This week’s home-video release of Uncut Gems matches Criterion’s recent Blu-Ray release of Mikey and Nicky, illustrating that “social distancing” existed in film culture even before it became a “thing.”
Some form of social distancing was always perpetuated by the idea of escapism — entertainment that keeps reality, the troubles of the world, at arm’s length. Hollywood’s concentration on comic-book movies this millennium is irrefutable evidence of the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities through an emphasis on fantasy. This tendency even keeps art a remote idea for moviegoers bred on the disposable, meaningless trash that’s a preoccupation of the adolescent sensibility (thus, the basis of the wars between the Marvel and D.C. universes).
And this is how Uncut Gems has achieved its cult popularity, centered around transforming the now-disgraced Boomer comic Adam Sandler into a figure of Millennial petulance and pity. As Howard Ratner, New York City diamond dealer and inveterate gambler, Sandler trades his former comic generosity for the self-centered egomania of the autism generation. Ratner cannot see past his own immediate satisfaction; his blinkered view of a tiny, dishonest, criminal world simulates the condition of social alienation that defines the political apathy of youth who accept socialism without studying or examining it.
And this is why Mikey and Nicky (note the infantilized names) has come back to film culture with a greater reception than it received when originally released in 1976. Mikey and Nicky is also a child-man story, doubled into a two-man character study performed by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. These underworld gangsters, both involved in an ultimately unsurprising hit job, act out the prototype of Ratner’s petty self-involvement. Their particular solipsism, by which they escape into their own world of blunt needy instinct, delineates the psychology of social distancing — of fear and dependence and eventually mutual betrayal.
But what distinguishes these two films marks the difference between cultural eras. Mikey and Nicky was the product of one of the most inquisitive, analytical, and exploratory periods in Hollywood film history. American filmmakers — responding to the dissatisfactions of the post-WWII years, and using European art movies as models — set out to examine social conventions. Seventies auteurs seized upon reality instead of distancing themselves from it, while Millennial filmmakers pursue what can rightly be broken down as “social distancing.”
A home-video compare-and-contrast between Uncut Gems and Mikey and Nicky (a convenient pastime during the current health crisis that makes moviegoing ill-advised) reveals the peculiar distancing that besets our times. Ratner’s self-pitying childishness can be seen for what it is through the example of Mikey and Nicky — men approaching middle age who never developed sensitivity to others, who choose crime over social responsibility. A film-to-film contrast further exposes the deception inherent in modern indie film culture when filmmakers, and their sponsored protagonists, are alienated from themselves. There’s another remarkable contrast between the two movies: In Mikey and Nicky, the two protagonists stumble into a black bar and a fracas ensues while Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco social anthem “Love Train,” by the O’Jays, plays in the background; in Uncut Gems, the white Ratner exploits black African mineworkers and black American sports and entertainment figures.
The similar visual styles of both films also explain how, in the age of social distancing, anti-aesthetics have become the new aesthetic. Elaine May directed Mikey and Nicky in a purposely, literally ugly, “non-Hollywood” way while Josh and Benny Safdie choose a deliberately grueling, restless look in Uncut Gems. At the time, Pauline Kael described May’s “absence of style” variously as “limp,” “shapeless,” “passive,” and “amorphous.” The same could be said of the Safdies except that they deploy primitive artiness, mistakenly praised as “immersive” in the age of Marvel.
When Mikey and Nicky was released, Martin Scorsese had already reached his peak in Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver — aesthetically striking movies that also explored the anguished world of masculine self-deception. May added middlebrow confirmation of Scorsese’s scabrous insight (already indebted to Cassavetes’s own personal filmmaking, Faces and Husbands), but the Safdies seem to have forgotten all about Scorsese’s breakthrough.
While most current movies reduce human relationships to the political branding of race and gender, the twisted human relations showcased in films such as Uncut Gems only inculcate us in social distancing. But the subtext of Mikey and Nicky is compassion — across stratified classes and even among the same classes. Or, as E. M. Forster advised: “Only connect.”