Sunday, February 15, 2015

Best of 2014, #5: Nightcrawler

Tap Into Real-Life National Pain: There’s been a lot of talk about the whiteness of the Oscar picks this year, both in terms of the snub of Selma’s star and director, and in terms of the lack of black roles that were available overall. The best place to examine this problem, it seems to me, is not by looking at Selma nor its natural counterpoint, American Sniper (Clint Eastwood’s loathsome celebration of a modern-day James Earl Ray, which shot down MLK at both the box office and the Oscar nom race). Instead, the movie that really lays bare the underlying problem here is Dan Gilroy’s intense little thriller that also works as a brutal parable about the modern vampire-squid economy.

I share the anger about Hollywood’s narrow-minded young-white-male obsession, but, as with almost any protest from either the right or left in America, the discussion always puts the blame on “the culture” instead of actually examining the systems in place. Frequently, people seem to be asking, “Why doesn’t that executive who makes twenty movies a year deign to have some of them be about women/minorities/older people?” And nobody ever speaks up with the correct answer: Because he died forty years ago.

An incisive discussion of Hollywood’s young white male problem has to include an understanding of how Hollywood itself has essentially ceased to be. Like most American corporations, Hollywood studios have figured out how to shift all the risk outward and all the profits inward. All development in Hollywood is now done by independent producers, who spend years getting each movie made, with no “development money” whatsoever. Each movie is its own start-up, with the producers sinking a fortune in development costs out of their own pocket (or the pockets of their investors) in the hope of making that money back with a blockbuster. The studios, using their monopoly on distribution, then swoop in and “partner with” these producers, co-releasing the movies, and taking half of the profits for themselves. This is why every movie now has five “producer cards” up front.

So what does any of this have to do with Nightcrawler? Everything. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is unable to find any regular job, so out of desperation he becomes an “independent contractor,” seeking out nighttime car crashes and selling the tapes to the morning news. At first, he naively treats all crimes the same, but the producer tells him she’ll pay much more for anything involving black or Latino crime in white neighborhoods. Soon Gyllenhaal has totally internalized these values, jovially mocking his assistant for wanting to tape a crime in a poor neighborhood.

The station has laid off its own cameramen and denies all responsibility for the actions of the contractors who have taken their place, creating a “race to the bottom”, in which both sides push each other to pursue the least common denominator of viewers without either side having to consciously make that decision.

The same thing happens on the big screen. Movies are increasingly hyper-focused on young white men because that’s the least common denominator of viewers, and it’s no one’s job to say, “hey, let’s serve another viewership with some of our movies.” There is no “our movies” anymore, there’s just “my movie”, and no producer wants to sink years of work into a risky proposition (or even a proposition that looks like it will make a decent-but-not-spectacular profit).

Louis B. Mayer (or somebody else, I can't find the quote) once said something like “Don't talk to be about ‘quality pictures’. Every week, 52 times a year, a truck pulls up and expects us to put new film cans in the back, and that truck driver isn’t going to wait to make sure that it’s a ‘quality picture’.” But of course his quote was disingenuous: Such a system was actually ideal for ensuring that each studio could cultivate multiple audiences (old and young, male and female) and even produce a few low-profit “prestige” or “social problem” movies, just to make themselves feel good. But if each independent producer is betting the bank on one picture at a time, the financial disincentives are huge, just as they are for Gyllenhaal’s character.

As far as I'm concerned, the only real solution (other than forcibly restructuring corporate America, which also needs to happen) is to do what almost every other country in the world does: have a federal film fund to commission movies that make less profit but take more risks and/or portray underrepresented communities. But of course here in America nobody is ever allowed to say, “they’ve already solved this problem in every other country in the world, so let’s do the same thing here.” Don’t you know that we’re exceptional?

Next: The best cast of the year…


j.s. said...

Not that your analogy here is incorrect or that, say, Dan Gilroy would even dispute that he very much consciously intended this thematically. His film is a critique of the state of current American capitalism. But viewing it strictly through the narrow lens of the film industry itself just feels too limiting.

I see it more as a spiritual sequel to ACE IN THE HOLE, about how the entire society is complicit in creating and sensationalizing the news that's reported and consumed. And about how the ideal reporter in these conditions is ruthless, heartless, a master manipulator and a sort of perfect capitalist.

NIGHTCRAWLER really is a great film on so many levels -- a great film about journalism, a great film noir, , a great film about Los Angeles (Thom Andersen of LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF fame would love this). It's also one of the best films about an antihero (and a functional pscyhopath-next-door) I've ever seen.

I can't believe they shot this in 28 days, including all of the car action. The film looks amazing too, both beautiful and mesmerizingly lurid, as if designed to embody the supersaturated bleeding colors of the wall of TVs inside a big box store.

About AMERICAN SNIPER: It almost sounds like -- above and beyond whatever problems you may have with the film's storytelling -- you have strong moral objections to the presence of any snipers in modern warfare. But comparing a soldier protecting his men from enemy combatants in a theater of war to a political assassin? Really?

Bill Peschel said...

Ill-informed, self-righteous bile tastes horrible. Goodbye, and thanks for your analysis and insights.

A.D. said...

Where's the bile? Reads pretty accurate to me.

Matt Bird said...

Sorry to offend and sorry to lose you, Bill. I tend to forget that my (rather extreme) personal politics are not as populist as my general blog advice, and I run the risk of alienating fans with my asides.

That said, in response to J.S., my comment was directed not at the fantasy-version of Chris Kyle presented by Eastwood, but the true man, as presented in his memoir (where he coyly admits that he lowered his standards of whom to kill when he found out that someone was going to catch up to his record) and second-hand from his friends (who say that he claimed to have killed as many as 32 Americans in addition all those Iraqis)

Even if he was lying (and he probably was) when he claimed that he killed 30 "looters" from the roof of the Superdome during Katrina (and we all know that label was used exclusively for blacks), the fact that he would claim to have done so is enough for me to equate him with Ray.

Would snipers be a necessary element of our armed forces, if we ever again fight a necessary war? Yes, but we need strictures in place to assure that they aren't having "fun" killing, as Kyle was. Ironically, this is one job that needs to be done by someone who isn't enthusiastic about it.

I know a handful of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and none of them refer to their opponents as savages, nor would any of them have written memoirs declaring themselves to be "the legend." Indeed, no shortage of veterans have come forward to denounce Kyle and/or Eastwood's film.

Okay, back to NIGHTCRAWLER: I certainly agree that my long tangent ignores most of the huge appeal of the film, and ACE IN THE HOLE is a great comparison (as is A FACE IN THE CROWD, for that manner)