Charlie’s Angels:Dopey Fun and the Infantilization of World Cinema

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

Rock DJ directed
by Vaughan Arnell

"He’s a boy’s boy," actor Sam Rockwell praised
his Charlie’s Angels director McG (born Joseph McGinty Mitchell).
That explanation needs explanation. It doesn’t mean McG has gone in for
hardcore violence or hardcore sex, but has availed himself of the youthful privilege
to be lighthearted–even to make a girls’ action flick that never stops
grinning. Charlie’s Angels is a big-budget Hollywood movie dedicated
to play and flirtation. Not revenge, power or even sex–the things associated
with a "man’s man"–but a carefree attitude you can’t
really get angry at. You may very well dismiss this film after seeing it, but
you’re likely to pat its little head first.

McG has directed the kind of movie you’d expect to get
free with a subscription to Entertainment Weekly or Premiere.
It has a pretested plot, pretested characters, stars, music. Drew Barrymore
(who coproduced) plays Dylan, one of the three femme operatives–along with
Cameron Diaz as Natalie and Lucy Liu as Alex–who work for a detective agency
and the unseen boss Charlie whose orders they receive from Bosley (Bill Murray).
Athletic and sexy, the angels get into and out of various scrapes–involving
Internet villains played by Rockwell, Kelly Lynch and the always intriguing
Crispin Glover. All that matters is that the girls keep jiggling their wares–as
does McG.

The makers of Charlie’s Angels realize that guaranteed
familiarity is what sells today. It’s only critics (and the Motion Picture
Academy) who pretend that audiences actually go to the movies for a story.
McG puts across television’s giddy, idiot-making trivializing effect loud
and incessantly in split-screen quadrants and gigantic closeups photographed
in plastic fruit colors by Titanic’s Russell Carpenter. Beyond the
usual adolescent fascination with boys’ subcult trivia like comic books
and model airplanes, McG’s into celebratory mass trivia (an early visual
joke mixes L.L. Cool J with T.J. Hooker, sensing no difference between the two–and
sending up the opening of Mission: Impossible 2 simultaneously). McG’s
boyish shamelessness–a proud, inherited, honest triviality–helps
make Charlie’s Angels the ultimate baby boom by-product. Imagine
a baby talking back using the Great Babysitter’s slang.

Most of the recent big-screen versions of old tv shows are simple,
brand-name remodelings, having little to do with the style of the original series.
Taking advantage of Hollywood’s recycling penchant, directors like Brian
De Palma either tried to make genuine postmodern movies (The Untouchables
is more a variation on Mervyn LeRoy’s The FBI Story than a Quinn
Martin Production) or else sell toys (Casper, The Flintstones,
The Addams Family
). So it takes about five minutes into Charlie’s
to realize that McG is doing something not particularly artistic
or commercial, but especially boyish–like wheelies or skateboarding–in
which only fun counts. Narrative skill and clever dialogue are beside the point.
McG, a music video adept, demonstrates no nostalgia for the fashions or music
associated with the 70s Charlie’s Angels. It’s an exercise
in pure style, but one that is ignorant of the cultural significance technique
used to imply. Yet this film is just as much a sign of its era in the way it
congratulates Gen-Y mindlessness.

Charlie’s Angels’ lack of consequence is juvenile–not
sophomoric (that would require wit, as in the taken-for-granted Ready to
or the best parts of Galaxy Quest). McG inflates for the big
screen the sense of media-goofiness seen in his music videos for Smashmouth,
Sugar Ray, Barenaked Ladies, the Offspring and other alternapop groups. His
tongue-in-cheek style matches cynical Hollywood calculation to such a perfectly
facetious degree that he has achieved a kind of exact music-video-to-cinema
translation. Charlie’s Angels isn’t the letdown that Hype Williams’
and Tarsem Singh’s The Cell were–dramas stunted by
music video shorthand. By making a spoof, McG does what people might have expected
from Spike Jonze, but Jonze’s Being John Malkovich completely avoided.
Actually, Charlie’s Angels is more like what Jonze achieved in his
Beastie Boys Sabotage video–which was a true Mannix, Mission:
, Starsky and Hutch pastiche. Jonze appropriately understood
that minimalism (squeezing action, credits, trailers and stasis into three Ginzu-Avid-sliced
minutes) best served tv imitation–and cultural progress. Charlie’s
is just a startling, puppyish capitulation.

Insidious yet amusing, the movie gets away with everything that
is wrong with it–or at least wrong with contemporary Hollywood. Bill Murray’s
check-cashing presence is not quite satiric, yet he’s not so mystifyingly
out of place as he was in that lame, softcore thriller Wild Things. It’s
McG who evinces Murray’s typical sanguine approach; he’s the casual
kid who successfully pals it up with the girls. Each of the Angels’ amusing
disguises–as Swiss maids, drag racers, Soul Train dancers, even
a sex interest for Matt LeBlanc on a tv soundstage–is daffy and delirious
without being offensive. The girls are affable, and Diaz shows true clown spirit.
Even their fight scenes are lickety-split (literally so when Barrymore fends
off a gang of goons by keeping her legs spread). Staying smirky and relentless,
Charlie’s Angels sustains music-video logic. Which isn’t to
say it has "logic"–or lacks sense.

Silly as the movie is, it represents something real that bears
taking notice of: the infantilization of world cinema. (The End of Movies–not
with a bang, but a snicker.) Several years ago, filmmaker David Leitner predicted
that the stop-motion 360 spin (that McG uses to comic effect) would become a
technological cliche like the zoom-in was in the 60s. So while we wait to see
this current fad soon become quaint, the fact is some people are still thrilled
by it. In boy’s world, McG (and every marketer) knows. Everything has become
a PlayStation. The gimmick may look silly to me, but there are generations for
whom it is dazzling, associated with the private pleasure of personal video
games and in-your-pocket techno-joy.

McG has stated his esthetic: "The idea is that an Angel
can walk into any situation and be at home." Plausibility doesn’t
matter. Any plotline can be morphed. Even the opening meant-to-be-spectacular
airplane jump is not skydiving as Kathryn Bigelow showed it in the great Point
; this is cartoonish, video gamish. Pure Product for Pop People. There
are elements here of Die Hard, the Farrelly brothers, James Bond, Indiana
Jones. And McG himself has importantly pointed out there’s "even the
movie musical–with the color, the optimism, the overall bounce that’s
in the air." That’s why Charlie’s Angels is never lugubrious,
like The Matrix. It was truly pathetic to hear people take The Matrix
seriously, despite the way it reduced politics and spirituality to comic book
triteness. But this is the era in which impressionable critics–and audiences–cowed
by some quick cutting and repeated images, easily shouted "intense"
and "artistic" at a film as dreary and old-fashioned as Darren Aronofsky’s
Requiem for a Dream. (Funniest ad quote of the year would be "An
instant classic…Aronofsky is the new Orson Welles," if others critics
didn’t actually review the film with the same gaga attitude.) Aronofsky’s
overload of media anguish in Requiem is sensibly vanquished in Charlie’s
. McG and the girls assert How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love

Critic Gregory Solman argues that this film signals The Death
of Realism, but the Angels’ brief, melodramatic anxiety over "the
end of privacy" (the threat posed by the Internet pirating villains) is
both risible and restorative, a satire of the craziness media has become when
everything in life–relationships, even movies–turns into media. The
most dangerous exemplars of this style are, of course, "serious" filmmakers
like Aronofsky and Spike Lee, who boast flashy images and fragmented continuity
(if any). It’s not the forging of a new style but part of the global acceptance
of narrative degeneration. That’s why some people don’t mind the lack
of developed ideas and characters, the incomplete drama in Lee’s movies.
It’s tv-commercial/music-video depletion. Still, I think Charlie’s
is vastly superior, in every way, to Bamboozled, Requiem for a
Dream, The Cell, Almost Famous
and even Ang Lee’s upcoming Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon
. In Charlie’s Angels pop culture’s
meaninglessness stays buoyant. It may not be a pop work of art but it cheerfully
demonstrates pop working.

With that manic-seductive smirk in a Sean Connery mug, British
singer Robbie Williams suggests the tradition of English music-hall anarchy.
He does visually what Ian Dury did musically. There’s no prick-up-your-ears
effrontery in Williams’ music; it is, at best, pleasant, forgettable pop–an
Elton John-George Michael hybrid displaying occasional Pet Shop Boys tastefulness.
But ever since last year’s James Bondesque video Millennium, Williams
has consistently been a more interesting visual star. (McG should direct the
next Bond movie and put Williams in it.)

Hollywood’s computer graphic mania is spoofed in the cover
art for Williams’ new CD Sing When You’re Winning. The booklet
(art direction by Tom Hingston Studio and Paul M. Smith) offers terrific satirical
composite shots of Robbie as an entire soccer team–elbowing an opponent,
guarding his groin, icing a knee scar, in the jacuzzi or coaching from the sidelines.
He’s even among the thugs–with painted face, at the pub, or mooning
passersby. It’s a delirious series of visual coups topped off by the enhanced
CD-ROM video Rock DJ directed by Vaughan Arnell for the album’s
first single. Here’s where Robbie, the moving-picture star, cheekily gives
his fans what they bargained for–and more. It’s a striptease with
Robbie getting down to his skivvies, his sinew, his skeleton. It has the horrific
fascination of the special effects in Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man.

Williams’ burlesque makes a particular poignant contrast
to how George Michael mistakenly derailed his career by refusing stardom and
not appearing in his Listen Without Prejudice videos. Williams understands
the game to be played, that the real Robbie is always hidden behind an image
(he dedicates the album to his producer Guy Chambers, "who is as much Robbie
as I am"), and so he plays with the image. (Michael’s pretend disgust
with "shaking his ass" only proved that he still regarded his ass
narcissistically.) U.S. video programmers have balked at airing Williams’
skin-and-bones show. Like critics angered by Charlie’s Angels, they
don’t get the irony of self-mockery.