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Monday, March 05, 2007

Chain Don't Hurt? Road House II OR Black Snake Moan

Dear Roger Ebert:

I know that you have not been well, but I've been thinking you should get out more, and now I know I'm right. I quote from your review of Black Snake Moan:
"Black Snake Moan" is the oddest, most peculiar movie I've seen about sex and race and redemption in the Deep South. It may be the most peculiar recent movie ever except for "Road House," but then what can you say about "Road House"?

It's not that I object to leading with Road House.

No, indeed, I would never object to the prominent mention of Road House alongside the work of any Oscar-nominated director (Dude, I am so high. I'd have sworn that Brewer got a nomination for Hustle & Flow, but I'm now reminded that the whole film, except for Terrence Howard and the song got, you should excuse the expression, the shaft---Ed.). But really, the "oddest, most peculiar movie"? You might think you're covering your ass with "sex and race and redemption in the Deep South. You may even think that "recent" will stun and disorient your readers. Not this reader, Mr. Ebert. I will often note and long remember that you spent time in the presence of—and here I quote from the pure marketing poetry of 20th century Fox—"220 lbs of creative energy" known as Russ Meyer. You, sir, gave up your right to find anything peculiar when you wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

In all seriousness, I'm glad that Ebert is well enough to be back in the saddle again. I've missed picking on him. But in the case of his rather quaintly befuddled, and shocked, and overall positive, but shocked, review of Black Snake Moan, he's not alone. That depresses me, because it implies that no one watches the classics anymore. As a connoisseur of exploitation films, about the only thing shocking to me about Black Snake Moan was the audience reasonably full off (but nearly so full as the audience for Wild Hogs, which sold out) standard-issue suburban, overwhelmingly White folk.

Make no mistake: Black Snake Moan is a loving homage to the exploitation film, and is itself a new generation of exploitation film. (I mean, hello, poster!) But as critic after critic after critic asks "What were they thinking?"—with they being everyone from the money men (whose mere existence is maybe worth an eyebrow quirk in the exploitation context, but Brewer's proved his mettle and Quentin Tarantino's entry into the genre will surely accelerate it into passé) to Brewer himself, to every character on the canvas—I wonder how it is that these people have missed the delights of The Female Bunch, Moonshine Mountain, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill (which, I would like to remind you all, is the finest film ever made), The Warriors,Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song , and a host of others? One is moved to make up an Exploitation 101 Syllabus. (For the curious, start with David Friedman's Youth in Babylon.)

So I'll be the first to go on record and say that nothing in Black Snake Moan particularly shocked me, which is not meant as a criticism. It is, however, a lie: I was shocked by Christina Ricci's magical panties, which kept reverting to sparkling white, no matter how dirty they'd gotten, and remained in place no matter how much wedgie-inducing wiggling she did.

Anyway, a brief synopsis:

  1. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a damaged individual. Possible culprits include three verses of 12-bar blues:

    • Being alive while black
    • Being alive while black and male
    • Being alive while black and male in small-town America
    • Unfaithful wife
    • Abandonment by unfaithful wife
    • Being abandoned by unfaithful wife for brother
    • Boozing during bluesman days
    • Abandonment of the blues
    • Life as a marginal cash cropper

  2. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a damaged individual. More definite culprits include

    • Sexual abuse by mother's boyfriend
    • Mother's cognitive dissonance about/active denial of said abuse
    • Posttraumatic nymphomania
    • More general posttraumatic self-destructive behavior
    • Having Justin Timberlake mack on her (with all respect to my girl and Memphis native, C, he is nasty and a painfully bad actor to boot)
    • Abandonment by Justin Timberlake
    • Having to listen to Justin Timberlake's justifications about how it's a good kind of abandonment
    • Failure to celebrate being well-rid of Justin Timberlake

Inevitably, Lazarus's dysfunctional chocolate gets in Rae's dysfunctional peanut butter, and voila! An exploitation film erupts. To be more literal about it, Lazarus retires to his fortress of solitude after an extremely nasty and very public pair of confrontations with his ex-wife and younger brother, both of whom have been trying to make peace. Poised between a violent, alcoholic, self-destructive (with potential for an impressive blast radius) bender and a religious revival, he finds a bloodied, still-stoned, mostly naked Rae lying in the road near his farm.

Very aware that his being-alive-while-blackness has been compounded by the town's most recent impressions of him, he is torn between basic human compassion and the fact that he seriously does not need this shit. His decision ultimately to take her in is gradually revealed to have been born of an impulse that comes from a confusing and (unsurprsingly) deeply fucked up place.

For her part, Rae is delirious with fever from a preexisting (and never-to-rear-its-phlegmy-head-again) cough, residual drugs and alcohol from a night spent trying to forget Justin Timberlake, and a head injury and then some (courtesy of Justin Timberlake's best friend, who is resentful at (a) being the only guy in town she hasn't jumped and (b) being told that his penis compares unfavorably to that of her preferrerd go-to guy [PGTG]). For the first part of her sojourn at Laz's House of Redemption, she is consumed by nightmares featuring her abuser and the mercifully absent Justin Timberlake. Laz chases her down the first few times, but eventually grows tired of the somnambulism and deploys The Chain. Really, it makes sense at the time.

Ok, it doesn't make a lick of sense, except that Samuel L. Jackson makes me believe that it makes sense in Laz's head, which he's half out of anyway. And lest we place the crazy entirely inside Laz's weather-beaten skull, his mission to gather information on Rae lays bare the wonky social context that has shaped him. A social context in which the town pimp and crack dealer (who happens to be Rae's PGTG) has an ethical code that involves extending his protection (from overt physical violence) to Rae (whom he, arguably, verbally and emotionally abuses). Certainly we got a glimpse of the Kingdom of Pitiably Low Standards for Human Interaction earlier when Laz pats himself on the back for never having hit his wife, "not even when he was drinking." But the scene with Tehronne just grabs you by the priorities and twists so that you're thinking that his menacing assertion that Rae is "in his favor" is kind of sweet.

On a similarly skewed note, Ricci manages to convey that waking up, chained, on Laz's suspiciously-Pottery-Barn-like couch, on the face of it, doesn't make Rae's top 10 list of weird situations in which she's found herself upon waking. In fact, asleep or awake, delirious or not, she expects to be sexually used, then discarded, so she can't be bothered over much by either Laz or his chain. When he proclaims that he's determined to cure her of her wickedness, Rae assumes that he has the standard-issue male confidence in the healing power of his own penis.

In a weird way, the audience is inured to the chain by the time Rae's fear and rage begin to build, which buys Brewer the latitude for a relatively extended, intensely physical montage of Rae attempting to run away and Lazarus reeling her back in. It starts with full-on Stooges physical comedy as Rae races out and takes a slo-mo ass-over-tea-kettle spill as she is pulled up short at the chain's full extension. From there, she claws and clings and scratches for every inch away from Laz, every second outside his house and physical control. It's squirm (not the good kind) inducing and hair raising, but also gratifying and something of a relief to the not-entirely-charitable small internal voice that's been waiting for her to fight back.

From the point that Rae is back inside, the bizarre nature of the objective reality observed by the audience is nothing to the shit going on in the headspace in which each of them lives. Even as Laz is tending to Rae's self-inflicted (um, kind of) wounds, his rage at his wife, his life, and everything grabs hold of him and whips him (and, very nearly, Rae with him) around. Rae proves utterly unable to distinguish between his violent rage and sexual arousal, and is unable to react in any way other than craving her usual role on the receiving end of a rage-fuelled dick. There's no forward progress, just frantic, too-mindful oscillation. The black snake devours its own tail.

But they're trying real hard to be the shepherd.

Rae finds a modicum of comfort and self-control in the baggage-laden symbol of the chain. Laz braves the townfolks' scorn to obtain some self-esteem-building clothing for Rae. Crisis comes (so to speak) in the form of the only boy left in town with a cherry to pop. Rae does her best to stay both out of sight and under the ubercoochie radar. But Lincoln (the respectful, for lo! the respectful, virginal young man is named after the liberator of his Race) is so intent on returning with the butterbeans promised his mother that he tries the door.

Rae's outbreak of wickedness drives Lazarus to his own breaking point. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Reverend R. L. (the wonderful John Cothran, Jr.) is on the other end of the literal barrel. But he succeeds in peeling Laz off the ceiling as effectively as Laz has peeled Lincoln off Rae. He has a chat with Rae about life and Heaven. Like everything else in the nearly note-perfect script, it's platitudinous fare straight from the denouement/coda of any given exploitation film. But, overall, it works here. The timing is quirky enough that this won't be any kind of simple solution. Cothran is so charmingly uncertain of himself and radiates compassion and determination to listen to Rae and to see Lazarus clear of whatever the frilly heck might be going on. Ricci conveys such a sore, festering pain made bearable only by sheer exhaustion. She simultaneously manages to look 12 and 120. And, when the Reverend asks her what her heaven is, she answers "Ronnie" with such achingly timid hope, I managed to forget for a moment that Ronnie = the repellant, useless Justin Timberlake. That may be the highest compliment I've ever paid to any actor.

Many of the more positive reviews I've seen allow that the first half of Black Snake Moan is bold, daring, shocking, true, but bemoan the fact that it goes to the Hallmark-costumed dogs as soon as Rae's chain comes off (as it does shortly after the wholesome family supper with the Reverend and the recently deflowered Lincoln). I can't really agree, or at least I disagree with both degree to which the story takes a nosedive and which elements are dragging it down.

I'm willing to entertain arguments that the events immediately post-un-chaining tend toward the painfully stagey. Lazarus recognizes that beam in his own eye and decides to stop trying to help Rae with hers. She asks a favor of him and we cutaway to Laz retrieving his berry-pink electric Gibson. He slides off his wedding ring and slides on his slide. She reclines on the floor at his feet (but in a voluntary, totally unchained way, I"m sure). He verbally vamps, leading up to the titular song as a storm rages outside. The power flicks off, drawing a moan from the amp. Rae edges closer, wrapping herself around Laz's leg as she begs him to keep playing. It is goofy. It is over the top. It's exploitation. And it works for me.

One frequently raised objection is the fact that Brewer fails to follow through on the sexual tension he's carefully crafted between Jackson and Ricci. I'm afraid that I find myself inching away from those for whom this would have been groundbreaking and norm shattering. I'm absolutely not denying that interracial sex—particularly Black man/tiny-White-fragile woman—isn't a flagrant standing taboo in American popular culture. (In fact, I'm willing to bet that David Banner taking Christina Ricci roughly from behind is first on the lips of everyone "shocked" by the movie.) But sometimes you break on through to the other side and find a 36-car pile-up of other stereotypes. And a fucked-up, older man who exerts both physical and psychological power over a woman winning her sexual favors for his trouble is just not my preferred flavor of iconoclasm. I'd also add that it's to Brewer's credit that, for most of the movie, he avoids casting the two characters in either the mold of lovers or that of father and daughter. (He does lapse into the latter later in the film, unfortunately. But blame Timberlake.)

Another whinge I've seen is that Brewer neatly resolves his plot by having Rae cured of the grievous sin of female sexuality. I'm not sure if there was some kind of widespread fugue state afflicting opening-weekend audiences, but happily I dodged that bullet. First of all, if it's Laz who's supposed to be doing the curing, I've got to wonder when in the 2 hours in the theater anyone holding this opinion came to the conclusion that Brewer, Jackson, or anyone within a 50-mile radius of the film thinks that Lazarus is any shape to do any curing of any kind. Lazarus is not a good man. (He's not a bad man, either, although he certainly seems to have been a bad husband for his wife._ He's not a sane man. He's not a wronged man. He's a man whose marriage went up in an ignominious blaze fueled in equal parts by him, his wife, and his brother.

I'll allow that Brewer's approach to Rae and Laz being "fixed" after huddling in his living room and defying the elements with electric blues is a bit pat and decidedly simplistic. But it was sufficient to convince me that Brewer has no delusions that these two can really be fixed, but neither is he convinced that the habits that have brought them to grief are hopelessly destructive. As Laz says, "There's no sense fightin' it: We're night owls."

At the road house (see, Roger, it's a road house, not the Road House), Laz and Rae make their way through a house packed by Laz's good friends. Laz's shouts, moans, and wails blend with those of his guitar, the crowd, and Son House, who introduces the film (in archival footage) and provides commentary midway through. Rae bumps and grinds and gets down with men and women, Black and White, young and old. Her sexuality is appreciated, applauded, and matched, hump for hump. And yes, it errs a bit on the shiny, happy, sexy, singing bluesmen side, but it's a far cry from "the only good woman is a chaste woman" or, for that matter, "the only good Black man is a teetotaling, stoic schlub who honestly scrapes a living off the land and don't make no trouble with his race music."

And Brewer does parlay the experimental, consensual dance with the devil into some attempts at personal growth, more successfully for Rae than for Laz, it's true. Fortified by their night on the town, the pair decides to try the town in daylight on for size. Rae is, no doubt, motivated by her old self-sabotaging demons to some extent when she makes an attempt to reconnect with her mother. And the not-entirely-admirable, not-entirely-charitable, not-entirely-pro-Rae-warts-and-all voice makes a triumphant return her taking a mop to her mother's complicit, cognitively dissonant, seriously-needs-to-be-murdered (tm blondeheroine) face is infinitely more satisfying than the cup of coffee she meekly suggested they have moments before.

Meanwhile, Laz inches closer to sealing a deal with the age-and-race-appropriate Miss Angie (S. Epatha Merkeson), the pharmacist from whom he sweet talked fraudulent medicine for Rae's mysterious cough. She shyly shares that she's been thinking of singing in the church choir and he coaxes her into a girlish snippet of "There is a Balm in Gilead." But Laz is forced to bow out before the encore to engage in what I choose to believe is a conscious reenactment and excellent send up (oh hell, I tragically cannot find a picture online) of the iconic scene in The Bodyguard.

If the movie does go south (very poor choice of metaphor for something going bad in this case, but I'll cop to it and leave it), it's when Ronnie and his vomit return. I really don't know what Ronnie's problem is, and Justin Timberlake is not the icky, talentless, skinhead to make me care. He vomits a lot. And he sticks his head entirely into the toilet when he does so, which is just not sanitary. And I think he might be trying to do a Quentin Tarantino impression, but I can't be any surer of that than I can be that there's an autonomic nervous system, rather than, say, some extremely poorly maintained, talentless, rusty clockwork, making him go.

But return he must, so I shall report faithfully the events that ensue. He stops off at a bar and runs into his best friend, the guy all the other guys in town keep around to make them look like Sir Fucking Galahad. (I should note here that M brought up a point about Ronnie's vomit-filled panic attacks: In this scene it may be implied that Ronnie himself is the victim of sexual abuse, but they don't really go anywhere with it.) He and said scumbag return to Rae's trailer, where there's no sign of her or of her having been there of late. The scumbag, still frustrated by Rae's rejection (or possibly spit repressing lust for Ronnie [uh, you understand that that is spit on Timberlake, not spit on boy-boy lust, right?]), reveals to Ronnie that Rae has been humping everything in sight, but most especially him (scumbag, not Timberlake) while he's been away at once-a-week-soldier-sleepaway camp.

Ronnie takes this at face value and defaces the scumbag's face. For good measure, he grabs a gun and steals his truck, then heads off in search of Rae. They very nearly run into one another outside the road house (there's rather a syrupy gag with synchronized digital watches), but instead, he presses his face to the window as Rae dances and Laz calls down the music. I don't know if this is supposed to be poignant or chilling or what. All I can tell you is that he looks a lot more Charlie-Brown-got-a-rock than Heathcliffe-missing-the-"whatever-our-souls-are-made-of" bit of Cathy's rejection. He courteously waits until the morning when Rae is attempting to pick out the lone hymn she knows on Laz's acoustic. Laz laughingly tells her to close her eyes and sing while he picks. Probably because I was feeling grumpy about Timberlake SUCKING and sucking up my screentime, this scene seemed long and clunky, right up to the "why whoever could the out-of-focus-person-with-a-gun-pointed-at-Laz be? " reveal.

Naturally, Laz steps in front of Rae and does all kinds of manly things that read as patriarchal for the first time. Just as naturally, he slaps the gun free of Ronnie's hand and calls for the Reverend. He looks on as Rae and Ronnie receive the pastoral counseling he and his wife never got. Ronnie weepingly says that Rae fixed him, but he can't fix her. (Seriously, right now there are two things that have me on the verge of murderous rampage: Fucking gauchos and fiction that romanticizes this notion that one person in a relationship "fixes" the other.) Rae, in her turn, says she thinks that they're both fucked up, and she'll understand if Ronnie wants to give up on her, "But please don't." And with those three words, Ricci very nearly makes the entire scene work.

But the denouement is just a little too silly, and ends up shading to creepy. Laz, of course, goes to beg Miss Angie's help with his "niece" one more time. Lincoln helps Ronnie tie his tie, turning him so that they're both facing the side mirror of the car. Rae emerges from Laz's house in a teeny, strapless white dress and ridiculously over-the-top veil. But worst of all, in addition to exchanging rings, Ronnie fastens a gold belly chain around Rae's waist. And all the problematic, fucked-up symbolism and the baggage is watered down to a chastity belt. (Again, M was able to buy it as a "fetish" in the most literal sense of the word—a physical object imbued with power that can be transfered to the one who holds it, but I was just too comprehensively grumped out to entertain this possibility.)

But all this stuff and nonsense is really only about 10 or 15 minutes of the whole film. And rather than leaving us on a feel-good note, Brewer shows us Rae and Ronnie finally escaping their small-town prison. They're barely out on the highway before the trucks bearing down from the side and behind send Ronnie into a panic attack. Rae's black snake moans come for her shortly thereafter, but she gets it under enough control that soon she's pulling Ronnie out of his attack. The final shot is devoted to Ricci whose look of oh-shit desperation outdoes the combined we-are-so-screwed power that closes The Graduate.

So I seem to have thought the movie considerably stronger than many, and my complaints (those not trivial) are confined to the very end of the film. I think the preceding 2 hours or so argue forcefully that this was a movie worth making and worth seeing: The music, of course, is phenomenal: The perfect sweaty, gritty, scissoring soundtrack for a story that is all angles. Most of the story is complex and challenging, and even when Brewer goes for the glossy shortcut, it's not to the usual resolution. But most of all, the performances of Ricci and Jackson (and many of the supporting players) are truly not to be missed.

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Anonymous Freshmaker said...

Oh, thank Frith you wrote about couples "fixing" each other. Too much pop fiction relies on that conceit, and it's screwed up relationships for years.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...


I can't tell you how much rage there was when the whole Lee/Dee/Kara/Anders thing was "resolved" with Lee saying he married Dee and would stay with her, because she's "good for him." Not being with someone who's part and parcel of your self-destructive tendencies is one thing. Treating the person you are with like some kind of band-aid . . . ARRRGGH.
Believe you me, I would have been too busy stomping on his genitals to tear up, were I Mrs. L. Adama.

2:23 PM  

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