Hollywood hits bottom this week, not from more sex-and-revenge scandals but with premieres of I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist — the two most hateful movies I’ve seen in 2017. Both films are derisive reenactments of real-life stories: the ice-skating scandal of 1994 involving figure skater Tonya Harding and the behind-the-scenes myths of the cult film The Room made by an enigmatic loner named Tommy Wiseau. The two movies also qualify as the ultimate snark flicks — cousin to 1970s snuff movies in their intent to degrade their subjects as well as the people who watch them.
I, Tonya’s opening epilogue boasts that the screenplay was “based on irony-free interviews,” which only means that director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers felt free to take statements by Harding (Margot Robbie), her dirtbag husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her alcoholic mother LaVona (Alison Janney), and an opportunistic producer of TV’s Hard Copy show (Bobby Cannavale) and bend them into a chronicle of freaky absurdity. Oregon-born and -bred, Harding and her ilk embody the vulgarity to which people who get jobs in Hollywood and mainstream media feel superior.
The mockumentary-confessional format invites us to judge the characters by their inability to tell the truth or be honest with themselves. Not only are they self-justifying losers, they’re also made to be visually repulsive, especially by casting Australian Robbie, whose sexpot ambitiousness coarsens Harding’s pitiable effort to construct an all-American image. She never once looks innocent.
There hasn’t been a piece of warped Americana this ugly since the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans. Harding’s humanity means less to the filmmakers than does the possibility of her guilt. Because she came from a low-class culture, it’s implied that she could not possibly be an artist-athlete committed to the hard work and discipline of her craft; nor could she possibly feel respect for her nice-girl competitor Nancy Kerrigan. The abusive husband has an oafish-mischievous best friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), whose idiotic associates, Derrick and Shane, provide a Tarantino tangent to this circus of sociopaths. They conspire, without Tonya’s knowledge, to what the film calls “The Incident” — the violent assault on Kerrigan.
“The Incident” would have been a better title than the sarcastic I, Tonya, given the movie’s resemblance to an episode of TV trash like Hard Copy. Gillespie stages the attack on Kerrigan tabloid-style, for slapstick depravity (like the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time). Indifference to violence and suffering makes “The Incident” nothing more than a stunt; it withholds the nuanced understanding that distinguishes David O. Russell’s jovial films about the American working class.
The makers of I, Tonya laugh at other people’s ugliness while enjoying it. Robbie’s desperate grinning during the awesome triple-axel skating events (filmed with a whirling steadicam and digital effects) becomes a symbol of the film’s hopelessness. She recalls other anxious TV iconography like Stephen Colbert’s hostile smirk or Hillary Clinton’s grating attempts at humor. These expressions, fully endorsed by the unprincipled filmmakers, convey the same contempt that targets some Americans as “Deplorables.” That top-down superciliousness makes “unsophisticated” America the butt of moral snootiness, rather than showing compassion for Harding and company (there’s a Reagan photo on a living room wall and O.J. Simpson on a TV screen). According to the filmmakers’ prejudgment, it’s Harding’s class origins — more than the incident that backfires — that she must pay for, for the rest of her life. The humiliation of this heartless movie gives them their pound of flesh.
The one successful satirical moment in I, Tonya occurs during her voiceover plea of “I was only 15!” while Margot Robbie on screen looks like a 30-year-old dressed as Britney Spears at Halloween. Such filmmaking ineptitude is also the basis of The Disaster Artist, a satirical look at bad filmmaking that is itself bad filmmaking.
It’s another art stunt by indefatigable dilettante James Franco. (He has amassed more than 30 directorial credits since 2005 including — can you believe! — two disastrous, unwatchable Faulkner adaptations, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.) The Disaster Artist explores film culture’s nether regions, like Franco’s pretend porn doc Interior. Leather Bar., about the making of William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). The Disaster Artist’s dramatization of the making of the 2003 horror film The Room also pretends to be an inquiry into meta-cinema. But with a big budget and collaboration from assorted Hollywood celebrity buddies, Franco pokes fun at the profligate nonprofessionalism of The Room’s star and creator, Tommy Wiseau, and his best friend, Greg Sestero. (Sestero wrote an account of the film’s production: The Disaster Artist: My Life inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.)
Franco both embraces and defies The Room’s “bad movie” reputation, an insufferable act of hubris not quite at the level of his Faulkner films but certainly equal to the way Interior. Leather Bar. cruelly exploited its actors’ sexual naïveté. Wiseau and Sestero are both pitied and ridiculed. Sadly, Franco’s bad taste and confusion have found a place in today’s debased film culture. The Disaster Artist is being bizarrely acclaimed, proof that the idea of art has died in Hollywood.
Laughing at unfortunate folk is the hallmark of our despoiled culture.
This isn’t an affectionate Hollywood satire like Singin’ in the Rain or even a true meta-movie like Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions; instead, Franco’s descent into the pit of inanity follows the cultural self-delusion of The Blair Witch Project. If indifference to craft and quality can justify Wiseau’s antisocial self-absorption, it also reflects Franco’s own relation to film. He portrays the strange, long-haired, oddly spoken Wiseau, while his brother, actor Dave Franco, plays Sestero. Both are good actors, and their on-screen rapport is palpable, but there’s no revelation of what makes these outsiders tick as aspiring filmmakers other than their numbskull attraction to Hollywood fame. The scene of showbiz insiders enjoying Wiseau’s big-screen debacle is as false as anything in I, Tonya because it essentially celebrates decadence. Laughing at unfortunate folk is the hallmark of our despoiled culture. It demonstrates Hollywood professionals’ class-based hatred — specifically, for Americans unlike themselves.
In Demon Lover Diary (1980), documentary team Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott observed a group of amateurs in Michigan making a horror film; the participants’ clashing personalities revealed the nexus of working-class culture and movie-mad ambition. This was before indie filmmaking became so commercialized and dilettantish that it has befouled its original non-Hollywood purpose. Kreines and DeMott showed real and admirable independence. As for Franco’s own award-winning, navel-gazing performance as Wiseau, I found it inscrutable; it’s his version of I, James.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.