Monday, December 05, 2011

Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Dead Ringers

The other day I was chatting with my pal and yours Joe Reid about how exciting the annual critics' prizes can be, especially when the voters feel cleared to ignore the publicist-stamped and buzz-backed contenders in a given vintage and to venture off the prix-fixe menu. This doesn't mean that critics' organizations should be obligated to avoid the worthiest among the Oscar frontrunners, only that it is disheartening—and increasingly frequent—that many of these groups seem disinclined to entertain the possibility. If you're a paid critic or, one way or another, a moneyed cinephile (the situation I project, sight perpetually unseen, onto most members of the National Board of Review), there is simply no way that you don't see, for example, five better performances by women in second- or third-tier roles than Shailene Woodley's in The Descendants. Not to pick on Shailene, who does as much as anyone to try to make that beached whale float, if not actually swim. But also: come on. That's a lot of movies in a lot of genres from a lot of countries to comb through just to find one gal who can seem convincingly drunk while throwing shit over a fence, and then Stick Up For Dad when the script decides, quite abruptly, that the time has come.

Then again, the coverage of the critics' prizes is often so indistinguishable from a guessing-game about who will win the Oscar that you cannot easily fault the balloters for playing right into the hands of that discourse. Pundits, subsequent voters, and PR flaks pay much closer attention to them than the public at large does, and periodical editors seem determined to package the story this way, rather than running the kind of press that might encourage us to consider, say, the National Society of Film Critics as a body on the order of the Pulitzer or Booker juries: a body whose approval is an accolade in itself, which I'm certain is how many recipients perceive it, and not as a stepping stone to some later, very different, peer-administered prize. Voting critics, finding themselves in this climate, inspire me whenever they try to launch a Marcia Gay Harden or a Jeremy Renner or a Pan's Labyrinth or a Gosford Park or a Fernanda Montenegro—a plausible longshot, but a longshot nonetheless—further into the hunt for Academy Awards. This seems like an apt, exciting use of their professional pulpit, though it's at least as exciting when they rally around a Luminita Gheorghiu, a Lupe Ontiveros, a Bill Nighy, or a William H. Macy (circa 1998, not 1996), not so much daring AMPAS to follow their lead as demonstrating some measure of indifference. These choices feel inexplicable except as honest responses to the self-presenting virtues of the hundreds of movies that critics see in a year, and as showcases of the integrity of a critic's labor and purview. (Or maybe it's the only way to get a nutter of a Montenegro disciple or someone mad for Vlad Ivanov to end the filibuster? If so, don't tell me.)

In any case, I'm interested in knowing what someone who spends the whole year watching hundreds of movies really thought was the best—someone whose tastes have been ratified by readers and editors, even if I don't always agree with her or him, or with those readers and editors. I don't just want to think of these verdicts as irreducibly uncertain tea-leaves or even as self-consciously activist interventions into the Oscar narrative. They should have more standing in themselves than I feel they are often given.

So, following this mammoth intro, Joe and I thought we might post a couple short pieces this season that fondly recall some moments when one of the voting groups we care about most (NSFC, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or even that dotty old dowager, the NBR) lent their imprimatur to some really distinctive choice that meant something to us, or wound up meaning something substantial to the fortunes of the recipient. AMPAS didn't bite in any of these cases, and we don't care. Or at least, the point of this exercise is not to blow raspberries at Oscar, whom we'll never divorce, for better or worse, no matter how much he abuses us, and regardless of how many good things we got goin' on the side. (After The King's Speech, though, and Tom Hooper specifically, I'm very tempted to adopt separate residences, and file our taxes independently. Thank God I never took Oscar's name, though I prefer it to mine.) The point is rather to toss bouquets to the LAFCA, or the NYFCC, or whomever endorsed the work in question—sometimes creating the very prompt that led us to see the movie, and thereby facilitating a really moving encounter with an interesting piece of work.

These entries will be brief; the details are boring, but Joe and I are both having to spend a lot of extra energy on work these days and away from the movies we wish we could write about, read about, and talk about a little more. This is a small, stop-and-start contribution to awards season we can afford to make, and hopefully a welcome aperitif to other, more number-crunchy, more crystal ball-obsessed coverage. If you haven't seen the movies, or didn't realize they had won something big, check 'em out!

For example, if you haven't seen David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, and especially if your cinephilia was born in the era of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, then you should really run, not walk, to pick up the DVD wherever you can still buy a DVD anymore. Dead Ringers got strong but divided reviews when it premiered in 1988. The Fly, which had done excellent box-office in 1986, and whose star, Jeff Goldblum, might have scooped some critics' prizes of his own if Bob Hoskins hadn't claimed them all that year, had at least primed mass-market critics to start extending Cronenberg new benefits of the doubt. Still, I think it helped Dead Ringers's case even more at year's end that 1988 was such a diffuse vintage in terms of critical consensus. Of the five groups I listed above (NSFC, NYFC, LAFC, BSFC, NBR), all five picked a different Best Picture, all five picked a different Best Director, and only two of them opted for the same movie in both categories. Furthermore, only two of the films (Accidental Tourist in New York, Mississippi Burning for the National Board of Review) and only one of the directors (Parker, for Mississippi) was slated at Oscar time. None won.

Within that climate of atomized opinions, it helps for a film to nail a tough, highwire task—the broodily philosophical eroticism of Unbearable Lightness of Being, the hilariously philosophical eroticism of Bull Durham, the, uh, unnervingly philosophical eroticism of Dead Ringers—in a way that galvanizes a self-selecting but implacably committed fan base. That's what seemed to happen for the Cronenberg movie. Jeremy Irons's unshowily showy double-performance as the doomed gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle had earned standout notices even in reviews that seemed uncomfortable with the film. Maybe it was no surprise that at least one group (the NYFC) would sing his praises, though this was still nervy territory for a group that had opted for upscale comedies or semi-comedies, all of them unmistakable as Oscar Pictures, for their Best Film prize in five out of six years from 1983-1988. Irons was so conscious of the boost in pedigree, reputation, and (best of all) creative opportunity that he gleaned from Dead Ringers and its critical laurels that, unusually, he thanked Cronenberg ("...and some of you may understand why...") in his speech when he later won his Oscar for another movie.

Irons's win was a great critics-prize moment, but I feel even more indebted to the Los Angeles crowd for gold-starring Cronenberg's disquietingly sleek, hypnotic, technically virtuosic, scarlet-and-chrome direction as well as the distinctively strong impression that Geneviève Bujold makes in the crucial role of Claire Niveau, a part that could easily have been played as a misogynistic freakshow, a histrionic addict, or a disembodied "everyone's addicted to something" placeholder within the script's thematic architecture. Bujold takes a woman who could be boiled right down to a grotesque high concept—a pill-popping actress and bondage enthusiast whose mutated, three-chambered uterus is an object of horror and fascination for the Irons characters—and she makes her mordantly intelligent, frankly self-confident, and incongruously "normal" without being boring for a single second. She never seems like she's not doing something for her scenes, whether inserting an unexpected pause or offering a smile when you expect a grimace or playing a confrontation as a seduction, and yet she never ever feels like she's acting for a camera. She suggests a filthy mind, a fond self-image, and a feminine practicality all at the same time, with zero signs of strain. She also puts as human a face on Cronenbergian mutation, in the unexpected register of wry understatement, as Goldblum more flamboyantly does in The Fly, in the (context-appropriate) register of operatic tragicomedy.

The arc and reception climate around Cronenberg's career shifted after Dead Ringers, but it shifted even more palpably after these prizes for Dead Ringers. At the box-office, the film had been neither a hit nor a miss on release, relative to its production cost. With respect to its genre, though, whatever you'd say its "genre" is, and with respect to its pair of admired but hardly bankable leads, and with respect to a filmography whose back-page titles included They Came from Within and Rabid, its awards haul was an absolute bonanza. The last 20 years of Cronenberg's career, if you ask me, turn as much on the pivot of December 1988 as on any other single moment. This is as perfect a case as I can think of of the critics on two coasts voting for no discernible agenda beyond their sense of what work most merited a trophy, and in calling out achievement for what it is—not for how plausibly they could vend that achievement to AMPAS or to the HFPA. In so doing, they effectively certified the film for a lot of connoisseurial audiences, in and out of "the industry," who would have ignored the slightly Guignol marketing and the skin-crawling storyline. The risk they took would have been very similar within a comparable career tone and timeline—and in valorizing spiky creativity and sudden transcendence of cult-driven status—to some group anointing Fincher, Norton, and Bonham Carter for Fight Club in '99, which of course no one seems to have even thought about doing. If that's a more historically accessible example for you, and you know what it would have meant to set aside a sprawling field of "safe" pictures as well as exciting experiments in 1999 to endorse David Fincher's schizophrenic demi-ode to pugilistic nihilism and to masculinity eating itself alive, then you've got the flavor of what the NYFC and LAFC did in '88.

You can't expect such prescience every time a critics' group meets, much less can you expect a validation of your own tastes, which of course this series is certain to flatter. Still, the Dead Ringers prizes in 1988 managed the gorgeous hat-trick—the three-chambered glory, if you will—of being perfect choices in the present, a bold endorsement of a filmmaker with a highly idiosyncratic past, and a direct propagation of his increasingly interesting future, built to an unusual degree off the boost the critics gave him and continued to give him. (The gongs for Naked Lunch in 1991, especially from the National Society and the New York crowd, were hard-won, delicious, and perhaps even more surprising, given the sturdiness of competition and the rococo uncanniness of Naked Lunch.) If that's not a perfect summation of year-end voting bodies at their absolute best, then it's at least a perfect summation of why they interest me so much... and why I have my fingers crossed for December 11, when the Boston and Los Angeles crowds both weigh in. Give us change we can believe in, dames and fellas, and any Cronenbergian film critics sporting your own self-evolved genders! Go ahead, win the future!

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Anonymous CrazyGeekyCool said...

As a first-time poster, Nick, I'd just like to say how much I enjoy your writing. This is about as intelligent and entertaining as film criticism gets.

I absolutely agree. One of the biggest perks of being a cinephile is when you discover a performance you cherish has been recognized by critics' even when it's obvious it's got a snowball's chance in hell of being invited to the big party. I'm hoping the same occurs this year with Nicole Beharie in Shame. I'm sure Shailene Woodley is a nice girl and all but really? Think outside the box, guys!

And Irons in Dead Ringers gives one of my favorite performances of all time. The movie is the final piece in what I like to call Cronenberg's 80s trifecta (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers) - 3 films with 3 timeless lead performances (Woods, Goldblum, Irons) supported by 3 endlessly fascinating female turns (Harry, Davis, Bujold).

P.S. I've only begun to realize how many of Cronenberg's films follow this formula. xD

10:48 PM, December 05, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@CrazyGeekyCool: First, thanks for commenting, and with such kind words! Really appreciate it. And I dig the screen name. If I say "My man Al B. Sure, he's in Effect Mode / Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue...," I'm assuming you know where I'm going with that.

I'd be thrilled for a Beharie mention, though at this point I'd be willing for anyone to reach back to some of the stunning actressing we all got to enjoy in the first half of the year. Juliette Binoche? Yun Jeong-hie? If anyone's willing to spring, it's the LAFCA. Fingers crossed.

I should be more into Videodrome than I am; I love a lot of movies that wouldn't exist without it, and I am a sucker for Cronenberg on both sides of it. I do admire the movie a hell of a lot, but it's a bit of a cold admiration. I've been working on two book chapters on Ringers and Lunch for so long that I'll owe Videodrome a re-watch soon, just to see something different. You're right that he not only casts well but he combines his actors beautifully. Mortensen/Bello is another great example of the pattern you're describing, though I enjoyed the comic flip he gave it in eXistenZ, even if it's a little odd that female lead/male second banana all but connotes "comic reversal" in Cronenberg's universe. I wonder what a female-driven Cronenberg film in the key of Dead Ringers would look like. And I can't help feeling that Naomi Watts is sitting somewhere, feeling jacked of the great supporting-actressing opportunities that by all rights should have been handed to her in Eastern Promises, and yet she and her character just slide right off the film.

Nattering on. Thanks, though, for your comment!

11:25 PM, December 05, 2011  
Anonymous CrazyGeekyCool said...

You're very welcome and thanks for complimenting the screen name. I definitely got the reference as my uncontrollable laughter will attest.

On Binoche - YES. I saw Certified Copy last year and that performance has lingered in the back of my mind ever since. I can't recall the last time an actress radiated such an aura onscreen. Not to jinx anything but I'll be surprised if she doesn't manage at least one award this season (knock on wood). And Poetry is near the top of my must-see list.

Poor Naomi. When will she top Mulholland or at least come within 10 ft of it? I certainly don't think it's for lack of trying. Maybe she should give von Trier a call. His latest project sounds intriguing.

12:33 AM, December 06, 2011  

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