Strange as it seems to reflect upon, I seem to have come of age right alongside the directing career of Alan Parker, or Sir Alan Parker as he is apparently known these days. Growing up and learning how to watch and to see films, I’ve managed to miss only his first movie, the relatively lighthearted (but by some accounts strangely perverse) Bugsy Malone (1976) and his more recent, unavoidably somber adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). In the case of the latter, I had no wish to subject myself to more hyper-aestheticized misery—based on a true story!—at the hands of the man for whom the routine miseries of life in a Turkish prison were somehow improved, made more truthful by upping the ante on sadomasochistic fears of imprisonment in a foreign (read barbaric) land. The “Sir” seems appropriate given that his reputation as a filmmaker seems to have been gilded by a certain patina of respect from individuals and award-bearing institutions that really ought to know better. Parker was nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar (for his two worst films) and has been nominated and won awards from BAFTA and at Cannes and other festivals. Yet he has been called an aesthetic fascist by some, another appellation that seems appropriate given the slick gloss with which even his most gritty subject matter seems to be coated. For me, only The Commitments survives the booby-trap tendencies of the rest of the Parker oeuvre, and that may have to do with the fact that his source material is stronger than usual—Roddy Doyle is, for my money, certainly a cut above William Wharton, Roger Waters, Billy Hayes or Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Commitments and its working-class sensibility also has more to do with the kitchen-sink-and-clothesline “realism” of British comedy-dramas like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty (themselves rooted in the tradition of films like Ken Loach’s Kes) than Parker’s previous attempts to buff up standard exploitation tropes into art-house acceptability.
After years of mounting dumb junk like Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Angel Heart and the remotely rendered anguish of Shoot the Moon, Parker finally broke through to a whole new level of insensitivity with Mississippi Burning, scripted by Chris Gerolmo. The movie was a big hit and snared Parker his second Oscar nomination, and it also shocked many who were braced for an XXL helping of racially tinged violence but perhaps unprepared for the movie’s arrogant disregard for historical veracity and the sober intensity with which it grafted the events of the greatest nonviolent resistance to racial oppression in this country’s history to the base satisfactions of a B-grade revenge programmer. Adding insult to numerous injuries, Parker and Gerolmo cast the FBI (which in real life took steps to hamper the investigation) as white (!) knights riding to the rescue, with head agent Gene Hackman finally losing his cool and going after the baddies with fictitious methods of torturous interrogation only after the white wife of a local deputy, whom Hackman favors, starts getting her clock cleaned by her hubby. When Hackman’s bookish partner, Willem Dafoe, questions Hackman’s motivation and raises objections to these methods, Hackman shouts him down and puts him in his place-- the ineffectual pussy! The movie teems with the usual Parker-approved grotesqueries—lots of lovingly shot lynchings and shootings and beatings to linger over, all in the name of peace, love and understanding; slobbering redneck villains with bad teeth (the easier to tell they’re bad, my dear); saintly Negro victims (no African-American is given so much as a full minute to live and breathe as a character), and the total disregard for anything like consistency or believability of character that doesn’t add up to an immediate, bludgeoning effect. As I wrote about the movie back in 2006, Mississippi Burning purports to be about the evil results of hate, and the result was that I ended up hating Alan Parker.
That hate was strong enough that I didn’t care if I ever saw another of his movies ever again. Even so, The Commitments was a completely unexpected and genial surprise, while Come See the Paradise, a noble stab at depicting the tensions and oppressions surrounding interred Japanese-Americans during World War II, ultimately dissolved into the usual liberal platitudes surrounding an interracial romance that for some reason again ended up being more about the white half of the partnership. The Road to Wellville was at least pointedly scatological. But were it not for professional obligations I would have missed Evita-- I didn’t, and I wished I had. As I’ve already admitted, I’ve so far succeeded in deliberately missing Angela’s Ashes. But I must also admit the scathing reviews of Parker’s most recent film, The Life of David Gale (2003), initially piqued my interest. Would there be any satisfaction in seeing this self-righteously brutal and emotionally puerile filmmaker fail on a grand stage without the pomp and circumstance of Oscars and other official cultural adoration to prop up his signature ugliness? For eight years I lived a full life without having that question answered. But now, thanks to the good graces and randomness of the White Elephant Blogathon, my chance has finally come.
(The following discussion of The Life of David Gale reveals spoilers in a plot so absurd that you will be grateful to read them rather than wasting 130 minutes of your life discovering them for yourself.)
The Life of David Gale is, it would seem, familiar stomping ground for Parker. The movie swirls around a hot-button social issue—this time, the death penalty-- upon which he can attach fashionably dressed-up, politically correct attitudes to his usual disdain for civility, proclivity toward ghastly cultural stereotypes and indulgence in grotesque, clinically detached violence. David Gale is a flawed but saintly philosophy professor and anti-capital punishment advocate (played by Kevin Spacey in his placid, heavy-lidded mode) who ends up on Death Row for the brutal rape and murder of his colleague in activism, Constance (Laura Linney). Three days before his own execution, he calls in breathlessly smug reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet, and no, I’m not kidding about that name) whom he hopes he will be able to manipulate into publishing the truth about what really happened to get him on the hot seat. In the lugubrious telling of this tale it becomes clear early on that if Parker has slowed down some, if anything he has also become even more ham-fisted with age. No cliché goes unmined— Bitsey’s rental car, chugging unreliably through the picture, sports a conveniently faulty cooling system which God and Screenwriting 101 mandates will fail at the worst possible time; Bitsey’s high-flying professional self-righteousness, which exists only to be brought shattered to earth in a theatrical burst of gasping sobs; the mysterious cowboy in a pickup truck (nothing like generic rural iconography to generate Parkeresque chills) following at a none-too-distant distance whose identity remains a mystery to our crackerjack investigator long after the audience has figured it out; and that old chestnut, the scene in which the professor maps out the movie’s theme in the form of a point-by-point classroom lecture.
Gale’s lecture lets us in on the movie lecture to come, something about the realization of fantasy neutralizing man’s desire and motivation, and though Gale’s desire certainly gets him into hot water with his wife (and lays the groundwork for suspicion about his apparent capacity for rape), all that turns out to be a red herring, a none-too-clever scrim behind which the movie’s actual theme is soon revealed, and in equally thudding terms. Gale and Constance are constantly debating, with each other, with anyone who will listen, and at about 97.2 miles per hour, about the likelihood of multiple instances of innocent lives being swallowed up and snuffed out by the system of capital punishment—not an unreasonable stance. But of course the entire movie is a set-up in which Gale becomes the guinea pig that proves that horrible exception of justice. We are meant to accept then question Gale’s innocence and finally, when the final layer of that scrim is pulled back, marvel at the ghastly cleverness of the truth.
The only problem (well, not the only problem, but the biggest one) is that this revelation is perhaps the baldest bunch of muddleheaded nonsense Parker (aided and abetted by yet another clunky screenplay, this time supplied by Charles Randolph) has ever attempted to palm off on an all-too-gullible public. Parker surprises his most vocal critics here by avoiding his usual detached wallow in perverse, emotionally exploitative violence—at no point does David Gale knock anyone down on the floor of his prison cell, bite out their tongue and spit it out in an atavistic slow-mo expression of righteous fury. But in trading off shocking gore and other forms of transgressive behavior, Parker has come up all soporific and flat; The Life of David Gale is blessedly free of the usual Parker abominations, but their absence only underlines his basic deficiencies as a storyteller incapable of sustaining the pace or rhythm of a satisfying thriller. He even passes up the opportunity to stage Gale’s moment of execution, either through disinterest or a sudden and unlikely awareness of the exploitative hypocrisy of doing so. Here an overriding gloom is the principal achievement, and it’s a tellingly self-important gloom at that; it’s meant to telegraph the kind of self-seriousness a filmmaker bestows upon himself for the mere decision to bang heads with the issue of the death penalty, regardless of what unfortunate offspring issues from that banging. The movie is so overall dull that by the time Gale begins the long walk (and after he’s ordered his last meal, which will gag you on its sugar content as well as its saccharine qualities as a story point), an insistent musical thrumming is laid onto the soundtrack and for a brief moment I began to thrill to the faint echoes of the kind of tension once accompanied by the looping, pounding synthesized beats of the maestro Giorgio Moroder. How could I have possibly been worn down to such a degree that I became momentarily nostalgic for Midnight Express?
Even the protracted insanity of Pink Floyd: The Wall or the caged-bird metaphors (and grisly tooth-pulling) of Birdy will likely make more sense than the “Gotcha!” conclusion of David Gale’s martyred life. Yes, martyred. For it is eventually revealed that Constance, racked and weakened by leukemia, has conspired with that mysterious cowboy to stage her own suicide on camera and make it look, through implication by evidence of semen (the aftermath of what she terms “a pity fuck”) and (self-imposed?) bruises, as though Gale is guilty of the crime. Why? To create an innocent martyr for death penalty advocacy, of course, one who, when the videotape is sent to Bitsey after the execution, will be exonerated in the eyes of the public and held up as a crippling rejoinder to the Texas government’s certainty of the death penalty’s effectiveness. Farfetched enough for you yet? It gets worse. Of course the videotape which is eventually revealed has been truncated, but Bitsey gets to see the unexpurgated version at the very end of the film, where Gale is visible on camera participating in the staged suicide. So he’s innocent and he’s guilty, see?! How’s that for bitter irony? How’s that for terminally irrational storytelling?
Perhaps the worst crime perpetrated here is how Parker sacrifices the talents of a very good cast on the altar of this outrageous nonsense. Spacey, it has been revealed since, has the capacity for smug detachment, which he cultivates here to terminal ends in his placid determination to manipulate Bitsey’s sympathies. And the usually reliable Linney is humiliated, made to seem so shrill and strident that while one would never wish upon her the horrors the videotape apparently reveals, one never mourns her absence from the film either. Worst of all, Winslet is brought to a career low in this movie, never once reconciling her supposed reputation as a reporter with her inability to see the writing on the heavily barbed-wire enforced prison walls in front of her. The moment when she first sees the content of the (partially) unexpurgated tape is an embarrassment, a rare instance in which Winslet’s usually reliable intelligence as an actress is reduced to equal Bitsey’s investigative acumen. The audience cannot share her shock or cushion the rough edges of her emotional explosion; we’re too busy shaking our heads at the completely asinine behavior and motives of everyone involved and wondering why it matters so much to Bitsey that she can’t do the same and just walk away.
In looking back on some of the reviews visited upon David Gale back in 2003 I was especially gratified to read what David Edelstein had to say about the movie. In addition to being similarly put off by Parker’s filmmaking over the course of his career, and in this movie specifically, he ended his review thusly:
“I don't like seeing the wonderful Kate Winslet look stupid, or the wonderful Laura Linney abase herself. And I was depressed to realize, once again, that the greatest danger to liberalism isn't the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Andrew Sullivan, but blowhards like Alan Parker and Michael Moore—the thugs of humanism. Given the way in which it's administered, I don't support the death penalty for people. But I emphatically support it for certain careers.”
And Parker’s certainly seems to have been euthanized by this picture; he hasn’t made a movie in the eight years since its release. I certainly wish this knighted director a long and happy life, free of the grim luck and circumstances that have so often plagued the protagonists of his films. But really, if he never made another movie it would be strangely appropriate to end his filmmaking career on the ignominious, muddled and largely ignored notes that compose The Life of David Gale, not to mention the tremendous relief I personally would feel to never again be subjected to an Alan Parker film.