An Important Movie You May Never See
We live in a time when independent cinema means midlevel studio pictures those studios can no longer be bothered to make; postmodern genre films that steal from other postmodern genre films; films about posers and street hoods and poser street hoods; films about people who just graduated from college and have to get a job and live and love in the real world and can’t figure out why nobody else feels like listening to them bitch and whine about how smart and sensitive and misunderstood they are. We live in a time of so-called independent films about guys who really want to make a film but can’t decide what to make a film about, then solve their dilemma by making a film about a guy who can’t decide on a topic for his next film. (This is known as sensitivity, and it’s enough to get you noticed.) We live in a time when rookie filmmakers (most of them young and white, from privileged backgrounds) want to make films because making films is cool, not because they feel unique feelings and desperately want to make us feel something, too. It is a time of calling-card films, film-school films, films that have much to do with other movies, little to do with life and no interest in examining how one connects with and sometimes corrupts the other.
Into this ossified and increasingly trivial rich kids’ medium comes a movie with integrity and guts—one that uses genre conventions to say something meaningful about the world we live in right now. That film is Pups, the second feature by the one-named British writer-director Ash. It’s a film whose timing was either exquisite or horrible, depending on whom you ask—a film about two contemporary suburban white kids from perfectly ordinary homes who, through a combination of impulse and neglect, come into possession of a handgun, then make the life-changing mistake of bringing that handgun into a community bank.
Am I right about this movie’s excellence, or am I just blowing smoke? I really wish you could judge for yourself, but for now, that’s not possible. Pups has no distributor.
The film had a screening April 18 at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and was well received by critics and industry types who attended. But two days later, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did their Terminator number at Columbine High. Politicians’ subsequent soapboxing about Hollywood violence ensured that the same distributors who called Ash 24 hours after the screening to ask about buying Pups suddenly got cold feet.
Superficially, Pups plays like a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and the neglected 1979 cult classic Over The Edge, with a world-weary supporting performance by Burt Reynolds as the hostage negotiator that’s nearly as fine as his work in Boogie Nights. But Ash’s movie is much more than that. It’s a scathingly relevant film that dresses itself in formulaic thriller trappings in order to tell us necessary things about America’s culture of entertainment, celebrity worship and violence, and how that culture infects us in ways we cannot begin to fathom. It’s the movie Natural Born Killers promised to be, but couldn’t be because Oliver Stone was too in love with film stock and MTV and his own machismo to stand back from the material and make it moral as well as exciting.
The junior-high boy and girl who bring the gun into the bank and provoke the hostage situation—loquacious asthmatic Stevie (Cameron Van Hoy) and his erstwhile girlfriend, skinny-legged tomboy Rocky (Mischa Barton)—are basically decent kids. But they are also the sum total of the corrupt messages they have absorbed: Guns are Cool, Action Movies Rock, Being on tv is an End Unto Itself, Everybody Loves You If You’re Famous. (Except for Ken Finkleman’s 1998 Canadian tv series More Tears, about the venality of tv journalism, no recent pop drama has done a better job of capturing the hall-of-mirrors aspect of life in the age of 24-hour news. In one terrific scene, Stevie looks at a tv in the bank and sees a live image, taken by a cameraman shooting through the front window, of Stevie watching himself on tv in the bank.) These received messages, along with the easy availability of firearms and the cluelessness of some parents, make it not just possible but inevitable that kids like Stevie and Rocky would pit themselves against the rest of society for no good reason.
Back to the distribution situation, or lack thereof. Here’s what went down: One day after the April 18 screening, Columbia, Warner Bros., Gramercy and the Samuel Goldwyn Co. all wanted to talk to Ash.
As of April 20, the day of the Columbine killings, no one would touch Pups. Ostensibly the distributors wanted to wait to see how critics and festival audiences responded before hauling out their checkbooks. But the truth is they wanted to wait until the Hollywood-is-evil movement collapsed, or at least took a breather.
Three months later, the guns-and-pop-culture debate is still raging. Which means you can’t see the most disturbing and personal low-budget movie of 1999—and, I’m willing to wager just halfway through the year, the only American movie that tells the truth about guns, youth, the media and the movies. The powers that be have decided the political climate is too sensitive. It’s not the right time.
But is there ever a wrong time for the truth?
Unlike many satires, Pups doesn’t give its targets the escape hatch of ambiguity. The kids aren’t monsters, but certain social forces definitely bear responsibility for how they turned out; Ash knows what those forces are and makes sure you do, too. Stevie and Rocky know how to behave in hostage situations because they’ve watched hostage situations on the news and in Hollywood movies, and they’re too young and uneducated to understand how those media can reshape real tragedies into thrilling pop myths. (The classic Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon is mentioned by name and referenced in deed, and when Stevie threatens his adult hostages with his mom’s pistol, he holds it sideways like a showboating gangsta in a bad ‘hood picture and barks four- and 12-letter words to let people know he’s serious.) Ash isn’t saying, “Hollywood action movies are evil” or that “tv news is amoral” or “There are too many guns in America.” He’s saying Hollywood, the media and the gun industry bear some responsibility for the fate of kids like Stevie and Rocky and Klebold and Harris—and that if the culprits invoke the First or Second Amendments as a shield against their critics, they’re self-deluding liars.
Pups is personal. You can tell it wasn’t made as a calling card (though Ash says that in the months since the Independent Film Festival screening, he’s gotten a couple of calls from studio execs who want him to direct big budget action pictures—executives who apparently either haven’t seen Pups or else were too stupid to figure out that the film indicts them for irresponsibility, along with the crisis-crazy news media, the gun lobby and America’s diehard cowboy culture).
The film is not a masterpiece. Few movies are. Ash is an unabashed propagandist, and it shows; he’s also sentimental about the innocence of children, and this shows as well. There are misjudged moments, bits of rhetoric that make you cringe or roll your eyes, indulgences and blind alleys and moments of regrettable theatrical excess. But these faults are partly traceable to the film’s quick gestation period: Ash thought up the story after the Jonesboro shootings in 1998 and wrote and directed the movie between October and December to satisfy the impulsive whims of Japanese investors.
And in any case, Pups’ missteps pale in comparison to its rare virtues—fluidity, anger, imagination, improvisation, honesty. It’s shot mostly with a Steadicam, either in long takes or in staccato-cut sequences that suggest the editor was having a seizure, and the ambient sound and sparing use of music create an aura of genuine dread. At the risk of trivializing the film’s antiviolence message, I’ll paraphrase Pauline Kael on Salvador and say that Ash makes movies as if someone put a gun to his head and yelled, “Go!” and didn’t take it away until he finished.
Ash’s first feature, Bang—about a sexually mistreated Los Angeles actress who impersonates an L.A. cop for a day, then discovers to her amazement that she really gets off on having a badge and a gun—had a similarly ragged yet focused kind of energy, a guerrilla filmmaking vibe. In some scenes, you could hear the buzz of offscreen LAPD helicopters harassing the filmmakers for shooting in Los Angeles without a government permit. One could imagine Ash writing the screenplay in spraypaint on a warehouse wall. Like a punk cousin of Election director Alexander Payne—or maybe Stone with common sense—this writer-director reconfigures political issues as melodrama, packs the result into tight little storytelling concepts and shakes the result until it blows up in our faces.
In a time when most movies say nothing and mean less than nothing, Pups plants both its sneakered feet firmly on the pavement, looks us in the eye and tells the truth, and does it in a suspenseful, entertaining and—dare I say it?—commercial way. Does any major distributor in America have the balls to pick up this movie and make sure it gets seen by the large popular audience it so richly deserves?
May-December. Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, will screen at Film Forum July 23-29. Aficionados of the mordant and sweet are advised to check it out—especially if you’ve never seen it with an audience.
Slow fuse. I recently had the pleasure of watching The Big Lebowski and Starman within 24 hours on cable, then seeing Arlington Road. The juxtaposition of these three roles underlined once again that Jeff Bridges is one of the very best actors we have. Arlington Road is ludicrous, as serious and probing a look at domestic terrorism as Three Days Of The Condor was a serious and probing look at the military-industrial complex. But inside the nonsense is a compelling lead performance by Bridges, as a widowed professor at the end of his rope, that’s as detailed and believable as any you’re going to see anywhere. This achievement is especially remarkable considering what nonsense the filmmakers ask him to put up with in the name of melodrama.
Like other versatile leading men who also happen to be handsome—I include Nick Nolte, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise in this category—Bridges will probably never in his lifetime receive the kind of acclaim visited on the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, who are certainly gifted but also have been known to act in a way that announces to the audience, “Look at me, folks, I’m acting—ain’t I intense?” Certain types of leading men—leading men like Bridges—do exactly what is required to suit the material, no more and no less. They make the story more believable by finding exactly the correct pace, energy level and emotional pitch, and they never step outside the story to force you to acknowledge their efforts; they never let you catch them acting.