by Abinash Palai
Have you ever repeated something? Alphabet, semesters, those three words, weekdays? In a robotic world, repeat is the name of the assembly line. A conveyor belt, which processes such mechanisms at one end, and at the other end emerge clichés, habits, norms: the symptoms of the dystopia, the tumor which we misdiagnose as swelling, the warning signs we disregard, the disclaimers we don’t read
Here’s to people and art that surfaced, even though momentarily, in the sea of monotony. The hexagonal pegs for the round holes that didn’t fit but broke ground instead. The ones who braved this world to create new ones. The easy answers to “pick-the-odd-one-out” lists. The aberrations, the anomalies. A philosophical treatise by Mills and Boons, an Agatha Christie romantic novel, a Christopher Nolan Bhojpuri movie, a Radiohead rap, a porno with a great story. Things that stuck out like sore thumbs, or delightful weirdness.
Here’s to Cliché Guevara, our new regular feature, the vigilante of Mundanetown, protecting the sanity of its citizens whenever the darkness of boredom has prevailed.
All of us are envelopes which enclose some form of crazy. Whatever shows is the carefully inculcated façade, which years of priming has glued on to us like postage stamps.
Watching a typical Adam Sandler movie could be fun, but only for the first hundred times. If you have yawned your way through You Don’t Mess with the Zohan or Blended, you’d know exactly what I am talking about. Not that these movies aren’t hilarious. True, they would never find their way into my favorites folder, not even by mistake, but they would coax a smile or a chuckle out of you once in a while. Although his early movies never promised a lot of money or funny, he still came off as a charming man-child in memorable fares such as The Wedding Singer and Billy Madison. However, as he aged, he stagnated like water in a rubber tyre of spinelessness, from which bred larvae of mediocrity, which grew up into distasteful, gross, and sometimes unhealthy insects like Grown Ups and Pixels. A common defense of such imbecilic and moronic comedies is found under the refuge of satire. Agreed that many of Sandler plots indirectly deal with socio-cultural issues like same-sex marriage (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), or race (Blended) - but most of them are nothing more than a culmination of fart and tween jokes. They lack the one very important ingredient of a satire - self aware characters. One of his new cupcakes from the same old mold, called Ridiculous 6 backed by Netflix, was so demeaning that the Native American extras reportedly walked out of the production set.
They say playing it safe is probably the most dangerous thing in art. Sandler succumbed to formula. But one time, one memorable instance, he set sail beyond the chartered seas, when one of the greatest directors ever: Paul Thomas Anderson, took up the reins to deconstruct the Sandlerian dweeb, in his fourth movie: Punch Drunk Love.
The tale is spun around Barry Egan (Sandler), a businessman who sells novel toiletries, and has found a hack to earn thousands of flying miles by buying pudding for cheap (this is actually based on a remarkable true story - read this). Constantly harangued and domineered by his seven sisters Barry has suffered from what seems like irreparable damage to his psyche, and responds now and again through fits of blistering rage. His emotional longing, which compels him to dial up a phone sex hotline only to be scammed and blackmailed by them, is soon to be obliterated by a chance meeting with a strangely sweet woman, Lena (Emily Watson).
The movie at all times reminds you of a Murakami novel: seemingly irrelevant elements of the plot are revealed pompously, referred again and again, and then deemed useless. Barry collects frequent flying miles coupons by buying a truckload of pudding, cannot redeem them when it comes to it, because of a technicality. Barry’s confrontation with his sisters never materialize to something drastic, although they have all the ingredients for that. There’s a big dash of surrealism as well. The movie starts with a car crash, and a harmonium being dumped on the street like an innocent waif, which Barry adopts, and places on his worktable. Throughout the movie, the harmonium symbolically represents and predicts. Furthermore Barry has no idea why he has been wearing the blue suit, although he keeps wearing it for the entirety of the movie. Nothing fits. Think of it as eating something exotic for the first time, it is weird, but the taste lingers. Even the chemistry and romance between Lena and Barry seems offset from the norms. They were not jigsaw pieces that fit perfectly, rather they were like paintings hung in adjacent rooms of a gallery: both complex, both distinct, but connected via a strange togetherness.
His constant suppression of aggression is only matched by his extremely strong feelings for Lena. He overcomes his social anxiety which once kept him from going to family parties, to fly to Hawaii in order to hook-up with Lena. He takes a stance while talking to his sister. When the blackmailers from the porn company cause a minor accident hurting her, the ticking time bomb of Barry’s anger goes off as he beats the strongmen to a pulp. He also flies to Utah subsequently and confronts the owner of the porn company (Phillip Seymour-Hoffmann), and in a verbal altercation successfully forces him to back off from him and Lena.
Cinematically, Anderson’s genius distils through and elevates all your senses. Anderson uses a very distinctive color palette, although keeping the traditionalistic elements intact. In fact, there is a very sharp demarcation between certain colors and moods throughout the movie. The melancholy of Barry represented by his deep blue suit, his fiery passion for Lena depicted by the red dress she wears often, contrasted by the white one to show uncertainty or quaintness. The shots are marvelously taken with brilliantly crafted camera work (including the Anderson’s favorite “Iris shot”). All this is stewed together with an almost eerily strange soundtrack by Jon Brion. Not to mention the surrealistic artwork of Jeremy Blake. All in all, Anderson instils in us an atmosphere to revel his art in, a sort of museum where he showcases his manifestations. No doubt that he is one of the major auteurs that have made deep inroads into today’s society. As an experience it could be compared to some of the works of Robert Altman, or Jacques Tati, but we are amateur bloggers - what do we know about world cinema after all?
However, in the artistic endeavor, Punch Drunk Love doesn’t act all holier-than-thou, and pays the needed heed to the Sandlerian man-child. The stupid jokes and the lack of comprehension feature here and there. In fact, they are enhanced by the obsessiveness and the frenzy of a slightly deranged and deeply flawed man would offer. But Sandler’s performance was one of a kind - released from the prison of formula, Sandler flew like a bird.
Like all of us, Barry Egan had enveloped inside some sort of crazy. When the façade wore down, and the crazy spilled from the sides, he didn’t try to glue it back. He owned it.