In Which We Ask Ourselves If We Are Young Enough

My Diagnosis

by Karina Wolf

I’d been self-diagnosing superannuation long before a Loews’ ticket seller demanded to know if I was old enough to see Pineapple Express. The question, of course, is, “Am I young enough?” since the target audience is one-third my age. It’s like Alex said, the Apatow troupe has a chokehold on American morality, and the authorities are policing the ticket counters to protect an impressionable viewing contingency from Seth Rogen and his schlubby ilk. What about sheltering us from all the other dopey actors on show?

A 24-hour marathon of Dark Knight, Wall-E, Wanted, and The Happening was alarming more because of popular veneration of these films than because of the dystopium depicted. Should Wall-E be Oscar bait, should James McAvoy have a career, has Christopher Nolan made the ultimate iteration of contemporary malaise?

The launch of the Keaton-Nicholson cycle of the Batman franchise coincided with the rise of the Tim Burton aesthetic, which seemed edgy, hip, dark. Now, it’s like Beetlejuice—campy fun—illustrating that most movies lose their currency, even good ones. (Is anyone still terrified by The Shining after a dozen films have borrowed so exhaustively from it?)

Dark Knight and the other summer successes occupy an equally precarious pinnacle before slaloming to oblivion. The new Batman movie, for example, generated conspiracy theories and mega-box office. As many reviews have stated, the film starts with an intelligent point-of-view and a reasonably interesting premise: is anyone morally unassailable? Is there a justification for corruption?

The great thing about comic book films is that they offer greater (more than one) dimension than the usual roles for pretty faces. The hero in disguise and the good man turned villain suggest ways to reconcile our paradoxical humanity—many of them are about integrating contradiction and making amends.

Too bad Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a humorless narcissist with a silly voice. And I understand more about the arbitrary, implacable nature of human darkness from Nicholson’s gender politics (or Bardem’s inverted Prince Valiant or Ulrich Muhe’s Stasi pathos) than I do from anything Heather Ledger enacts in Dark Knight. Two-Face might mean something if Aaron Eckhart’s persona weren’t so drenched in smarm.

can’t he get cast on L&O?

The movie made me think more about current casting preferences than it did about evil, or insanity. To paraphrase the Passover question—or the interrogative of single women everywhere—how are these Jokers different from all the other Jokers? Why does it seem like contemporary performers offer less and less onscreen?

bale in The Machinist

Bale is the hunger artist of his generation. If he’s a draw as an actor, it’s because of the disturbing spectacle of someone punishing himself for public viewing, the extreme regimen that everyone knows he’s willing to undertake for a role. There’s thankfully little else (aside from the recent extortion tussle with his family) that anyone knows about him. And while I want to thank Mr. Bale for not torturing us viewing public with the cult of his personality, it’s sort of baffling that he keeps getting cast in films. No one really wants to spend time with him, do they?

busy phillips, michelle, & heath

Ledger is an eerily similar performer, a passable actor who’s exceptional only because he doesn’t disrupt the diagesis (even when he’s supposed to be a lethal prankster). When faced with another Tom Cruise-starrer, I suppose that’s something to be grateful for.

Bale and Ledger are part of a tradition of polite actors. They may trash a hotel room or brawl with their moms or model girlfriends; but at worst they’ll destroy their metabolisms with reckless Method-y dieting.

The aggression and contradictions never make it onscreen, even when their parts are supposed to be disruptive. If these guys are guilty of the prototypical movie star flaw—if every role is a version of himself—their filmographies are a testament to blandness.

Johnny Depp has to be the Godfather to this group of players, a blandly acceptable screen presence onto whom we can project whatever we like. They all fall on the DeNiro side of the DeNiro/Pacino divide, so withholding that you keep leaning forward, giving more and more of your energy and attention in order to pick up a little bit of his weakly-emitting affect.

pfeiffer, pacino, and mastrantonio

In the opposite corner, we’ve got Freeman and Caine. Naturalism doesn’t have to mean opacity or flatness of feeling. Morgan Freeman rarely has an opportunity to telegraph anything but noblesse and benevolence, but at least he suggests an inner life.

Caine has more depth, in a pretty meager part. Maybe this is because parts for older actors always seem to be character roles; but Michael Caine was always a character even when a leading man. Look at Ben Kingsley, who’s sure to enervate as a Roth surrogate in Elegy but whom I want to watch anyway. There’s always a sense of individuality that we don’t find in these younger guys.

BBC’s Mark Kermode remarks that Wall-E owes a noticeable debt to Silent Running, another futuristic film in which robots try to clean up earth. It’s also a movie, like There Will Be Blood, which develops largely without dialogue and relies on the doe-eyed expressiveness of its robot hero. Maybe this explains why the actors are so heavily laden with eyeliner in The Dark Knight. We’re returning to an era of silent performers, like Angelina Jolie, who pouts and vamps and raises an eyebrow to signal a performance.

About the talent:

Bale’s mother was in the circus; his grandfather was a stand-in for John Wayne; Bale is a distant relative of British actress Lillie Langtry.

Bale and Ledger both started working as children and never formally studied acting. Bale was the child in Spielberg’s version of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

Johnny Depp dropped out of high school and moved to LA to be in a rock band. Nic Cage advised him to get into acting.

Aaron Eckhart majored in film at Brigham Young University, where starred in the Mormon-themed film Godly Sorrow and met Neil LaBute.

Al Pacino went to the High School for the Performing Arts and studied with Lee Strasberg.

Robert De Niro went to the High School for the Performing Arts and studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

Michael Caine responded to an ad for assistant stage manager at the Westminster Repertory Company; this job led to walk on roles.

Morgan Freeman turned down a drama scholarship from Jackson State University to work as a mechanic for the Air Force. He performed as a dancer in the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens.

Tom Cruise decided to become an actor after starring in a high school production of Guys and Dolls.

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She lives in Manhattan. She tumbls here.

cruise and mcconaughey in tropic thunder

NOW FOR THE MUSIC OF L. RON HUBBARD

“Chemtrails” – Beck (mp3)

“Youthless” – Beck (mp3)

“Modern Guilt” – Beck (mp3)

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

Dan usually gets double the pleasure and double the fun.

Racism is racism.

Ms. Bedard’s pet peeves.

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9 thoughts on “In Which We Ask Ourselves If We Are Young Enough

  1. I think Bale is a draw because of the lengths he’ll go for a film, but there’s also the sense that he represents some kind of authenticity, or at the very least earnestness; both of which are only defined by their relation to others with Cruise a prime example of bloated personality.

    I’d say modernism in film (and other art forms) has largely been about deconstruction, but Nolan’s films are attempting to build something, perhaps in a world of truths laid somewhat more bare.

    But beyond criticism, into pure admiration, I have to say I really appreciate this blog and its posts. You write like I think; meaning with images, arguments and most necessary of all, music. Thanks and keep up the good work!

  2. hm. i got the feeling you hadnt seen brokeback mountain… if you had, i dont understand why you would call ledgers filmography bland. alot of the references in this blog are so oblique as to verge on the spurious. i appreciate the bad-ass devotion to craft that is reflected here, though.

  3. Robert Downey Jr. is from the Michael Caine school of acting. They are hugely charismatic personalities, themselves, and it translates on the screen. I just watched Alfie on TCM the other day and was amazed by Caine’s performance. He plays a charming bastard without overemphasizing either part of the equation.

  4. Wolf is right. Daniel Day-Lewis’s freakish performance in There Will Be Blood does seem to be uncannily modeled after Yul Brenner’s doe-eyed robot-antihero from Westworld.

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