Three Kings

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Failing Vision
overheated, dizzying hash of a movie, David O. Russell’s Three Kings puts
me in the rare position of cheering a filmmaker’s inconsistency. Which
is to say: If the whole of this seriocomic plunge into Operation Desert Storm
were as awful as its first 20 minutes, I might’ve been driven toward wrist-slitting,
or at least the exit. But things do get more complicated and interesting as
Russell’s strange odyssey rockets onward, so that we’re finally left
not with a fiasco, but a galloping case of creative schizophrenia.

When a colleague wondered
aloud what conceivably connected Three Kings with Russell’s two
previous movies, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster,
I said, "One word: onanism." But that’s too reductive, admittedly.
Actually, three words are needed to characterize Russell’s oeuvre-to-date:
"avid to impress."

Spanking the Monkey
came at just the right moment in the 90s, that brief, Sundance-kissed spell
when a cleverly crafted, two-character, no-budget comedy could impress all the
right people, score a modest success at the box office and launch a filmmaker’s
career. And Flirting with Disaster was just the right sophomore leap.
Russell moved up to a Miramax-sized budget, a large, commercial cast and a narrative
concept that confidently eased one foot into the mainstream. Never mind that
Miramax reportedly decreed significant reshooting: the new ending worked, audiences
responded and Russell’s resume was made ready for the majors.

In a sense, few filmmakers’
careers so succinctly chart the drift of young American cinema in the 90s, when
ambition slipped free of idealism’s crusty anchor. From lauded minimalist
debut to substantial indie-level hit to high-profile Warner Bros. fall ’99
release: Russell’s progress shows how the game is played when it’s
played successfully. Indeed, the career and the films together suggest a guy
who’s a consummate operator–shrewd, deliberate, with just the right
balance of aggressive and politic instincts.

Yet, like the President
who launched the war depicted in Three Kings, Russell, along with many
of his careerist bent, seems to have a slight problem with "the vision
thing." As in, does he have any? And perhaps, does it matter if he doesn’t
as long as he entertains the millions? On the evidence of this new film, I would
say that he belongs to a transitional generation of filmmakers, one that still
knows enough to be bothered by the likelihood that all its skill is being wasted
on froth and flash for idiots. From that kind of nagging doubt, creative schizophrenia
may well be a natural issue.

Taking its title from the
Christmas carol about the three kings who "of Orient are," the film
opens not only in the closing hours of the Gulf War, but in full pomo-pandering
mode. "Are we shooting?" calls out actor Marky Mark, too-cutely rhyming
bullets with cinema. He, in any case, is shooting: he plugs a presumed
Iraqi soldier in the neck, provoking a gurgling, pathetic death that he–the
American sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg–turns away from even as his fellow
grunts cheer and compliment him for taking out a "rag head." There
follows a brief orgy of chugga-chugga rock ’n’ roll, dancing in the
desert and high-fiving, cut to an MTV beat.

In these early moments,
when Three Kings suggests nothing so much as National Lampoon’s
Gulf War Vacation
, replete with boorishly overcranked pop music and aura
of stylish atavism, I thought I’d encountered the work that could beat
out 8mm and The General’s Daughter as the most despicable
movie of the year. And it may be that Warner Bros. ends up wishing I had
encountered that movie. Sad to say, but a more unrelievedly lowbrow and xenophobic
Three Kings might fit the niches of marketers and wishes of audiences
more than Russell’s conflicted conceit will.

Still, the movie’s
initial reels take the low road in a particularly striking way. Russell’s
American soldiers have a kind of bantering familiarity that’s creepily
compelling because it so effectively meshes a very refined naturalistic acting
style with jokey dialogue that subsumes an encyclopedia’s worth of current
pop attitudes and references. This, in effect, is the second-generation offspring
of the Method and Saturday Night Live, filtered through the era of Seinfeld
and MTV, and you have to wonder at the ultimate gist of its welter of surface
sophistication: It’s as if the truth-seeking impulses of so much of American
pop art in the last half century have ended up in the toolbox of Madison Avenue,
which now uses faux-hipsterish naturalism to sell everything from jeans to war.

One quibble, then on to
the McGuffin. The title says three kings, presumably because the song does,
but there are four. These are the American soldiers–played by Wahlberg,
George Clooney, Ice Cube and director-moonlighting-as-actor Spike Jonze–who,
on discovering evidence of stolen Kuwaiti gold being hidden by Iraqi soldiers
nearby, light out into the desert on their own treasure hunt. Is this plausible?
Do we believe that such standard-issue GI conformists would risk everything
on a wild scheme to snag tons of bullion? Well, not really, but one dubious
side benefit of Russell’s breathless, distracted style is that it doesn’t
allow time to ponder the realistic, human aspects of any situation.

With the Beach Boys’
"I Get Around" booming obnoxiously on the soundtrack, the central
quartet motors into the desert compound specified by their treasure map, where
things suddenly get complicated. Yes, there’s gold in them thar bunkers,
lots of it. But the sandy fortress also contains Iraqi civilians who have risen
up against Saddam at Bush’s behest, and who now stand to be slaughtered
by the Iraqi soldiers who are guarding both them and the gold. You can see the
dilemma looming up for our heroes, and you will not be wrong in suspecting that
it is crucial to what follows. In a nutshell, the next 90 minutes pits the GIs’
greed against their consciences.

For a movie that might’ve
arrived sporting a "Born to Be Stoopid" bumpersticker, this dramatic
turn is a welcome development, undeniably. Russell has discovered that the Gulf
War was no altruistic romp, and his objectives include not only showing the
dark, cynical and callously lethal aspects of American policy, but also rendering
its Islamic adversaries and victims as fully, complexly human, as almost never
happens in our media.

On paper these aims, the
latter especially, couldn’t be more commendable. Onscreen, though, as part
of the sensory-overload thrill ride that Russell constructs, their effects are
far more ambivalent; it’s as if the thematic weight they provide might
be just another flourish filable under "avid to impress." In any event,
their injection of ostentatious heaviness produces some odd juxtapositions.
In one adroitly absurdist moment, Wahlberg’s character, desperate behind
enemy lines, finds a cell phone and is able to call not his command, but his
uncomprehending wife back home. Soon after, he’s forced to listen as a
furious, brokenhearted Iraqi tells how American bombers killed his little boy
in his bed.

When Wahlberg provides this
same anti-Saddam Iraqi with a list of American policy objectives in the conflict,
the angry man says nothing but grabs a can of oil and forces it down his American
prisoner’s throat. This is a startling, chilling moment, but it’s
one of several such that the film has an impossible task in trying to contain.
Put simply, Three Kings wants to be fun and profound at the same time–i.e.,
it wants to really impress–but ends up straddling an impossible
divide, torn by its own disparate urges.

You could say that the story’s
greed-versus-conscience thrust mirrors, however unintentionally, Russell’s
own position as a determinedly upwardly mobile would-be artist. Yet I don’t
think the basic problem here is essentially personal. Overall, cinema is currently
seeing the old auteur idea fragment, break apart, under pressures that are detectable
in everything from audience expectations to film style.

Consider, as a prime example
of the latter, Three Kings’ helter-skelter visual language. Besides
using a "bleach bypass" process (seen to good advantage earlier this
year in Payback) that gives the film a dazzlingly bright, ruggedly contrasty
look that, not incidentally, recalls certain video formats, Russell serves up
rapid-fire editing and fancy camera angles nonstop, together with the intercutting
of other film stocks and formats. The effect is relentlessly eye-grabbing, of
course, even if it ultimately works against character development and dramatic
coherence. Yet its biggest downside is that it seems so suited to a Levi’s
501 ad.

Thirty years ago individual
filmmakers used stylistic elements eclectically and found themselves imitated,
sooner or later, by the makers of tv shows and commercials. Today advertising
and tv–and their bastard spawn, music videos–create the language (borrowing
liberally from the experimentalism of decades past, of course) and filmmakers
like Russell scramble to employ it. Why? Because audiences have come to expect
it of movies that mean to convey "cutting-edge" and "hip"
and "outrageous," right?

Well, yes and no. No doubt
many audiences are completely in thrall to the stylistic cliches that have been
successfully dispersed by the advertising industry, yet there are other viewers–perhaps
including those most amenable to Three Kings’ serious aims–who
will read such fevered mannerism as the height of glib insincerity and annoying
trendiness. Do these audience segments break down along generational lines?
To some extent, perhaps. But the split’s effect, which has nothing essential
to do with age, means that "authors" today have a hard time conveying
authority because film style no longer does; and that has everything to do with
how audiences’ understanding of style has been, and constantly is being,
fractured and remade by forces that care nothing about art.

Splashy camerawork aside,
Three Kings overall is not as adroit as its strongest elements might
suggest. To cite only one conspicuous blemish, there’s a supposedly comic
subplot about a Christiane Amanpour-like reporter (C.A. should sue) and a Gomer
Pyle-esque grunt that’s so inept and misogynistic it should be excised
even at this late date. Here, too, the problem isn’t that Russell is lacking
in talent; it’s that his vision is shackled to his desire to dazzle.

this a footnote to the discussion surrounding American Beauty, a film
written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. I’ve agreed with much
of the praise awarded this unusual, stylish comedy-drama, including that in
Matt Zoller Seitz’s recent review. But American Beauty also strikes
me as a film that’s peculiarly liable to be overpraised, because its many
virtues dominate its richly drawn dramatic surface while its flaws reside underneath.

In fact, the few, vague
doubts I had about the film while watching it didn’t crystallize until
its last five minutes, which sent me out of the theater certain that screenwriter
Ball must have a background in television. (Turns out he does.) By this point
in history, of course, tv dramaturgy has so pervaded movies that it’s perhaps
quaint to attempt drawing any distinctions between the two media; but here goes

Tv is about the moment and
characters that don’t change, and thus movies infected with tv values are
those that simply riff on character quirks rather asserting a dramatic logic
based on the potential of characters to change. Of course, such riffing doesn’t
"feel" like a movie since movies traditionally go somewhere.
Typically, tv-trained writers solve this problem by tacking on a big, powerhouse
ending that, because it feels "dramatic," makes the whole thing seem
to have the underlying logic of drama.

I started thinking about
this at the time of James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, in which
very quirky, appealing characters played by terrific actors do funny, sitcommy
things until the third act arrives and, whammo, someone gets cancer!
Such last-inning, deus ex machina heaviosity is one way tv writing tries to
ape the seriousness of serious movies and drama.

Edith Wharton supposedly
said, "What Americans really want is a tragedy with a happy ending."
What tv-schooled screenwriters want, though, is just the opposite: an hilarious
sitcom with a magnificent, tragic finale. A Seinfeld that ends as Hamlet.

The tip-off is the heavy
ending that’s imposed rather than earned, but is extremely necessary in
order that the film not seem like a sitcom. So it is with American Beauty.
Its brutal ending, which manages to be both misogynistic (as the film’s
entire portrayal of Annette Bening’s two-dimensional character is) and
indirectly homophobic, is effectively announced in the film’s opening moments
and regularly foreshadowed thereafter. This is surely one of the cleverest things
about the movie, because it manages to make a conclusion that’s extremely
artificial seem organic and foreordained. It also helps disguise the unattractive
quality at the heart of Ball’s curious story: male self-pity