Seedy Business Is Still Business
This thing cost me $8.99 at JB Hi-Fi and sat in my box of unwatched movies for like 3months thanks to Fetch TVs parade of offerings. By the time I got to it, I’d forgotten what it was supposed to be about. It’s some kind of independently produced film with a US$20million budget that returned less than US$1million at the box office. I have to say sometimes that’s where you find the interesting films.
If ‘Boogie Nights’ was a romanticised portrayal of the end of the porn industry based in film, then ‘Middle Men’ must be the picaresque celebration of internet porn. As usual, anything with Luke Wilson is surprising, but this film might take the cake for being a bigger surprise than ‘Old School’. This is a pretty gripping, interesting film. I know the critics don’t agree, but hey, that never stopped me endorsing a bit of movie.
I want to talk about this film a little bit, so here’s the obligatory spoiler alert.
What’s Good About It
This is a great cast doing some seriously amped, energetic stuff. Giovanni Ribisi does his unhinged person act which is pretty close to the unhinged act he had going in ‘The Rum Diary’, but you also have James Caan as a dodgy Vegas lawyer; Terry Crews as the trusty muscle; and cameo-like entries from Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Pollack and Robert Forster. It’s like a character-actors-on-parade effort that keeps you entertained through the muddled switching and the bizarre twists of events.
The directing is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s 1990s feel, which given the recent suicide of Tony Scott, makes you think about this kind of film making in a more nostalgic light. The shooting style is shot through with whip pans and tricky moves as well as long lenses and polarised filters. It’s a beautiful looking piece of work.
What’s Bad About It
At points, the idiotic duo of Buck and Wayne as played by Ribisi and Gabriel Macht get very annoying. If it were a Martin Scorsese film, these characters would’ve died in the second act. The longer they hang around, you feel like the film is just going to go off the rails at any moment.
The big flashback narrative style doesn’t work as well as it should, and in some ways ruins the surprise and humanity of the abduction exchange. The moralising that creeps in towards the end of the film is also a bit sad, given the bravado of disdain the voice over possesses at the start of the film. The more the film runs towards the moralising, the less energy it seems to have.
What’s Interesting About It
Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit that is interesting with this film. James Caan’s dodgy lawyer Haggerty mounts an argument as to why Luke Wilson’s Jack can allow himself into being involved with people who deal in porn. He cites hotels that have porn channels in their rooms. “Are hotel owners pornographers?,” is his rhetorical question. Why is this even interesting? It’s interesting because the rhetoric posits that in a fully commodified society, at some point our transactions impinge on porn, even without us knowing or thinking about it. You check into a hotel, never use the pay-for-porn channel, but you know it’s there. By staying in the room, you’ve actually validated the porn for which you never watched or paid – and you weren’t even aware of it.
People draw lines all the time. I used to know a guy who loved saying that he may go so low as to do certain sexual acts, but he would “never be a purveyor of porn”. Society draws the line in a way that suits itself – as Kelsey Grammer’s District Attorney shows as he tries to use the porn business against Jack, only to have the tables turned on him quickly. The line society draws in the sand, trying to separate out porn and pornographer is shaped like their own hypocrisy.
All Business Is Seedy
The biggest bit of hypocrisy of course stems from Jack’s steady denial that he’s in porn. For this facade to work, Jack essentially abstracts out porn into a kind of service industry and his part in it as the billing service businessman. You can of course abstract any number of things until you don’t recognise what is being discussed. This is possibly why, say sabermetrics gets such a bad rap from baseball scouts.
Still, overlooked in all this is the ability of money to simply blow away social meaning and contextualisation. If Jack can make 100million dollars simply billing on behalf of pornographers, the weight of the money lends a legitimacy and purpose and social meaning all of its own. What might be surprising is that the sex industry in general doesn’t flex its muscle more than it does, by hiring lobbyists, especially given the potential to really effect the kinds of changes they want. At the same time, there is a certain level where illicit-ness of the sex makes for the price to be made higher.
The great irony of course is that America – where most things do get commodified and there fore abstracted into almost unrecognisable transformation – is busy trying to drive porn away from legitimacy precisely because the other institutions won’t be able to handle a legitimated porn. It’s bad enough that you can put a price on sexual pleasure. If a price is put on sexual pleasure, then how can there not be a price put on all transactions? And what separates any transaction from the kind of transaction that takes place with the ‘consumption’ of porn? These kinds of ugly questions are not that far way.
The Objectification Of Everything
The chief complaint of non-religious anti-porn people about the porn industry is that it is exploitative of women. This is true. But it would not be true if the symmetrical drawing power of women’s sexuality were not so powerful over men. The feminist discourse runs that porn objectifies women. From what we can gather from the way markets move, it’s not only women who get objectified, and it’s not porn alone that does the objectifying. There are plenty of objects sold on fetish value an this is not marketed to men alone.
If this film is anything to go by, it is that desire in anybody runs at objectification in order to latch meaning. The transaction of meaning is bolstered by transaction of monies, and if the transaction involves pleasure – and sexual pleasure at that – then effectively everything that can be bought and sold – commodified – is ergo objectified.
The Issue Is Monkey, Not Pussy – Version 3
This film is pretty radical in the beginning, because the voice over posits that the raison d’tre of masculine gender is not to procreate through coitus, but masturbation. It’s a heck of claim that zings past you in a montage, but it is radical all the same.
The film’s opening contention is that men do not live for procreative sex, they live for pleasurable sex and at best this is masturbation. The formulation of the montage is such that it is clear that to the mind of the narrator, sex exists as a variant of masturbation and not the other way around. Fancy that. Sex with a woman is only an elaborate variant of wanking, is what the film is positing as an explanation why porn thrives so much.
It’s a perverse theory that comes and goes through out history and Freud of course thinks that people who dabble in these thoughts are sick/demented, but from a relativist point of view, who can refute the contention conclusively? It’s only absolutists who can say with certainty anything to do with sex and historically speaking they’ve been wrong more often than the relativists. The facts are, the porn market is a very strong market place. The film maker is saying this is why.
I only point this out because it was surprising to see it from a film that is ostensibly mainstream. The fact that it is ironic is not the point – America’s changed quite a bit this last decade.
Guns Germs Steel Porn
One of the more farfetched ideas in the film is when the FBI use the porn accounting system to track terror targets. It’s hard to say if something like this happened, but if it did one would have to conclude that the sum total of human experience is much smaller than we thought. The obscenity of the ‘War on Terror’ is dealt with in a manner that reminds us that maybe the military solution to take out terrorist cells is a kind of overkill At the same time, the notion that child pornography in particular is the unforgivable crimes seems really out of kilter with the way the ‘War on Terror’ is handled by the state. The cognitive dissonance shows us the gulf between values and hence American hypocrisy on many issues relating to guns, commerce and sex.
In a really sad way, what the terror targets have in common with the West is the masculinity defined by testosterone, and that leads to the need for porn. If the US government is using this as a backdoor into blowing them up with say, Drones, then we’re really living in the Orwellian nightmare where the state has invaded your libido and set up an observation station.
There are a number of films that posit the Russian mafia as the bad guys. It’s remarkable how similar they are from film to film. This might be due to an absence of imagination on the part of the filmmakers or it might be because the stock-standard Russian mafia is exactly the kind of brute that fits the villain-identikit for the movies. If you swapped out these Russian mafia dude from say, a 1990s Steven Seagal movie or ‘Lethal Weapon 3’ or 50cent’s recent boring effort ‘Freelancers’, you simply wouldn’t notice the difference. I guess the long and short of it is that they’re here to stay for some time.
What I’m really waiting for is a kind of ‘Godfather’ movie, but set with the Russian Mafia operating in the west. It may actually turn out to be a real winner. In any case, the film persists with the stereotype Russian mafia dudes in black and all the brutal business that goes with it. It’s interesting that there’s no evolution with this subset of movie villains, when even vampires can become the object of lust.
That being said, it’s interesting how the FBI agent says Jack is okay because he assisted the US government in stopping terrorists and in the balance the FBI is quite happy to let slide an accessory-to-murder charge on account of his patriotic contribution and the fact the victim was a Russian gangster. Talk about getting away with murder.