And Die In L.A.
By Noel Vera
Dir: David Ayer (2005)
Harsh Times (2005) was reportedly based on his own experiences,
and the language ("Whassup, dog?" "I wanna get fucked up") seems
to reflect that (though Ayer's street profanity seems more mimetic
than the kind of profane poetry that, say, David Mamet is capable
of whipping up). He also manages to capture the boredom that exists
between two men in a car (one of them simply weak, the other a developing
psychopath), cruising around looking to get drunk, get laid, get
the street realism, the surface texture and the sodium-arc street
lighting (most of the picture, as with most noirs, takes place at
night)--there's not much to be really said in favor of the movie.
Ayer's self-admitted model was Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)
but I'd say it's just as useful if not more so to look at Scorsese'
earlier Mean Streets (1973)--you can see Ayer trying to capture
the same kind of 'slice of life' quality, create the same meandering
narrative, evoke the same anguished search for salvation (or damnation,
you're not quite sure which).
There are crucial
differences--Scorsese put the weakling Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel)
front and center as protagonist; his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert
De Niro) was the wild card, the violent borderline psychopath who
constantly gets Charlie in trouble. For his picture Ayers does the
exact opposite, focusing on the ostensibly more interesting role
or at least showier one--Jim Davis (Christian Bale), the traumatized
war veteran (which war (Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan) is unspecified)--and
reduced the relatively more normal friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez)
to nominal sidekick.
was Scorsese's proxy on the big screen, and Scorsese poured all
his guilts, hopes, fears into the character, laying his soul wide
open for all to examine; presumably Mike is also Ayer's proxy (far
as I know, Ayer's no borderline psychopath), and other than giving
him Sylvia (the drop-dead gorgeous Eva Longoria) for an 'old lady'
(he worked as a call center representative while putting her through
law school, and now their roles have reversed) I don't see Ayer
doing much to give Mike any depth or texture.
In Mean Streets Charlie was the film's source of anguish and troubled
conscience while Johnny Boy provided the film with its occasional
jolt of manic energy; in Harsh Times with Jim--the film's Johnny
Boy--as protagonist, it's all manic energy. There's no real sense
of anguish (you need a conflicted intelligence--some pathetic jerk
with a brain and moral sense--to generate anguish), much less a
consciousness troubled by more than just landing a good job, or
getting laid, or getting wasted.
Which is no
reflection on Christian Bale; he does a terrific job of making Jim
as magnetic as he is malevolent. Bale in roles as diverse as Patrick
Bateman in American Psycho and Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn has
made monomaniacal obsessives--people single-mindedly determined
to feed their drives (a monstrous sadism in Bateman, the lust for
freedom in Dengler)--his specialty; his small, wide-set eyes and
constantly tight mouth suggest a man constantly gazing at some far-off
target, unmindful (or at least disdainful) of the circumstances
being immediately faced. Jim in this picture needs to feed his sense
of self-destruction (his other goal, of marrying Marta (Tammy Trull),
the one woman who truly loves him, feels rather puerile in comparison);
his flaming downward arc is the main source of the film's fascination.
Charlie at the start of Mean Streets is introspective, self-loathing;
in a voiceover we hear him talking to himself, and it's clear he
knows he's scum, he knows better than to act like scum; by film's
end the voiceovers have largely ceased and Charlie--out of some
perverse sense of loyalty to Johnny Boy and as penance for himself--has
stopped examining potential consequences and become scum, joining
in Johnny Boy's one-way ride to self-destruction.
Jim's is a
relatively uncomplicated arc, bright but unmodulated; Jim is essentially
the same person (a psychopath) at either end of the story. Mike,
whose character should in theory have enough room to develop (He's
the Charlie character, remember?), remains unexamined. At movie's
start he's lying to his wife; by movie's end he's hugging her with
all his might--what happens in between should provide the meat of
the picture but we're left with more questions than insights (Why
does Sylvia put up with Mike? Why does Mike put up with Jim? How
on earth did Mike put Sylvia through law school on a telemarketer's
style is more in step with Scorsese's film--straight realism, with
relatively unhysterical editing (unusual in that this belongs to
the 'street crime' genre, and practitioners of the genre just love
to turn their raw footage into chop-suey). Only in moments of high
drama does Ayer lose confidence: when Jim goes schizo on people,
Ayer adopts what he probably hopes is a complementary mode, with
multiple exposures of what Jim's seeing tottering wildly in harsh,
yellow light (crazy man, crazy camerawork--when will people learn
that obvious reinforcement of an emotion is not always the best
or most interesting way to go?).
As for Taxi
Driver--yes, Jim, like Travis Bickle (De Niro) acts like a walking
time bomb, though here Scorsese (through scriptwriter Paul Schrader)
is careful to at least keep in contact with the source material,
Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Scorsese's Underground
Man is in many ways the opposite of Dostoevsky's (one is loquaciously
articulate, the other hilariously not so), but both are on a spiritual
quest to find meaning through connection, or through allegiance
to something--anything--they can find.
Jim's only concern, far as we can see, is to make as spectacular
an end as possible. Yes, he wants to be a police officer; yes he
wants to be a federal agent (so why does he smoke weed before the
urine test?); yes he wants a good job so he can bring the only woman
he loves (but why does she love him?) to his country and marry her
and live happily ever after. Jim's ambitions are rather simple,
really, which makes his inability to fulfill them all the more incomprehensible;
Scorsese at least harbors ambitions of trying to create something
existential out of Bickle's dilemma--a Nietzschean need to do more
than what mortal man can do, a Christlike lust to redeem the world
through some kind of sacrifice.
real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," Bickle
muses; aside from striking the proper apocalyptic note (which Scorsese
reinforces with nightmare colors, smoking streets, a percussive
music score from Bernard Herrmann (his last, appropriately)), he
could be talking of people like Jim Davis and Mike Alonzo, people
who he, of course, would never equate with himself. That's the kind
of irony found in Taxi Driver, the kind of irony you won't find--but
is badly needed--in Harsh Times.
First published in Businessworld, 10/05/07.
Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org