While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
I didn’t have a costume for Halloween. I did, however, attend a horror show, in the form of a documentary called One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. After a short junior high love affair with On the Road, I’ve never been particularly interested in Jack Kerouac. But I didn’t have anything else to do, and I miss California, and I thought I could enjoy the scenery and learn a thing or two. In retrospect, I think that my past disinclination to revere Kerouac stemmed from a spooky presentiment that a movie like this would be made about him. The promise of this foul enterprise lurked in every high school yearbook page, in every reference to the mad ones and the roman candles and the burning sensation. In this film, all of the maudlin silliness which Kerouac unwittingly spawned is made manifest.
The premise of the film is as follows: Several fixtures from Kerouac’s life (Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others) were interviewed about Kerouac and specifically, his breakdown in Big Sur. Additionally, a bewildering crew of actors and artists was assembled and given a paperback copy of the book. I’m sure the people involved are great people and good performers in their respective milieux, but they were such a very motley crew, with so little obvious connection to the work and people and places involved, that it was comically weird and distracting. Instead of listening to their insights about Kerouac (such as they were), I spent a lot of time racking my brain, trying to figure out if Donal Logue was in The Lord of the Rings (he’s not).
There is also Amber Tamblyn (her dad was Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks, and she is particularly criminal in this movie when she shakes her head and says “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack,” as though he had once taken a pair of her underpants), John Ventimiglia (who was on The Sopranos and has a very nice reading voice), S.E. Hinton (she wrote The Outsiders, which is neat), Aram Saroyan (minimalist poet, novelist, son of William), and Dar Williams (a singer-songwriter who is responsible for the shocking nadir of the film, when she cries on camera). Then there are Tom Waits and Patti Smith, whom I suspect were brought in because they are perceived as having a never-ending fund of “cred.” I have seen Fishing With John, and I know that Tom Waits is a veritable one-man cred festival, but all he does here is flip pages and rub his face and growl.
I will say, though, that Tom Waits did have the good sense not to participate in the beach bonfire, during which some members of the crew hang out in the sand, drink, and talk about Jack (Jack, Jack, Jack). Which was probably really fun to do, but is excruciating to watch.
To make things even more confusing, sometimes you hear this crooning, and you think, “Is that the guy from Death Cab for Cutie,” and it is that guy.
This is a cast that, when describing the purportedly tragic death of Kerouac’s cat, not only makes it not sad, but actually raises a chuckle from (at least two) members of the audience. The film also does the near-impossible and makes San Francisco and Big Sur look hideous. Perhaps this was to show the twisted darkness of Jack Kerouac’s soul. I’m not sure, but the whole thing is very grainy and made for unpleasant viewing.
Carolyn Cassady was a highlight of the film. For one, people who knew the subject are always more interesting to hear from than someone who was on hundreds of unrelated TV shows long after the subject’s death. Also, Carolyn Cassady had relations with both Neal Cassady and Kerouac, and it’s neat to hear what she has to say about it all (I think what she actually says on that particular aspect was something like “It was nice for me,” which I thought was a hoot, especially since it came after a shot of the famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, this photo being why I think they invented the lewd expression about wanting to be the meat in a given sandwich.)
My understanding is that Kerouac and his contemporaries were zany and drug-addled and sometimes brilliant and sometimes just crazy, and as such there are a multitude of stories and anecdotes about all of them; it’s an embarrassment of riches. This movie, in trying to showcase a handful of the riches, is mostly just an embarrassment (I don’t know what Dar Williams’ music is like, but I’m telling you, the crying scene was very, very bad).
I was moderately happy I saw it, though. It is kind of an unintentional laugh riot. Also, the production and most of the commentary are so comically bad that they highlight Kerouac’s writing, which in part narrates the action (such as it is). I have avoided Kerouac’s work for so long that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, how startling and beautiful it can be, even if it is often responsible for bone-chilling jazzy readings and scat flights.
It is marginally interesting to hear from the people who knew Kerouac. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making a movie about how a group of unrelated randoms perceive a particular work. This group, though, was like a drunken, barely-prepared book club, whose members interrupt one another to say “Oh shit! I loved that part! That was so awesome!” Which, as I said, is fun to do and not fun to watch.
Two thumbs down!
Of all the things gnawing on George W. Bush as he shuffles around his retirement ranch in Texas, I’m guessing the most galling is the fact that he is the only president in the past quarter century who did not have a RoboCop movie released on his watch. That’s got to hurt. In the course of every presidential administration since the Gipper’s — with the notable exception of W’s — a new RoboCop has come out. And down through those many years, America has always gotten the RoboCop it deserved.
(Surely Bush fils is asking himself, “What did I do to deserve…nothing?” The answer: Plenty.)
The latest installment in the RoboCop franchise, now playing in a multiplex near you, once again proves that these movies may fail as movies, but they never fail to illuminate the zeitgeist in which they’re made. The new movie, like its three predecessors, is set in the not-too-distant future in my hometown, Detroit, a city that was chosen as the setting for the original movie in 1987 because it was already well on its way to becoming the sort of dysfunctional dystopia the filmmakers needed to convey their message. The Motor City, once the mightiest industrial dynamo on the planet, had morphed in a few short years into Murder City — the perfect proving ground for a crime-fighter who was, as the movie’s poster put it, “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”
We Detroiters tend to be inordinately proud of our city’s history, both the good and the bad — its music, its cars, its sports teams, its struggles on behalf of working men and women, its rough edges. In his terrific 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli beautifully captured this skewed civic pride: “Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill. We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of ‘RoboCop,’ the science fiction film set in a coyly undated ‘near future,’ when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move.”
The original RoboCop is now regarded as a sci-fi classic, largely because it asked a question of enduring interest: Are machines capable of emotions? But even as the RoboCop movies have declined in quality, they have served as ever-sharper reflections of what’s been going on in the culture at large. Let’s follow the downward spiral:
The 1970s were the last hurrah for the American middle class. Then along came Ronald Reagan to begin the long, ongoing job of dismantling the middle class by shifting its wealth and political power to corporate, government and wealthy elites. Today, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan and his spawn, more wealth is in fewer hands than at any time since the stock market crash of 1929.
RoboCop arrived at the perfect moment. Reagan’s second term was about to segue into the lone term of Papa Bush, and many Americans were feeling fat and happy and proud to be American, provided they didn’t live in a blighted pocket like inner-city Detroit or hadn’t had their job outsourced to an autoworker in Mexico. Peter Weller starred as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop killed by drug dealers in the line of duty, who then has his vitals harvested and installed in a cyborg, turning him into a virtually indestructible cop. This nifty trick is the handiwork of a greedy conglomerate called Omni Consumer Products, which has taken over the Detroit police force and has big plans to build a development in the heart of the city and control its lucrative drug, gambling, and prostitution rackets. Privatizing a big-city police department — it’s very 1980s, an idea only Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could love. “Trickle-down economics” can be seen trickling in the only direction it ever knew — straight up to the corporate boardroom.
The movie was deftly directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The writers are blessed with a droll sense of humor, slipping in a mention of Lee Iacocca Elementary School, a nod to the best-selling 1984 book by the Chrysler CEO, an egomaniacal tycoon cut from Reaganite cloth. There are also jabs at dumbed-down TV news, a recurring theme in the coming movies, as when a blow-dried newscaster intones, “You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world.” There’s even a jab at Star Wars — Reagan’s La-La-Land defense fantasy, not the movie.
Amid all the corporate greed, violent crime, and official corruption, the thing that gives the movie its humanity is, oddly, its cyborg. RoboCop is tortured by scraps of memories of his previous life. “I can feel them but I can’t remember them,” he says of Alex Murphy’s wife and young son. But RoboCop’s best line is a blend of Dirty Harry and that other icon from the pumped-up Reagan ’80s, The Terminator. Staring down a criminal, RoboCop says, “Your move, creep.”
RoboCop 2 (1990)
This first of two sequels was a perfect fit for its times — a re-tread movie released during George H.W. Bush’s re-tread presidency. Both flopped. Unlike the Bush presidency, though, the movie franchise got another chance.
Weller returned in the title role, but Verhoeven was replaced by director Irvin Kershner. Worse, the screenwriters Neumeier and Miner were replaced by Walon Green and Frank Miller. The result has none of the original’s wit or snap.
This time Omni Consumer Products wants to privatize the whole city of Detroit, and there’s a new designer drug on the streets called Nuke. Otherwise the movie feels as bland and generic as the era during which it was made. The only sign that we’re in Detroit are the logos on the police car doors. (The movie was shot mostly in Houston and L.A.) The TV newscasters are the witty ones here, as when a chirpy blonde talking head is told that environmentalists are warning that a pesky little nuclear meltdown could lead to a massive environmental disaster. “Don’t they always say that?” she says before going to a commercial break.
One reviewer noted that RoboCop 2 was “as savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half.” The same could be said of the Bush and Reagan presidencies.
RoboCop 3 (1993)
In the first year of the Clinton administration, long before Monica and the Gap dress, the keepers of the flame brought out RoboCop 3, directed by Fred Dekker and written by him and Frank Miller. Peter Weller climbed out of the metal suit once and for all — he described it as the most unpleasant acting experience of his career — and Robert John Burke stepped in.
The movie is a dreary rehash, but it does offer one timely twist. A Japanese conglomerate called Kanemitsu now owns and operates all of Detroit, and it plans to clear out thousands of residents in order to complete the Delta City development. But some plucky Detroiters refuse to budge, igniting a civil war between the corporation’s minions and the citizenry. When the corporate thugs have trouble evicting tenants, the head of Kanemitsu fumes, “Incompetent Americans, you are fat and lazy!”
But the best line belongs to McDaggett, the brutal general who tells Rip Torn, the new CEO of OmniCorp: “If you’re just figuring out that the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you’re even farther over the hill than they say you are.”
This movie goes a long way toward explaining why RoboCop vanished during the George W. Bush presidency. Years before W was elected, RoboCop 3 laid out the doctrine that would define his presidency: War is big business, and vice-versa; xenophobia is cool; and anyone who disagrees with the government is, de facto, a terrorist.
Even in 1993, the message was stale. Roger Ebert asked himself why people persist in making such re-tread movies. His answer: “Because ‘RoboCop’ is a brand name, I guess, and this is this year’s new model. It’s an old tradition in Detroit to take an old design and slap on some fresh chrome.”
The Detroiter in me hates to admit it, but the man was right.
There is exactly one worthwhile scene in the new RoboCop, which is a remake of the 1987 original, unlike the second and third movies in the series, which were sequels. There’s a big difference. Sequels try to say something new with familiar material; remakes are content to update and rearrange the furniture.
As this new remake opens, we’re in the future on the streets of Tehran, the capital of America’s latest Middle Eastern enemy. A TV news crew, led by yet another chirpy blonde, is getting ready to deliver live footage of the new generation of cyborgs that allow America to fight its pointless wars without any pointless risk to American lives. While drone aircraft swoop overhead and gigantic Transformer-esque machines stomp through the streets, robots electronically scan terrified Iranian civilians for signs of bombs, weapons or other threats. Meanwhile, inside a nearby building, a group of Iranian men are strapping explosives to their torsos and reminding each other that “the goal is to die on TV.”
This is meta. This has potential. But as soon as the American machines slaughter the Iranian martyrs, the movie abruptly abandons the timely questions it has raised about the morality of drone warfare and the complicity of the news media in promoting the government’s dubious agenda. Instead, the movie shifts to Detroit, where it proceeds to ignore another potentially rich vein: Detroit’s current bankruptcy, the largest in American history, which has left the city so broken that it takes an hour for cops to respond to emergency calls, most streetlights never get turned on, the population has fallen by more than half, and rich philanthropists had to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to keep debt-collecting wolves from ransacking one of the city’s last assets, its glorious Institute of Arts. This isn’t some futuristic dystopia; this is Detroit today.
But this RoboCop has no interest in examining such pungent contemporary material because it’s content to remain a fantasy. Once again, the result is generic escapism that could have been made anywhere. (Other than some nice aerial shots of Detroit, most of it was filmed in Canada.) The only splash of local color the movie gets right is Detroit’s rococo strain of official corruption. In the movie, several Detroit cops have been funneling high-powered rifles from the evidence locker to a local arms merchant, with the full cooperation of the chief of police. Now that’s verisimilitude. In 1992, Detroit police chief William Hart was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing $2.6 million from a police fund used for making undercover narcotics buys.
But that splash of local color is washed away by the bombastic, jingoistic histrionics of a TV pundit named Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson. It’s painful to watch this talented actor slog through material that doesn’t even rise to the level of a parody of a parody of Bill O’Reilly. Yet somehow these dreadful Novak segments fit perfectly into a movie that refuses to address the interesting questions it raises — about drone warfare, the morality of crime-fighting techniques, the human cost of corporate greed. The movie wastes other talented actors, including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and leading man Joel Kinnaman, already a star in Sweden and soon to become one here. This squandering of opportunity is a tidy metaphor for what Barack Obama has done with his 2008 mandate to make fundamental changes in the way America functions. Dream on.
The filmmakers seem to have decided — no doubt correctly — that after a dozen years of pointless, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is worn out. The American public doesn’t want to think about international wars, political corruption, urban decay, or the gutting of the news media and the middle class The American public just wants to be entertained. And so the makers of the new RoboCop have dutifully given them what they want — another noisy, gimmicky diversion that makes the world go away for all of 108 minutes.
Which is to say that, once again, America has gotten the RoboCop it deserves.