It may help us understand what goes wrong in The Riot Club, a new British drama about the timeless arrogance of England’s class system, if we put that social aberration in an American context.
Observe this week’s media “controversy” over Ben Affleck’s request to expunge the history of a slave-owning ancestor from Henry Louis Gates’s PBS series, Finding Your Roots. Mainstream media and the Twitterverse both automatically ridiculed the actor’s skittishness and political dishonesty but not the TV producer’s equal political hypocrisy. This demonstrates how our culture customarily trivializes things, seeking constant distraction — the fiat of the new media aristocracy.
The real issue ought to be the excesses of privilege –Affleck’s, Gates’s, even Julian Assange’s; Assange used his WikiLeaks to expose behind-the-scenes government maneuvers by publishing classified material obtained by Bradley Manning. Then there was the Sony hacking episode, now an endless source of Hollywood embarrassment — and public enlightenment.
But class deception seems to be a complex topic, too difficult for millennial journalists and dramatists to skewer appropriately. The makers of The Riot Club, like the Affleck bashers, are distracted by their own cynicism.
Based on the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, The Riot Club handles the class system so clumsily it indicates a generational ignorance. Set at Oxford University, the film depicts ten legacy students from Eton, Harrow, and Westminster prep schools who preserve the open secret of their forebears’ exclusive associations. Despite the youthquake revolutions of the past 50 years, these rich, snotty schoolboys hold tight to their advantages, eager to repeat the inequities begun a century ago by a reprobate known as Lord Riot (shown in a period prologue).
#related#The fictitious Lord Riot’s epic debauches are updated by Wade and director Lone Scherfig to show how the upper classes are still essentially rotters. This isn’t exactly news in theater or the movies, but the repetition of that tired theme indicates that this current era is reluctant to look at class issues rigorously or with fresh insight. (Ironically, an Oxford don tells a debating duo, “I’m more interested in your intellectual rigor. We’re historians. We’re not on Newsnight!”) Captious but nonrigorous, Wade and Scherfig have apparently forgotten everything about the intricacies of class arrogance that they should have known, either through their own experience or through the instinctual suspicion of authority and pedigree demonstrated in many preceding British landmarks on the subject, from Room at the Top to The Servant.
Yet The Riot Club maintains a perverse admiration for imperious sinning, culminating in an epic dinner scene where the classes clash. The restaurateur whose premises the Rioters destroy is an easily impressed and intimidated working-class stooge — a straw victim. Snobbish Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) seems born to elegant malice, while Miles Richards (Max Irons) — the most interesting character, the one stumped by his own ambivalence — is too weak to resist preferential advantages. “Being at Oxford is like being invited to 100 parties at once, and I want to go to all of them,” Miles says. Although gay Rioter Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Sam Reid) boasts of being “the ragged end of the gentry,” the entire lot of upper-class louts are already doomed by the film’s rigged conceit. Like a bad stage play — say, The History Boys — The Riot Club wages predictable war against privilege by underscoring supercilious accents, snide misogyny, and obvious racism, plus vandalism and carnage — The History Boys gone badder.
To make pseudo-feminist points, Wade stages a near-rape of Miles’s girlfriend, and Scherfig puts Duran Duran’s “The Wild Boys” on the soundtrack — a facile gesture authenticated only by Simon Le Bon’s vulgar yelp. One Rioter overexplains: “The Riot Club connects to a hundred years of history; [its] dinner is debauchery raised to an art.”
Not quite. The Riot Club’s political vision is as specious as that of Scherfig’s 2009 arriviste chick flick An Education, and no better than Animal House would be if it were re-imagined by the American decadent Neil LaBute. Immorality is conflated with social position, yet privilege is not traced to its source. This is the same political disorientation shown when Americans kowtow to media power as in the Affleck–Gates affair.
Affleck’s reaction to his slave-owning heritage typifies All-American naïveté about history and the legacy of wealth and power. No less than Brits, some wealthy Americans feel their privilege comes by divine right. Affleck is as unexceptional in this regard as he is an unexceptional actor and film director. Like Miles, he enjoys all the benefits of privilege — and expects them. But commentators should note that the race-hustling TV producer exercising his Harvard academic credentials actually committed the whitewashing of his own show — despite making hollow protestations about “integrity.” Castigating Affleck is a way of protecting another member of the media elite — in this case, one who exploits the American equivalent to an Oxbridge pedigree.
As Affleck, Gates, and their supporters fight among themselves, Cambridge brats behaving like the tuxedoed British twits, their clash of privileges recalls the intellectual pretenses displayed in another college-set play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Antagonistic objections to Affleck’s ordinary race shame show how desperately some Americans deny their own class-based responses, simply to protect their fantasy of upward mobility, which is implicit in their allegiance to a media powerbroker who fronts a government-funded TV program about ancestry that is essentially devoted to celebrity mongering. This is how Americans keep their own class system going strong. With such homegrown tabloid melodrama to provide moralizing escapism, who needs The Riot Club?
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Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival is the one New York event that makes cinema a civic activity. It’s ironic that this year Tribeca’s finale will celebrate the anniversary of Goodfellas, a film that presaged the moral decline of contemporary cinema. (Goodfellas’ popularity among white ethnic crime-movie fans recalls the racism explicit in the Godfather speech about blacks — “They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls” — which probably explains why the hiphop generation prefers Brian De Palma’s Scarface.)
Tribeca’s Goodfellas tribute comes in the new era of day-and-date film releases (where films open in theaters and on cable TV and live streaming simultaneously), which gives movies perpetuity — thus, an occasion to reclaim the recently released Italian film Black Souls, a truly shocking, almost-great crime film by Francesco Munzi that accounts for the tragic self-destruction our culture has overlooked in the Mafia and films about the Mafia.
So many lies and delusions have attached themselves to the past 50 years of gangster movies — even more than the Manifest Destiny lies of lesser westerns. But Munzi’s references to Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Rosi’s Three Brothers establish a moral basis that elevates Black Souls over The Godfather and Goodfellas. Munzi’s moral pedigree surpasses Coppola’s filmmaking mastery, which confounded American morality perhaps irreparably.
Munzi’s family of Mafia characters live in dilemma, not in tribal macho codes. A priest eulogizes: “Our life in this town cannot be called life; we’re living as dead men.” The female knowingness of wives, daughters, concubine — their duplicity and ambivalence — is also clearly depicted. (“I’m not going downstairs to listen to their furtive talk, their litanies. I’m not like you,” says a mobster’s wife. Her husband responds, “What are you like?”) This funeral doesn’t have the panache of Coppola’s baptism/murder montage, but, like Abel Ferrara’s Mafia film The Funeral, Munzi restores gravity to a genre that had lost its soul.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.