WEIRDLAND: "Natural Born Killers" vs "God Bless America"

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Natural Born Killers" vs "God Bless America"

Happy 39th birthday, Juliette Lewis!

Juliette Lewis as Mallory Knox in "Natural Born Killers" (1994) directed by Oliver Stone

In "Natural Born Killers" (which was considered the director's masterpiece by Victor Bockris, although bashed by some critics and intellectuals like Mario Vargas Llosa) Oliver Stone was undoubtedly well intentioned, but the volume was turned up so high that the film becomes an exercise in alienation, and ultimately as sensationalist as the subject it seeks to address. A dark and ultimately depressing (for reasons good and bad) travel across the contemporary American landscape, the film's technical virtuosity is matched by compelling performances from Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson.

Unfolding as a hallucinogenic nightmare, Stone switches, randomly it seems, between hyperkinetic cinematography, black-and-white documentary verité, surveillance video, garishly coloured psychedelia and even animation in an attempt to mirror the psychosis of the killers and the media-saturated culture that makes them popular heroes. The film's extreme and gory violence required copious edits to secure an R rating in America and became the focus for a heated debate as to whether Natural Born Killers glorified the activities of its protagonists, thus potentially inciting copycat incidents, or whether its shock tactics were an attempt to force the American media to acknowledge its responsibilities.

A frenetic look at the elevation to celebrity status of mass murderers by an unscrupulous and deviant American media, Oliver Stone's controversial film divided critics and audiences with its heady brew of over-the-top violence and bitter cultural satire. Viewed retrospectively, the film, though starting from an interesting premise, only occasionally hits its target, its melange of visual styles proving crude and ineffective at times.

Inspired in previous films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1973), the film sadly spawned a series of copycat variants of killers in and outside USA. Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) are a young couple united by their desire for each other and their common love of violence. Together, they embark on a record-breaking, exceptionally gory killing spree that captivates the sensation-hungry tabloid media.

Their fame is ensured by one newsman, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr), who reports on Mickey and Mallory for his show, 'American Maniacs'. Even the duo's eventual capture by the police, led by a twisted and perverted Tom Sizemore, only increases their notoriety, as Gale develops a plan for a Super Bowl Sunday interview that Mickey and Mallory twist to their own advantage.

Juliette Lewis as Bonnie Parker for BlackBook Magazine

Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow in "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967) directed by Arthur Penn

Stone considered Natural Born Killers his road film, specifically naming Bonnie and Clyde as a source of inspiration. The famous death scene in Bonnie and Clyde used innovative editing techniques provided by multiple cameras shot from different angles at different speeds; this sporadic interchange between fast-paced and slow-motion editing that concludes Arthur Penn's film is used throughout the entirety of Natural Born Killers.

God Bless America is Bobcat Goldthwait’s follow up to his criminally underseen dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad; the bitter middle aged Frank (Joel Murray) loses his job and is told he has inoperable brain cancer. On the verge of sinking into a deep depression while watching late-night television, Frank decides to use the opportunity to rid the world of a rich, snotty, self-entitled reality TV star who throws a fit on camera when her parents buy her the wrong car for her 16th birthday. But when High School outcast Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) sees Frank murder her hateful classmate, she begs him to let her join him, and the two go on a killing spree targeting “jerks,” developing into a kind of hybrid of Bonnie and Clyde meets Super. Source:

It stars Joel Murray (Freddy Rumsen from Mad Men, and Bill's brother) as a sad-sack angry loner who learns he is dying of a brain tumor, teams up with a sullen, violent teenage girl, and decides, essentially, to kill everyone on his television. The movie takes the form of a Natural Born Killers/Bonnie & Clyde-style road movie —though both killers take pains to point out that they're "platonic spree-killers"—but it's really just an excuse for Goldthwait to use the two characters as mouthpieces to vent his spleen about our rotting culture.

I might have lost track, but our murderous duo either kills, lambastes, or does both to the following people: anyone involved with reality television, viral Internet sensations, cable television hosts, people who drink energy drinks, people who high five, Glee ("it ruined Rocky Horror forever"), Diablo Cody ("The only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem"), Woody Allen and his personal life, people who take up two parking spots, and people who say "Namaste" in casual conversation. I'll confess: When they shot a group of teenagers who are texting and talking in a movie theater (insanely, to the strains of Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet"), I found it difficult not to cheer. Source:

Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr play Frank and Roxy in "God Bless America" (2011) directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

God Bless America may well be the defining movie of our generation. It’s not perfect, far from it, but as social commentary on the state of the American empire, it’s the most honest and truthful film in years. God Bless America cribs generously from “outlaw” movies like Bonnie & Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

That’s the amazing thing: despite the horrific acts they commit (and despite Goldthwait’s frantic backpedaling in interviews), Frank and Roxy come off as enormously more human and sympathetic than the people they kill. For example, both are partially motivated to go on their spree after witnessing a mentally retarded kid being humiliated on an American Idol-type show. Source:

Although Natural Born Killers suffered from an overdose of Stone's masturbatory directorial flourishes, it entertained similar themes about the public's entertainment appetite and the media's complicity in satisfying it. With the sense of self-importance stripped away and the application of a traditional filming approach, God Bless America hits more notes than it misses and leaves a stronger impression than Natural Born Killers.

A lot of what God Bless America has to say is on-target and is presented in such a straightforward, unvarnished fashion that it's impossible to miss the honesty beneath the comedy. The movie is funny but it is also at times uncomfortable. It takes the ugliest possible view of today's society, looking at 2012 America through dark-tinted, cracked lenses. Source:

Frank: -"It's not nice to laugh at someone who's not all there. It's the same type of freak-show distraction that comes along every time a mighty empire starts collapsing. "American Superstarz" is the new colosseum and I won't participate in watching a show where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment. I mean, why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?"

In Freud's essay "Civilization and Is Discontents" in which he offers us the question: "why have men created a culture in which they live with such discomfort?"

Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction: "The fiction of democracy remains useful, not only for corporations, but for our bankrupt liberal class. As long as the charade is played, they do not have to consider how to combat what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” Inverted totalitarianism represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry,” Wolin writes in “Democracy Incorporated.” Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader, and finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. Citizens, rather than participate in power, are allowed to have virtual opinions to preordained questions, a kind of participatory fascism as meaningless as voting on “American Idol.” Our transformation into an empire, as happened in ancient Athens and Rome, has seen the tyranny we practice abroad become the tyranny we practice at home."

How Democracy Dies: "The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside non-totalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity...” Our gutless liberal class placates the enemies of democracy, hoping desperately to remain part of the ruling elite, rather than resist. And, in many ways, liberals, because they serve as a cover for these corporate extremists, are our greatest traitors." -"The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (2011) by Chris Hedges

An important point I want to make is how curious is the fact both films "Natural Born Killers" and "God Bless America", despite their many similarities, they work out almost as a reverse approach to feminist interpretations based on the female characters Mallory (Juliette Lewis) and Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), following their respective arc transitions. Whereas in Natural Born Killers, Mallory's dysfunctional upbringing has made her a bitter victim of patriarchal violence, Roxy is a self-confident student who deliberately ignores the chauvinists pundits that most likely would call her a 'feminazi'.

What makes the audience sympathise with Mallory is the fact they are shown her father in the form of a vicious monster. This does not excuse her appetite for gratuitous violence on scene, however it does give the audience a certain rationale about the source of her hate and misanthropy.

Mickey: You know, the only thing that kills the demon... is love. That's why I know Mallory is my salvation. She was teaching me to love. (Mallory appears in the background whispering: "I forgive you baby"). It was just like being in the garden of Eden." This unreserved declaration of love towards Mallory amidst an opportunistic interview destinated to millions of viewers, gives us an insight into the couple's dynamic and transforms them into romantic killers before our eyes. In shutting down the accomplice media Stone excises the demon, and the violence (predominantly masculine) is redeemed by the couple's love.

In "God Bless America", on the contrary, Roxy is never seen as a victim of a patriarchal system, whilst Frank is presented in the beginning of the film as an emasculated everyman: a victim of modern oppression manifested in a condescending treatment from his ex-wife and profuse female-oriented entertainment media that is re-enforced by nasty TV princesses as Chloe (who'll become his first victim).

In some ways, the gender dynamics in "God Bless America" result even more subversive than in "Natural Born Killers". Victimized somehow by a matriarchal society on the rise, the lead character Frank regains his control as a self-assured man by training a teenage girl to shoot guns. Furthermore, despite some increasing sexual tension between Frank and Roxy, the story denoument couldn't be more evidently anti-Hollywood (besides being anti-establishment).

Frank overcomes his impulses when he realises he doesn't want to rob Roxy of her youth years and sends her back home with her conventional parents (oblivious to her plight). When both arrive by separate ways at their inescapable finish line, it's Frank who recovers his lost leadership and pride, leading Roxy (who aspired to become Frank's girlfriend to no avail) to death in their shared demise in the "American Superstaz" finale as an undeniable proof of her loyalty.