Movies that taunt their audiences.

Movies that taunt their audiences. June 28, 2008

He’s only got two examples so far, and normally you need three to make this sort of pronouncement, but Glenn Kenny says he detects a trend anyway:

  1. In Jumper, Hayden Christensen plays a guy who can teleport to any place in the world — or at least any place that he can remember being to before — and in one of his voice-overs, he declares: “I wasn’t always like this. Once, I was a normal person. A chump, just like you.”
  2. In Wanted, which is turning out to have one of the biggest opening weekends of any R-rated film ever, James McAvoy plays a superpowered assassin who can make bullets curve around obstacles to reach their intended targets — and in one of his voice-overs, he declares: “Six weeks ago, I was ordinary and pathetic, just like you.”

The headline that Kenny gives his musings on this trend-in-the-making — “Contempt for the audience!” — brings to mind, for me, recent accusations by a handful of critics that WALL*E, which depicts the human race of the future as a mass of fat and lazy consumers, and which is also doing phenomenal business this weekend, is also “an insult to its customers.”

I have not yet seen WALL*E, so I cannot say whether it merits this criticism or whether it merits being lumped in with these other films — though from what I hear, it at least tries to go someplace redemptive with its satirical set-up. I have, however, seen the other two films, and I think one could point to significant differences between them, too, if one wanted to.

For one thing, the Christensen character makes his statement at the beginning of Jumper, when he is callow and arrogant and unaware of the larger forces that are about to intrude upon his life; he makes his statement, in other words, before the story has given him any opportunity for redemption. (Whether he takes full advantage of that opportunity is another subject for another time.)

The McAvoy character, on the other hand, makes his statement at the end of Wanted, after he has passed through all the training exercises and narrative curveballs that transform him from a wussy office drone to a superpowered hitman. So in his case, the arrogance is something that he seems to earn over the course of his self-actualization, whether you agree with it or not.

This movement towards arrogance on the part of McAvoy’s character is certainly one of the more problematic aspects of Wanted — which is, in many ways, kind of like David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) but without the clear critique of the characters’ own fascist tendencies. But I actually kind of like this problem.

To bring in another Edward Norton movie, the final moments of Wanted are kind of like the final moments in The Incredible Hulk, inasmuch as they show a character finally taking “control” of his life, but they leave you wondering whether he will use this control to remain a hero or become a villain.

They highlight, in other words, the value of autonomy and self-determination, but also the risks that come with those things. Without free will, we couldn’t be good, not in any meaningful way — but without free will, we also couldn’t sin or do evil. So is the risk of sin and evil worth the free will? That sort of thing.

Do I think we should all try to be more than ordinary in some way? Yeah, absolutely. Do I think extra-ordinary people face the temptation to lord it over the ordinary people, and to think that they are better than they really are? Yeah, absolutely. Do I think McAvoy poses a legitimate challenge to the audience, even if he personally seems to represent something that we should try to avoid in our own lives? Yeah, absolutely.

So a part of me likes that tension at the end of Wanted — even if it seems to lend some validity to McAvoy’s claim that he is no longer “ordinary and pathetic” like the rest of us.

Frankly, if it weren’t for Kenny, I never would have made any sort of connection between this film and Jumper. The film that I was reminded of, at the end of Wanted, was Trainspotting (1996), which famously concludes with Ewan McGregor telling the audience that he’s going to blend in and become a part of society, just like the people he mocked at the beginning of the film, and just like the sorry lot of us sitting right there in the theatre.

Maybe it’s because McAvoy and McGregor are both Scottish, I dunno.

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  • Today I re-watched “Goodfellas,” as I hadn’t seen it for a few years, and I noticed how often Henry Hill does this very thing (insulting the audience). Calls us “shnooks,” even.

  • Fascinating. If you click on the word “Trainspotting” above, it will take you to a previous post of mine which, in turn, links to a PDF file containing the review I wrote of that film for the student newspaper back in 1996. And in my review of Trainspotting, I actually refer to Goodfellas — though not quite for this reason.

  • Would Funny Games count?

  • Peter: I kinda got ticked myself when I see the commercials for the film and at one point it shows the main character turn towards the camera from his scope and asks “What the *insert scene of a round chambering* have you done today?” or close enough. I got ticked and turned towards my wife to say how much I hate when movies do that. It just seems to me that your asking for your audience to get either defensive or dismissive because what if freakin Bill Gates is watching? Or a war veteran? IMHO, if you want a chracter to make a statement about how living your life in a office cubicle is just not living at all why not have him say it to someone who is living that life in the movie. Maybe someone from his old job or something. That way you can make whatever commentary about living life like a robot or whatever all you want without having the audience saying “the hell with you, you’re a freakin ACTOR for godsakes!”

    I don’t know, my own little nitpick on the matter (and I certainly have no objection of questioning a life where all you do is sit in a cubicle typing up data sheets; especially from a Christian perspective).

  • The Simpsons Movie opens with a great taunt,

    HOMER – I can’t believe we’re paying to see something we get on TV for free. (gesturing) If you ask me everyone in this theatre is a giant sucker. (points at camera) Especially you!

    There’s an implied taunt at various stages of Fight Club and I’m partial to the reading that the end of The Matrix is as much a taunt of the audience as it is of “the system.”

  • I think it has to do with intention. I haven’t seen Jumper, Wanted or WALL-E, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
    Trainspotting is about escape from reality by any means necessary. Renton is critical of consumerism at the beginning of the film because the means to attain these things is unavailable to him in any meaningful way. In the beginning, Renton’s means of escape is heroin – other drugs to be sure, but mainly heroin. For Begbie it is booze. Sex is about escape. For Renton’s parent’s and Lizzie it is largely through domesticity and routine. After the drug deal, Renton doesn’t need to use heroin to escape and dull himself. Renton now has the means, a means that had escaped him until this point, to numb himself by the most popular and acceptable means available – buying power, consumerism.
    Consumerism presents a real problem for all societies and needs to be challenged. So maybe WALL-E is rubbing people the wrong way for all the right reasons. Wanted looks and sounds like some retarded early adolescent’s nerdy, gangsta wanna-be wet dream. From the ads, I would find it hard to find anything redeeming in the film’s message. Trainspotting is nihilistic, but it is thought and discussion provoking. The film’s nihilistic view of the world can spur us on to thinking about better things for ourselves and for our society. Could the same be said for Wanted?

  • I will ignore your anti-Scottish bigotry, you schismatic …

    Anyway, I was gonna suggest FUNNY GAMES and THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, but others beat me to the punch.

    But basically any movie that’s critical of technological or consumer society (or capitalism) and is playing at a Western Multiplex is gonna, at least implicitly taunt the audience. (Art-house movies deal with this fact by stroking the audience about how different, better and smarter they are.)

    Actually, now that I think and it literally just came to me (Scout’s Honor) … most of Mike Judge’s ouevre is a taunt at their audiences. OFFICE SPACE was most popular among white-collar Dilbertine cubicle-dwellers, BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD among the MTV generation (it even began as a cartoon on MTV), and IDIOCRACY was watched by both groups, more or less, and equally contemptuous of both (bourgeois non-breeders and degenerate lowbrows).