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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/9/09) 2:46pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  JCVD [mild spoilers]
TV:  Charles Dickens' London:  Part 3:  Age, The Merchants of Cool
Books:  <none>



JCVD [mild spoilers]
This was one of those movies that I enjoyed so much that I can recommend it to almost nobody.

The concept is simple:  movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme winds up in the middle of a bank robbery.

But like Roger Ebert says, a movie isn't about what it's about.  It's about *how* it's about what it's about.  And in this case, we've got a very, very arty take on Dog Day Afternoon -- not so much an action movie as a complicated meditation on what it's like to be an aging action star who's being put out to direct-to-DVD pasture.

The movie is cleverly structured to show us all sorts of facets of Van Damme's life.  We see his day-to-day interactions with fans.  We flash back to custody hearings over his daughter.  We get lengthy arguments with lawyers and agents and directors.

The robbery feels like an excuse to piece together this character study, but the storyline is engaging.  It quickly becomes something of a circus, with a gung-ho SWAT team, angry "Muscles from Brussels" fans, polite policemen, and photogenic media teams all descending on this middle-of-nowhere city intersection.

And what's nice is that, IMHO, nobody leans too hard on the meta here.  If Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith wrote this situation, the script would be wall-to-wall "guys wisecracking about Van Damme movie trivia."  Instead, El Mechri lets the characters be themselves.  Sure, they talk about Van Damme movies occasionally, but not in a "hi it's me the screenwriter impressing you with all the facts I know" sort of way.  The characters just react normally to the situation.  The video-store employee just grins and takes photos of everyone involved.  (You know somebody would do that.)

What gets weird is knowing that Van Damme had a lot of control over the movie.  So, when the fans show up to protest on his behalf... does Van Damme see himself as someone who is that idolized?  Is he trying to convince us the audience that this is so?  Is he poking fun at the fact that an action star would try to make himself look that cool in a film?  The mind spins.

Of course, the crowd of fans is a pretty simple plot element.  Later in the film, Van Damme gets a six-minute, one-take monolog where he bares his soul about his attitude towards fame and his regret over falling into drug addiction.  He really nails it.  It's a heartfelt piece of work.  And yet... is this the actor talking to us?  Is it the character?  Is he just manipulating a captive film audience into forgiving him for things that don't deserve forgiveness?  Is he just trying to convince us he's a serious actor?

Sure, there's comedy here, and there's action, but deep down it's a hall of mirrors, and you don't know what level this film operates at.

I do have one small complaint about the movie.  It uses an old nonchronological gambit where the first half-hour takes place from the point of view of the people outside the bank.  Then the second half hour recounts that same half-hour from Van Damme's point of view.  It's a neat trick -- and leads to lots of little "Aha!" moments, like "Aha!  That sound is the policeman banging on the window shutters from act I!" -- but the problem is that about five minutes into the second half-hour, you know how everything is going to go down from Van Damme's perspective.  Then you spend twenty-five minutes mostly checking all the checkboxes as your suspicions are confirmed.

But that's really a minor quibble on one of the best movies I've seen in months.  If you want to give an ambiguous, highfalutin, Belgian action movie a shot, seek this out.


Charles Dickens' London:  Part 3:  Age
I don't really have much to say about this one.  I figured it might be useful research for the Improvised Dickens show, and it wound up being something of a dud.  A genial British professor takes us on a guided tour of London, talking about the relevance of various parts of town to the novelist's work.  There's a lot of "and *this* tavern was immortalized in such-and-such a scene in Little Dorrit", and so on.  The cheap video footage never serves much of a purpose except perhaps to remind you what Parliament looks like while the guide stands in front of it.  (I found myself strangely obsessed with observing the genial professor's lazy eye.)

It's not entirely useless.  It does give the broad strokes of some of the social issues central to Dickens's work -- the care of children, political corruption, the disregard for the city's poor -- but if you've studied the books at all, you're already aware of all that.  So it's mostly just an accumulation of trivia and place names.


The Merchants of Cool
This is the 2001 Frontline documentary about marketing to teenagers.

I swear I've seen this documentary before.  It's entirely possible I've read the transcript at some point, which would have been just as good as actually watching the documentary, it turns out.  The cheap footage of ad execs and teen parties add little to the content.

The documentary covers how ad agencies research the teen market and advertise to it.  Maybe it was an eye-opener in 2001, but now its points feel pretty commonplace.  Yes, the images they present teens are unrealistic caricatures designed to push product.  Yes, they try their damnedest to get across the idea of "nobody understands you... except for this awesome brand."  Yes, they keep turning rebellion into money, and as each successive counterculture gets co-opted, the treadmill moves faster and faster.

I'm not saying I'm jaded and wise and immune to advertising.  But I am old, which means that nobody cares about me in sales-land.  Watching this documentary made me feel a bit relieved that I've drifted so far out of the cultural loop, with a zillion BMW-driving admen all straining to get me to switch to a hipper brand of carbonated syrup.  I'll take the microtargeted, unintrusive world of Google Ads over that any day.

The documentary also had a sententious strain of "Oh my god, won't somebody THINK OF THE CHILDREN" that made me roll my eyes.  I mean, I understand where they're coming from:  yes, it is worrying if one of the primary things shaping teenagers lives is a company's desire to sell them overpriced designer goods.  But at the same time, "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" has been the rallying cry of every second-rate sensationalist newsmagazine story for the last twenty years.  These days, whether it's merited or not, it just exasperates me.

I dunno.  I guess I'd recommend The Merchants of Cool if you were completely blinkered to the world of advertising.  Even then, though, the transcript is available online.  Just read that.


For next time:  reading more David Copperfield, finishing up Our Mutual Friend, watching some animé, and perhaps *finally* starting in on Dollhouse.

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