Friday, October 12, 2007

Harsh Times (David Ayer, 2005)

Live and die in L.A.

David Ayer's Harsh Times (2005) was reportedly based on his own experiences, and the language ("Whassup, dog?" "I wanna get fucked up") seems to reflect that (though Ayer's street profanity seems more mimetic than the kind of profane poetry that, say, David Mamet is capable of whipping up). He also manages to capture the boredom that exists between two men in a car (one of them simply weak, the other a developing psychopath), cruising around looking to get drunk, get laid, get high.

Beyond that--beyond the street realism, the surface texture and the sodium-arc street lighting (most of the picture, as with most noirs, takes place at night)--there's not much to be really said in favor of the movie. Ayer's self-admitted model was Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) but I'd say it's just as useful if not more so to look at Scorsese' earlier Mean Streets (1973)--you can see Ayer trying to capture the same kind of 'slice of life' quality, create the same meandering narrative, evoke the same anguished search for salvation (or damnation, you're not quite sure which).

There are crucial differences--Scorsese put the weakling Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) front and center as protagonist; his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) was the wild card, the violent borderline psychopath who constantly gets Charlie in trouble. For his picture Ayers does the exact opposite, focusing on the ostensibly more interesting role or at least showier one--Jim Davis (Christian Bale), the traumatized war veteran (which war (Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan) is unspecified)--and reduced the relatively more normal friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez) to nominal sidekick.

Charlie was Scorsese's proxy on the big screen, and Scorsese poured all his guilts, hopes, fears into the character, laying his soul wide open for all to examine; presumably Mike is also Ayer's proxy (far as I know, Ayer's no borderline psychopath), and other than giving him Sylvia (the drop-dead gorgeous Eva Longoria) for an 'old lady' (he worked as a call center representative while putting her through law school, and now their roles have reversed) I don't see Ayer doing much to give Mike any depth or texture. In Mean Streets Charlie was the film's source of anguish and troubled conscience while Johnny Boy provided the film with its occasional jolt of manic energy; in Harsh Times with Jim--the film's Johnny Boy--as protagonist, it's all manic energy. There's no real sense of anguish (you need a conflicted intelligence--some pathetic jerk with a brain and moral sense--to generate anguish), much less a consciousness troubled by more than just landing a good job, or getting laid, or getting wasted.

Which is no reflection on Christian Bale; he does a terrific job of making Jim as magnetic as he is malevolent. Bale in roles as diverse as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn has made monomaniacal obsessives--people single-mindedly determined to feed their drives (a monstrous sadism in Bateman, the lust for freedom in Dengler)--his specialty; his small, wide-set eyes and constantly tight mouth suggest a man constantly gazing at some far-off target, unmindful (or at least disdainful) of the circumstances being immediately faced. Jim in this picture needs to feed his sense of self-destruction (his other goal, of marrying Marta (Tammy Trull), the one woman who truly loves him, feels rather puerile in comparison); his flaming downward arc is the main source of the film's fascination. Charlie at the start of Mean Streets is introspective, self-loathing; in a voiceover we hear him talking to himself, and it's clear he knows he's scum, he knows better than to act like scum; by film's end the voiceovers have largely ceased and Charlie--out of some perverse sense of loyalty to Johnny Boy and as penance for himself--has stopped examining potential consequences and become scum, joining in Johnny Boy's one-way ride to self-destruction.

Jim's is a relatively uncomplicated arc, bright but unmodulated; Jim is essentially the same person (a psychopath) at either end of the story. Mike, whose character should in theory have enough room to develop (He's the Charlie character, remember?), remains unexamined. At movie's start he's lying to his wife; by movie's end he's hugging her with all his might--what happens in between should provide the meat of the picture but we're left with more questions than insights (Why does Sylvia put up with Mike? Why does Mike put up with Jim? How on earth did Mike put Sylvia through law school on a telemarketer's salary?).

The movie's style is more in step with Scorsese's film--straight realism, with relatively unhysterical editing (unusual in that this belongs to the 'street crime' genre, and practitioners of the genre just love to turn their raw footage into chop-suey). Only in moments of high drama does Ayer lose confidence: when Jim goes schizo on people, Ayer adopts what he probably hopes is a complementary mode, with multiple exposures of what Jim's seeing tottering wildly in harsh, yellow light (crazy man, crazy camerawork--when will people learn that obvious reinforcement of an emotion is not always the best or most interesting way to go?).

As for Taxi Driver--yes, Jim, like Travis Bickle (De Niro) acts like a walking time bomb, though here Scorsese (through scriptwriter Paul Schrader) is careful to at least keep in contact with the source material, Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Scorsese's Underground Man is in many ways the opposite of Dostoevsky's (one is loquaciously articulate, the other hilariously not so), but both are on a spiritual quest to find meaning through connection, or through allegiance to something--anything--they can find. Jim's only concern, far as we can see, is to make as spectacular an end as possible. Yes, he wants to be a police officer; yes he wants to be a federal agent (so why does he smoke weed before the urine test?); yes he wants a good job so he can bring the only woman he loves (but why does she love him?) to his country and marry her and live happily ever after. Jim's ambitions are rather simple, really, which makes his inability to fulfill them all the more incomprehensible; Scorsese at least harbors ambitions of trying to create something existential out of Bickle's dilemma--a Nietzschean need to do more than what mortal man can do, a Christlike lust to redeem the world through some kind of sacrifice.

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," Bickle muses; aside from striking the proper apocalyptic note (which Scorsese reinforces with nightmare colors, smoking streets, a percussive music score from Bernard Herrmann (his last, appropriately)), he could be talking of people like Jim Davis and Mike Alonzo, people who he, of course, would never equate with himself. That's the kind of irony found in Taxi Driver, the kind of irony you won't find--but is badly needed--in Harsh Times.

(First published in
Businessworld, 10.05.07)

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