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Two bad films and new-wave nostalgia

Several short items today.Firstly, in the world of movies: I’d like to joke that I see bad movies so you don’t have to, but the truth is I really like genre films, and don’t mind that much when they are terrible.

Anthony Hopkins in "The Rite."
Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Anthony Hopkins in “The Rite.”

Several short items today.

Firstly, in the world of movies: I’d like to joke that I see bad movies so you don’t have to, but the truth is I really like genre films, and don’t mind that much when they are terrible. And so, this week, I saw both The Mechanic,” an action film starring Jason Statham, which is a redundant sentence nowadays, and “The Rite,” starring Anthony Hopkins, who seemingly misses playing a bad guy and figured you can’t get much badder than the devil.

The former has Statham playing a professional hit man, and is based on a 1972 film of the same title starring Charles Bronson. The older film is mostly remembered now for being an early failure in the attempt to infuse gay themes into mainstream cinema — in the original script, the hitman character was explicitly gay, as was an apprentice he took on, and the whole of the story detailed how ruthless people might make use of sexual manipulation for personal gain. All of this was scrubbed, although Bronson’s character still seemed, well, gay-ish, in a Hollywood way, where effete sophistication has long been code for gay: He was rigorous with interior design, collected art, listened to classical music, and couldn’t resist a really fine wine.

Some of these gay themes made it into the Statham version, but in troubling ways. Statham’s apprentice, played by Ben Foster, is sent out to kill another hit man, and this character is Hollywood gay in all the wrong ways. He’s leering, loves little dogs, and, we’re told, also loves little boys. The whole of it is distasteful, and he’s one of several characters marked for killing whose primary offenses seem to be perversions. It’s rather extraordinary to find a Hollywood film in which gay equals child molester — you might have expected it in 1972, but not in 2011. And it mars what otherwise is a pretty enjoyable genre exercise. For one thing, “The Mechanic’s” action scenes, although indulgently brutal, are generally quite clever. For another, the film features a really splendid soundtrack, with a score by Mark Isham and really unusual individual song selection by artists such as New Orleanean bluesman Chris Thomas King and former Squirrel Nut Zipper James Mathus.

I’d discuss the gay themes of “The Rite” as well — they’re there, but mostly in that Anthony Hopkins gets possessed by the devil in this film, and, when it happens, he becomes really flirty with a confused young exorcist in training, played by Colin O’Donoghue. The movie purports to be based on a true story — it’s “inspired” by a book by journalist Matt Baglio called “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” in which the author peered in on a course the Vatican was offering on exorcism, and sat in on a few of the rituals. But the film version lifts its storyline primarily from the film “The Exorcist,” and all it really has going for it is Anthony Hopkins.

Properly, there are two Hopkins. There is the enormously subtle and appealing character actor of, say, “The Remains of the Day,” and then there is the unrepentant ham of, say, “Titus,” and the two are so very different from each other that they sometimes seem like different actors altogether. In this film, Hopkins gets to be both actors. As an aging Welsh exorcist, he’s quiet, odd, and possesses a wry sense of humor and an occasional disquieting anger; possessed, he’s give to babbling stream-of-consciousness monologues in a boyish high pitch, sometimes tossing the words “dude” and “fer sure” in like some deranged Valley girl, which is whatever the opposite of terrifying is.

Perhaps the only really interesting thing about the film is that Hopkins himself is an atheist, and so made his character quite a doubter — stealing thunder from O’Donoghue, for whom doubt is supposed to be his primary character trait. But Hopkins takes it and runs with it, playing a character who can’t perform a single exorcism without wandering the streets of Rome, looking despondent and wondering if there is a God at all. Which makes sense in this film, which offers a preponderance of acts of supernatural evil, but no evidence of supernatural good. There’s a germ of a good idea in this, never explored: What if we live in a world where the devil exists, but God doesn’t?

Punk ephemera from The Midwest Indie, Punk, and Hardcore Archive.
Punk ephemera from The Midwest Indie, Punk, and Hardcore Archive.

Anyway, that’s my take on those two films, and I doubt I have convinced anybody to go see either. What can I recommend? Well, there’s a new wave festival at Coffman Union on campus, sponsored by the Walker Art Center, and detailed in this poster, uploaded by musician Adam Levy. There’s one heck of a lineup for the show, including The Feelies, The Fleshtones, Joan Jett, and local greats The Suburbs. Unfortunately, it happened all the way back in 1980, although, if this is hideously disappointing to you, here is a clip of DEVO (performing as DOVE) from the festival, as well as The Suburbs performing “Urban Guerilla.” Local filmmaker Chris Strouth apparently actually was on hand to film a lot of the original event, and there is talk of a documentary about it coming out sometime this year.

This puts me in mind of “Alive From Off Center,” which was coproduced by the Walker, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and KTCA-TV in 1984, and was about as New Wave as you could want — After all, it showcased performance artist Laurie Anderson’s “What You Mean We?” which can be seen, in pieces, on YouTube. Various other clips from the show can be seen on YouTube, but the show very badly needs a more formal revival — its 12-year run was one of the few really comprehensive showcases of contemporary American performance and performance arts ever produced, much less produced for television.

While we’re indulging in this sort of nostalgia, I’d also like to point you to the Midwest Indie, Punk, and Hardcore Archive, which has been reprinting concern posters from Minneapolis, such as this one for Willful Neglect, this one for Minor Threat, and this one for Pussy Galore and Babes in Toyland.

I know that sooner or later, all this cultural ephemera from the past will be digitized and moved online, and I can’t be the only one who wishes it could all be done at once, in one fell swoop. Our past is being doled out to us piecemeal, and much of it is stashed away in file cabinets in people’s basements, or in archives of reel-to-reel videotape, where it’s not doing anybody any good. I’d much rather spend my time reliving my wild artistic youth online than watch a tepid “Exorcist” remake, so fire up those scanners, mates. We have nothing to lose except our boredom!