Film & TV

Assassination Nation: A Poor Parody of the Salem Witch Trials

Assassination Nation (Sundance Institute)
But John Lydon’s fierce intelligence shines like a beacon in The Public Image Is Rotten.

The too-cute title “Assassination Nation” tips us off to the film’s excessive sarcasm. It’s meant to cajole a superficially cynical generation of moviegoers who have never seen, or suffered, a personification of its hopes destroyed.

In this over-agitated social comedy, youth culture caught up in digital communication is presented as the modern standard: materialistic, sexually active, morally naïve school kids are endangered when someone who goes by the Internet tag Er0stratus starts hacking the town’s private accounts. The panic that ensues satirizes society’s potential collapse.

Writer-director Sam Levinson (son of director Barry Levinson) attempts to commercialize the 17th-century Salem witch trials by equating those events to modern-day female oppression. Though not as insulting as Easy A (the puerile Emma Stone update of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), this shameless, double-dealing film sexualizes the idea of female independence to make it seem that patriarchy, once again, is the villain. Er0stratus’s first hacking victim is the town’s middle-age male mayor (conveniently a closeted homophobe), but the town — that is, society — focuses its retribution on a quartet of teenage girls at Salem High School.

Levinson pushes dystopia, the boilerplate gimmick of superficial filmmakers, to extremes. It should be absurdist or satirical yet ends up monumentally crude. His narrator, Lily (Odessa Young), a nubile, supposedly super-smart blonde student, lectures the principal (Colman Domingo) that her art-class drawings of a female nude engaged in genital fondling illustrates the difference between “explicit” and “extreme.” “This isn’t about ‘porn,’” she argues. “It’s about all the pressure that goes into it!” Then she lists the difficulties of being a Millennial teenager.

Through a catalogue of stylistic clichés, Levinson depicts Millennial adolescence as an orgy of middle-class American privileges. He flashes ironic slogans across the screen: “The Male Gaze,” “Trigger Warnings,” and “Fragile Male Egos.” (But not female egos?) A color-tinted party sequence introduces inessential, incoherent information about the girl gang and their boy toys via split-screen montage that at one point imitates — and disgraces — the triumphant tri-partite panorama that climaxed Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927).

Assassination Nation begins quoting the kid-on-a-tricycle trope of Kubrick’s The Shining, and Levinson falls back on more movie clichés — including movie cynicism — to bolster a phony view of 21st-century youth, with leering emphasis on Millennials’ sexual effrontery, from Young’s exposed rump, to trans performer Hari Nef’s being cast for PC cred, Abra as Em, the designated black friend to Bella Thorne who impudently proclaims that “privacy is just dead!” Despite all that hipness, this film lacks the wit and insight that made the extreme visions of youth in Joseph Kahn’s Detention, Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, and Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists such delirious, penetrating, and marvelous forecasts of cultural apocalypse.

Levinson surveys social and political controversies such as narcissism, waterboarding, and 4Chan extortion as sick jokes, but he fails to provide comic relief. A feminist gag about remaking Straw Dogs bombs: “Instead of Susan George being raped, it’s Dustin Hoffman.” “Hasn’t Nancy Meyers already done that?” It’s self-congratulatory and presumes Millennials’ unlikely cultural savvy. Through Levinson’s own cultural arrogance, the middle-class double standards look just like the banal American Beauty, and his vision of political turmoil turns into The Purge. Anarchists and lynch mobs wear masks atop masks, leading to the siege of a black family’s home staged in laughably blood-spattered imitation of De Palma’s Scarface. The capper is Lily’s declaration against hypocrisy: “Don’t take your hate out on me; I just got here!”

Fans of dystopian junk like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman will fall for anything, but they shouldn’t get their hopes up for Assassination Nation. Levinson’s sexual and generational politics are so shallow that he betrays their own trendy self-righteousness. I suppose we’re fortunate that, during this era of media and government witch-hunting, another dumb filmmaker from the Sundance-Hollywood cabal cannot get his political biases to line up cogently. Levinson so miscalculates this Salem-witch-trial parody that he eventually overshoots what should be its obvious point.

In a truly clever, maybe even cautionary, satire, Lily and her band of avenging tarts would represent Clinton, Pelosi, Warren, and Feinstein — the obsessed, politically treacherous ladies we’re witnessing right now. Such a movie might shine a light on the self-pity that leads Clinton to take a loss of political power as a personal wound and to project blame on foreign hackers, all while she advocates revolution and eventual political ruination. (Some form of assassination seems to be the obsession of #Resistance members’ distorted imaginations. Without political power, they feel exposed and terrified and become vicious, as if they are meant to permanently run our country and our culture.) In the brilliant, devastatingly funny Mom and Dad, Brian Taylor got to the heart of our culture’s self-destructive bent. Even Taylor’s simple evocative title outclasses Assassination Nation and its foolish, chaotic blatancy.

***

Johnny Rotten in The Public Image Is Rotten (Abramorama/Trailer image/YouTube)

The title of the new documentary The Public Image Is Rotten could be about America, our politicians, or our media. But better than any of those, its subject is the sharp and brilliant-tongued John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols). It’s a bio-doc that usefully contrasts the media debacle we’re now going through with an individual artist of rare intelligence and integrity — a figure whom our current era should idealize.

When explaining the name of the band that Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols imploded, he cites Muriel Spark’s 1968 novel The Public Image. “It’s about how the media side of things can lead to death and destruction,” he says. “It was quite poignant for me.”

Despite Lydon’s initial frightening image, he has always demonstrated an impressive intellect, and his poetic precision — from the blazing magnificence of his Sex Pistols rants to his concise reflective aperçus when with Public Image Limited — raised the bar on pop-culture truth-telling. (It’s Lydon’s valiant art that makes the muddle-headedness of Assassination Nation intolerable.) Pop music doesn’t get more profound than Never Mind the Bollocks, the Bill Laswell–produced comeback album featuring Lydon’s reinvented sound (it’s variously known as Album, Compact Disc, Cassette) plus the superlative tracks “Rise,” “Disappointed,” and “Open and Revolving.” This documentary, directed by Tabbert Fiiller, also features the good fun of Lydon’s raconteur rants and his willingness to always up-end expectations. Against the liberal slant of most pop groups, Lydon explains the reasoning behind Public Image Limited: “We’re still a company rather than a rock band, always have been.” He has learned from the Sex Pistols debacle with manager Malcolm McLaren.

It’s a delight to watch a reporter assert, “When you were young, you were very anti-love.” Wise Johnny answers, “That was the voice of inexperience. I’ve moved on to higher things.”

As always, Lydon burns through the foolish romanticism associated with rock-and-roll rebellion. You can admire his loyalty to bandmates and his childhood friend, now personal manager and security man John Rambo Stevens. But you needn’t romanticize his spleen and temper, which cut through pretense, as when he barks “You f***in’ idiot!” to a rowdy mosh-pit audience member. He scolds with affection — as no other pop star can.

Because of Lydon’s skepticism toward politics and politicians, he has always been a model of behavior that most politicians wouldn’t dare engage in, although you secretly wish they would. The former Johnny Rotten confronts his own contradictions with modesty and candor, as when he reflects on his career: “It needs direction like everything else in life. God! I think I’m advocating monarchy!”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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