Charlie's Angels:Dopey Fun and the Infantilization of World Cinema
Rock DJ directed by Vaughan Arnell
"He's a boy's boy," actor Sam Rockwell praised his Charlie's Angels director McG (born Joseph McGinty Mitchell). That explanation needs explanation. It doesn't mean McG has gone in for hardcore violence or hardcore sex, but has availed himself of the youthful privilege to be lighthearted?even to make a girls' action flick that never stops grinning. Charlie's Angels is a big-budget Hollywood movie dedicated to play and flirtation. Not revenge, power or even sex?the things associated with a "man's man"?but a carefree attitude you can't really get angry at. You may very well dismiss this film after seeing it, but you're likely to pat its little head first.
McG has directed the kind of movie you'd expect to get free with a subscription to Entertainment Weekly or Premiere. It has a pretested plot, pretested characters, stars, music. Drew Barrymore (who coproduced) plays Dylan, one of the three femme operatives?along with Cameron Diaz as Natalie and Lucy Liu as Alex?who work for a detective agency and the unseen boss Charlie whose orders they receive from Bosley (Bill Murray). Athletic and sexy, the angels get into and out of various scrapes?involving Internet villains played by Rockwell, Kelly Lynch and the always intriguing Crispin Glover. All that matters is that the girls keep jiggling their wares?as does McG.
The makers of Charlie's Angels realize that guaranteed familiarity is what sells today. It's only critics (and the Motion Picture Academy) who pretend that audiences actually go to the movies for a story. McG puts across television's giddy, idiot-making trivializing effect loud and incessantly in split-screen quadrants and gigantic closeups photographed in plastic fruit colors by Titanic's Russell Carpenter. Beyond the usual adolescent fascination with boys' subcult trivia like comic books and model airplanes, McG's into celebratory mass trivia (an early visual joke mixes L.L. Cool J with T.J. Hooker, sensing no difference between the two?and sending up the opening of Mission: Impossible 2 simultaneously). McG's boyish shamelessness?a proud, inherited, honest triviality?helps make Charlie's Angels the ultimate baby boom by-product. Imagine a baby talking back using the Great Babysitter's slang.
Most of the recent big-screen versions of old tv shows are simple, brand-name remodelings, having little to do with the style of the original series. Taking advantage of Hollywood's recycling penchant, directors like Brian De Palma either tried to make genuine postmodern movies (The Untouchables is more a variation on Mervyn LeRoy's The FBI Story than a Quinn Martin Production) or else sell toys (Casper, The Flintstones, The Addams Family). So it takes about five minutes into Charlie's Angels to realize that McG is doing something not particularly artistic or commercial, but especially boyish?like wheelies or skateboarding?in which only fun counts. Narrative skill and clever dialogue are beside the point. McG, a music video adept, demonstrates no nostalgia for the fashions or music associated with the 70s Charlie's Angels. It's an exercise in pure style, but one that is ignorant of the cultural significance technique used to imply. Yet this film is just as much a sign of its era in the way it congratulates Gen-Y mindlessness.
Charlie's Angels' lack of consequence is juvenile?not sophomoric (that would require wit, as in the taken-for-granted Ready to Rumble or the best parts of Galaxy Quest). McG inflates for the big screen the sense of media-goofiness seen in his music videos for Smashmouth, Sugar Ray, Barenaked Ladies, the Offspring and other alternapop groups. His tongue-in-cheek style matches cynical Hollywood calculation to such a perfectly facetious degree that he has achieved a kind of exact music-video-to-cinema translation. Charlie's Angels isn't the letdown that Hype Williams' Belly and Tarsem Singh's The Cell were?dramas stunted by music video shorthand. By making a spoof, McG does what people might have expected from Spike Jonze, but Jonze's Being John Malkovich completely avoided. Actually, Charlie's Angels is more like what Jonze achieved in his Beastie Boys Sabotage video?which was a true Mannix, Mission: Impossible, Starsky and Hutch pastiche. Jonze appropriately understood that minimalism (squeezing action, credits, trailers and stasis into three Ginzu-Avid-sliced minutes) best served tv imitation?and cultural progress. Charlie's Angels is just a startling, puppyish capitulation.
Insidious yet amusing, the movie gets away with everything that is wrong with it?or at least wrong with contemporary Hollywood. Bill Murray's check-cashing presence is not quite satiric, yet he's not so mystifyingly out of place as he was in that lame, softcore thriller Wild Things. It's McG who evinces Murray's typical sanguine approach; he's the casual kid who successfully pals it up with the girls. Each of the Angels' amusing disguises?as Swiss maids, drag racers, Soul Train dancers, even a sex interest for Matt LeBlanc on a tv soundstage?is daffy and delirious without being offensive. The girls are affable, and Diaz shows true clown spirit. Even their fight scenes are lickety-split (literally so when Barrymore fends off a gang of goons by keeping her legs spread). Staying smirky and relentless, Charlie's Angels sustains music-video logic. Which isn't to say it has "logic"?or lacks sense.
Silly as the movie is, it represents something real that bears taking notice of: the infantilization of world cinema. (The End of Movies?not with a bang, but a snicker.) Several years ago, filmmaker David Leitner predicted that the stop-motion 360 spin (that McG uses to comic effect) would become a technological cliche like the zoom-in was in the 60s. So while we wait to see this current fad soon become quaint, the fact is some people are still thrilled by it. In boy's world, McG (and every marketer) knows. Everything has become a PlayStation. The gimmick may look silly to me, but there are generations for whom it is dazzling, associated with the private pleasure of personal video games and in-your-pocket techno-joy.
McG has stated his esthetic: "The idea is that an Angel can walk into any situation and be at home." Plausibility doesn't matter. Any plotline can be morphed. Even the opening meant-to-be-spectacular airplane jump is not skydiving as Kathryn Bigelow showed it in the great Point Break; this is cartoonish, video gamish. Pure Product for Pop People. There are elements here of Die Hard, the Farrelly brothers, James Bond, Indiana Jones. And McG himself has importantly pointed out there's "even the movie musical?with the color, the optimism, the overall bounce that's in the air." That's why Charlie's Angels is never lugubrious, like The Matrix. It was truly pathetic to hear people take The Matrix seriously, despite the way it reduced politics and spirituality to comic book triteness. But this is the era in which impressionable critics?and audiences?cowed by some quick cutting and repeated images, easily shouted "intense" and "artistic" at a film as dreary and old-fashioned as Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. (Funniest ad quote of the year would be "An instant classic...Aronofsky is the new Orson Welles," if others critics didn't actually review the film with the same gaga attitude.) Aronofsky's overload of media anguish in Requiem is sensibly vanquished in Charlie's Angels. McG and the girls assert How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love TV.
Critic Gregory Solman argues that this film signals The Death of Realism, but the Angels' brief, melodramatic anxiety over "the end of privacy" (the threat posed by the Internet pirating villains) is both risible and restorative, a satire of the craziness media has become when everything in life?relationships, even movies?turns into media. The most dangerous exemplars of this style are, of course, "serious" filmmakers like Aronofsky and Spike Lee, who boast flashy images and fragmented continuity (if any). It's not the forging of a new style but part of the global acceptance of narrative degeneration. That's why some people don't mind the lack of developed ideas and characters, the incomplete drama in Lee's movies. It's tv-commercial/music-video depletion. Still, I think Charlie's Angels is vastly superior, in every way, to Bamboozled, Requiem for a Dream, The Cell, Almost Famous and even Ang Lee's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In Charlie's Angels pop culture's meaninglessness stays buoyant. It may not be a pop work of art but it cheerfully demonstrates pop working.
With that manic-seductive smirk in a Sean Connery mug, British singer Robbie Williams suggests the tradition of English music-hall anarchy. He does visually what Ian Dury did musically. There's no prick-up-your-ears effrontery in Williams' music; it is, at best, pleasant, forgettable pop?an Elton John-George Michael hybrid displaying occasional Pet Shop Boys tastefulness. But ever since last year's James Bondesque video Millennium, Williams has consistently been a more interesting visual star. (McG should direct the next Bond movie and put Williams in it.)
Hollywood's computer graphic mania is spoofed in the cover art for Williams' new CD Sing When You're Winning. The booklet (art direction by Tom Hingston Studio and Paul M. Smith) offers terrific satirical composite shots of Robbie as an entire soccer team?elbowing an opponent, guarding his groin, icing a knee scar, in the jacuzzi or coaching from the sidelines. He's even among the thugs?with painted face, at the pub, or mooning passersby. It's a delirious series of visual coups topped off by the enhanced CD-ROM video Rock DJ directed by Vaughan Arnell for the album's first single. Here's where Robbie, the moving-picture star, cheekily gives his fans what they bargained for?and more. It's a striptease with Robbie getting down to his skivvies, his sinew, his skeleton. It has the horrific fascination of the special effects in Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man.
Williams' burlesque makes a particular poignant contrast to how George Michael mistakenly derailed his career by refusing stardom and not appearing in his Listen Without Prejudice videos. Williams understands the game to be played, that the real Robbie is always hidden behind an image (he dedicates the album to his producer Guy Chambers, "who is as much Robbie as I am"), and so he plays with the image. (Michael's pretend disgust with "shaking his ass" only proved that he still regarded his ass narcissistically.) U.S. video programmers have balked at airing Williams' skin-and-bones show. Like critics angered by Charlie's Angels, they don't get the irony of self-mockery.
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