Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Rubber

Wink, Wink, Nod Off by Caitlin Murphy

Several vintage stores line a section of Saint-Laurent, a busy street near my house. Their windows are chock-full of kitsch – the originally unironic belongings of now dead people, crying out to be reappropriated by Montreal hipsters with a keen sense of the fantastically awful. Lined up in a row, these stores seem to project a collective personality, exude a uniform attitude. And I often find myself hating these stores as if they were people. Smug people. In hawking their scavenged wares, they epitomize the celebration of all that is so bad, it’s good; so stupid, it’s smart; so ugly, it’s pretty; so dumb, it’s cool. It’s an approach to the world, to stuff, to being alive that seems easy to me, safe and boring, somehow self-entitled, and sometimes kinda slimy. I walk hurriedly by these stores, with a similar sense of recoil that I felt watching Rubber.

Directed by Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr. Oizo), a French record producer, techno musician, and sometime filmmaker, Rubber is the story of a car tire that mysteriously comes to life and discovers an appetite for murder. Robert (the name of the tire) kills by telekinesis, vibrating and humming until his victim’s head explodes. Witness to Robert’s rampage, a surrogate film audience – a hodge-podge group of people stranded in the desert, outfitted with binoculars, and instructed to watch the ‘film’ play out from a distance.

So. Clearly we’re far from the realms of realism here, and deep in the jungles of the absurd and hyper self-reflexive. Right off the top, Dupieux announces (through direct address monologue no less) the film’s explicit interest in talking about film. The monologue presents the notion that every great movie contains an element of “no reason” – something unexplained that audiences are just meant to ignore, swallow or otherwise leave unquestioned (eg. “why was the alien in ET. brown?”). And thus Rubber instantly, immediately gives itself carte blanche to do whatever it wants to because, well, because, there’s no need for because, weren’t you listening?

As a movie about movies, Rubber invokes and riffs on several beloved film genres – horror, the western, the road trip – and revels in their iconography: the pretty girl, the empty highway, the run-down motel, the shower scene, the sheriff, the boy on his bike, the mean dad. But of course the most notable element of the film is its extraordinary and bizarre premise. A tire that kills people? Wha? Exactly. How ridiculous is that? Robert (the tire) also takes a shower, goes swimming, and watches t.v., and we understand that Dupieux was keenly interested in our wondering, “No seriously…How far can they take this?” (a question that usually comes to mind and precedes a migraine when watching Family Guy).

But Rubber seems interested in suggesting that its premise isn’t any more preposterous than so many other hackneyed “ideas” that Hollywood hurls at us like so much slop (a bus that will explode if it goes less than 50 km/h for instance, or all those implausible sequels to already thinly conceived originals). In the final scene of the film, this thesis is most explicit: Robert, having being destroyed in a police shoot-out and now reincarnated as a tricycle, is joined by several other awakened tires in his continued spree; in the closing image, we see that the newly-formed gang has set its sights on Hollywood and we’re invited to see the film as an indictment of the mainstream movie factory. It’s a criticism that feels rather undeveloped and unearned though, with a delivery that’s largely one-note and gimmicky. One wonders why this needed to be a feature-length film (and clocking in at 82 minutes, it barely is); as a movie, Rubber is a good one-paragraph essay.

There’s actually much to endear the film though; clearly Rubber is playful and quirky. The opening scenes in which Robert first ‘wakes up’, slowly finds his legs (or treads) and starts rolling are really quite lovely. He rolls over a plastic water bottle, crushing it, then a scorpion, killing it, and begins to recognize his potential for destruction; these moments are compelling and well-paced. And there’s just something inherently touching about watching an inanimate object discover animation. But it’s the shellac of knowing irony that’s laid over top of it all that renders the film rather academic, sterile and smug. I had trouble appreciating the zany absurdism of the film over the din of the director announcing the zany absurdism of the film. The tagline for Rubber: “Tired of the expected?” – a pun so lame it’s clearly aware of its lameness – seems to capture this issue of overly-self-conscious cleverness. The film is so knowing and self-satisfied that it leaves little room for its audience.

I remember when I was in university, the idea of meta-anything blew my mind. A poem about poetry? What the fuck? That’s crazy. But I’m no longer that interested in the idea that films are constructed, and (wait for it) not real life; that genres are merely collections of conventions, shared iconography. The initial grip of ideas like these is tight and rattling, but ultimately short-lived.

Perhaps I just completely missed the point with Rubber¸ but if I did, it’s in a way that I’m becoming more and more comfortable with.

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