Human Resources is Admirable; Almost Famous Panders to Aging Adolescents

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

Human Resources
by Laurent Cantet

Cantet argues for Franck’s
awakening through means similar to Ken Loach’s dramatic verite. Franck’s
acted-out solipsism (the right overanxious manner) is planted in the midst of
nonprofessional performers who vent their own workplace experiences and (probably)
their senses of justice regarding labor and exploitation, especially that defensive
sparkplug Mrs. Arnoux (Danielle Melador), who is reminiscent of America’s
tough, matronly workers’ heroines. It’s an obviously propagandistic
approach (and is occasionally artful–as when Franck and his father, epitomizing
management-vs.-labor tensions at the same factory, are forced to silently ignore
each other). But Cantet’s politicized method seems too calculated to get
the maximum emotional effect out of Franck’s quandary.

Switching sides in the labor
fight teaches Franck how deeply uncommitted–how pampered–his life
has been. Mike Judge’s Office Space was the rare American movie
to show awareness of workplace anxieties in an era lacking political perspective.
That widespread condition needs succinct dramatization. The Dardenne brothers
found a way in the coming-of-age stories La Promesse and Rosetta;
and Erick Zonca did it in The Dreamlife of Angels and with special, memorable
vividness in last spring’s The Little Thief. All these films summarize
young people’s coming-to-consciousness–the lessons of human dignity
in stressful social situations that every generation must learn all over again.

Have you noticed: Various
responses to Europe’s economic changes, the issue of the 35-hour work week
and the specter of the World Trade Organization, now make up the most urgent,
common theme for contemporary filmmakers? (And Brits have been ruefully comic
about it in films as distinct as Topsy-Turvy, Brassed Off,
Among Giants
and, oh well, The Full Monty, too.) Among a mostly first-rate,
conscientious field, Human Resources may not be the peak, but it understands
the practical (family and friends) aspects of Franck’s predicament; the
unresolved ending makes his crisis clear and irrefutable.

Almost Famous
by Cameron Crowe

"Adolescence is just
a marketing tool!" a mother (Frances McDormand) snaps when her mouthy kids
claim their rights as teens. With that, Almost Famous is off to a clever
start. Writer-director Cameron Crowe seems poised to satirize the teen-baiting
nonsense of most movies, but then winds up pandering to the sentiments of slightly
older adolescents.

Something must explain how
Crowe went from writing the wonderful Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then
writing and directing the charming, incisive Say Anything, to making
Jerry Maguire–one of the most meretricious hits of Hollywood’s
modern era. Almost Famous almost does explain. In this semiautobiography,
Crowe presumes to give a fresh, wised-up view of his world–evoking the
impudence and privilege celebrated by pop music journalists, particularly as
promoted in the 60s and 70s by Rolling Stone, the publication in which
Crowe launched his career at age 15.

Crowe’s alter-ego William
Miller (Patrick Fugit) embarks on a rock journalist sojourn following advice
from the semilegendary critic Lester Bangs (played with uncommon precision by
Philip Seymour Hoffman) in a scene also recounted in Jim DeRogatis’ Bangs
bio Let It Blurt. William skips school (and worries his mother), leaving
San Diego to travel with a band, hang out with groupies and muse on his own
relationship to fame and success. Actually, there’s not much musing; Crowe’s
too commercially oriented to challenge the sex and drugs and high times. He
knows adolescence is a marketing tool as much as Rolling Stone and MTV
do, so Almost Famous never scrutinizes the lifestyle it can more profitably
flash for audience envy.

That’s where Almost
goes wrong. Crowe wants to sell the hedonism of his adolescence instead
of understanding what was special about it and the institutionalization of youth
culture in which he played a part. This movie shows the same blithe, careerist
ignorance that plagues Franck in Human Resources. The 15-year-old Crowe
may understandably not have known who he was, but the now-43-year-old Crowe
doesn’t even inquire. Crowe takes privilege for granted the way established
rock critics always have: boasting about backstage passes and free records,
smoking and balling instead of asking what any of it means.

But Crowe’s no dummy;
in tribute to rock’s dubious commercial virtues, his entire plot fakes
out the secrets he knows. William gets caught up in admiration for the band
Stillwater, led by sharp-cheeked guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), and Russell’s
hanger-on groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Both road-tour veterans beguile
and mislead the starstruck kid reporter. Crowe writes shrewdly observed scenes,
like Russell going on an egotistical bender and lording it in Topeka. ("You’re
real," he says to a pimply Midwestern fan. "Wanna see me feed
a mouse to my snake?" the fan offers.) But knowing as this is, it also
detracts from Crowe’s depiction of fame and its discontents. That distance
between jaded star and innocently bored plebe makes for a laugh, yet Crowe fails
to show that Russell or even William was ever as culturally low as the snake
handler. He implies that as rock insiders they’re somehow better, if only
more knowing. And that’s how the Rolling Stone rock institution
first became snide and obnoxious.

Much of Crowe’s distasteful
conceit is based on fabricating William’s relation to the fictitious Stillwater.
Though proposing an honest look at how personalities clash in a rock band, pretending
his own moral awakening, Crowe falsifies his early professional experience.
While covering Humble Pie, Crowe began an ongoing friendship with Peter Frampton,
yet Stillwater (recently contrived on two cross-promotional VH1 specials) substitutes
fantasy for revelation, self-flattery for personal disclosure. The subplot of
Russell’s (Frampton’s?) abuse of Penny–and William’s infatuation
with Penny–is hollow and sitcommy. Dislikable characterizations are unexceptionally
performed. Crudup’s bland and Hudson’s as annoying as a young Meg
Ryan. Supposedly airy and charming, she’s just a foolish drag.

These characters are idolized
rather than understood. Crowe’s kindliness (indulging Penny, who calls
herself a "band aid" rather than a "groupie") turns out
to be an artistic liability. In Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History,
Robert Draper quoted former music editor Abe Peck’s description of teenage
Crowe as "the guy still getting a kick out of the dressing room experience,
a kick out of dangling groupies out the window and a kick out of the music in
a way that [the magazine’s] thirty-year-old [writers] weren’t. He
was the guy who could bring in a cover story on all the big white bands. He
was our man with the Eagles." But Almost Famous doesn’t show
this side of Crowe’s story. Bangs tells William to "make your reputation
by being honest and unmerciful," but Crowe’s m.o. is so much the opposite
that his sweet-tempered vision mitigates his basic sunshiney, California optimism.

Almost Famous
rock-tour prevarications sell short the good and moving story of a liberally
educated kid who remains gaga over the world of knowledge presented by his schoolteacher
mother ("Be bold, the higher forces will come to your aid. Goethe said
that") and his older sibling ("Listen to Tommy with a candle
burning and you will see your entire future"). It’s unfortunate that
Crowe’s gentle family story (much like the best scenes in Ridgemont
and Say Anything) gets bulldozed by showbiz fantasy. (This is
the only movie I know to salute the grace of an older sibling’s pop-music
bequest.) William’s rapport with his mother and sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel)
is funny, idiosyncratic without being absurd. When Anita puts on a Simon and
Garfunkel record to explain herself, the mother exclaims, "We can’t
talk? We have to listen to rock music?" (McDormand’s combination of
Carol Burnett humor and Jane Fonda acerbity has never been better displayed.)
And Crowe has found an ideal embodiment in Patrick Fugit–believably precocious,
yet as cute as a muppet. Looking crestfallen at Russell or Penny’s follies,
Fugit conveys the essence of baby-brother disillusionment.

That may not suit Crowe’s
sense of his grownup self, yet his very real talent is for expressing adolescent
sensibility. That’s why the adult compromises of Jerry Maguire were
false and offensive. Almost Famous nearly repeats that dishonesty
when Bangs counsels, "They will strangle rock and roll and everything you
love about it!" Bangs confused the advent of youth culture with the search
for art–a contradiction common to all youth pop theorizing. And besides,
Crowe doesn’t really buy it. He’s still childishly infatuated with
the showbiz aspects of rock (and the rock aspects of showbiz) that he learned
to report for the mainstream. Coming out of rock writing, Crowe might have been
expected to be a counterculture genie like Hal Ashby or Alex Cox. But instead,
he developed Hollywood slickness.

"When did you get so
professional?" Russell asks William. You may also wonder that after Almost
neglects its most promising details. When the group of "band
aids," out of boredom, decide to deflower William, the experience has no
aftereffect or emotional consequence in how the world looks or people relate–shocking
for a pop-based movie, let alone one with "Every Picture Tells a Story,"
Rod Stewart’s epic of adolescent social arousal, on the soundtrack. Such
emotional, political awakening is too scarily personal for the kind of filmmaking
Crowe espouses. Recall Robert Draper’s Uncensored observation: "By
the mid-seventies, the teenager had a virtual lock on America’s most popular
acts… Crowe embodied all the traits of mid-seventies American rock–amiable,
unoffensive and enormously successful." If Crowe’s commercial knack
is innate, not just something he was taught at Jann Wenner’s Perception
vs. Reality School, it’s an even greater cause for alarm. Crowe’s
enthusiasm for the terminally overrated Billy Wilder might be another cause
for his irredeemable slickness. Wilder’s wit also defeated a richer presentation
of character–as bad an influence as Stillwater’s Elton John singalongs.
Crowe’s so slick that even the best of his often good dialogue might as
well be written on wax paper.

Almost Famous misperceives
the reality of privilege in a way that seems willfully at odds with the truth.
For all the film’s confused romanticism (Russell’s confession–"Let’s
say all the things we never said"–is as fake as Jerry Maguire’s
"You complete me"), the final scene suggests Crowe has finally
learned something about presenting a crock to the public. Russell’s comeuppance
provides William’s rescue; it’s a well-shaped and textured finish.
But what has Crowe learned about the secrets of success–of professional
collusion, of showbiz falsification, of cultural dumbing-down, of rock journalism’s
precocious arrogance? (I wish his mother had made this movie.)

Because Crowe doesn’t
examine his own aspiration, Almost Famous negates the subject of a California
innocent’s class strivings. Instead its subject becomes that sure-fire
seller: celebrity–Crowe, Bangs, Wenner, Ben Fong-Torres, Russell (Frampton),
etc. And our relation to it remains unenlightened. As Nurse Betty is
for the nondiscriminating, Almost Famous is Being John
for the hopelessly sentimental.

Turn It
by Robert Adetuyi

You wouldn’t know it
from the dark and violent hiphop milieu of Turn It Up, but its lead characters
Diamond (Pras Michel) and Gage (Ja Rule) share Franck’s Human Resources
problem. Both young men want to rule the music biz, but their methods–selling
drugs, killing thugs–are entirely without conscience. This miserable gangsta
flick misplaces the humanity that Franck painfully, complicatedly discovers.
Greedy, vain, materialistic Diamond doesn’t know who he is because the
filmmakers don’t understand their own positions in the world. Director
and cowriter Robert Adetuyi repeats plotlines from Purple Rain and
, but worst of all he repeats the hiphop canard that confuses ambition,
tenacity and will with murderousness and theft.

Diamond and Gage (like Adetuyi,
Ja Rule and Pras, the least talented of the Fugees) are of a generation detached
from the social protest that used to fuel hiphop. Pledged to aggression and
egotism, they mythify hiphop’s most dubious social drives. They’re
as career-minded as Franck (or Crowe’s alter ego William). Crime and viciousness
are their obscene correlatives for what used to be hiphop’s creative urge.
That’s why Diamond can gun down rival drug dealers then go into a recording
studio without flinching. That’s why Ja Rule transfers his stage bravado
into warehouse homicide as if both were necessarily the same. Turn It Up
sells the lie that has corrupted hiphop and duped its current audience. It justifies
the pop fantasy of greed by any means necessary. Produced by Madonna’s
Maverick Films branch, Turn It Up is another example of her slumming
regard for black culture.