Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two Joyless Creatures staff members go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits via email exchange. This project was begun (yet never completed) at the Walker Art Center. In this edition, Joseph Houlihan and Eliza Summerlin debate the relative merit's of David O. Russell's American Hustle (2013).
Joseph Houlihan: Right out the gate, I would say I loved the film when I saw it in theaters. A couple of scenes especially stuck in my mind: DeNiro terrorizing the hapless conspirators, J Law's epic "Live and Let Die" cleaning scene...
Some of the weaker parts that I noticed came in inconsistency. I thought that the ad-libbing was especially weak, and sort of banal: While Louis C.K's fishing story was charming at points, it quickly felt like a one-trick pony. J Law's toxic nail polish hit the same tenor for me, as did the scenes with Jeremy Renner showing Christian Bale Camden.
As Renner and Bale become friends, weak ad-libbing undermines the film's thrust, simply because we don't have any exchange between the two actors that develops beyond the most shallow and banal ad-libs.
I feel that a great and terrible temptation for improvised films is to corral actors into a single place and let them create quirky tangents and mini-storylines. It's great when it works (Robert Altman's Nashville immediately comes to my mind) but when it doesn't whole stretches of time can pass without the actors really having any sort of meaningful conversation. In American Hustle, this takes the form of the troupe of actors repeatedly arriving and leaving, with no meaningful dialogue happening at those scenes. At worst, ad-libbing creates totally incredible scenes with solipsistic speaking without listening (Altman's Tanner 88 falls into this).
I guess I was so disappointed by the lack of good conversation in American Hustle because the film was so good at establishing scenes. It's like David O. Russell was eager to set the table for Wally and Andre, but had to leave after the first course.
How does this strike you? I do think that Russell is very good at establishing intimacy between characters without at lot of conversation (the early scenes between Amy Adams and Christian Bale are as good as anything in film today) but that this shortcoming derailed an otherwise great picture. Which are your favorite conversations in the film?
Eliza Summerlin: I think I would have to agree with you topically: American Hustle has great style. Jennifer Lawrence is unforgettable in her robe, luring Bale back into their bed. Amy Adams finds new territory, howling in the bathroom to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." Bradley Cooper has a psychotic glint in his eye as he sits down to tell his mother about his case. I'm okay with the narrative and dialogue being a bit messy because—for me—the film is a totally aesthetic experience. I mean, we've seen this plot before right? Ocean's Eleven, etc. So I'm personally not concerned with getting meaning out of the film but rather indulging in this exaggerated, stylized world that Russell and his actors create.
Which is maybe why I don't find the same issues with the dead end ad-libbing. I think my favorite conversation in the film was actually between Lawrence and Adams during the big celebration for the renewal of Camden. And actually, I can't even really remember what they say! Something about how beneath all beauty there is stink. I think it was some reference to Lawrence's nail polish. But like you said, there is great intimacy without any dialogue. I can just picture Lawrence's face and her stalking gait as she walks out of the bathroom after having just kissed Adams. I also have to say that Adams is brilliant in this film. Her conversation with Cooper when she slips out of her English persona and then smacks him with the picture frame is so controlled and calculating. Though Bale is obviously incredible as well, she is at the center of this film. And it's exciting to see her there.
I think what I'm realizing about American Hustle is that it's a glorified music video. The soundtrack is just as important as any of the characters. When Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" plays to all the characters arriving at the celebration in Camden, walking in slow motion, you can feel the venom in Lawrence's face and the swagger in Cooper's step. Lawrence literally glares at Adams. I mean, it's ridiculous! It's the best joke of the film. I think Russell does a good job of making his characters over the top without making them unrelatable. They are absolutely absurd, existing in this alternate universe where people dupe each other constantly, but somehow aspects of their experience shine through. And to take it back to the very beginning of the film where Bale is pasting on his toupee, it's the perfect artifice. I think this theme of fooling ourselves to survive just works (though I think other themes fall short).
What would you say is the one thing you get out of the film? Do you like other David O. Russell films?
Joe: I think you’ve hit it with style being the operative term. I’m a huge sucker for Rat Pack pictures, and generally over-worked heist pictures, so that type of character immediately appealed to me too.
I also appreciated that the median age of the actors hovers around forty: it’s rare to see major films where all of the leads really look like adults.
As you noted, they touch on the notion of style thematically in the film as well. We see style as performance when Cooper and Adams go out dressed to the nines, and later when she softly berates him for allowing reality (her true accent) to interfere with their romantic performance. This was a super-introspective look at the way performance helps us survive the day-to-day.
I Heart Huckabee’s is definitely my favorite Russell picture. Anyone with boomer parents can’t escape that one.
I’m less thrilled with his later pictures. Both American Hustle and The Fighter hit strange racial tones focusing on small enclaves of “ethnic” whites: Jeremy Renner as the Italian born mayor of Camden, Mark Wahlberg inevitably as Boston Irish. And while this obsession with European ethnic identities might not seem like a big deal, it contributes to the Hollywood myth that these ethnic identities persist in a meaningful way.
By emphasizing these European ethnic identities, Russell downplays the fifty years of privilege otherwise allotted to these whites. It’s complicated…
This trend is not too subtly discussed in a recent Gawker article entitled “Please God No More Boston Gangster Movies.”
American Hustle would be stronger if it were more unapologetically experimental in aesthetic and genre. Granted, it’s not really fair to expect vanguard aesthetics from a major motion picture (consider the international box office) but it’s the moments of dalliance and excess that really shine. Russell fails the picture because he’s heavy handed. Like Christopher Nolan, another could-be-auteur, he dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, in rote and boring didactics.
Marjorie Perloff, one of my favorite critics, identified the exciting way some artists accept multiplicities in a great essay called “The Poetics of Indeterminancy.” She focused on Rimbaud and Cage, highlighting the way these voices rejected rigid symbolisms in favor of work that could be continually reinterpreted. (This point is also the crux of Sontag’s “Against Intrepretation,” which might be more accurately called “Against Determined Interpretation.”)
This is probably a bias that many critics feel. But great films, just like great music videos, allow interaction and analysis:
Take for instance this deliberately overwrought look at Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
What are some of the other great music video moments in film? I can think of a few: Southland Tales, the intro to Mean Streets, Buckaroo Bonzai, Mick Jagger in Performance...
Eliza: I think this notion of Russell's obsession with ethnic whites is worth noting and not something that I had contemplated before. It's clear that this film exists in an alternate universe, one that is only tangentially connected to reality. Choosing to glamorize these white narratives of rags to riches does seem counterproductive. Can you talk a little more about your own problems with this theme through Russell's work? Like you said, it's a world a little too neat and would benefit from Russell being more liberal in style. Making American Hustle so squeaky clean allows the film to be a stunning aesthetic accomplishment, but perhaps resists the viewer's ability to find a deeper meaning beyond style.
I guess I can say that this is a movie that is a pleasure to watch. It's fun, it looks good, it has perfectly timed humor, it's easy to consume. Which is certainly not a sin in mainstream Hollywood. It just feels like Russell has an opportunity to do more, to question deeper.
I think we can agree that American Hustle entertains the socks off his viewer but fails to be provocative.
Joe: I'm glad to keep the conversation going. As far as I can tell, Russell hits a few strange racial notes: 1.) By emphasizing small enclaves of ethnic whites, he perpetuates the myth that these enclaves remain relevant today, downplaying white privilege. 2.) The character of Jeremy Renner, as a racially sensitive white, presents an apologist myth for mainstream whites regarding the growth of racialized ghettoes at the post-industrial moment. He is a good guy, from a moment in history when there were no good guys.
I remember that people described this film as "sexually provocative" when it came out. And I'd be interested to get your viewpoint on this.
It seems to me that American Hustle gets caught up in the classic double bind of female sexuality in the movies: any expression of female sexuality is conflated with tour-de-force acting.
The critics that applauded Amy Adams for her "astounding" performance in this, and The Master for that matter, were partially responding to explicit sexuality. David Lynch spoofs this tendency in a spot-on exchange in Mulholland Drive. Naomi Watts’ aspiring actor becomes a heavyweight when she drops down into a sultry register and propositions the lead.
There are several problems with this construction: 1.) It celebrates any expression of female sexuality as out of the ordinary 2.) It favors a very specific sort of loud, Hollywood-friendly, heteronormative female sexuality. By this trend, the only “appropriate” depiction of female sexuality for mainstream audiences is one that corresponds to “lusty,” “vigorous” (whether straight or gay) performances, as opposed to more complex depictions (think early films of Chantal Akerman).
It's tough to know how much complexity we should expect. The more I knock this film, the more I feel like a "joyless creature"...
I can say that sometimes movies do sexuality well, and those can be fun too...
Eliza: I think you're spot on about Russell's questionable racial politics. It is phenomenal how despite Camden being a central plot point to American Hustle, we see little of the city and it only serves as a device to propel the narrative. Not to mention one of the final scenes when Cooper's character bursts into the attorney's office and is shocked to see a black lawyer seated there instead of Alfonse Simone. I think this racial component (what was Russell's motivation here? did he think making the lawyer black would be most surprising to his character?) speaks to the antiquated and uncomfortable politics of the film.
In terms of sexuality, I think what you're getting at here is that American Hustle is classic Hollywood. For all its strong female characters, the film fails the Bechdel test. It is certainly a man's world that women can only subvert if they use their sexuality to manipulate. Which is what Lynch does but with more self-awareness in Mullholland Drive (a film I truly love). But to Russell's credit, I think his female characters are cognizant of this tendency. Two scenes in particular stand out to me. The first happens early on in the film when we first discover that Bale's character has a wife. Lawrence argues with him and then appeases him by drawing him into bed. She uses perhaps the only weapon in her arsenal at the time to establish control.
The second is her dinner date with the mobster, which serves as an echo to the previously mentioned scene. In the first, Bale tells her that they are not happy together. In the second, the mobster tells her that someone as beautiful as her deserves to be happy before she spills the beans about Bale's involvement with the CIA. I've had debates with people about whether or not Lawrence's character knows what she is doing here. I absolutely think she does. Perhaps she doesn't understand the consequences, but I think what she divulges here is intentional.
Now are you saying that Lawrence and Adams' performances were only heralded as great because their characters explicitly use their sexuality? I think I would have to disagree with this. In true fan girl fashion, I have watched lots of actress roundtable discussion including this one with some of the biggest female performances of 2013. At the 37-minute mark, Adams talks about the process that informs her character and her acting. I think she does a great job of creating a character who appears manipulative, sexy, and controlling on the outside but is motivated by fear and anxiety. Though her sexuality might not be "complex" in the film, I think her character is and she plays it well.
However, I might agree that critics first and foremost acknowledge her character's sexuality when talking about her performance. I think every interview I watched with Adams regarding American Hustle references her wardrobe in the film.
In general, female sexuality has a looooong way to come in mainstream (and most) cinema. American Hustle does not offer a nuanced portrayal but I don't think this necessarily detracts from the skill of its female actors.
Joe: No rest for the weary. This feels like a note we can end on. I want to say thanks again for the thoughtful conversation.
Eliza: Thank you!