I hail from the Michael O’Donoghue school of comedy, which holds nothing sacred – the more verboten the subject, the riper it is for relentless ridicule. This has gotten me into a little trouble here and there. Years ago, while flirting with stand-up comedy in New York City, I attempted a hastily invented bit about the Oregon high school shooter Kip Kinkel, who, earlier in the day, murdered his parents while they ate breakfast before traipsing off to school to gun down a couple of fellow students. Before I could get to the punch line (this bit was so hastily invented, I can’t even remember if there was a punch line), the crowd turned against me. But I soldiered on, inoculated from the booing by four Heinekens sucked down during the previous comics’ sets; once my self-inflicted crucible was complete, I rationalized that I had touched a nerve in the classic O’Donoghue tradition. Me against the world.
I mention this because, yesterday morning, I instinctively wrote a Cho Seung-Hui joke into my Cannes Film Festival news item, and, a second later, instinctively deleted it. Why? "Virginia Tech’s a big school. This might wreck some unsuspecting reader’s day." Though a flagrant violation of the O’Donoghue ethic, an unexpected spasm of decency prevailed; I just didn’t feel like putting that out in the world that day. Most people might feel good about themselves for exhibiting such restraint. I felt like a pussy.
It was another in a long line of warning signals: after walking out of Kill Bill Vol. 1 four years ago, I’ve been aware of and disgusted by a prevalent strain of nihilism that gets off on finely tuned machines of cruelty. (I’ve since embraced the entirety of Kill Bill, but only after Volume 2 imbued Tarantino’s halved-for-exhibition-purposes revenge epic with some much needed humanity – without Pai Mei and the daughter, the movie would be a meaningless orgy of murder.) It’s not that my tolerance for amoral entertainment has been worn down (*cough*); it’s that I’m not entirely comfortable with fascist war parables and torture porn** gaining mainstream acceptance. There’s no escape! Though we’re unquestionably living in an inhumane era, does everyone need to hold up the same mirror to our ugly nature? This question came up as I squirmed through certain sections of Johnny To’s Triad Election recently, but, after surviving the rough stuff, I decided there was value in his pulpy examination of Chinese gangland governance; as a critique of supposedly legitimate politics, it scored enough salient points to excuse its ultraviolence.
While Triad Election challenged my increasingly delicate sensibilities, I’ve never once questioned the rampant brutality of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, the virtuosic middle section of the South Korean filmmaker’s popular "Vengeance Trilogy" – which, you might have heard, has lately been wedged under the mass media microscope. Despite its deliriously violent content, the movie’s got a soul; the cruelty visited on Oh Dae-su – the fifteen years of imprisonment and the fiendish manner in which Lee Woo-jin parcels out information – has always struck me as a metaphor for life in North Korea. Oh Dae-su’s erratic behavior after he emerges from captivity – via a suitcase like a desperate escapee – is akin to an animal being returned to the wild; that Woo-jin intends for Dae-su to share his sense of shame and persecution feels like a guilty, gunpoint gesture of rapprochement between the split societies (this divide received a matter-of-fact treatment in Chan-Wook’s excellent JSA: Joint Security Area).
These were themes I picked up on after my first screening of Oldboy back in December 2003 – a good five months before its Cannes premiere in May of 2004. Since then, it’s become a favorite among less sophisticated viewers who get off on Park Chan-Wook’s rousingly choreographed fight sequences, thus prompting several misguided critics to condemn the film for its lack of intellectual nourishment. Per The New York Times‘ Mahohla Dargis: "Entertaining to watch – notwithstanding the scene in which Dae-su eats a live animal – which is a good thing, because there is not much to think about here, outside of the choreographed mayhem." Dargis is usually much sharper than this, so let’s give her a pass.
Unfortunately, her words have once again been used as an indictment of Oldboy‘s alleged shallowness, this time by Deadline Hollywood Daily Today This Very Minute’s Nikki Finke, who, in a brief think piece on the Virginia Tech gunman’s media-incited motivations, wonders "how critics with even a shred of humanity keep supporting films that celebrate violence in all its awfulness". She then adds: "It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie." Oh, I’m sorry, that was Bosley Crowther fulminating over Bonnie and Clyde.
Thank god the internet wasn’t around when Mark David Chapman plugged John Lennon outside of The Dakota, or we’d have Nikki Finke jotting away about the horrors of "The New Solipsism" or some such bullshit. No matter how much I despair over the dark direction of our popular culture, it’s just goddamn idiotic to launch into a tirade against Oldboy in response to the actions of a lone jackass like Cho Seung-Hui. All this based on one pose! What about the other action movie clichés the dead little shit was mimicking, like the two-fisting of pistols? Oh, but let’s get fixated on Oldboy because of a hammer (which, you might be surprised to learn, has never been used as an instrument of murder in film history).
And, yet, to get this worked up over Oldboy is to lose sight of the conversation we should be having (like this is a surprise – we saw the same discourse derailment last week with the Don Imus scandal). It’s not the Saws or the Hostels or the Wolf Creeks we should be worried about, but the empty battle cries in dead-end crap like 300 or the procedural dead-ends in genuinely thoughtful works like David Fincher’s Zodiac. A strange, Post 9/11, Post-Iraq ennui has hit, and it’s seeped into the mainstream something fierce. Everything’s tainted. Even a classic Horatio Alger tale like The Pursuit of Happyness beats the audience up a little. The last movie to send me out of a theater feeling exhilarated and full of hope was Rocky Balboa, and that was just a quaint callback to a bygone era. The only other movies of the last calendar year to evoke something positive in me were Dreamgirls, Knocked Up and Breaking and Entering. Reaching back into the year prior, I’m coming up with Sky High and little else.
I don’t necessarily want more Rocky movies (well, a perverse, shamelessly nostalgic part of me does), but I do wonder where our Back to the Futures and E.T.s are. Look at this summer’s blockbuster offerings. Spider-Man 3, The Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, The Bourne Ultimatum… there’s a dourness clouding all of these movies. Maybe we’re still fucked up over 9/11, or maybe we’re too aware of the atrocities being committed elsewhere in the world, but there isn’t much joy at the megaplex. If I felt this were indicative of widespread soul searching, that’d actually be reassuring, but this stinks of resignation. Collectively, we’re fucking miserable.
**I’ll disagree with my esteemed colleague Mr. Vinton, and say Eli Roth is currently exempted because, at least with the first Hostel, he seems to be punishing the audience for their bloodlust. I interviewed him re: Hostel: Part II, and he assured me it’s not "torture porn". But if he goes the Saw route this time out, I’ll give that bastard what for.