3000 Miles to Graceland Is a Fair Assessment of American Ambition Gone Wrong; Monkeybone’s an Ingenious Satire

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Sideburns,
ducktails, money, blood and sex–that’s the satirical surface of 3000
Miles to Graceland
. Underneath is a pretty fair assessment of American ambition
gone wrong. Kevin Costner plays Murphy, a sociopath obsessed with Elvis Presley
who rounds up a gang to rob a Las Vegas casino during an Elvis imitators’
convention. If the symbolism’s bloated, so is the idolatry that Costner
and director Demian Lichtenstein deride. Presley’s legend haunts the movie
as a fat, gaudy, bankrupt ideal that still serves to motivate the disheartened.


Murphy and
his partner Michael (Kurt Russell), desert mom Cybil (Courteney Cox) and her
ragamuffin son Jesse (David Kaye) aren’t doomed, they’re pathetic,
double-crossing each other in ways that suggest the hollowness of life predicated
on money; losers who console themselves with the world’s plunder. 3000
Miles
early climax–the robbery sequence–is the most
calamitously violent action scene ever to put a thought in the audience’s
mind. Unlike Kubrick’s inexorable fatalism in The Killing, this
sequence is just blunt. "As wild and as daring as anything on the American
landscape," says a startled tv reporter. (Or else, simply the best contemporary
shootout Walter Hill didn’t direct.) Though it’s similar to the kind
of pointless bang-bang moviegoers accept as a Saturday Night Special, I vouch
for the split-second editing that catches a bullet going through an Elvis cape.
And I salute the cut to the exterior that shows a chopper coming to rendezvous
with Murphy’s band. Suspended in midair–and time–this image,
hovering over the casino, is breathtaking.


The entire
movie has the feel of being in moral suspension. Despite the caper plot and
bloody intensity, this isn’t a typically cynical neo-noir. That War in
Vegas sequence establishes a spangly, neon miasma so that we watch the peacetime
story appropriately aghast at the evidence of contemporary dissolution. 3000
Miles
tracks pessimistic ex-cons, broken families on the road, boys without
role models, casual venality, the familiarity of violence. It’s flashy
but it’s also uncanny. The story of Michael’s corruption opposes Murphy’s
hopeless corruption (announced in the 3-D credit sequence). It seeks decent,
humane gestures (among them, Ice-T keeping thieves’ honor through a spectacular
sacrifice) and, with a sense of topsy-turvy grace, moves toward light. Michael,
Cybil and Jesse sail off into uncertain political waters just like the characters
in Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. If critics mistake 3000 Miles
for a Renny Harlin jamboree (or instead, find it inferior to such trash), it
will prove how far we’ve fallen, no longer looking for meaning or emotion
in action movies.


No actors are
more empathetic than Russell and Costner. Both leathery and wizened, they’re
surrounded by character types (David Arquette, Bokeem Woodbine, Howie Long and
Christian Slater) distinctive enough to sharpen Jesse’s–our entire
culture’s–sense of role-model fatigue. That Murphy, with his scorpion
belt buckle, was a Nam medic before going bad signals deep distress that might
be vague to today’s audience. Still, Lichtenstein, searching for
the right, meaningful detail, uses the action genre as a dramatic form expressing
the modern generational dilemma–without being lugubrious like Sean Penn’s
The Pledge. Lichtenstein and cowriter Richard Recco come up with a saying
for our times when Murphy, in a fight, is told, "That’s your criminal
right!" The line transcends sarcasm; it bravely discloses a genuine social
imbalance–as in such nonpresumptuous action flicks as George Armitage’s
Vigilante Force. I fear that 3000 Miles might speed past many
people’s heads just as the 70s road-movie alienation of Duets did
last fall. These entertaining little movies hint at Americans’ barely articulated
desires for a change of priorities and enlightened models of behavior. That
overworked, blustery Elvis image (which serves as a conscripted uniform for
Murphy’s gang) should provide a wake-up call even to those who share Greil
Marcus’ wet dream.


 


Monkeybone

Directed
by Henry Selick


From brain
to hand, pen to paper, cartoonists draw a direct line to satire. They convert
complex events into easily readable–and instructive–exaggerations.
But what’s a film satirist, who works with a more cumbersome apparatus
and inflexible genres, to do? Henry Selick, the protege-director on Tim Burton’s
The Nightmare Before Christmas, combines a cartoonist’s love of
caricature with delirious personal conviction in Monkeybone, an ingenious,
perhaps too driven satire that conveys a cartoonist’s inspiration,
creativity and chaos.


Selick makes
a lot of points and hits a lot of targets. Big-time success troubles Stu Miley
(Brendan Fraser), the creator of a popular comic strip. He worries about being
caught up in corporate synergy; his impending marriage to research scientist
Julie (Bridget Fonda); and his cautious libido–the latter symbolized by
his oft-merchandised cartoon creation. Stu debuted the ever-popular Monkeybone
(a sort of impish Curious George) in an autobiographical cartoon about a horny
adolescent. Aroused by a middle-age schoolteacher’s flabby arms, the embarrassed
cartoon kid tries hiding his erection with a stack of textbooks. "It was
like putting a baseball cap on the Washington Monument," Stu’s alter
ego panics. "And suddenly, there he was…Monkeybone!"


At such moments
Monkeybone suggests a grownup version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Selick uses updated animation techniques to puncture the saccharine conventions
of the form Disney has dominated. Cel-ebrating ribald possibilities, he unleashes
anarchy. But that’s only one panel in Selick’s storyboard. With a
host of digital visual effects at his command–a veritable convocation of
all the effects houses that matter (the credits list 15 of ’em!)–Selick
proves even more profligate than Stu. Monkeybone goes in different stylistic
directions the way the extraordinary special effects of The Phantom Menace
showcased different galaxies. Whether Stu’s in the real world or Downtown
(his coma state following an accident), inventive sight gags portray screwball
Hollywood premarital jitters, even underworld weirdness; every trope a designer’s/cartoonist’s
tour de force.


It’s a
tribute to Selick’s imagination–his wit for different kinds of satirical
exaggeration such as a depot area titled "Psychological Baggage"–that
the movie never feels decadent or wasteful (like Chris Rock’s trip to the
other side in Down to Earth). Each effect, such as Stu cupped in a giant
mechanical hand, evokes age-old mythology ("Jack and the Beanstalk,"
Cocteau’s The Eternal Return) given a jocular edge. Throughout Monkeybone,
Selick condenses the subculture of American adolescent surrealism–homegrown
monsters as etched in school notebooks, underground comix, puppets of various
sizes and assorted movie- and tv-style toons. It may be too wild to satisfy
on the simple level of the current, acceptable Recess: School’s Out.
But though Monkeybone’s visual and dramatic satire never fully
cohere, its ambition is always impressive.


Maybe that
half-hour reportedly cut since the film was first scheduled for release last
fall made connections between traditional pen-and-ink animation and computer
graphics–explaining Stu’s distaste for the technological rapacity
of the studios and ad agencies lusting to capitalize on his creation. Maybe
a plot point clarified the irony between Stu’s therapeutic drawings and
the sexual dynamism that only erupts through Monkeybone. During the credits,
a show of handiwork, drawings and toys recalls the opening of Being John
Malkovich
; it makes you expect an erotic allegory connecting Stu’s
psyche to his groin. Yet, the descent into Stu’s imagination (he’s
described as the author of "America’s most disturbed comic strip")
isn’t disturbing enough. Selick’s fondness for stop-motion animation
lacks that eerie Ray Harryhausen sensuality. There’s just relentless imaging,
the frenzy of nonstop doodling (an effect Tim Burton already finessed in Beetlejuice).
The story seems erratic, loosely patched together. In the difficulty of erecting
Monkeybone’s huge endeavor, Selick’s subliminal concept wilts–the
unconscious feelings that flowed through Stu’s pen–and, once Monkeybone
takes over, the violent sexuality and fearsome greed that command Stu’s
body dissipate.


Julie’s
work on the chemical basis of nightmares–dubbed "Oneirix"–does
little more than recall the potion in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business.
(Though not even slapsticky Cary Grant worked his ass as much as does Fraser
doing simian tricks, sniffing his armpits, making a crotch canopy over Fonda’s
head.) These libidinal monkeyshines coexist with a Pandora’s box of behavioral
quirks. Monkeybone’s reliance on black fetishism to convey Stu’s
drives is far more outrageous than Hawks or even the Bloodhound Gang’s
Darwinian music video The Bad Touch. Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s
Get It On," Jimi Hendrix’s "Foxy Lady" and Minnie Riperton’s
"Loving You" underscore different sexual eruptions. And when Stu enters
Thanatos, he meets Whoopi Goldberg (wearing an eye patch) as Death and Giancarlo
Esposito as Hypnos, the guardian of sleep. Hypnos is a cross between a man,
a goat and a tick, but essentially he’s a (subconsciously rendered) golem
of black exoticism. Don’t pshaw me. Selick’s satire doesn’t analyze
these complications in Stu’s (America’s) psyche. Having the best of
Hollywood’s f/x at his disposal, he simply compiles a unique Rorschach.


 

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