At the request of Chris Poggiali, who knows even more about classic exploitation films than I do, and will prove it at his always-captivating Temple of Schlock, and because it times nicely to this weekend's release of IRON MAN 2, I am reposting (with some revisions) an old essay previously only seen on a couple messageboards and a moribund online diary that may or may not be mine anymore. Yes, it is another one of those convoluted posts involving chance and movies and a "game within the game" that seem to be my stock in trade. Which is appropo because it involves someone deconstructing his own trademarks.
It starts in 2005 with Kylie Ireland and her online blog at that time. Normally, she uses it only to promote other business ventures, but sometimes she'll post stuff about her off-the-clock activities...the boring stuff that I personally find interesting, heck the stuff we all really read celebrity blogs for. On one such occasion, she writes a short post about seeing Shane Black's KISS KISS BANG BANG and really enjoying it. I make a post, (at least, I think it was me and not the imposters who rose up in the wake of "BEAT THE GEEKS" to launch fake LJ's detailing my sexual escapades with Mikey Whipwreck and Steve Guttenberg) indicating my intentions to see it, and she replies that she wants to hear my thoughts on it when I do. It's the only time she's ever replied to any of "my" comments, so that ups my curiosity factor.
So on a Saturday evening in December of that year, I decide to trek all the way to the slightly run-down Academy theatre in Pasadena because they are the only theatre in the immediate area still showing THE CONSTANT GARDENER, a movie I feel I should see before compiling the annual Top 13 list for my Christmas cards. However, traffic had other plans for me and I arrived too late for the intended showtime, and the next show would let out too late for me to get to the midnight movie I promised to attend. Looking at the other five movie options, I notice there is a show of KISS KISS BANG BANG available at 8:30. I decide to check it out. I'm quite glad I did.
Short review: loved it. You've heard about the plot, I'm sure. Wannabe actor paired with gay detective to research for a movie role, both stumble into a murder plot. Self-referential "broken fourth wall" narration by Robert Downey Jr., pointing out cliches and conventions, and sarcastic dialogue. Basically, writer-director Shane Black and producer Joel Silver parodying the buddy-crime blueprint they established in the LETHAL WEAPON series and other similar films.
But you know me, if there's some sort of hidden agenda in a movie, or even if there ain't, I'll find it. And there's something really serious and sobering underneath all these shenanigans which I have not seen any reviewers pick up on.
And here there be MASSIVE spoilers...
What makes this movie less of a romp and more of a gallows comedy is the direct and indirect referencing to the bright promises that film and literature offer in their consumers which too often are not delivered, their detrimental effect on vulnerable souls, and on a greater scale, the promises men break to women.
The third lead, Michelle Monaghan, is a wannabe actress in her mid-'30's who is revealed as a smalltown childhood crush of Downey's. She has grown up with a constantly ill mother and a father who is molesting her younger sister, and to escape she eagerly consumes cheap detective novels and sleeps around with all the boys in her school...except of course, Downey. She leaves her town to become an actress, inspired by a film crew shooting an adaptation of one of her favorite mystery books, and by her general love for these stories where the bad guys get theirs. But by the time the present story begins, she is aware her window of opportunity to become even a working performer is almost over.
The murder plot involves a movie star turned medical philanthropist who is established as having been estranged from his overseas-living daughter but suddenly reconciled; it is a birthday party for her where the three leads first meet. The daughter is later found dead by Downey and Kilmer, whilst at the same time Monaghan's younger sister has apparently surfaced in L.A. and committed suicide. Following the "two plots are really one" maxim of detective fiction, the link in the cases is that Monaghan once told her sister a lie: that this movie star, who came to their town to star in the book adaptation mentioned before, was her birth father, hoping it could relieve the shame of the child abuse. It is revealed that before her death, the sister hired Kilmer to trail the other woman who turns up dead. The supposition thus becomes that the sister was murdered for some detail she had on the dead daughter.
Downey, then and now, feels an uneasy mix of annoyance and guilt over Monaghan, because while he treasures the friendship they had and understands the struggle she faced, he eagerly lusted after her, and still does. At the party, while not recognizing her as his friend, he attempts to stop a sleazy man from feeling her up while she's passed out, and gets beaten up easily. When he gets a chance to luck out with her, he sabotages himself and sleeps with her friend instead. And most tellingly, while under the influence of painkillers after a hospital visit, he meets up with her at another party where they are supposed to be clue-hunting, and after receiving dirty looks and snickers from the too-cool dressed-for-the-shot party guests, launches an uninhibited rant about how Hollywood women are all damaged goods from some other place, hoping sex and fame will compensate for everything that went wrong before: "It's like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on." He wants to stick the knife in her soul that moment, as well as all the other vacant women present having a joke at his expense, and he succeeds on both counts.
And that was the "AHA!" moment for me. It's a gross and easy blanket stereotype, one that even the most well-meaning people make about actresses in general and adult film actresses in particular. I view Hollywood in the manner that Kubrick viewed the universe: a place that can be terrifying not because it is hostile but because it is indifferent. If you are a strong person, you can withstand it. And if you are vulnerable, it can and will consume you. When Monaghan thus asks the guests, "How many people here hate Harry now," and all raise their hands, half are likely pissed off at his low opinion of them, and the other half are pissed because in their case, he told an ugly truth.
The mystery's resolution makes things darker. It is revealed that the movie star had his daughter killed in the medical clinic that bears his name while using a passable lookalike to publicly impersonate her. (She stood in his way of collecting on the estate of his dead wife) The lookalike is subsequently killed over the course of the mystery. As all of this plotting was taking place, the sister, still believing Monaghan's white lie about her lineage, secretly witnessed the movie star fooling around with the actress playing his daughter, and believing it to be another instance of incest, took her own life in despair, hiring Kilmer in the hope he'd catch them in the act. Monaghan not only is deprived of the luxury of blaming her sister's death on another party, but now must face that in trying to help her sister, she has inadvertently sent her to her fate. This points up a good directorial impulse of Black's. Before this final revelation, he sets us up for a joke in Downey's hospital room by revealing Kilmer to be alive when we thought him dead, with Downey as narrator muttering in agreement about people hating this convention of action movies. But it is Kilmer who reveals the sad truth about the sister; not laughing now are you? You wanted the "poignant" ending of losing one of the good guys, here's one to open your tear ducts!
This would be as good a point as any to wax brainy on the male leads. Downey is Dionysian: failed child magician, petty thief, thwarted actor, and crazy in love. He would thus try to soothe his dream girl with distractions. Their high school mascot was "Whitey the Knight," and he will basically spend this movie trying to serve as such to her. Kilmer is Apollonian: no sexual interest in women, skilled in investigation and criminal behavior. Once involved in the case, he would thus help the girl through justice. Two halves of a typical male psyche, both trying to right a wrong. Though they solve the crime and kill the bad guys, it doesn't solve what ails their mutual friend, leaving them both feeling a sense of failure. With the backdrop of their presence in the film industry, and the "film itself," they also recognize that all the victims living and dead believed in the promise of a happy ending that either cost them their lives, or left them most definitely not happy.
Black mixes humor with sadness at the very end: Downey's narrator promises that there won't be "17 endings like RETURN OF THE KING," just before Kilmer visits the now-bedridden father of Monaghan, and decks him a couple times in the face. In most films, this would be the last joke, but the joke is on all of us, because Kilmer plays it for angry impotence. This father deserves way worse for what he has inflicted on his daughters, and a few slaps won't change any of the bad things that went down. But a message needs to be sent that he's done wrong, and it carries extra weight coming from Kilmer's gay detective, as if to say just because I don't fuck women doesn't mean I'm not angry at seeing them mistreated.
Underneath the wisecracking hip surface, Black and Silver are ultimately working out their latent self-loathing over the abuse of women: their regret over not being able to prevent it, their anger that others can take advantage of it for their own needs, and their revulsion that they too could perpetrate it if they succumbed to their own darker natures. Granted, they are hardly beating their breast over, say, creating mythical eye-candy girls in the action movies that made them rich, and when viewing scenes such as Downey dangling over a freeway, held aloft only by clutching the arm of the dead daughter, one may think they're just indulging in misogyny for quick laughs. But as I read it, the jokes are a rueful coping mechanism, in the manner that we laugh at THE ARISTOCRATS, hoping that ridiculing what terrifies us will temper its ability to hurt us if and when we do encounter it. By Downey reminding you that you are watching a movie, he not only wants to point out that real life don't work like this, it shouldn't. Fathers should not abuse their daughters, women should not be thrown on the scrap heap after 35. Even Kilmer's final joke about "the gaffer is somebody's nephew" carries the hint of "somebody cares deeply about that person you don't give a shit about."
So, this brings me back to Kylie, whom is definitely over 30, generally happy, and works in adult film because she enjoys it and not because of some mythical childhood trauma. I still don't know if you got to read this essay the first time out, or if you will even read it now, but I'm very curious if any of these thoughts came to your mind while watching this...if this subtext I've spotted is something you spotted too...if it is the reason why you were outwardly interested in my opinion on the film.
SOUL ON A STRING -- DVD Review by Porfle
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