Thursday 22 October 2015

The Current Cinema - Whitey Bulger is no Mabuse....

Coming right on top of Legend (Brian Helgeland, UK, 2015) a film noted earlier  here, Black Mass (Scott Cooper, USA, 2015) invites some rudimentary comparisons. First there is the 'true story' though as those whose memories go back a long way, all the way back to Night and Day (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1946) or Rhapsody in Blue (Irving Rapper, USA, 1945) or Words and Music (Norman Taurog, USA, 1948), biopics about nice people containing lies innumerable to count,  perhaps will know. ‘True stories' often have the facts changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Then there is the bravura acting performance by the lead actor, burrowing deep into the technical box of tricks and often assisted by the make-up department, to look and sound authentic and in character. Where well-known criminals are concerned most especially, the actor is called upon to try and try and convey the idea that associated with their character is a sense of wild, uncontrollable, erratic and very dangerous violence, something likely to be unleashed at a moment's notice and which at least once in the film will involve a repetition of the scenes in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990) where the gang members so-called 'fuck with each other's brain'. When it happens, the audience is usually taken in along with the poor victim of the prank. I feel rather certain that both Tom Hardy, who got the chance to play two villains, and Johnny Depp who got the chance to go into serious disguise immediately thought Oscar! when they and their agents got to look at the scripts.

In so-called true stories of today, especially those about villains, there seems to be some basic pattern to hove fairly close to known detail as well, especially if the crowd might know just a thing or two about events. Still, hoving to the facts if the criminals in question are low life extortionists, standover men, petty numbers and other cheap racketeers, as well as murderers, doesn't get the audience very involved. But the fairly recent tradition of keeping to the facts means you cant make up and insert the pulling of elaborate and brilliantly plotted heists or other criminal activity which create suspense and has the audience on the edge of the seat not knowing the outcome. You cant do what Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have done with Breaking Bad  and Better Call Saul and go on amazing flights of criminal fantasy set in the dull quotidian reality of suburban Albuquerque. The Krays and Whitey Bulger were not the type to get their money by elegant robberies or outrageous schemes. They simply killed people and took other people's money. Mabuse they are not.

The banality of their criminal lives stands between them and the audience. That was the trope that David Chase and his team of writers and actors developed for The Sopranos. For six seasons the wise guys sat outside the butcher shop drinking coffee. They sat out the back of the Bada Bing playing pool and reading the papers. They ate sloppy fat filled food. Occasionally they roused themselves to some slightly higher form of activity though not usually in their homes where they were faced with rebellious kids and cranky wives. Occasionally they murdered an enemy usually with maximum efficiency. Torture rarely played a part. But The Sopranos made you chuckle as well as gasp. Matters were contrived to generate suspicion and surprise. Characters did the unexpected and they betrayed each other. Everyone betrayed others, all the way from the high school kids through to aging near-death seniors. Some criminal activity was often recorded with documentary authenticity, most especially the construction and garbage disposal trades overmanning and rorting. It also had something deliciously droll about it. Human endeavor has a wonderful way of finding money making methods that break the law with impunity. Chase and his team relished telling the stories, no doubt all of them derived from case studies.

But the 'true story' tradition demands you cant relish telling the story of the hardened and violent criminal. You have to appall the audience not have them cheering on the bad guy. The lead actor, in his push for an Oscar, is encouraged to be excessive, caricature almost. Their movie versions will inevitably make them smarter and more articulate to go with their maximised sense of menace. They will also know to fight, deftly bringing down opponents. There is, however, one brawling encounter in 
Legend that occurs when the two brothers fight and its quickly reduces to flailing arms and wrestling on the floor, something like a real fight between drunks usually is.

These film-makers are thus faced with trying to make us interested in the banal lives of those who have chosen to make their way in the world by exploiting others and using violence to back it up. Not an edifying subject by itself. To this is added the story of a rather dim-witted, but cunning, FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who decides he can walk both sides of the street. The relationship however is underdeveloped. We're told it's happening but we dont get sufficient close-up bone and gristle between the two guys. Maybe it's the the star system operating here. The film is not written as a wrestle between the FBI Agent Connnolly and the arch-fiend Bulger. It's about Bulger and it's fascinated by him, or at least fascinated by Johnny Depp as him. Without giving us something interesting to follow (it lacks all the inside technical stuff of tracking and tracing that used to make The Wire so enthralling), you just watch bemused. 

You can of course marvel at all the authenticity of the recreations in the look on display. Painstaking work by the designers and photographers get everything right. That might be where any Oscar actually lands.

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