Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Screengrab - "Kick some ass and drink some beer."

How often does cinema really capture the truth of violence in all its awful banality? Not often, is the answer.
Violence is spectacle, and cinema is obsessed with and drawn to spectacle. Violence is then portrayed as something exciting, stimulating, something almost glamorous. This is as true of a firefight in a War Zone as it is of a domestic argument that suddenly becomes physical. Of course, violence is not alone in the realms of human experience in being misrepresented and glamourised by cinema. Few experiences in real life are presented plainly and without artifice in movies. Sex is another obvious universal rarely truthfully depicted.
But the humble fight scene is perhaps the worst culprit.

If you've ever been in - or even witnessed - a real fight, then chances are you will understand the disparity between your experience and what you have seen portrayed in cinema. In real life, fights are generally fumbled wrestling matches with few clean punches thrown and much tugging at clothing for purchase. There might be a good punch thrown early on - the opening blow - but untrained combatants then tend to grab on to one another and sooner or later one or both will fall to the ground as they try to find the space and balance to get in a few good punches. Lots of grappling, some short blows, knees and elbows everywhere, people desperately clasping each others ears and hair and trying to trip one another.
I haven't been in a fight in a long time. Not since I moved to London, in fact. Dublin seems to have more of a problem with casual street violence than London, I think. I've never really seen any violence on a night out in London. But if you're in Dublin City Centre on a weekend night, then you will inevitably see a scuffle or a brawl in the street or in a pub. Its almost part of the character of the City. I glimpsed many in my years growing up there, and they alongside the ones I was in were always chaotic and frustrating - as well as terrifying and sickening - for just these reasons. Art teaches us that combat is always clean, full of choreographed, elegantly brutal moves. Even the more "realistic" fight scenes in modern cinema - say the three central fights in the Bourne franchise - for all their shaky-cam authenticity and the intimacy of their grappling, they are beautifully put together strings of short, expert punches, blocks and holds the likes of which are beyond most boozed-up brawlers outside the worlds nightclubs. But cinema conditions us to expect hand-to-hand violence to resemble this, and maybe it does, when two Special Forces soldiers duke it out. But when a factory worker and a Bus Driver get into it over a spilled pint in the Hare & Hound on a Saturday night, you're not going to see anything expert or glamorous.

There are a few notable movie fights that make some attempt at a realist portrayal. In Mean Streets (1973) long pool hall brawl, Martin Scorsese films a repetitive series of grapplings and amateurish wrestling with men swinging ill-timed, off target punches past each other heads and little real damage being done. James Gray films a fight between best friends played by Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards (2000) as if its an intense argument and the actors play it like they're impersonating brawling two year olds; too close to do any damage, they push at and lean into and swing at one another for a few minutes before collapsing together exhausted by the exertion.
British realist drama - perhaps the sub-genre you would expect to portray casual violence with the most fealty - tends to depict beatings rather than combat. The beaten-down, struggling hero of your average kitchen sink drama is generally being beaten up, or bullying somebody even weaker than himself and not indulging in desperate hand-to-hand combat.

Which leaves us with Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused (1993). Made on a small budget with a sprawling cast of unknowns who have since gone on to have careers of varying success (among them: Matthew McConaughey, Renee Zellwegger, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and Milla Jovovich), Linklater's ambling, amiable film is a sort of low key Epic. Following a large group of students at a Texan school over the course of one long day, it circles its narrative in wide arcs, introducing figures and returning to them later, observing as they pair off and spar, noting the social networks and conventions binding them together. It paints note perfect pictures of various archetypal scenes: stoners talking rubbish at each other, teens cruising aimlessly in search of thrills, the deflowering of a young man, a jock finding himself and making a stand, young people being taken under the wing of older schoolmates. Its authenticity is unmistakeable; not only because it is plainly semi-autobiographical, but because there will be resonances and familiar moments to anyone who went to school, or anyone who mixed in large circles as a teenager. One such moment is the fight scene.

What is great about it is its banality; the way in which it seems to spring out of the night sky in an instant. Real violence, for all that it is so often inept, is terrifying. And it is accompanied by those few brief seconds beforehand when you can feel it coming, as if the air itself has thickened. This is probably the throb of adrenaline beginning to surge through the body, but it is the sort of moment rarely captured by cinema. In The Bourne Identity (2002) there is an instant before the fight scene in the embassy when director Doug Liman drops in a slo-mo shot. It is just Matt Damon in close-up, forms moving towards him over his shoulder. Damon looks regretful, downcast. Then the film winds back up and Damon is a blur of violent purpose. But that slo-mo shot beforehand makes that scene feel, for all its absurdity, much more authentic, makes plain Bourne's key factor as a sympathetic, vulnerable and even somewhat realistic figure - he knows what is coming and in that pause, he is feeling it, preparing. But then, he is a professional killer. In Dazed & Confused, the two combatants are high school students.

Linklater's fight is so real and familiar it is almost chilling. It helps that all the groundwork the film has already laid makes this world feel warm and full of fully-imagined people. Just as in his two Sunrise/Sunset films, Linklater's characters are interesting because of what they have to say, and the film is full of Slacker-esque rants from the mouths of various figures about pop culture, politics and casual, everyday philosophy (for me, perhaps the best aspect of Linklater as a writer-director is the ease with which he addresses philosophical questions and makes their discussion naturalistic and accessible time and again in his work). Three of the most interesting and likable characters are the two geeks, Mike (Adam Goldberg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp), who hang around with Jodi (Michelle Burke). This trio exist slightly on the margins of High School society, and yet seem to be warmly regarded - they are friendly with some of the Football set, have a half-fond nickname (Woodward and Bernstein) and move with ease among their peers, probably because they are Seniors. Their conversation is slightly more self-conscious than that of most of their schoolmates, but they are also consistently funny, albeit in a frequently arch and intellectual way. Mike is prone to statements like "what everybody in this car needs is some good ol' worthwhile visceral experience" while Tony describes his dream of having sex with a woman with a perfect body but the head of Abraham Lincoln (hat and beard et al) and they are refreshingly free with irony throughout.
Each of the trio gets their own arc over the course of the film, a beautiful example of Linklater's narrative democracy. So Tony meets a pretty, intelligent Freshman and makes a connection with her, Jodi is charmed by McConaughey's hilarious Wooderson, and Goldberg's Mike gets his ass kicked by Clint (Nicky Katt).

Casting is important here. Katt has since played his share of repellant bullies, villains and alpha males, and he can do menace and intensity with tremendous conviction. He makes Clint vivid and scary with only a few seconds of screen-time after the trio pass Clint and his friends drinking beer on their way into a forest Keg-Party and Clint, all aggressive attitude and snarl, approaches Mike to start this conversation:

Clint: What did you just say?
Mike: What?
Clint: Just now, man. When you walked past, what'd you say?
Mike: About what?
Clint: You said, "Someone's tokin' some reefer."
Mike: No, I meant somewhere I smell some pot, you know? It was just an observation.
Clint: Oh, an observation, huh? Well who the hell are you, man? Isaac fucking Newton?

I've been in situations like this - when somebody else approaches, bent on violence, and there is really no way out. The queasy sudden inevitability of what is to come and the sense of unreality are both captured perfectly by the film. Goldberg's baffled, almost hurt disbelief feels true. Clint hits him but the fight is averted by others, peacemakers trying to maintain the party vibe.
It is here that Clint has his best line in a spin on a bubblegum blurb : "I only came here to do two things, kick some ass and drink some beer. Looks like we're almost outta beer..." Meanwhile Mike is getting drunk and obsessing over the incident, saying he feels like he's being stalked by a Nazi and ranting incoherently about how much he hates Clint. Goldberg has his own strange and slightly creepy intensity - put to good use in a brief recurring role as Joey's roommate Eddie on Friends, of all places - and his explicitly Jewish and ironic presence can give some of his roles an acute resonance. His scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), where his Mellish is a Jewish soldier righteously furious about the treatment of his people by the Germans give his fate in that movie its own unique impact. In recent years he has been put to best use in comedies like Julie Delpy's 2 Days In Paris (2007) and Jonathan Parker's (Untitled) (2009) where his sidelong deliveries are catered to by smart dialogue. In Dazed & Confused, he seems just intense and angry enough to do what he does (Goldberg has said that he wanted to do the film purely because of the fight scene, and he gives it his all).

What he does is return to Clint and pick a fight, getting in one good punch before he is overpowered and beaten up. Clint has to be dragged off him by the film's two most popular alpha males, Pink and Wooderson. This basically ends the Keg Party, as the beer runs out and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Tuesday's Gone soundtracks a lovely shot as the camera rises to the stars.
The fight itself has been brief, sloppy, with little damage done on either side. Mike's punch is improbably good, and the way Clint recovers to more or less bat him to the ground before leaping upon him and smashing him repeatedly in the head is scarily similar to any number of real fights I have witnessed between outmatched opponents. One on top, hurting the other.
Mike sums it up later, looking on the bright side; "You always hear about Hemingway starting fights, but you never hear about who won". But the things Linklater really does right in this whole passage are all about tone and atmosphere. He remembers how these things felt. Not only fights, but falling in love, cruising the streets with friends, evading bullies, listening to rock music. Which is one reason why Dazed & Confused is, in my opinion, the greatest Teen movie ever made.

Linklater's film flopped upon release, but it has been a big seller on dvd and has a sizeable cult following. Aside from its brilliant soundtrack, collection of stars-to-be, relaxed but deceptively meaty content and frequently hilarious script, thats because it gets so many things right about life at a certain age. Many films get nothing right about life at any stage, and as such, Dazed & Confused should be treasured and celebrated.
In recent years, Linklater has spoken of a spiritual sequel to the film, set in College, but financing has proven elusive, which is a damn shame. Because I desperately want to see his version of a College Barroom brawl...

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

I liked this.

Not sure about best teen movie. When you say something so absolute, I feel the invitation is there to try and say different.

I really wanted to say American Graffiti. But the first thing I thought of was Stand by Me, but maybe you're right.

3:20 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I like both those films, but Stand By Me isn't really a teen movie, is it? Its in part about that weird age when you're just between boyhood and being a full-fledged teenager, so it has no space for the usual fodder of the teen movie: girls, school etc.

American Graffiti: obviously a big influence on Dazed & Confused. But I feel like Linklater watched it, saw and understood how it could be done better, and then did it. More depth, more humour, a broader scope. The best thing about American Graffiti for me now is the thing I hated when I first saw it - the coda, with the details of what happened to all of the characters. Theres a truth to that Lucas has shunned in all his work since.

11:40 pm  

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