Why has one of the best movies of the year gotten so many bad and iffy reviews, registering from lukewarm to hostile?
Paul Giamatti and Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis
SPOILER ALERT: This article examines David Cronenberg's new film, Cosmopolis, in great detail. Many of the movie's plot points are discussed. If you haven't seen it and want to experience all of the surprises in the theater firsthand, you should probably wait to read this.
Why has one of the best movies of the year gotten so many bad and iffy reviews, registering from lukewarm to hostile? It's well written, cast, directed, performed, sequenced, and shot, offering a lot to think about, if you're so inclined—the world, your place in it, etc.—and funny in its own weird and disturbing way, just like life. It achieves depth from its flatness, which is something very few filmmakers can manage. Then why such a lame response? When you consider that the director of Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg, is not without his fans and defenders, especially among reviewers, the question is even more perplexing. Or maybe not. The quote that kicks off this column is taken from the movie, and the book which it’s more or less faithfully based on, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo. It's one of the most memorable lines in Cosmopolis, either written or spoken, whether it reverberates from the page or the screen to your mind, and it's a possible clue to answering the question of why the movie hasn't been more favorably received.
There are reviewers who tend to think that books are better than the movies made from them, and often they're right, but not this time. In this case, the movie and the book are mutually entwined. Cosmopolis is the third movie that Cronenberg has directly spun from a book. His previous literary adaptations—perhaps re-imaginings is a better term—are Naked Lunch, written by William S. Burroughs, and Crash, by J.G. Ballard. Whatever you think of these movies, and I happen to admire them, it's to Cronenberg's credit that he brought to the screen works that were considered "unfilmable." For a reviewer to refer to a book as "unfilmable," meaning that its words and images may be difficult to translate to the screen, that its story is convoluted or beyond belief, is absurd. No book is unfilmable. Not even the Bible, apparently. Cecil B. DeMille managed to tell the story of the Ten Commandments in under four hours back in 1956. Up against this sort of fantastical yarn, the so-called science fiction of our time seems like documentary, closer to what authors such as J.G. Ballard helped us to recognize as science fact. What remains in the realm of fantasy, and what comes true? What really resonates with our time? We've seen any number of challenging books writ large on the screen. Steven Spielberg's film based on Ballard's Empire of the Sun (1987) comes readily to mind, as does Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), whose plot was taken from Philip K. Dick's book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and whose title was grafted from a 1979 novella by Burroughs, Blade Runner (a movie). And now we have Cosmopolis, and that unforgettable line.
The Hollywood machine is perfectly comfortable with Michael Douglas proclaiming that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good," as he did in Oliver Stone’s, Wall Street (1987), and, predictably, reviewers and cultural critics swarmed all over it. But to say that the logical extension of business is murder, well, that's bad for business no matter how you make or steal your money. It places an image in the moviegoer’s mind that is not easily forgotten: bloody hands and any number of bodies. Financial fallout is rarely about an individual, and all about collateral damage. Human beings are the collateral against which the bigger bets are made, and they're usually placed by those who play with other people's money. In this world there's a cold-bloodedness that might send a chill up your spine if it wasn't so perfectly normal. And it shifts the banality of a familiar phrase—business as usual—into another that's harder to swallow: murder as usual. But Wall Street was entertainment (and now, for some, perhaps even nostalgia), not unsuccessful at the box office, and Douglas's performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Looking back, one can't help but wonder if the movie wasn't equal parts indictment and celebration, reprehensible and seductive.
Twenty-five years before Occupy Wall Street, the movie took aim at and demonized the 80s and all it represented, most succinctly embedded in that single line. And yet it's something else that Douglas's character, Gordon Gekko, says that speaks to our time, and while not as iconic it's far more resonant, and incredibly prescient. "The richest one percent of this country," he tells us, "owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars." That's five trillion late 80s dollars, mind you. The demonizing of that decade is an old, well-worn story by now, usually related by those for whom it has no lived texture, a time they may not have passed through, the wafting of so much second-hand smoke. But there are other stories, older and more telling. What's so different, we might ask, between the 1980s and the 1880s? In 1834, the French novelist Honoré de Balzac famously declared, "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime." Since human behavior doesn't change drastically from one century to the next, it must to some degree—whether greater or lesser doesn't really matter—remain true.
A hundred and fifty-some years before Wall Street, and even more distantly to Occupy Wall Street, Balzac was already there. Art and literature arrive at places before we do, and can serve as a kind of early warning system. (It may sound hokey, but that doesn't make it any less true.) This is just one of the reasons why art and literature aren't very well supported in this culture, and, conversely, why they sometimes are—that is, if you think of institutional and governmental support as a means of controlling, under the guise of benevolence, any information which might undermine its authority, or nose around too closely. In art, as with science, more questions are inevitably asked than answered. This is the very nature of inquiry, which can be a potentially dangerous activity. People, even those—perhaps especially those—who may be in disagreement, are provoked to think for and possibly doubt themselves, to extend their reflection forward as well as back in time. History and memory, then, are subjects roused within the imaginative fiction of our age, a period in which the past is either theme-parked or erased—in the end, achieving the same desired result, an ever-present now. Imaginative fiction is also the pursuit of philosophy and science, a kind of reportage before the fact. Some movies and books engage in this sort of inquiry, and Cosmopolis is one of them. And despite the storyline, keep in mind that it might not actually be about money.
Don DeLillo, photo by Michael O'Brien
Don DeLillo's book could have been written yesterday, although it was first published ten years ago, and at the time wasn't very well received. How different it appears to us now, with its scenes of anarchic agitprop and protests in the street, a billboard that warns, “A specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism.” This all seems nearly prophetic in the wake of OWS. Cronenberg's perfectly orchestrated and highly stylized film has been translated nearly verbatim from its source, both textually and in its surface effect. Even so, the lines of a script need not only be memorized and spoken but inhabited by the actors, performed to convey ideas and emotions, one might say, to the spirit of the letter. What are the tones and inflections of their voices? How do they physically appear? This is all in the mind of the reader, with the book in hand, and then of the director, as he imagines it as a moving picture. How do the actors and the director bring the characters to life, characters who at times register as either barely alive or barely contained, drifting through their encounters as if in a dream state or a nightmare from which they are unable to wake? How can you animate an inanimate cool or the verge of madness? All of this Cronenberg and his cast have done. And for all the sense of remove the central characters display, they are incredibly present. Watching the movie in a large theater, even with the smell of popcorn in the air, you can't help but feel that you're at a play, in one of the front rows, and what's happening is taking place live on stage. This sense of being close-up at all times enhances the immediacy and intensity of the performances, and especially those of Paul Giamatti and Robert Pattinson in the film's final scene. That some reviewers have found it less than compelling—a disappointed Kyle Smith in the New York Dross actually calls it dull—is hard to reconcile with the evidence on screen. The synaptic sputters and sparks in Giamatti's monologue are at the same time visceral and cerebral. Knowing that Cronenberg doesn't rehearse actors makes this risky performance even that much more thrilling, as Giamatti poignantly and believably inhabits his character, and no more so than when the twisted thoughts he expresses are beyond belief. The voices he hears in his head are his own. Of course he wants to kill his former employer. That's not fiction. That's yesterday's news. And tomorrow's. Or the day after tomorrow. In any case, for some of us, it's all the same day. And what, in the end, is he willing to do that we aren't at least tempted to from time to time? Certain thoughts can't be put into words, and should never be put to the test.
The prostate exam
The wordiness and staging of Cosmopolis lends itself to the theater vibe, as does the primary set—the back of a white stretch limousine—and the fact that a whole succession of set pieces are enacted one-on-one between 28-year-old billionaire Erik Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, and those who enter his cocoon and recede. One after another, they help us to understand his character. It is they and not Packer himself who reveal the man inside an otherwise impervious shell. Like the painfully slow movement of his limo through the blocked arteries of New York, their progress is incremental. One could say that the only person who actually gets inside Packer is the doctor who administers his prostate exam. While Cronenberg's overlay of a book, a movie, and a theater experience is masterful, for those who expect their movie-going to be more cinematically predictable, fluid, and action-packed, this triangulation may prove problematic.
Any number of viewers have referred to the movie as boring. Having seen it twice in the space of ten days, I can assure you, boring it is not. Packer has two sweaty sex scenes (three if you count the absurdly erotic/comic prostate exam in the limo, where he verbally seduces a female associate seated in front of him while the doctor digitally manipulates him from behind); there’s a riot complete with a self-immolating protester in which the limo is besieged and bombarded; dead rats are flung into a restaurant at patrons who are having lunch and mindlessly chattering away (this shocks and horrifies everyone except for Packer, who's left with a wickedly amused smile on his face); a funeral cortege for a dead rap star passes in the street; there is a spontaneous execution at point-blank range; and, near the movie's climax, Packer places a gun against his mouth so casually that at first you don't notice how he might just blow his brains out. At the same time, there are moments of physical inaction, but where the dialogue is absolutely riveting, as when Samantha Morton, playing Packer's chief of theory, expounds on time and the futility of refusal, how destruction feeds into the reaffirmation of power and control. She's mesmerizing, and everything she says bounces around inside of your head, and beautifully turns back on itself. She confesses/concludes: "But you know how shameless I am in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea." This was a moment you would either instantly identify with or find exasperating. But never be too quick to dismiss ideas, even those that are slender and seemingly obvious, because not everyone has them. Shameless in the presence of an idea. You and me both.
Kevin Durand as the head of security
In 2003, when Walter Kim panned DeLillo's novel in the New York Times, the piece was titled, rather painfully, "Long Day's Journey Into Haircut." Much has been made of the limits of the story—Packer's insistence on being driven all the way across town in the midst of horribly gridlocked traffic for the mere purpose of a haircut. And not just any barber will do. As it turns out, he only wants to be attended by the same man who gave him his first haircut when he was a child. Since we don't learn this until late in the movie, his stubbornness seems nothing more than a manifestation of the insanity that serious money demands and that is usually indulged. Here, and in the daily preoccupation with the state of his health, in his detachment from those seemingly closest to him (particularly his new wife, played smartly by Sarah Gadon, tempting and aloof at all times), as well as in his sleep deprivation, the character recalls the great billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.
Sarah Gadon as Packer's wife
Early on in the film, seated in the back of his car while discussing the pointless crawl across town for the haircut, Packer mentions that he hasn't had much sleep. When an associate suggests that a barber could have been sent to his office or to the limo, Packer counters: "What makes you think that we're not in the office right now?" On the one hand, he may simply be messing with the man, letting him wonder whether he's somehow lost touch with reality, while on the other he acknowledges the fact that he himself is the office. When Packer leaves the physical location, its operations leave with him. But we're not talking about the illusion of mobility in the so-called information age—this is worse. For Packer, everything, in a sense, exists only in his mind. When he insists on going all the way across town to the barber, saying, "We want what we want, and we want a haircut," he's not simply a spoiled baby billionaire. He's only following the directive that he hears in his head, an inner imperative, and against which he has little or no control. His limo is an extension of his body. His limo and his body exist solely to allow his mind to move through space. Both have their limits, and both will eventually need to be shed. Packer, as is true for us all, is potentially a danger to himself. Although he, like Hughes, may be a phantom figure to others, he is recklessly self-aware, displaying a parallel sense of dislocation and lucidity. For him, life can be thought of as a sequence of images and scenes in the "movie" that constitutes reality from one moment to the next. On this point, consider a recent interview with Cronenberg from his appearance with the movie at the last Cannes Film Festival. Sitting in a chair on a hotel terrace, with the harbor and the yachts and the sun gleaming dizzily off the azure waters behind him—a very Ballardian image if ever there was one—Cronenberg noted that he only needs to park himself there, and over the course of the afternoon the journalists will come directly to him. Visibly amused, he observed, "Cannes is my limo."
In the film we, like Packer, see many of the events taking place outside of the car through its near silent, tinted windows. This movie-within-a-movie offers a glimpse of what a day is like for him, a man who experiences life as real and unreal, as occurring more or less within a certain proximity, at arm's length as it were. This is also the distance of wealth. Packer is both inside and outside of himself, and we are along for the ride. On the verge of losing his fortune, on what may turn out to be the worst day of his life, he seems barely concerned. The tragedy of the rich, it's been said, is that they don't need anything, and what's crucially, stubbornly important to him, despite being well groomed, is that haircut. While for some of us a haircut may be understood as a nuisance or a necessity, for others it is nothing less than a means of regaining control of one’s life, and for Packer it may be much more than that. This movie may not be about the haircut, but only about what it represents, and what that might mean. Is the past, one might wonder, still with us? Did we actually come from somewhere?
Proceeding as a vector in space, and in as straight a line as possible, Packer attempts to move purposefully from points A to B. Needing to make sense of the inevitable financial collapse he has brought upon himself, he moves glacially from the present back to the past in order to reconcile his life and its undoing, an otherwise impossible task. The worst day of his life must inevitably become what? The last day of his life? Along the way he passes that funeral procession, offering us his only display of real emotion in the entire movie. But then Packer, in his limo/coffin, is really only mourning himself, the loss of his connection to feeling, represented by the death of the rap star. In an earlier scene he mentions that he has two private elevators that take him to and from his 48-room penthouse apartment. One plays the music of the rapper, a Sufi who once lived in a minaret, and on the other, programmed to glide slowly at reduced speed, he is soothed by the music of Erik Satie. Packer's moods, up and down, are regulated ambiently. Although the sex that he has in the limo at the beginning of the film may seem kinky (courtesy of art dealer Juliette Binoche), he doesn't appear to have enjoyed himself, and the post-coital conversation is a delusional negotiation in which we understand that the only lust he can grasp is that for art and power. He doesn't want to buy a Rothko painting. He wants the whole Rothko Chapel. One can't help but wonder if possession is as close as he gets to spirituality. As close as he gets to self-possession? Whatever the case, it's clear that the sex in the movie is in no way life-affirming.
Patricia McKenzie as a bodyguard
Consider Packer's romp in a hotel room with his female bodyguard. In the haze of having spent themselves, what he desperately wants is to be shot by her Taser, to be stunned, as he says, eyes gleaming, down to his DNA. Orgasm, as Ballard and Cronenberg have shown us so explicitly in Crash, is the little death. It is merely the foreplay to the main event. Returning yet again to the now trashed limo, we see it as yet another battered body in space, a vehicle of a different sort, transporting Packer to the end of the line. The procession from points A to B, from the present to the past, from the office to the haircut, can only be understood metaphorically, as a visual manifestation of the death drive. It's in all of us, to lesser or more intensive degrees, and whether active or dormant, its imperative or waning may shift at any time.
Packer's defaced limo
We don't live in one world. We live in any number of overlapping worlds, all of them real in their own ways. There is the physical world, its patterns and randomness we can see, hear, touch, and smell. The technological world, though not much of a world, despite the fact that failure, futility, and loss register regularly there—my phone died, my computer crashed—hums and sputters within you, without you. The ever-expanding domain of planned obsolescence, the speed of inertia, the ambivalence of necessity, and so on. There are shadow worlds and things unseen that rule us, have their way with us—politics, real estate, finance, the law—all the great partners-in-crime. Everything you might possibly care to hate instead of or in addition to yourself. Sometimes we toy with ourselves. Destroy ourselves. This is the icing on the cake. Veritable centuries of icing. And yet there still exists an inner world, the life of the mind, fantasy, and the imagination. And although that freedom is an illusion, it opens up a space in which to explore, to be free to think about what we're going to do.
We attempt to overlay these worlds, negate, or reconcile them. For most of us, though, it's not our vocation or calling. Life is simply a matter of the day-to-day. While art, contrary to consensus, does not reflect and imitate life, it questions and gives it meaning, and there are those among us who manage, in their reporting and inquiries, to circle around, stumble upon, and predict its course. This is what they do, consciously and unconsciously, and we call it art. When Packer's chief of theory tells him that money has lost its narrative, as painting had before, you think of the limo in which they are traveling. At the start of the movie it is pristine. But do we see it as an empty canvas or a white monochrome? Is it awaiting or without need of subject matter? Is it serene, self-reflexive, self-contained? By the end, it has been completely defaced. This lets us see it in terms of its potential having been engaged, its narrative possibilities restored, chaos and noise. Here we acknowledge the tension between abstraction and representation, yet both are capable of carrying meaning. Of this Cronenberg and DeLillo are well aware. Despite the continual reports of its demise, usually on the parts of those uninterested in or threatened by its "aura," and the fact that whether in or out of critical favor it retains its status and value as currency, painting somehow never dies.
Juliette Binoche as the art dealer
After backseat sex in the limo, art dealer Juliette Binoche asks Packer, "What does it mean to spend a dollar? What does it mean to spend a million?" For all his monkeying around with high-stakes finance, he doesn't really have an answer. When Packer absentmindedly takes notice of his would-be assassin through the window of the car, the man has just turned away from an ATM. For Packer, money and sex and life have become a mundane matter of withdrawal. In the end, there's only one question to avoid: "If life's for living, what's living for?" While it may not have occurred to Packer, it has certainly crossed the mind of the man who wants him dead. Because Packer is following his death drive, and since he's become used to having his needs taken care of—and is possibly not up to the task himself—he will end his life by the hand of another.
William Randolph Hearst once defined news as "something somebody doesn't want printed." This of course was long before his granddaughter Patty and her performance with the SLA, one of the more compelling public art/media spectacles in our time. His formulation is well worth considering when attempting to define art and literature: something somebody doesn't want painted?
Cosmopolis isn't exactly Citizen Kane, but then the world today, and the men who rule the world, are so much smaller. "The logical extension of business is murder." Hearst could easily have said it himself. Close your eyes and imagine the famously gnarled voice of William S. Burroughs, slowly articulating and simultaneously mocking these words. Or J.G. Ballard, with his measured English tones. Both would register as equally reassuring and alarming, undeniable, set in stone. Now go ahead, say it yourself.
"The logical extension of business is murder."
Once again, but this time more self-assured, matter-of-fact, and with as little emotion as possible... There, that's it. Perfect.
Previously - A Date with Death on the Golden Gate Bridge