Wednesday, March 24, 2010
A preference for uncut films
I recognize that cutting is a real phenomenon, a real form of self-mutilation that real women really inflict on themselves. And whatever real phenomena are out there, I want to see a movie about them -- the more under-explored, the better.
But there's something about cutting in particular that takes me out a movie.
The most recent example of this was Johan Renck's Downloading Nancy, one of last year's "most controversial films" (or so this poster proclaims, if you read the fine print), which shares some common elements with the other most controversial film of last year, Lars von Trier's Antichrist. In Downloading Nancy, Maria Bello's character, Nancy, is a cutter. She takes a razor blade to available areas on her skin -- most often her arms or her legs -- and gives herself a 1-2 inch slice. Nowhere near enough for her to bleed out, but enough for her to feel the pain -- the kind of physical pain that gives her a release from the much deeper emotional pain that poisons her.
I am quite sympathetic to any real women who cut themselves, and since Downloading Nancy is described as being inspired by true events, I am sympathetic toward the real woman on whom Nancy's character was based. If I learned that a friend of mine was cutting herself, it would tear me apart. I'd want to talk to her about it, if she wanted me to, and be there for her in any way I could.
But when it's a movie character ... I don't know, it's just too much. And I don't mean I can't handle it. I mean I don't buy it.
There I go, sounding unsympathetic again. But let me explain.
It's not necessarily the cutting in and of itself that bothers me -- it's what it represents, from a screenwriting standpoint. To me it seems like a lazy way for a screenwriter to say "THIS CHICK HAS PROBLEMS." Movies are about showing rather than telling, and having a character slice herself with a razor blade is a pretty good method of showing. But to me it seems a little too good. It's a little too simple of a symbol for "FUCKED UP SHIT GOING ON HERE."
I often describe this as the reason I didn't like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen as much as your average viewer says they liked it. (Notice I said "says they liked it" rather than "liked it"). Like Downloading Nancy, Thirteen is a hard film that you're supposed to appreciate more than you're supposed to feel warm and cuddly about. Believe me, I know the difference. I'm the guy who had "the Romanian abortion drama" (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in my top 10 of the last decade. I don't require my movies to be uplifting in order to feel utterly devoted to them.
And I was feeling pretty devoted to Thirteen as I was watching it. I was enjoying it in ways I didn't really enjoy Larry Clark's Kids, and I was really going with what Hardwicke was trying to do. But then, fairly late in the movie, when Evan Rachel Wood's character pulled out that razor blade, it was like a switch flipped in me. I said "That's too much, I'm not buying it anymore." And it's not really that I thought there couldn't be a 13-year-old girl out there cutting -- there are probably thousands of them. It was that I felt like this instance of cutting, arriving so late in the movie, and piled on top of all the other things that were happening to this girl, was just the straw that broke the back of the film's credibility. Not that there couldn't be a girl like this -- just that such a perfect storm of travails can be as difficult to believe as a perfect storm of lucky coincidences, when you're talking about fiction filmmaking.
Again, I can't really explain it, and I do sort of apologize for it. Even after using as clear language as possible to explain myself, I still feel like someone who's reading this could mistake my viewpoint for callous insensitivity.
But what can I say. I tell it like it is. Cutting doesn't work for me as a narrative device. It's too on the nose, too topical. Save it for the after school specials, and give me something that doesn't seem like such an obvious place to take a character you want to show is full of psychological scarring and self-loathing.
Interestingly, I think this is a problem some people had with Precious. Gabourey Sidibe's character does not cut herself, but I know of some people who thought the revelation (SPOILER ALERT) that she's HIV positive was just one too many, in the same way I felt the Thirteen cutting was one too many. I didn't have that problem. I guess it just depends on how solidly you've embraced what the movie's given you so far.
As for Downloading Nancy, I decided, during several minutes of reflection after the film, to turn my marginal thumbs down into a marginal thumbs up. Maria Bello is not one of my favorites -- I did not like her in A History of Violence, and my negative feelings toward that film have clung to her in the years since then. But she certainly gives a vanity-free performance as the self-destructive Nancy. I guess if any movie character would ever cut herself, it would be this woman.