Politics & Policy

Movies That Time Forgot

Kevin Asch’s Affluenza is a welcome change from the summer’s contrived, dull offerings.

No one involved in making Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to have any memory of the series’ cheeky, ingenious installments since 1968, the same year as Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. It would take perusal of Eric Greene’s definitive study, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture, to understand how this newly rebooted plot (a laboratory experiment gone wrong leads to the double catastrophe of a global epidemic and a simian takeover) relates to those original narratives. What’s worse, this so-called “Dawn” (don’t ask) follows 2010’s surprisingly vital Rise of the Planet of the Apes, yet delivers none of its excitement — just weary, uninspired repetition.

Matt Reeves turns Dawn into TV (and not hokey-effective TV like 1974’s episodic Apes series). Reeves, a TV hack who perpetrated the found-footage monster goof Cloverfield, lacks cinematic chops. There isn’t a single interesting image in Dawn’s two-hours-plus running time. Best is a 360-degree panning shot from the top of an armored tank during the apes’ assault on barricaded humans, yet its trajectory and panorama have no payoff. This visual ineptitude (derived from TV production habits that are allowed to continue by audiences’ TV viewing habits) lacks the storytelling craft that made Rupert Wyatt’s 2010 film so worthy: It connected modern audiences to a nifty cultural touchstone.

Dawn’s story is padded with obvious plot contrivances and PC anti-gun imagery that dumbs down the political ironies of the earlier Apes movies. (Emphasizing guns removes the man/animal paradox that linked the first Planet to Kubrick’s bone/weapon scene in 2001.) Dawn is technologically regressive, another 3D offense forcing viewers to wear sunglasses indoors and endure dark, underlit images. Close-ups of the apes speaking rudimentary English are oppressive. Andy Serkis as Cesar has even lost the humane flicker in his eyes. Reeves’s humorless anthropomorphism lacks the wit of the original films (and of Tim Burton’s 2001 remake), losing the ticklish philosophical jest of topsy-turvy evolution. Dawn loses so much of what made the series classic and cinematically marvelous (such as Charlton Heston’s gravitas and Wyatt’s speed and emotion) that it may as well be an episode of TV’s Lost.

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“Hipster Patriarchy” might be a better title for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Depicting a white American male from childhood to adolescence, it celebrates the emblematic figure of American social power. Starting with youth’s inherent innocence and appeal, Linklater gives his protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), centrality in the passing parade of his Texas family (including a sister and divorced parents) and then, ultimately, confers importance upon Mason and his “normalcy.”

Sure enough, the cultural media have responded on cue: Praising the deliberately mundane Boyhood fits the pattern unconsciously followed by most culture writers (who also tend to be white males) seeking to confirm their own privilege and importance — but without examining it. Some women and men of other races also worship this unscrutinized authority, which partly explains why Linklater’s lackluster filmmaking (from Suburbia, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight to School of Rock and the atrocious Bernie) almost always gets overrated.

As much as fanboys falling for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Linklater’s think-alike idolators seem to have forgotten the significant films Boyhood imitates. The widely hyped story of Boyhood’s twelve-year production ignores the similar periodic method English director Michael Apted employed on the documentary series 7 Up (he filmed a group of British schoolkids at seven-year intervals); the hype also ignores how François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series (from The 400 Blows, Love at Twenty, and Stolen Kisses to Bed and Board and Love on the Run) encompassed a 20-year span in the fictional youth’s life.

Those overlooked landmarks are in sharp contrast to the drab folly of Boyhood. Linklater avoids — or fails at — supplying conventional narrative inducement (save for obvious pop-music cues); his slack, solipsistic self-admiration is exactly what the arbiters of contemporary film culture admire. (Perhaps that’s why they ignored Michel Gondry’s afternoon-in-the-life-of-Bronx-schoolkids movie The We and the I, the best film of 2013.) They esteem Linklater’s pretenses as indie film normalcy — or hipster exceptionalism. Boyhood has been praised for demonstrating Linklater’s fascination with time. (“If cinema was a painting, time would be the paint itself” is Linklater’s imbecile motto for his current career retrospective at New York’s IFC Center.) But Linklater’s bland imagery and presumed “realism” make Boyhood’s running time excessive. It raises that old mumblecore problem: Can a hipster also be banal?

Spike Jones’s Scenes from the Suburbs, an extended music video for the band Arcade Fire, caught this white-male experience more convincingly by critiquing the follies of America’s most protected class, and without being so smugly self-infatuated. Currently, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me and You (his first film in ten years) gets under the skin of boyhood anxiety with an exquisite story of a privileged kid’s emotional education. Bertolucci’s Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) has an unformed ragamuffin countenance, while Linklater’s Mason grows up to resemble indie actor Nick Stahl — only less expressive. Besides, casting Ethan Hawke as Mason’s immature father renders the film’s conceit redundant. Critics who ignore Bertolucci’s artistry while extolling Linklater are frauds; they use trendiness to justify their own narcissism.

Last year’s American Promise, a documentary about middle-class black parents experimentally enrolling their son at a mostly white private school, similarly followed a boy’s youth up through Obama’s presidential campaign (also a marker for Linklater). American Promise didn’t coddle the culture’s vanity as Boyhood does, and American Promise had a more honest opening scene: The embarrassed pre-K kid tells his camcorder-wielding father, “Nobody wants to see this!”

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Also better than Boyhood is Kevin Asch’s Affluenza, about a Jewish youth, Fisher (Ben Rosenfield), who risks temptation on a quest for fulfillment. Asch’s previous film, 2010’s superb Holy Rollers, was based on an actual FBI case about a young Hasidic Jew who became an international drug smuggler; now Asch surveys Fisher’s attraction to wealth running parallel with talk of “change” during the 2008 Obama–McCain election campaign. TV clips of candidate Obama’s platitudes set the film’s comic-ironic tone. Asch personalizes politics in ways that recall the self-consciousness of the late Paul Mazursky.

Mazursky’s humane satires (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Next Stop Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman) dug into the moral complications of their era — forgotten insights that Asch, if we are lucky, will develop as eloquently as Mazursky at his best. Affluenza explores how the youth of Great Neck, Long Island, wrestle with privilege. Fisher and friends’ sex-and-drugs games are mini-dramas preceding the sense of accountability that spoiled brats learn too late.

Not narcissistic, Asch and co-writer Antonio Macia deal with ethnic identity at a crisis point — and they don’t play Linklater’s time tricks to do it. Jewish self-reproach is shown as equal to spiritual longing — a realization that also recalls Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Asch is way ahead of hipster filmmakers who indulge ethnicity yet are apolitical. In this era of disremembered cinematic values, here’s to Asch, a director who has not forgotten his Mazursky and Roth lessons.

— Film critic Armond White is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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