SECOND CHANCES

christopher funderburg

THE CRYING GAME

Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for Funderburg and Cribbs. This series, Second Chances, follows their attempts to find greatness where they've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which they currently have a distaste (or feel indifference). They'll give cult favorites like An American Werewolf in London another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles them (like Nicholas Ray) - and with a little luck, maybe they'll even end up as newly-minted fans...

 

The subject: The Crying Game.

Initial resistance:

It's a little surprising how much I rejected Neil Jordan's Big-time Breakthrough Film back when I first saw it in the mid-90's. I was a budding young cinephile and Neil Jordan's dreamy, allegorical horror fantasia The Company of Wolves had been one of the key films in my transition from "kid who likes movies so he sees Speed four times in the theater" to "teenager who likes movies so he watches every Coen brothers film twenty-three times." Wolves resembled a regular horror film just enough that I wasn't lost amidst its hallucinatory plot. It was also violent enough that I wasn't bored by its deliberate pace and contemplative emphasis on lush imagery. Along with Clerks and The Hudsucker Proxy, Wolves served as one of my main gateways to the larger world of cinema. At that point in time, I was consuming so much cinema that now I can't really recall the order in which I saw the rest of Jordan's work - I know I considered myself enough of a fan that I was super excited for The Butcher Boy's release in 1998 (the year I went off to college) and I have memories of being dismayed at his involvement with Interview with a Vampire. I definitely did not see The Crying Game when it was initially released in 1992 - I was only 13 years old and hadn't quite reached the point where that would be something I went out of my way to see. I do know that by the time The Butcher Boy came out I had seen almost all his films: Mona Lisa, The Miracle, Michael Collins, Angel. I read all about the studio interference on High Spirits and specifically sought it out to understand what those articles were talking about - it's the first time I can recall having heard of a director crying foul over bone-headed ideas imposed on his film against his will. Of every Neil Jordan film I had seen, I thought the least of The Crying Game. I didn't even hate it, I just dismissed it as gimmicky, middle-brow trash, the type of mediocre artwork designed to get nominated for awards and all too ready to congratulate itself for dealing with "controversial" material. Like most kids my age, I initially learned about the film through pop cultural punch-lines, quips on David Letterman and The Simpsons, parodies in stuff like The Naked Gun 33 & 1/3. In my mind, the film existed in a space between tittering juvenility and middle-brow faux art - two sides of the same coin, really.

In retrospect, I was probably the victim of an obnoxious marketing campaign that played both angles, the tittering and the self-serious, to maximum effect and ran the film's shocking hook into the ground. Twist movies run a higher risk of not aging well and The Crying Game was moored so tightly to its surprising revelations that it risked sinking altogether once the jig was up. The "shh, don't tell anybody there's a wiener in this movie!" marketing campaign was one of Miramax's first large scale successes and the stunning profitability of the movie no doubt played a large role in its six Oscar nominations, big ones like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. The whole strategy was simultaneously coy and calculating, reducing the public perception of the film to its most shocking moment purely as a means of selling it as a product. The artistic importance of the controversial material functioned as a marketing auxiliary, answering the question of "why the hell would I want to see a movie no one will tell me anything about?!" with a stern "because it is an Important, Brave Artwork, jerkwad." (An important artwork featuring controversial, shocking material perhaps too titillating, too lurid and sexual to be divulged in a family newspaper.) That's just not the kind of crass commercialization to which 15 year-old Funderburg would ever cotton. And the big surprise - that Jaye Davidson plays a transvestite - just didn't seem that shocking to me. Even worse, running throughout the discourse on the film, I certainly detected more than a faint whiff of "it's so disgusting and shocking, you're seriously going to throw up because - get this - you're really going to want to vomit, man, it's so twisted: the hot chick turns out to be a dude - a GAY dude." Apparently, the idea of the boyishly handsome Stephen Rea making out with a smokin' hot Jaye Davidson would make me want to puke. Right then and there. Just puke all over everything. Ha, ha, we tricked you into seeing this sick shit. Now don't tell anyone the secret and maybe you can trick them into seeing this disgusting garbage (you see, like, a wiener and everything!) and you can watch them want to throw up. P.S. everybody deserves Oscars for this, let's give them all a round of applause, you've all been great sports, goodnight!

Even now it's a little hard to separate the hype from the film itself. It's a film so consumed by its marketing machine that it wouldn't be unreasonable if one hadn't seen it to assume it features nothing beyond Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson making out, punctuated by the big reveal of a black dick. Why is Miranda Richardson on the poster, again? Don't worry folks, this is a movie for straight people, here's a good-looking woman in a stylish vamp cut, holding a gun. Everybody likes guns, right? The whole thing seems so breath-takingly, thoughtfully disingenuous. It's no surprise to hear that the film bombed on its initial release in Ireland and the UK where it was promoted straight-forwardly like the downbeat IRA thriller it actually is. Miramax's marketing looms so large in the public perception of The Crying Game, in my perception of The Crying Game, that I'm not sure in the early 90's it would have been possible to consider the film without having every thought clouded by the clever, insistent, overwhelming promotional machinations. And as I've laid out, those machinations represent the sleaziest vision of Neil Jordan's film, a grotesque appeal to the audience's homophobia, middle-brow sense of duty to Important Art and giggling love of shocking tricks. Like I wrote, I didn't hate it, I just dismissed it. The whole thing seemed beneath me. Super-star 15 year-old art genius me. As a film, it lacked the punch and originality of Jordan's best work - nothing about the film itself insisted I take it seriously. Jordan had made more startling and strange and singular films - The Crying Game remains one of his most overtly "normal" films and it never really occurred to me to revisit it. Despite being his breakthrough smash hit and the defining film of his career, I felt I could enjoy the best Neil Jordan has to offer as an artist without ever once thinking about The Crying Game. I would have argued if you want to make a case for Neil Jordan as a great filmmaker, it doesn't make any sense to begin with The Crying Game unless you are discussing him with the kind of people wowed by Academy Award nominations and 4-star reviews from Roger Ebert. And I know you; you have no interest in talking to those people. Because they are dipshits.

 

 

Reasons for reassessment:

I recently watched The Miracle and Mona Lisa in the span of a couple days and I just had to text Cribbs "What the hell happened to Neil Jordan?" Both films are lovably hard-edged neo-noir masterpieces, the kind of genre revisionism with an essential fidelity to the form - a style clearly from the era just before hyper-violence, pastiche and Deconstructist irony ran roughshod over domain of "genre" in the art cinema world. Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa just blew me away - how could something this good exist? Where did this film come from? And with an oily Michael Caine (possibly the best kind of Michael Caine) as the villain! The Miracle has been even more forgotten, which is hard to imagine considering just how in command Jordan is of all the disparate, notoriously difficult elements he brings together: coming of age comedy, neo-noir fatalism, dream imagery, sexual complexity, it all comes off without a hitch. They're marked by their originality: nothing like them has come before or since. Sure, they are not sui generis, just completely idiosyncratic. Even Jordan's jazzy, noir-ish debut Angel doesn't really compare; Mona Lisa and The Miracle are strange movies, but imbued with the strangeness that results in coming from a particular mind, from being the work of a particular person who sees the world in specific, inimitable way. They touch on all the big subjects - sex, politics, angst, family, violence, religion, love - but never get overwhelmed by their subject matter: they are about sex, politics, angst, family, religion, violence and love because they reflect their creator's life, Neil Jordan's mind and personality, not because they are intent on making a statement about Important Things. They are not declarations of self-importance; these issues almost disappear into the characters, popping out only because one can't meaningfully or truthfully write about any human being without touching on them. They're just great - but unassuming, even modest, the way distinctly personal artworks of real greatness can perversely turn out to be. They're full of great images, striking collisions of disparate elements - Bob Hoskins throwing on the neon star-sunglasses and grinning maniacally is a particular favorite - but unforced and simple like when you see something out of place on a street-corner and just have to take a picture. I've always felt that it's somewhat easy and boring to be conjure images that are completely crazy, to be over the top and "totally out there" - it's a shark ninja shitting diamond-skulls down a midget's throat! The Miracle and Mona Lisa are the exact opposite, full of images that are resonant or unsettling but you're completely unable to put your finger on why. Both films are rare work, something truly special.  

So, what happened to Neil Jordan? Just glancing at his filmography, you can see pretty clearly that The Crying Game happened to Neil Jordan. It represents a pretty definitive turning point in his career. Before The Crying Game elevated his status, he made 4 genuinely amazing films: Angel, Mona Lisa, The Miracle and The Company of Wolves. He also made two studio comedies that are not worth even thinking about: We're No Angels and High Spirits. His studio films were drained of all but the faintest hints of his personality while the obviously Neil Jordan-y movies all rule. In the 20 years since he blew up, he's made only one film to rival those early works, 1997's un-fuck-with-able The Butcher Boy. Otherwise, his work divides cleanly into two categories: 1) tepid, uninteresting successes (Ondine, The End of the Affair, Michael Collins, The Good Thief) and 2) compelling, strange, even crazy, indefensible pieces of total garbage (Breakfast on Pluto, In Dreams, Interview with a Vampire, The Brave One.) What seems to have happened is that The Crying Game's financial/awards' season success allowed him the authorial autonomy as an Important Artist to interject his personality into studio films where it didn't belong (like The Brave One and In Dreams) while also causing him to gun for the type of mainstream popularity of The Crying Game (hence the mild, tasteful, award-friendly airs of The End of the Affair and Michael Collins.) His most recent films Breakfast on Pluto, The Brave One and Ondine feel like he himself has forgotten just what it is he's trying to accomplish, artistically-speaking. If Jordan's career ended after The Miracle, I'd consider him one of my all-times favorites. I was curious just how his train got derailed, just how one goes from engineering the singular brilliance of Bob Hoskins as a man who can never catch up with the world around him, how a guy goes from that to ramming full speed into Tom Cruise as a silly, silly vampire. What the hell happened? Only The Crying Game could explain it.

(continued on page 2)

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