Every now and then, cinema's endless fascination with itself produces a few poignant and soulful works that serve to ground it in the mundane and make it seem relevant and accessible to us mere mortals. Under normal circumstances, the players in this endless glittering-dream-factory extend the illusion to their off-screen persona's, projecting a variation of the product itself – a living 24/7 fantasy life commercial if you will - designed to sell the “idea” of celebrity, keep the audience filling the seats and by extension, signing their next paycheck. The fans have developed an insatiable appetite for the veneer of celebrity, gobble it all up and ask for more – oblivious to the fact that it is all a manufactured facade.
On occasion, a film maker will choose to alter the tried-and-true film making formula, turn the camera around and shoot themselves...ah... shooting themselves. It often makes for great cinema – creating an illusion of the illusion itself. Two films recently released to DVD, The Wrestler and JCVD are variations on this theme and they both work exceptionally well, particularly as companion pieces.
The Wrestler, from an excellent script by Robert Siegel is directed with polished style and great craft by Darren Aronofsky. That said, it's difficult to see it as anything other than Mickey Rourke's movie. It's also hard to imagine anyone else in the role, giving one pause to consider it that might have written specifically for him. I don't know if that really is the case, but Rourke's casting is note-perfect partly because the character, in many ways, IS Mickey Rourke. I don't think that this movie is particularly about professional wrestling, but is instead a reflection on the personal price paid by the marginally famous to get (and stay) there. The plot makes clear comparisons between pro-wrestling and stripping, both micro-subculture worlds with stars and has-beens, the Wrestler being about the later.
I think by making this correlation, Siegel and Aronofsky might be asking us to extrapolate and expand the conceit further and apply it to idea of fame and success in other walks of life too. Specifically, Rourke's rise and fall (and rise again) as an actor is both well-documented and makes for a good story. The professional actor/wrestler/stripper/athlete/entertainment world is full of these human train wrecks and The Wrestler explores these personalities with honesty and a grudging respect for the singular focus necessary to pursue fame (and the price paid by those who do). The film is ultimately a lonely and melancholy reflection on the empty existence of those trapped between the need to experience normal human connections and the seductive allure of starring in the big show.
JCVD is the more cavalier of the two films, playing with and praying upon the action star banality of everyone's favourite crap actor, the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Where The Wrestler might be seen as metaphor - it keeps the illusion firmly in place while it tells the story - JCVD is something different, and maybe a more interesting something. The most concise plot synopsis I can muster up is Dog Day Afternoon re-imagined by Charlie Kaufman, but that doesn't do justice to the self-referential mental circle jerk they manage to pull off here. It becomes evident very quickly that the Jean-Claude we see on the screen is a fictional representation of the real – if such a person exists – Jean-Claude. The great part about JCVD is this fictional character could in fact be the real Van Damme. Nothing he says or does seems remotely implausible and a film about an aging action star reflecting upon his own mortality is entirely conceivable.
There are two interesting moments in the film that are completely underplayed and a virtuoso, slightly mad, 7 minute soliloquy that isn't. JVCD riffs for about an hour on what it would happen if somebody like Van Damme lost it and took a bunch of hostages at a post office. It could easily have descended into pop-culture parody, but they manage to balance the story between the absurd and the plausible and make it all seem rather documentary-like. The film then veers off into the existential when the floor lifts Van Damme up into a separate set and he delivers a jaw-dropping and 7 minute heartfelt reflection on his life directly to the camera. WTF? Where did that come from? Brilliant! I could imagine pitching the idea for this film to financiers.
“OK, Jean-Claude is a hostage but everyone on the outside thinks he's the one holding everyone on the inside at gunpoint. He delivers his soliloquy and then the SWAT team attacks the Post Office....”
“Hold it.... Can you go back a bit? …. Did you say Jean-Claude delivers a soliloquy?”
“Ya...it's about 7 minutes of him speaking directly to the camera about his life. Ahhhh.... pages... Ummm.... here they are - 56 through 63.”
Can you imagine?
The two underplayed bits that caught my attention were these; at one point during the hostage crisis, we become aware that the ONLY person in the whole world that understands what's really going on is Jean-Claude Van Damme. I tip my hat to anyone who can write that moment into a story and make it seem real. It makes a wonderful point about our celebrity-mad world and the fucking drooling idiots (Susan Boyle anyone?) we have become. The second is a throw-away line uttered by a bored, young Asian director in the opening film within a film within a film. “We're not shooting Citizen Kane here”. I disagree. I think JCVD is a little more like Kane than you might think at first glance. Both are about barely altered versions of famous people mulling over their life's work and wondering what it was all for. That's the best compliment I can give this playful and insightful little film. It may rely on the presumptions we have about a minor B-action film star but it also has much to say about the world we live in, just like Kane did.
I've seen 4 brilliant films so far this year; Let the Right One In, Radio On and now The Wrestler and JCVD. Not bad at all.