This movie is probably racist, sexist, and homophobic. And I'm gonna talk about it, even though it's not remotely current.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tales of Squalor: The Cell (2000)

Plot: In this installment of the great Battle of the Vinces, JLo wanders through many musicless music video sets in full costume, battling an equally becostumed Vincent D'Ononfrio while Vince Vaughn tries to rescue a woman from a pre-Saw torture chamber.


Jennifer Lopez stars as doe-eyed social worker, Catherine (her last name is apparently in the credits but is never used, so we shall call her: Catherine), who goes to work every day and puts on a skintight red scuba suit, which allows her to enter the mind of a comatose boy, where she appears as herself, wearing dresses too fancy to for the Oscars. You know, JLo's day job. Later, she agrees to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer, which looks like the Modern Art Copyright Infringement Museum, installed in a leaky, unlit underground warehouse. Also, Catherine is an accomplished mental health worker who apparently believes Schizophrenia is a virus (hint: it's not).

Vince Vaughn plays a sensitive, yet hard-boiled FBI agent called Novak (I think his first name might be Agent) who is deeply invested and, in some unspecified way, point person on the D'Ononfrio serial killer case, and who eventually has to chase Lopez into the misogyny wax museum of the serial killer's mind, in order to rescue Lopez, and also to strangle out a tepid kiss.

Also features: The pedophile from Happiness as Chief of Scienc-y Exposition, performing almost exclusively from a desk chair. Together with Agitated British Lady, they run mission control for Red Scuba Suit Technologies: (Possible motto: “Dropping JLo directly into your psyche since 1998.”)

The Serial Killer: Carl Stargher/Big Seedy White Dude (think Vincent D'Ononfrio playing Barf from You Can't Say That On Television, in Hell). The Serial Killer also doubles as the visual landscape of the film; in other words, a large portion of the film is located inside his psyche (the aforementioned dank modern art warehouse/intercut with a semi-graphic scenes from a child abuse history/and some bugs). Because the setting is expansive, D'Ononfrio plays several different variations of his character: from the shy and disturbed adult abuse victim, to the godlike and demonlinke manifestations of his rapey modern art fantasies. Also at one point he plays a Victorian Doctor Clown. You see, it's all very Jungian, with different parts of the psyche represented, which means D'Ononfrio does not escape the music video format; he is done up as much if not more than J-Lo. He appears in full effects gear, weird fake hair, elaborate costumes that you can't sit down in and that (one imagines) can only be filmed from the front because they are held together in the back with clips. In fact, before his mind becomes the scenery, D'Ononfrio's screen time as anything other than a doughy white guy in a coma is disappointingly short; only enough to establish that he is an extremely organized, disturbed, perverted monster who is about to spend the rest of his time on earth in a red fitted scuba suit. It is wonderful to watch D'Ononfrio portray a delectable series of monsters.

Chorus: a starter kit of seasoned actors (all the speaking roles are men, SURPRISE) playing seasoned federal and state law enforcement officers. Think Red Dragon, and then remove Harvey Keitel and Ed Norton. An actor that I have always mistaken for the guy who plays The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies has a single awesome line of dialog that I've come to mark in my notes as a “dudemustachemoment,” although it does not in any way involve a mustache. (For fun, count the number of times in his filmography he is listed as "SWAT team leader.") There is also a doctor who again refers to Schizophrenia as a virus in the film's misguided attempt at cogency.

Second Chorus (mostly silent, visual only): bleachy powdered mostly white women/sexualized female corpses.

There are a few conceits we make in order to properly view this movie. 1: Lopez, or anyone else in the proper fitted scuba suit (which, in keeping with the tone of the movie, is borderline Body Worlds grotesque), can be dropped into the mind of any other person, much like dropping a marble into a glass of milk. The person's psyche will be semi-intelligible, largely symbolic, and fairly fluid. 2. Because somebody made The Matrix and Nightmare On Elm Street (and, I don't know, maybe Inception, I don't watch or blog or rant about remotely current movies), if you die in the surrealist world, you also die in the world where your body lives: the stakes have never been higher, and stuff.

The movie, throwing a bone to pre 9-11 torture fans, who had not quite developed today's fangs, features several jump-cuts to this week's Woman in a Fridge, Julia: the killer's last kidnapped victim, who is trapped in an undisclosed location in a room that is, over the course of a day or two, filling with water, as she goes through the seven stages of horror movie death, which include screaming, getting sprayed with water, praying, screaming, and also more splashing around and screaming. Whenever the plot gets laggy, Vince Vaughn lights a cigarette and gives a speech about how Julia's going to die, like, any fucking minute now, if we don't jump into comatose Vincent D'Ononfrio's head and, I don't know, slap him around a little.

Props in this movie go to: Tarsem Singh, the director, who would go on to make an equally visually compelling nonlinear narrative, The Fall (2006), an adorable story set in a hospital about a child invalid and the stories an adult invalid tells her in order to manipulate her into getting him enough morphine to overdose. The Fall is perhaps the more recommendable of the two, and where it tries to do too much, it fails splendidly, and where it incorporates music video sets and steals from land art and early silent cinema, it does so lovingly. (The Fall: Way less rape-y, but some problematic depictions of race--don't get me started).

If Christo had incorporated more murder into his landscape art.

But The Cell is an admirable first movie. Despite the fact that the law enforcement/exposition scenes feel alternately clunky and jittery, it is a lush fever dream of a thriller. Audiences would perhaps benefit from multiple viewings of the film, which leads me to:

My Squalid Confession: I have probably watched this movie dozens of times. Despite what we could politely call the film's poetics of degraded and decomposing women, I LOVE this movie. I love its fractured narrative, I love its lucid dream quality, and I even love JLo's performance. This is a movie we could no doubt place in the “rapey” category of cinema, and not in that somewhat satisfying way (see: Hard Candy, Teeth). The ending, though it supplies the obligatory “twist” and could be argued to be empowering for the female protagonist, leaves much to be desired. (It also paved the way for a highly unfortunate sequel.) Still, there are nice moments; a good portion of the film hinges on Catherine's ability to connect with the small innocent shard left inside the monstrous man. Her capacity for empathy is what drives the narrative. The killer is portrayed as someone who more than deserves to die, yet the film still humanizes him. The attention to detail is extraordinary, the choppy transitions serve the momentum, and even when the narrative wanders, the evocative powers of Singh are always at play. He demonstrates extraordinary control in a film of massive vision and mixed execution.

Also J-Lo smokes a joint in her underwear while watching old cartoons, which is pretty much what I do all day, but with less Pilates and no team of Hair Technicians. But that's not what I love about The Cell.

I am drawn to repeatedly view certain movies with graphic content. The Cell is one of a small handful of movies that, while utterly problematic and most certainly stimulating the absolutely wrong areas of my brain, I will gladly watch into the ground. It would go into my nuclear bomb shelter with me, or to my desert island, if you will. It is one of the great Squalid Classics, and, while it barely passes the Bechdel test, has a mesmerizing and strong female lead. Where it willingly enters the territory of the unspeakable, of graphic sexual violence, of violence to children, of painstakingly overthought abuses to women, and let's not forget some roaring necrophilia, it doesn't quite ring the 'Sploitation bell. Perhaps it is because of Catherine's ability to feel, perhaps it is because she is able to witness, empathize, and object simultaneously to these unspeakable things. Which leads me to:

Best Scene: There is an entirely too short moment between Novak and Catherine in which Vaughn (in his best Wedding Crashers' Sincere Hurt Guy Affect), alludes to a history of severe childhood sexual and physical abuse. I like that moment for a number of reasons: It is the best, and perhaps the only tender moment of connection between the two main protagonists. It debunks the taboo that male survivors don't exist/aren't allowed to speak about it. It is set in the film specifically to argue that while nurture makes monsters of some of us, others are able to overcome their earliest and most horrific conditioning; a sort of Vincent-Vince nature versus nurture point-counterpoint. And lastly, despite my reference to the insincere evocation of empathy utilized by Vaughn in Wedding Crashers (“We lost a lot of good men out there,” et al.), this moment plays out more realistically. Novak's character is still in some ways defined by his abuse—he exists only to catch the bad guy, and get the woman out of the fridge. He has empathy, he even has people skills, but his tacit reveal to Catherine isn't a play to get under her expensive high fashion social worker wardrobe. He's not slick. In that moment of disclosure, of intimacy, he seems to also express desire for her, and in that moment he fumbles it, botches it completely, accidentally flirting instead with his partner, who interrupts their conversation.

The part of me that is a survivor and also a critic wants to see that one moment, that one set of motives, and also the awkwardness of intimacy for the abuse survivor, expanded into a whole movie. Even though The Cell is liberally peppered with dead and defiled women, here is this one moment where I feel like everybody got it right: the vulnerability and weird trust that comes with choosing to disclose an abuse history. For all I know, Lopez and Vaughn could have despised each other, and spent the entire shoot in their respective trailers ignoring one another (based on most of their scenes together, I think this is a credible theory). Still, there is something dark and wonderful in that moment; there is humor, there is communion, there is depth. Oddly enough, while Lopez does the heavy lifting in terms of emotional performance, Vaughn gets at something about being a survivor that is hard to articulate, and incredibly important. A disclosure like that is an act of trust; it says, “I lived through this,” and “I live with this,” and “I live this,” all at once. I find it refreshing, if only because the only other place in film I find these kinds of conversations is the realm of the After School Special.

This post has been a long time coming, because The Cell is simultaneously squalid and humanizing. It is sure to trigger some people who are sexual assault survivors. It probably also pleases some really gross people. (I know it does both for me.) As for my personal verdict: when it is not doing interesting things with the unspeakable, it is still entertaining enough due to its aesthetic to make me go easy on some of the more interchangeable elements. After all, the goal is not perfection.

The goal, my friends, is perfect squalor.

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