Saturday, April 16, 2016

O.J. & J.C.

Only because of a scratched disc did I watched the sixth episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson and the movie JCVD in the same evening.

I intended to rewatch Tony Scott's Deja Vu as an accompaniment to O.J. -- which would also have been a fitting pairing, as the whole of Ryan Murphy's series is a revisit of something we first watched 20 years ago -- but the library rental succumbed to a large imperfection on the surface of the DVD about 15 minutes in. In fact, it started to resemble the concept of deja vu as seen in The Matrix, all glitchy and jumpy, before ceasing to play altogether. When I determined that there was no way I was going to buff this out with the corner of my shirt, I moved on to the next thing.

And the next thing, after browsing Netflix for a couple minutes, was JCVD, the surprisingly French language film from 2008, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a version of himself who gets unexpectedly ensnared in a robbery/hostage situation taking place in a Belgium post office. (And as I'm typing this I'm wondering if this movie surfacing on Netflix has anything to do with Sense8 -- speaking of the Wachowskis -- as Van Damme's image appears on the side of an African bus in that series, making for a perfect if obviously unanticipated addition to the world portrayed in JCVD, where Van Damme struggles with the unfortunate byproducts of his celebrity.)

The reason O.J. and JCVD make such appropriate bedfellows is that Van Damme himself is originally mistaken for the perpetrator of this crime, rather than a hostage. The result is an absolute media circus in which the world is watching in real-time as the star of Bloodsport and Hard Target and Timecop is apparently holding a bunch of innocent Belgians at gunpoint, in order to pay his legal fees for a contentious custody battle with his ex-wife. (O.J. was only holding himself at gunpoint, but you better bet the world was watching.)

And I realized that one of the reasons I love The People vs. O.J. Simpson so much is that it's amazing to watch the unfolding of real-life drama whose only points of comparison come from the movies. The fact that the plot both resembles something from the movies, and involves a person we actually know from the movies, makes it doubly engaging.

What makes O.J. more than just a tawdry, tabloid-style trip down memory lane is the absolutely astonishing commitment of the actors. In the past few weeks since we started watching, I have spent the most time praising the work of John Travolta (in an increasingly smaller role) and Courtney B. Vance (in an increasingly larger one), but now it's Sarah Paulson I'm feeling should be this show's Emmy frontrunner. The narrative unfolding here is the personal tragedy of Marcia Clark, a surprising streak of gender politics intermingled within the overriding politics of race, and Paulson is absolutely killing it (pun sort of intended) in this role. It's especially powerful to me as Paulson is an actress I have not previously liked. But as literally everyone else is bringing their A game to this material, to dwell on any one performance underappreciates just how successful the entire ensemble is.

And that's something this has in common with JCVD as well. Simply put, who knew Jean-Claude Van Damme had this kind of performance in him? I mean, I sort of knew it from hearing all the praise of Mabrouk el Mechri's film, which I had been meaning to see for years (though wouldn't have believed it dated all the way back to 2008 until Netflix told me that). But Van Damme burrows deep inside his own tortured soul to conjure a truly naked performance, one that struggles with celebrity, parental failings, the approaching end of his career and even a philosophical reckoning with the moral value of portraying violence on screen.

There's one scene in particular that floored me, the scene that caused me to tack an additional half star on to the four I was already planning to give it. Near the start of the third act, el Mechri momentarily untethers from the film's faithful sense of realism to give Van Damme a soliloquy. As the actor is sitting in the post office, under the watchful eye of his captors, he travels off into a flight of self-analysis that is set off by an off-screen platform elevating the actor up toward the lights above the set, indicating a moment of artifice within the proceedings (and giving us another meta moment that reminds us that we are watching a movie). Shot at a distance of only a few feet away while Van Damme faces the camera, the actor now has a floodlight and other backstage ephemera visible over his shoulder -- he's gone beyond the bounds of the movie and is now addressing us, the viewer.

And what he says, during an unbroken take that lasts about four minutes, is an uncompromisingly, uncomfortably real form of self-crucifixion, an unblinking examination of his own weaknesses and human failings. They say the hardest role to play is yourself, so one wonders whether this is actually close to the real Van Damme or an entirely imaginary version with just a few of the same problems (the fading career part is certainly real, but I have no idea if the real Van Damme was involved in a custody battle over his child at the time the movie was made -- only that he's been married to the same woman since 1999, though it's his second marriage to her). Either way, he brings astonishing emotional honesty to the scene, which is just an intensified and concentrated version of how he's laying his soul bare over the course of the whole movie. One wonders if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu received any inspiration from JCVD when writing Birdman, or particularly in casting Michael Keaton as a thinly veiled version of himself.

The film also ends in an intensely satisfying fashion, giving us what we want without selling short the real issues about celebrity, Hollywood and hero worship the movie has raised. Which is where it will probably finally deviate from The People vs. O.J. Simpson. What makes Sarah Paulson's performance so moving is that I know Marcia Clark is not going to win this trail, that a man who was truly monstrous -- which this show and Cuba Gooding Jr's. performance are both revealing to me more than I ever knew before -- will win the day.

So JCVD ultimately has a more hopeful view of the world. In the movies, the good guys always win.

On TV, and in life, not so much.


Wendell Ottley said...

Haven't seen any of The People vs. OJ, but I have watched JCVD and it is an amazing film. It's easily Van Damme's best performance and, for me, his best movie. That fourth wall break you detailed is a phenomenal piece of film-making, too. Great post.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell! It took me a little while to get into the groove of this movie, but once I got there, I found it pretty unforgettable. I'll watch it again within a few years.