Friday, 16 November 2012

Seven Postmodern Pyschopaths

Seven Psychopaths is Postmodern. I might as well put that up front because it’s pretty much the most important thing to know about this movie. In fact, there might not be anything else to know about this movie beyond that statement. But we’ll get to that.

As with many classic ‘postmodern’ works, Seven Psychopaths really, really wants you to know that it is postmodern. It doesn’t so much as want to slap you round the face with it as to show you a brief short of the slapper musing on the fact that he’s showing you a short of him musing on showing you a short in a giant self-referential arc that just leaves you slapping yourself and crying about the futility of life. While being filmed.

In the film, the point of all the postmodern posturing is a critique of Hollywood style action movies. The main character Marty (the same name as Director Martin McDonagh! OMG!), wants to write his in-film ‘Seven Psychopaths’ movie, but with less violence, and more musing on love and the meaning of life, much to the derision of his actually psychopathic friends. His struggles to introduce some literary pretension to the film form a frame for a series of very self-aware sequences replicating, and undercutting various action movie tropes as Marty’s screenplay overlaps with the film’s ‘real-world’ action. It’s a decent, if not entirely original idea, and occasionally, the film succeeds in its critique – one sequence in particular during a shootout between Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell with a jammed gun and some choice dialogue got a fair few laughs out of me.

But in general, the film simply ends up referencing, and acknowledging the flaws in action movies….and then falling foul of them anyway. Half way through the movie, Christopher Walken mentions to Marty that his female characters are basically sexist caricatures, with no real characterization. Marty seems to partially acknowledge this….but thereafter no female characters actually appear again in the movie. Admittedly most have been killed off by this point – which kind of underlines the problem. 

The same problem occurs with racism. The word ‘Nigger’ is thrown around loosely by all characters, and while several black characters appear, they are self admittedly caricatures and stereotypes. This is partially acknowledged throughout, with Christopher Walken, when retelling his story (told incompletely by Marty earlier in the film) pointing out, ‘Our daughter was black. Don’t think you mentioned that’.  But, and this is presumably not coincidental, every single one of the black characters are also women, and so are either dead by this point, or superfluous to the storyline (such as one exists beyond the director’s indulgences).

So this isn’t a critique of action movies as such, it’s just an action movie that knows it’s an action movie (with some added bro-love), that wants to thrust its action movie-ness in front of you and shout ‘Look at me, I’m an action-cum-buddy-movie! Aren’t action movies full of senseless violence, and unthinking racism and sexism! Hahaha! Look at me kill this woman while calling her a cunt, and laugh about how sexist that is!’

But that’s not undermining the tropes of action movies. It’s not even criticizing them. It’s acknowledging them, and, at least in the case of the audience in my screening, getting cheap laughs out of them. The nadir for me was the fact that when Christopher Walken’s character, in a last ditch attempt at some depth in the film, refers to the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, the audience, by this point immune to violence having been made to chuckle through several self-referential sequences already, continued their laughter through the image of a monk setting himself alight in the streets of Saigon.

At that point you have to sit back, and ask, is the use of postmodern techniques to critique action movies sufficiently strong that it outweighs the fact that your postmodern techniques have so detached the viewer from the reality of what he’s viewing that any act of violence, however real and awful, becomes a subject for amusement? Ummm no. In fact, the answer is always no –playing an actual real world tragedy for laughter is just plain wrong in any circumstance. And so you come back to the old critique of post modernism for post modernism’ sake, and the problems of unthinkingly pulling out stylistic quirks without actually considering the point.

That point, made most eloquently by David Foster Wallace in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” is that postmodernism risks becoming a damaging and alienating farce, a series of self-referential winks and irony that lifts the audience from its immersion in the film in order to show them the workings of the film but with no actual purpose beyond shouting ‘Look, it’s me, the director! Writing a film about writing this film!’ The stylistic quirks take over and are indulged for indulgence’s sake, so that the writer can bask in his own awesomeness, rather than because it suits the story, or the audience. Essentially, if you’re going to go postmodern, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Unfortunately that isn’t a new critique, because postmodernism itself is hardly new or original anymore. It’s old news. Thomas Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow in the 70s, and it wasn’t even an original conceit then. Even in films, Charlie Kaufmann’s ‘Adaptation’ (which essentially executes a similar idea to Seven Psychos, but with a bit more imagination) was done 10 years ago. The sad thing is that this basic warning about the dangers of postmodern style, repeated over and over by innumerable critics, is still ignored by directors and screenwriters obsessed with their own awesomeness, and the awesomeness of their own industry.

So, what you’re left with is a film which fails to tell a sensitive intelligent story about a writer’s failed attempts to write a sensitive intelligent story. It’s the perfect self-referential, postmodern loop of failure. Not even failure with style, but failure through style.

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