Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Vast White-Wing Conspiracy Uncovered

Not the only guy in whiteface
As awful an ideology as nihilism is, it can make for riveting entertainment in capable hands. Consider the tremendous success of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The creators of these shows appear to have learned from Macbeth’s authoritative summation of nihilist story-telling: tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. By replacing the idiots with skilled narrative craftsmen and cranking the volume on the sound and fury, they can sustain the audience’s rapt attention until the inevitable soul-crushing conclusion. Exciting means justify bitter ends.

Perhaps those of us worried about the conquest of pop culture by so dark a worldview should be encouraged when an intriguing anarcho-nihilist premise like that of The Purge: Anarchy (and its 2013 predecessor, The Purge) is bungled so spectacularly. Instead of pushing the mainstream another inch closer to A Clockwork Orange, writer-director James DeMonaco stumbles backward into a more benign era of ham-handed B-movie liberalism.

The Purge’s conceit is as follows: sometime in the near future, the American government reorganizes under a shadowy oligarchy called the “New Founding Fathers” and institutes the Purge, an annual holiday in which all crimes (even murder, the Big Brother announcement makes sure to specify) are legal.  Each Purge day, those Americans willing to risk death to indulge their long-repressed rape and murder fantasies roam the streets, while the sensible sorts who don’t want to get hurt lock themselves in their homes with barricades readied for the occasion. Of course, there’s always some trick to force a few conscientious objectors out of their hiding places and into an all-or-nothing fight for survival.
It would seem to be a set-up for a Lord of the Flies­-style descent into savagery and horror, a narrative which has lately harbored a powerful, if grotesque, appeal to American movie-goers. Indeed, this is the exact idea that the clever marketing team at Universal conveyed in the unsettling trailers.  A yuppie couple hurrying to some suburban refuge when their car breaks down in the ghetto as machete-toting hoodlums in demonic masks circle.  Presumably, a harrowing tale of survival and sadism ensues. Surprisingly, DeMonaco takes a much different path.  
In a jarring subversion of expectations, DeMonaco blends the intimate, visceral style of recent horror efforts like The Crazies and The Strangers, with bizarrely misplaced schlock and sophomoric political satire lifted whole cloth from Gen X sci-fi efforts like RoboCop, The People Under the Stairs and They Live.  The scary masked anarchists from the trailers turn out to be mere bit players, ceding the central villainous role to… WASPs? Yes, DeMonaco populates his apocalyptic war zone with prayerful, flag-waving white folks (NRA members, no doubt) hell-bent on machine gunning as many poor minorities and homeless people as they can find.  One particularly absurd sequence has a party of country clubbers donning pheasant (or is it peasant?) hunting garb to hunt our hapless heroes.
It’s a disastrous creative decision, obliterating the nightmarish quasi-realism that furnishes so much of the thrills for the sub-genre.  The heavy-handed, amateurish quality of the political commentary bleeds into every element of the film. The plot, characters and dialogue have the careless, throwaway quality you’d expect from a grad student rushing to meet a deadline.  The movie manages to make enough sense to avert a complete collapse, but only because the abundant filler is so familiar and unambitious.  Such a raw product would be understandable if this were a first-time filmmaker, but DeMonaco is a veteran screenwriter, with some respectable credits to his name. The crime drama The Negotiator (co-written with Kevin Fox), in particular, exhibited a high degree of craftsmanship that is entirely absent from Anarchy.
What could cause an experienced and talented filmmaker to suffer such a precipitous decline in professionalism?  An excessive nostalgic affection for 80’s B-movies certainly plays a role, but the most apparent causal factor is DeMonaco’s slavish, drooling adherence to the dogma of progressive political correctness. Not that overt ideology necessarily makes for bad movies: James Cameron’s mega-hits reek of liberal ideology, but that doesn't make them any less exhilarating.  In this case, however, DeMonaco has preemptively sabotaged his own concept, blowing enormous holes into his material to lay down a track to convey an acceptable message.
Somehow, the conceit of a middle-class white couple getting stuck in the inner-city on the eve of bloody riot simultaneously tickled DeMonaco’s creative fancy and triggered his white guilt.  Clearly, the latter won out to the former’s detriment. Again and again he makes violent intercessions in his plot to ensure that no matter how much the carnage may appear like the Rodney King riots on steroids, the most savage criminals, and the only legitimate objects of fear, are actually rich white people.  If that sounds like a white guy’s hasty paraphrase of Huey P. Newton, it’s because it is. DeMonaco’s stand-in for Newton is Carmelo Jones (narrowly beaten out by LeBron Johnson and Shaquille Davis for the laziest possible character name for a black guy), played in a blush-worthy performance by Barack Obama’s favorite screen gangsta Michael K. Williams. Carmelo’s role is to wear green paramilitary garb, swear and shout the message of the movie repeatedly:  the Purge is just an excuse for rich people to slaughter poor people and reduce the surplus population.  Later, he leads an army of black panther types on a revenge purge of those evil WASPs, to the presumable cheers of the audience (isolated clapping in my sparsely populated theater).
As a WASP myself (though I’m still working towards that elusive country club membership), I could be offended by this absurd slander, but I choose to be heartened instead. For as much as Anarchy appears to be a racial-political hit-piece (and it is to some degree), DeMonaco’s inadvertent disarming of his concept may have done some good. In the long run, blatant but incompetent propaganda poses far less of a threat to civilization than the seductive madness of skillfully rendered nihilism.