Monday, February 04, 2013

Is Bulleit So Rare?

The return of Walter Hill to the big screen is a cause for celebration in itself. Hill is a terrific filmmaker who has a large number of superb, probing genre films to his name: The Long Riders, The Warriors, Geronimo, Undisputed, Streets of Fire, and so on. Not all of his movies are masterpieces but the cinema would be a richer place if he made more feature films. I'm very much in his corner. But I don't think Bullet to the Head is a strong film at all - it's not poorly directed (Hill is too competent for that), but the overall conception is oppressively routine and this is not a case of a smuggler-auteur transcending the material and building something greater than the sum of its parts (as could be argued for Undisputed).

At the risk of beating a dead horse, or just picking at low-hanging fruit, I'm maddened by a recent dialogue between Armond White and Gregory Solman in praise of the movie. I don't really read White any more, but I do think that 10-12 years ago he was a quite decent critic who used his "contrarian" status much more judiciously than today. Now it's just a calling card which can get him writing gigs, I suspect, because his imperious manner and outrageous claims are parlayed into a brand, and help drive pageviews. (You might say that White updates the role of pop critic in our 9/11 context. We've forgotten how critics could examine morality through genre fun.)

I am also curious if anyone can establish for us that Gregory Solman is not, in fact, a long-standing pen name & alter ego for Armond White. Perhaps the two are critic-friends who've developed similar tastes over time - that's certainly a possibility. But given that they share a personal canon of great cinema, as well as similar styles of argumentation & critical reference, and they write for a lot of the same venues, and that White is known & seen around public screenings but Solman is seemingly even less photographed than Manohla Dargis, and is referred to almost exclusively by White (and rarely by other critics) ... well, you can see how suspicions arise in an idle mind. Maybe a bit like the possibility of Ray Carney writing some of his own fan mail - there are too many flattering imitations, too many phrases like the ones we see Solman put forth in this interview: "You convinced me!" or "As I know you know..."

Bullet to the Head is a story built upon cliche - if you like this, you can call it "myth" or perhaps "archetype," but at least be so honest as to acknowledge that 98% of these conventions draw upon other recent low budget action cinema, not The Searchers. Cliche and convention don't make a work bad (novelty is sometimes blindly overrated), but it's all in how they relate to one another and how they're expressed. For me, it's not as if the bonds of, say, Walter Hill's termitish authorial expression (as tied to his basic filmmaking competence) are absent so much as they are, in fact, too weak to overpower the essential moviemaking-by-committee feel of the material. At any rate, such action movie cliches on display here include escapes to fully equipped hideouts and climactic sequences set in abandoned warehouses full of machines and industrial detritus. Plus Stallone is his own man and we know this in part because he drinks an ultra-obscure bourbon, Bulleit, which he carries around to bars himself because nobody anywhere stocks Bulleit. That's right, Bulleit. Way obscure. And in Bullet to the Head. On the damn nose, screenwriters! (Or should we blame the money people?) Conveniently, Stallone's beautiful tattoo artist daughter (Sarah Shahi) also happens to recognize the names of local judges and politicians who pop up on a flash drive. Civics.

Another problem is the tired, unreconstructed partnership between the cop Sung Kang and the hitman Stallone. I'm shocked - shocked! - that the assassin-protagonist has his own moral code, or that the by-the-book detective must revise his highly legalistic standards toward violence and procedure.  Then, of course, there are the par-for-the-course identity politics jokes that thud their way into the dialogue. Anyone who thought that Gran Torino's race banter was completely unmotivated should use this to see how rote, how mechanical such attempts at "wit" can truly be. (At least the point in Gran Torino is that Eastwood is ridiculous at the same time as he's being offensive, and his racism is ultimately shown as culturally conditioned rather than a conditioning feature of the movie's very genericism: Wikipedia says that Joel Silver chose to cast Kang, an "ethnic" i.e. non-white actor, for wider audience appeal.) Kang is Asian, and it's funny to see old folks disregard national and ethnic differences among Asians! Stallone's old! The actors spout off lines as if they're going through the motions, but what's more, it almost seems as if the characters are just as tired hearing this bullshit come out.

So it alarms my delicate, pearl-clutching sensibilities to see a discussion that appears to be on the side of the angels (because Walter Hill is the man) but is not only in my opinion wrong (since I'd say Bullet to the Head is very squarely mediocre) but doesn't even bother to establish a basic competence as a critical argument in the film's favor. White feints in the direction of auteurist polemic, but his "case" is actually devoid of any argumentation at all. Part of the formula is to mention a similarity between Bullet to the Head and some other esteemed movie (a similarity general enough that it far exceeds the specificity of anyone's particular craft, and, well, probably applies to macho action movies in general). Then, you up the ante with an sweeping declarative statement that might appear like a conclusion from the preceding premises but isn't. No joke, this is how White starts his dialogue:

Stallone's performance as career hitman Jimmy Bobo reminded me of Charles Bronson's streetfighter in Hill's directorial debut Hard Times. The same grizzled features, the same masculine ethos. The plot of Bobo teaming up with policeman Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang) recalled Hill's buddy movie 48 HRS. Hill and Stallone's cinema histories are combined, the action genre is updated.

One could also point out that the cinema histories of any two collaborators are necessarily "combined" when they work together on the same movie, and that strictly speaking a genre is always "updated," even through bad or run-of-the-mill contributions. (Note how often White speaks of "advances" and "updates" and what "we've forgotten," without ever describing what he means by any of this: it's snake oil.) Really, a genre artist like Hill deserves much better (and by this I also mean more rigorous) treatment than White's hollow ode.

Hill knows how make a few words matter. He evokes personal ethics and sums up genre ethics.

Is the second sentence supposed to follow logically from the first? Does it simply add to it? How does one "sum up" genre ethics? Are we talking about an ethics of genre? Ethics through genre? Is it enough for a movie to merely "evoke" personal ethics? Most movies evoke personal ethics - the problem is that they stop timidly, lazily at such evocation.

Bullet is an exciting exploration of post-9/11 morality.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

The post-9/11 world where money and ethics collide?

Oh, for fuck's sake, part two.

The torture of Christian Slater scene feels Godardian ...

It feels odd to me that someone might make this statement with a straight face if one has actually seen Le petit soldat ... what a blatant and irresponsible disregard for form, politics, and philosophy.


Eric Henderson said...

Hah, I had that exact same thought during the movie. Bulleit is zany cheap. How can NONE of these bars stock it?!

... said...

It sure is infuriating, but I still love Armond White. He writes more like a machine than like a real human nowadays but for instance, his review of Silver Linings Playbook was quite perceptive, and his put-downs of pretentious, middlebrow stuff usually favored, puffed up by the critics such as any film by Thomas Anderson, Haneke, etc are sometimes RIGHT. Anyway, the man is not the joke that everyone thinks he is, and thanks for acknowledging that. Armond is always ready to defend such directors as Alex Cox, Wong Kar-Wai, Neil Jordan, he likes lushness, command of style and he's right. As a non-native speaker, I hope my syntax is correct.

Andrew said...

I enjoyed this post (snaps fingers).

According to a 2003 post on

"Gregory Solman is a film scholar and critic who has written frequently for the Boston Phoenix, Film Comment and for as the pseudonymous Undercover Critic. He's a former editor of the motion-picture trade magazines Millimeter and Variety and resides in Los Angeles."

You might sweet-talk the truth out of Variety.

I roll my eyes at Armond White more often than not, but I still read him -- his own elusive lucidity (sorry) sometimes surfaces, as in this review of Beasts of the Southern Wild:

I've struggled to express my misgivings about that movie ever since I saw it, and finally, BAM -- Harmin' Armond makes it clear.

Anyway, thanks for sharing -- I look forward to reading you again.

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... said...

I'm french, by the way and as such (which is pretty rare- I mean, I'm a special brand of french ), I hate snobbishness when it comes to movies, which foreign people mistakes for exoticism (I know that process, that's why probably I love American cinema, mainstream films and all, and once, hong-kong films- which in fact I still love, but I have seen them all). Did you read this piece about Beast of The Southern Wild, it says it all:

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