Thursday, November 3, 2016
Awash in self regard
The Neon Demon is a film about psychotic narcissism.
Which makes it a pretty good topic for Nicolas Winding Refn. Write what you know, they say. And Refn knows all about narcissism. I'm sure his house is full of mirrors -- metaphorical or otherwise.
Nicolas Winding Refn is pretty impressed with himself. He thinks he's pretty hot shit. The way he drapes his name all over his latest movie is proof positive of that.
I'm sure you saw this movie months ago -- it opened in the U.S. in July -- but we only just got it in Australia two weeks ago. In fact, I wasn't really in the mood to see it on Wednesday night, coming off a very busy week that included a music festival, a camping trip, Halloween, a public holiday on Tuesday, and the end of the six-month hiatus of my podcast on Tuesday night, in which we drank some celebratory whiskey. Wednesday night had all the makings of a quiet night in.
But Wednesday night was also my last chance to see The Neon Demon in the theater for free. The only theater where it's playing here in Melbourne is Cinema Nova in Carlton, and Nova only allows you to use your critics cards to see a movie in the first two weeks of its run. Today, Thursday, marks the end of those two weeks.
Well, I'm glad I went. I was lukewarm on Drive and I hated Only God Forgives, ranking it my least favorite movie of that year. I do like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, but those feel like older versions or Refn. Not the Refn we have now.
Not the Refn who loves himself so much.
But I'll get to that in a minute. First, the positives. The Neon Demon is clearly my favorite Refn movie so far, the most fully realized encapsulation of what is taking shape as his vision of the world. This despite some incredible miscalculations in the third act -- not on where the movie should go, necessarily, but on how it goes where it goes. In other words, I did want an off the rails finale that attempted to provoke, but I didn't like this particular off the rails finale that attempted to provoke. The rest of it, though, made up for the ending. Those triangles. THOSE TRIANGLES!
And now, the narcissism.
As far as I can tell, Nicolas Winding Refn's name appears six times in the credits of this movie. Six. Two before, four after. As far as I recall, they are as follows:
1) Listing himself as one of the people who "present" the movie, along with the various production companies that funded it.
2) Listing himself as the director prior to the reveal of the title.
3) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
4) Story by Nicolas Winding Refn
5) Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and either Mary Laws or Polly Stenham (there were only two screenwriters listed on screen, though Wikipedia lists three)
Those are the first three credits that roll. Then, after some other credits have rolled:
6) A Nicolas Winding Refn film
Really? You don't say.
Oh wait, you said it like 30 times.
But if just the navel-gazing love of how his three names sound together were all there was, I probably wouldn't have written this post. The kicker was his initials.
If you've been reading my posts on D.W. Griffith movies I've watched for my No Audio Audient series -- I've watched Intolerance and Broken Blossoms -- you'll know that Griffith displays one little bit of egocentrism that really irks me. For reasons known perhaps only to him, Griffith would include his initials, D.G., on the dialogue cards in his movies. (No W., though.) As there can be no semantic argument for their existence, they can be attributed only to his own massive sense of self appreciation.
But at least Griffith's commitment to his own personal glory can be written off as a product of a different time. Who knows, maybe there were even other directors who did it, enough that it was something of a convention.
The same cannot be said for Refn, who includes his initials NWR -- pointing down at an angle to the right -- each time the film's title is on the screen, which is at least twice. And perhaps also as the actor's names were appearing on screen, as well. Here, like this:
What a twat.
So even though I really liked this film -- loved 2/3 of it -- I still leave the experience with no better of an impression of its director. He has always struck me, maybe subconsciously before now, as a person full of himself, who thinks his cinematic vision is innately praiseworthy. He's a bit like Lars von Trier in terms of being an enfant terrible whose overconfidence is supposed to read as a sign of personal strength rather than his own immodesty. If you don't like his persona, you can just fuck off.
And it really does give him something in common with his characters. "Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing," says a mysteriously uncredited Alessandro Nivola -- mysteriously because he appears in at least three different scenes and has plenty of dialogue. Refn sees his own vision as a thing of beauty, and it's really "the only thing" in a way -- he doesn't care if his story is full of holes (they usually are) or if some elements are downright disagreeable. In this way he would relate directly with the lead character played by Elle Fanning, the only character who sees herself as flawless. "No one likes how they look," a fellow model says to her. "I like how I look," she responds, with perhaps feigned innocence.
Refn likes how he looks, how his films look, how his name looks. And he's not afraid to show it.
As I was leaving the movie and fully in the midst of processing it -- wishing, though, that the first 80 minutes were the most recent impression I was mulling, rather than the last 40 -- I came across a truly disturbing sight downstairs from the theater. It was this one:
And then also this one:
The first one is the more disturbing, I think you will agree.
The two images were on the shade that gets lowered over the entrance of a fancy women's clothing store that was of course closed, it being 11:30 at night. At first I had no idea why the googly eyes were there, which made it all the more frightening. I later determined it was probably a prank played by someone for Halloween, or perhaps even something the store did itself in honor of the holiday (even though the holiday isn't nearly as big in Australia as it is in the U.S.). But at the time, the total lack of a reason for it, coupled with just having seen a movie about psychotic models with crazy eyes, chilled me to the bone. (For crazy eyes in the movie, see: Abbey Lee.)
That's all I have for now, but ...
Derek Scott Armstrong presents
A Derek Scott Armstrong post
Written by Derek Scott Armstrong
Conceived by Derek Scott Armstrong
Typed by Derek Scott Armstrong
Last two photographs taken by Derek Scott Armstrong
Derek Scott Armstrong is Great