Pain & Gain, the latest addition to the "fire with fire" genre | Bleader

Friday, May 3, 2013

Pain & Gain, the latest addition to the "fire with fire" genre

Posted By on 05.03.13 at 04:17 PM

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From Robert Aldrichs The Choirboys (1977)
  • From Robert Aldrich's The Choirboys (1977)
In my long review of Pain & Gain that appears in this week's issue, I invoke Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls as an example of a film whose predominant attitude towards its own setting is one of pointed disgust. I could have also cited Alex Cox's Repo Man, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, Mike Judge's Idiocracy, or Verhoeven's Spetters and Starship Troopers. I don't value these films equally, but I consider them all part of a particular lineage—call it the cinema of fighting fire with fire, in which filmmakers exaggerate grotesque aspects of popular culture so they become criticisms of themselves. Most of these films have inspired accusations of hypocrisy and narrow-minded readings that confuse the exaggerations with the targets themselves. But I suppose that's to be expected: when you play with fire, you get burned.

I've borrowed the phrase "criticisms of themselves" from J. Hoberman's essay on Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the earliest movies in this lineage. (Are there any earlier examples? I've spent the last few weeks trying to think of one, but I keep drawing a blank. I suspect this mode of filmmaking is tied to the explosion of globalized—and all-pervading—consumer culture in the decade following World War II. It's worth noting that the underlying disgust of these movies often feels like self-disgust, suggesting the defeatist message that one remains connected to this culture even when he critiques it.) That film turned Mickey Spillane's notions of vigilante justice on their head, transforming Spillane's detective Mike Hammer into a hideous, narrow-minded thug. In Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides's adaptation, Hammer is the logical center of a world defined, on the one hand, by reckless materialism (people exploit each other constantly in the film) and, on the other, by the cold war fear of nuclear annihilation.

If the "fire with fire" school of filmmaking has a godfather, it's Aldrich. No matter what genre he worked in—Hollywood exposes (The Big Knife, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Legend of Lylah Clare), westerns (Vera Cruz, Ulzana's Raid), or cop movies (Hustle, The Choirboys)—Aldrich maintained a worldview that saw most power seekers as inherently grotesque. Perhaps it was a result of his old-money background (Nelson Rockefeller was his first cousin, it's often noted) or the leftist politics he adopted in Hollywood. In any case, he often pursued this vision at the expense of his own reputation. Dave Kehr once noted in the Reader that in Aldrich's "most interestingly personal period . . . he was alienating filmgoers and critics alike with a blend of 50s film noir pessimism and 70s gross-out vulgarity."

In terms of sheer vulgarity, no Aldrich title surpasses The Choirboys. That movie is an ensemble comedy about cheerfully corrupt cops who behave as though their squad is one big fraternity. The jokes are generally unfunny (and often homophobic or sexist as well), but the characters can't stop laughing at them. The end credits are scored to the sound of their piggish guffaws, hammering home the message that these men are exploiting their power to laugh at the rest of us. Unpleasant by design yet knowing in its portrait of macho hideousness, it may have been the Pain & Gain of its day. It's currently viewable on YouTube, in an appropriately ugly-looking transfer from an old videocassette.

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