The Cinemologist

Come here for your cinematic prescription

Wayback Wednesday: Never Mind This Bollocks

Back in high school, I was tasked with the reading of William Faulkner’s southern lit. masterpiece, “The Sound and the Fury”.  I don’t remember a great deal about the characters or the plot of said novel, but I do remember a discussion our class had related to the genesis of the novel’s name.  Faulkner pulled the title from one of the soliloquies in Macbeth.  To paraphrase…..

“Life….is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”

The class discussion and this line in particular came to mind as I watched the 1986 Alex Cox directed biopic “Sid and Nancy” over the weekend.  Anyone that has seen the movie can identify the connection with the last half of the statement, but it’s the first half that I find the most interesting.  In our classroom discussion we talked a lot about point of view.  The novel jumps back and forth not just in time, but from narrator to narrator.  So it is our responsibility to keep up with who is telling us the story, and how their point of view influences what we are told, and what we are not.  This is a common literary device to engage the reader.  However, we often see films as a whole, without taking into account all the parts that make them up.  So how much does the perspective of a single person involved with a project, influence the overall work?  If the lives of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen really are “full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” as the movie I watched would indicate, then the idiot to blame in this case is certainly Alex Cox.

Let me get some of the obligatory plot information out of the way.  Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols in 1977 replacing original bassist Glen Matlock.  By that time, the Pistols, were already established as major players on the English Punk Rock scene.  Vicious was added to the band because of his look, and because he fit the bill of what a member of the Sex Pistols should be.  Though he had played drums before in other bands, this was his first time playing bass.  It was early that year that he met Nancy Spungen, the American drug addict and prostitute that would ultimately consume his life.  Alex Cox’s movie follows that downward spiral through the breakup of the band, and ultimately Spungen and Vicious’ death.  In the hand of the right director, this story would have made for a compelling look at a musical revolution and some of the people behind it.  However I ended up confused, apathetic and a little bit angry.

The first odd choice Cox makes comes right off the bat.  The movie begins with us in a squalid hotel room, a body bag is being zipped and Gary Oldman is sitting on the end of a bed nearly catatonic.  Blood is everywhere and what we assume is a police detective is asking him questions.  Getting no response, the police detective takes Oldman’s character to the police station to be questioned.  During that questioning, a single question triggers what we can only assume is a flashback.  We have to assume this because there is no visible clue to tip it off, no title overlay, nothing really to suggest a different place and time other than the fact that suddenly Oldman’s character is not at the police station.  I like flashbacks and flash forwards.  I can even get into a flash sideways kind of thing if it adds something to the story.  This one though, just seems unnecessary.  The movie does come back around to the point it left, but making the film technically non-linear and then telling the actual story in a linear path doesn’t actually make it non-linear.  It just means I have to watch the same few scenes twice.  I guess a blood covered hotel room gets your attention, but with no frame of reference, and no idea who these people even are, it makes it difficult to get into the story.  The only way I know that Gary Oldman’s character is Sid Vicious is that someone yells it out as he is being led out of his hotel room and to a waiting police car.  What if instead the movie began with concert footage, maybe some backstage chaos between the band members, or even drop-in on the punk scene in general.  Instead I get a couple of scenes followed by a flash back that takes me back to the actual story from the time Sid and Nancy met.  We could have gotten there in a less disruptive way.  There isn’t a single other episode of this plot device being used in the movie, and it doesn’t add anything to the story.  So right from the start, I’m lost, and it’s Alex’s fault.  I needed a way to connect to the story or to connect to the characters and I needed it fast.

We connect to a movie in a lot of ways.  How the characters look, what they wear, and where they live all serve to give us insight into who the they are, and what they stand for.  But for me, nothing is more important than what they say, and how they say it.  In a movie, dialogue is more than exposition.  It is the backbone on which so much of the story is built and related.  Now it isn’t always that way.  After all, by the end of the first fifteen minutes of WALL-E I loved that little guy, and there was no dialogue.  But in general, as a character tells us his hopes, his dreams, what he thinks of his mother, who his girlfriend is and the like, the more and more our interest and investment in him grows.  Well the dialogue in this film was difficult to say the least.  This is a British film, directed and written by a British man, so I knew it would be a tough adjustment as the movie started.  The King’s English can be a beautiful thing to hear.  Having just finished four season of Showtime’s series “The Tudors”, with its largely British cast, I’ve heard a lot of accents of late.  But listening to the English nobility, and listening to these chaps are two totally different things.  They talk too fast, they yell constantly, and they often use strings and strings of English slang that I have no concept of what they mean.  Add to that the fact that many of the conversations are simply fights with one character talking or yelling over the other, and I can’t understand a thing.  Now authenticity goes a long way in movies, but in this case, a softer accent, might have given me a point of access to the story.  Instead I was just as lost as I started.  Of all the dialogue in the film, I probably understood under 80% of it, and most of that came from Nancy, American born Chloe Webb.  This is probably my fault, maybe my hearing is just bad.  But I think that if Cox took a second and stepped back he might have realized how off-putting the dialogue was.  All of these actors have the ability to turn it back a notch, but they didn’t, I’m sure at the behest of their director.  He is British, his cast is British, and to a large extent his target market was British, so maybe he didn’t care if the rest of the world understood the dialogue.  However,  I’m sure Sam Goldwyn and his four million dollar budget might have liked a more accessible film.

So all that’s left for me are the characters.  The majority of screen time is filled by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.  Oldman is a favorite, but then there is Chloe Webb.  She has given what might be the most annoying performance in the history of movies.  She yells just about all her dialogue, which only serves to make the work more annoying when compared to the more nuanced performance of Gary Oldman.   Her voice has a grating quality that I don’t think I have heard since Fran Drescher from “The Nanny” .  I found her instantly dislikeable and longed for the end to come for her.

So in the end, my only hope for connection to this movie would have to come from the performance of Gary Oldman.  I’ve been an Oldman fan for a long time, and he is good in the movie, but I can’t really say that it helped.  There wasn’t a single time in the movie I found myself rooting for him.  Cox owes us that on some level I would suspect.  We have to identify or sympathize, or connect with someone or something to make the movie worthwhile. Here he fails miserably.  There is never a time where I feel that Sid is actually a good guy.  Screenwriter and author Blake Snyder says you must have a “Save the Cat” moment.  That’s the moment in a movie where our protagonist does something that gives us a reason to root for him, like saving a cat out of a tree.  All Sid does is start fights, shoot drugs, and abuse his woman.  We certainly can’t be on his side.  Well actually if the other side is Nancy’s, then yes, we can be on his side, but in the end, we just want them to be over.  The worst part here is that according to at least one reputable source, Cox didn’t even try.  John Lydon, aka  Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten indicates he wasn’t even consulted prior to the filming.  Not a single question was asked about Sid to probably the person in the band that knew him the best.  Instead, Cox relied on second-hand accounts, and anecdotal information passed on to him by Joel Strummer from the Clash.  That would be like Oliver Stone deciding to make a movie about Keith Richards and only asking Roger Daltry from the Who about him.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

Gary Oldman is good as Sid Vicious, but for this movie that’s about all I can say that is good.  Alex Cox from the very first scene has made a film that is difficult to connect with and very hard to watch.  Some of the tonal elements would be distracting if they weren’t there.  There is a certain rawness you have to expect from a movie about the punk scene and it’s drug addicted poster child.  But for me those elements are overplayed and disruptive.  A movie can be too loud.  A movie can be too gritty.  A movie can be too disorienting.  In this case, Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” is all of those things and more.   This movie was heralded by critics when it was released.  It has even gotten the Criterion Collection treatment.  But for me it just failed to connect.  Instead of being a story of star-crossed lovers that bring each other to death’s door, or the story of the punk movement in England,it was just a lot of noise, and a lot of chaos, and in the end it was nothing.  So if the analogy from my opening paragraphs holds true, that would make Mr. Cox the aforementioned idiot.

Until next time:  KEEP WATCHING MOVIES!!!!

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