know how this story ends, don’t we? With the mystery man in question triumphing over the skeptics and doubters en route to delivering one of the most commercially successful independent films of all time. Then he was undone by the Jew-run law-enforcement establishment and a sugar-titted lady cop one drunken night. Ah, but this isn’t a book about winners. It’s a tribute to the losers. So the man in question isn’t Mel Gibson, and the film isn’t The Passion Of The Christ. No, I’m talking about Johnny Cash’s half-forgotten 1973 religious drama Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cash was, in the hackneyed parlance of Behind The Music, riding high. Live At Folsom Prison (1968) resurrected his flagging career and rebranded him as a proud champion of the underdog. A year later, At San Quentin did even better, thanks to a bleakly funny Shel Silverstein–penned number called “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash’s beloved network variety show exposed a whole new audience to country music. With the help of wife June Carter, Cash was finally winning his lifelong battle against pills and alcohol. After a lifetime filled with death, disaster, and self-destruction, Cash had reason to feel blessed and thankful.
Cash wanted to give back to a world from which he had taken so very much. According to a radio spot included on the Gospel Road DVD, the film originated with June Carter dreaming of her husband reading from a book while standing proudly on a mountaintop. Years later, Carter’s dream came to fruition: As the framing device for Gospel Road, Cash’s touchingly clumsy homage to the other JC, Cash reads from a Bible on a mountain in Israel.
Gospel Road opens with a sun rising hypnotically over the Holy Land before Cash, decked out in his customary black, turns directly to the camera and begins talking about the prescient words of the prophet Isaiah. The lines on Cash’s impeccably craggy face tell a million stories of sin and salvation, of lost, whiskey-soaked nights of degradation, and triumphant mornings when the Lord’s healing grace washed his soul clean.
Cash’s performance reeks of high-school speech class. He recites Isaiah’s words stiffly and theatrically, pausing to peer thoughtfully off-camera, as if contemplating God’s unimaginable glory. Cash talks of would-be saviors long forgotten by history and of the one true savior.
He ends his opening narration by expounding, “Never a man spoke like this man [Jesus]. Never a man did the things on this earth this man did. And his words were as beautiful as his miracles. To many believers, their last desire is to be baptized in the Jordan River as Jesus was. They kneel at the holy places, places that are holy just because Jesus was there. They walked the way of the cross and shout ‘Praise the Lord,’ and they mean it. Now come along with me in the footsteps of Jesus, and I’ll show you why they do.” Cash raises his hands in a pantomime of religious rapture when he cries, “Praise the Lord!” Then he points conspiratorially at the audience. His performance is all the more powerful for its naked sincerity. He finally has an opportunity to play a fire-breathing preacher, with film as his unlikely medium and the audience as his unseen flock.
This opening gives the film a scruffy intimacy. We then cut to a shaky helicopter shot that just barely captures Cash flashing the peace sign. Gibson’s Jesus was a warrior-God. The Passion Of The Christ lingered so fetishistically and lovingly over the physical agony of Jesus’ death that it treated his life and teachings as an afterthought. Cash’s savior, in sharp contrast, really is the Prince of Peace. What an incredibly sweet, quixotic way to begin a film about Jesus. Gospel Road’s pre-credit sequence once again finds Cash playing the great uniter sending out coded messages of solidarity to hippies, Jesus freaks, and mainstream Christians alike.
Cash narrates the film and provides the bulk of its soundtrack. His starkly beautiful voice dominates the film as he documents the life and times of Jesus, who is played as a boy by a shaggy-haired, pale, blond, blue-eyed little scamp (Robert Elfstrom Jr.) who’d look more at home waiting in line for tickets to a Jan And Dean concert than perambulating around Nazareth.
Consciously or otherwise, Cash and director Robert Elfstrom (who also plays a long-haired, sandal-wearing Nazarene carpenter with some crazy ideas about peace and love) turned Jesus’ story into a religious head film. Elfstrom goes nuts with helicopter shots and prismatic effects; doing freaky shit with light and flares seems as important to him as laying down the Gospel. Cash’s wall-to-wall narration and song score only add to the film’s oddly psychedelic flavor. Gospel Road subscribes to the notion, popular throughout ’70s cinema, that there’s nothing more fascinating than watching a hippie dude wander around with an evocative song as his soundtrack. But this time, the hippie dude in question is Jesus.
Just as he adopted the form of a coyote and led Homer Simpson on a spiritual journey, Cash leads us on a greatest-hits tour of Jesus’ life and times. We follow the Good Shepherd as he’s baptized by John the Baptist, picks up his entourage of 12 followers who treat him like he’s the first coming or something, is anointed the Son of God, and, to use arcane religious terminology, loses his shit and freaks the fuck out upon discovering moneylenders in the temple. We learn the origin of all of Jesus’ beloved catchphrases, from “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” to “Judge not, lest ye be judged” to “Ask and ye shall receive.”
Gospel Road offers the gospel according to Johnny Cash. When Cash tells the camera, “Jesus addressed men as men and not as members of any particular class or culture. The differences which divide men, such as wealth, position, education, and so forth, he knew were strictly on the surface,” he seems to be espousing his own radically egalitarian mind-set as much as Jesus’.
Though it follows Jesus’ life in a linear fashion, Gospel Road frequently gives over to abstraction, as when Cash pontificates on Jesus’ teachings during an endless helicopter shot of water glistening in the sun. Road is all about pretty images and pretty words; it doesn’t particularly matter how the two fit together. In the film’s boldest move, it places the crucified Jesus and his cross in the middle of a modern city, collapsing the impossible gulf between the past and the present in the process, and underlining the timelessness and contemporary resonance of Jesus’ story and message.
“I bet Mary Magdalene walked this same beach I’m walking on. I wonder what Mary Magdalene really looked like. The Scriptures don’t tell a lot about her, but what little is told has made her the subject of more speculation and controversy than any woman I’ve ever heard of. Jesus was to suffer much criticism for his association with people of questionable character.” Cash narrates as he walks along the beach, still looking directly into the camera and emphasizing the words “questionable character” in a manner that underlines how directly it applies to him.
Within the context of the film, Cash didn’t have to wonder what Mary Magdalene looks like, since June Carter plays her. The film never explains why exactly Mary Magdalene has a Southern drawl, or why a novice actor is the only thespian allowed to deliver her own lines, instead of having Cash narrate her story.
“You know, we can’t forget the fact that Jesus was human,” Cash reminds us in the film’s key line. Gospel Road is ultimately as much about Cash as it is about Jesus. It is a film of trembling earnestness and unquestionable devotion. When Cash reflects on how he likes to imagine children frolicking with his Savior, the film becomes uncomfortably, even unbearably personal. Cash is revealing himself and bearing witness. The coolest motherfucker on the planet is willing to look defiantly uncool if it means saving souls. In this context, it almost seems unfair to criticize the film on aesthetic and artistic grounds, since Gospel Road is intended first and foremost as an evangelizing tool and a profound expression of personal faith.
Gospel Road makes its relatively brief running time feel like an eternity. It’s more home movie than Hollywood, but that’s much of its scruffy charm. It’s really the story of Cash’s faith; in its own ham-fisted fashion, it embodies the yearning for deliverance and singular combination of strength and vulnerability that made Cash such an enduring icon.
Cash took the failure of Gospel Road hard. The public that had so warmly received him during his comeback didn’t reject Gospel Road so much as ignore it, relegating Cash’s peculiar passion project to sleepy Sunday school showings in church basements. Road marked the beginning of a dark period in Cash’s life. He fell off the wagon, returned to pills and bad behavior, and entered a professional free fall that lasted until his next spectacular comeback, courtesy of Rick Rubin and the American Recordings label.
Yet I prefer Cash’s amateur-hour take on Jesus to Gibson’s far more technically accomplished version. You know, we can’t forget the fact that Cash was human. That messy, naked, raw humanity and humility makes Gospel far more moving than it has any right to be.
© 2010 Onion, Inc.
Meet the Author
Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve, a new film website from the popular music website Pitchfork. Previously, he was the head writer for The A.V. Club, the entertainment guide of The Onion, a position he held until recently since he was a college student at University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1997. Rabin is also the author of a memoir, The Big Rewind, and an essay collection based on one of his columns, My Year of Flops. He most recently collaborated with pop parodist "weird Al" Yankovic on a coffee table book titled Weird Al: The Book. Rabin’s writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Spin, The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Nerve, and Modern Humorist. He lives in Chicago with his wife.
A.V. Club was founded in 1995 as the arts-and-entertainment arm of the satirical newspaper and website The Onion. The two brands quickly became distinct from each other, with The Onion providing humor and America’s finest news, and the A.V. Club becoming a significant, well-received source for pop culture news and commentary. In recent years, the A.V. Club’s web presence has become huge, attracting over a million unique users per month who visit for reviews, interviews, listings, and features on film, television, music, books, and more. Inventory will enjoy contributions from the entire A.V. Club staff, but the primary staff members assigned to the book project are Editor Keith Phipps, Managing Editor Josh Modell, and Associate Editors Tasha Robinson and Kyle Ryan.
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Nathan Rabin writes movie reviews for the website The A.V. Club, a sister site to The Onion. And over the past few years his mission has been specifically to review movies that, for all intents and purposes, are flops. Movies that were box office poison, that cost a ridiculous amount to make but brought in next to nothing, movies that were uniformly panned by critics or reviled by audiences. Movies that everyone--except for perhaps a small cult following--agreed were just plain bad. His goal? To find out what all the anti-hype was about, to see for himself if these cinematic disasters were really that bad or if perhaps there were a few hidden gems. Or, at the very least, to warn the rest of us once and for all. The whole project started with his raging hate of the movie Elizabethtown. It's a, let's say, romantic comedy starring Orlando Bloom as a brooding sad guy and Kirsten Dunst as a "manic pixie dream girl," as Rabin puts it. His review has the hilarious quality of someone who needed so badly to rant about this movie that if you were sitting next to him on the train he'd probably be talking your ear off about how awful it was. He hated it so much that his editor even asked him to re-watch it and write a new review for the book. He does, including both reviews, and he finds that after several years have passed, he doesn't hate Elizabethtown QUITE as much as he once did, but it's still pretty bad. Plus he can now say he's watched the movie three times, making him fear that he has become its primary "cult follower." Not all of the "flops" in My Year of Flops cause Nathan Rabin so much psychic pain. In many cases he manages to find the hidden wonder (or "secret success") of some of the world's least successful films. Joe Versus the Volcano, for example, is one that Nathan Rabin (like my partner Mike) concludes is very underrated. In a lot of cases, though, his reviews serve as a welcome relief that he's already watched these movies so I don't have to. For more reviews, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal.