8.08.2019

Hollywood Biopics' Valorization of Banality, or How "Beach Bum" is the Antidote to "Rocket Man," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "First Man"



Harmony Korine's "Beach Bum" is the most explicit embrace of excess I've ever seen. It's unabashed consumption without anything going wrong—no regret, no fear, no tragedy. It is Bataille's visions of excess. And a welcome antidote to the neutering of life we've seen in a recent run of biopics on Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong.

Hollywood biopics are the low of the low. They clearly perform the distinction between copying and repeating: the actors copy the mannerisms, don the clothes and costumes and accents but never inhabit the character from the inside out. They don't repeat; they don't forge something new.  They confirm our cliché understandings of history, never risking an alternative reading that might shift the terms of the character, history, or ourselves.

It's always the same shitck: times were repressive; the 60s were liberating; but there were dangerous excesses. Girls had abortions! People had too much sex! Did too many drugs! And so we're are given the dichotomy of repression and excess and told both are wrong. It's the safe, bourgeois center that is the right and good place: have fun, consume lots of goods, but stay working!

So for banal reasons (my friend was feeling sick and a movie theater seemed a refuge), I found myself at a matinée of "Rocket Man," the Elton John story. The very opening of the movie is hilarious and perfect; my hopes were high. Mr. John, dressed in a fantastically hilarious, over-the-top get up, comes storming down some institutional hallway. Briefly, I thought: Great! We'll see Elton John's beautiful excess as a de facto repudiation of institutional control.

But my hopes were quickly thwarted: he's storming off stage to attend an AA meeting. Ok, I thought, maybe he'll undo the sanctimony of AA and the myths of addiction (AA is always presented as the solution to our societal ills rather than a symptom; try bad mouthing AA and you'll see what I mean. It repeats the most dangerous models of "addiction" and "cure." AA may be the best branded corporation out there. And, yes, I understand some people do well with AA; power to them.). But no, that's not what this film is up to. It's quite the contrary.

The very structure of the film is him confessing his sins to the group. As the film progresses, as he tells his tale—his achingly boring tales—he sheds his costume.  The costume and all that it entails—his exuberant excess in attire, personality, sex, and drugs—is just that, a costume. The real man, it seems, lies underneath. The real man uses excess to hide his pain, his vulnerability. The truth, we are told, is this scared, regretful man in his underwear. Oy vey.

The thing that made Elton John so incredible, in addition to his crafty melodies, was precisely his excess. Why literally shed his excess, this greatness, just to leave us with this man and his devastatingly uninteresting life? His father was not very nice. Oh no! His mother was not very nice. Oh no!

The whole thing is so strange. The reason there even is a biopic of Elton John, the very reason we're excited to make and see such a film, is that he exuded an excess rarely seen in this life. But then it argues that this excess is all a mask, a facade, and that the truth is that this man had some terribly uninteresting pain in this life—and that is what we should care about. That is the hero: not this life force that took the world by storm but this achingly banal man and his suburban woes.

The frustrating thing in this case is that the film flirts with its own love of excess. It's filled with exquisite, surreal musical numbers. With a few key moves, the film could have been this great celebration of excess as a mode of becoming in this world, this exuberance, this overflowing, this abundance. All the ingredients are there. We could see his terribly uninteresting upbringing and how excess was a line of flight, a way to be that overcame all the nonsense of life. Rather than excess being the mask, it could have been the way of becoming beyond truth and lies. 

Please note that I'm not saying that excess can't be a mask or that pain and anxiety are not an important, even essential, aspect of both being-in-the-world and narrative film. They could have shown us his excess, his drugs and sex and costumes, as a complex way of going that includes depression, pain, and anxiety. Because of course it does! It's not a dichotomy of truth and lies, of real and mask, of man in underwear and man in costume. Excess does not efface pain; it supersedes it.

And then I watched "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "First Man" on my TV thanks to HBO. Oy. They were less explicitly egregious than "Rocket Man" but they both offer the same argument: these bigger than life people who've done extraordinary things are really just scared, anxious, sad men. Rather than banality being transformed into excess, excess becomes mask that covers pain.

How in the world did we get here?

Excess is anathema to both the financial and existential economies of life today. 

Capitalism clearly disdains it—at least excess of character, excess of drugs and sex, excess of joy. That kind of excess is not productive. (Eeesh! The will to "productivity" is the will to eradicate life and its attending delights.) But the extraordinary excess of Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong is a threat to our resignation to a life of labor and banality. So we take these great men, these great events, and eviscerate them, evacuate them, reduce them to being just like us underneath—scared, sad, anxious. Sure, you walked on the moon. But you're really just like me—sad about your life.

It's all a terrible inheritance from Freud. Freud was embraced in the 60s as a proponent of sexual liberation (something Freud does not talk about). Don't repress your sex! (Which Freud does not say; repression is neither good nor bad; it's an essential function of life). Now that we're done with all that, we've elevated the suffering, sad ego as the truth of life as we're all left feeling a little bit better about our own mediocre lives.

And then I finally watched Harmony Korine's latest film, "Beach Bum," with Matthew McConaughey doing what he does. It's a startlingly simple film: this poet is high and drunk and happy all the time. Playing with our expectations, the film makes it seem like something is going to go awry as some tragedy must befall our hero. After all, excess is a sin. But nope. Nothing bad happens per se. Yes, someone close to him dies in the throes of their excess. But there is no regret or doubt, no retribution. The death is not his fault. Death is, alas, a possible outcome of living excessively—just as death is always a possible outcome. And rather than excess being an obstacle to creative genius, it is precisely the source.

In this age of pain in which suffering, however banal, is valorized as truth, "Beach Bum" is a radical celebration, a bucking of clichés that would keep us in our cages, mewling in pain unto eternity because Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong suffered just like us. Korine's film is a call to arms—the arms of excess.

5 comments:

kaya said...

Wonderful . I knew I would enjoy your critique of Rocket Man and you nailed it, as always . Thank you

Daniel Coffeen, PhD said...

Thank you for reading my rants.

dg said...

It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.

Frank Zappa

Daniel Coffeen, PhD said...

@dg: Love this. It's such a perfect pairing — paperwork and nostalgia. All the more devastating for its pith.

Cody said...

I think you might enjoy Timothy Carey's "The World's Greatest Sinner"...if you haven't seen it. someone put it on youtube recently

Data Property, Not Data Privacy: How Blockchain Can Change the World

  This is a piece I wrote for the Anatha publication on Medium > Privacy as a Red Herring So I recently watched the Netflix...