Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review :: Choke

When it came out in 1999, Fight Club seemed like a big deal. I was only 18 at the time, but after seeing that film, and after veraciously reading the Chuck Palahniuk novel upon which it was based, there came over me a sense that this - this schizo-social satire and savagely sardonic examination of masculinity coming out of the raggedy last breaths of a tormented millennium - was important. The film opened up a new world to me, the world of film as art, a world in which big questions could be asked, and maybe answered, on screen.* So I have a bit of a soft spot for that film. However, it struck me then, and it still strikes me now, that Fight Club, perhaps because of David Fincher's direction, perhaps because of the actors (I still can't see Edward Norton without thinking of Jack's smirking revenge), feels better suited to the cinematic medium than to the printed one. Now, nearly 10 years later, another Palahniuk adaptation, Choke, lurches forth and, having already read the novel, the same question swirls about in my head. Does Choke work as a movie? Well, sort of.

Choke, directed be one Clark Gregg, is the story of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex-addict and all around self-involved degenerate. His life is depressing: he and his best friend, a fellow sex-addict and chronic masturbater, Denny (Brad William Henke), work as "historical interpreters" in one of those lousy recreations of an early colonial village, which they both, of course, despise, despite being the default posture in this sorts of situations; his mother, Ida (Anjelica Houston), who apparently raised him while mostly on the run from the police, she being one of those anarchist, pseudo-revolutionary types who spend most of their time pulling mean-spirited pranks, has been hospitalized because of a rapidly deteriorating, and drug-fueled, mental condition and she only occasionally recognizes him; he compulsively has meaningless sex with strangers, though he is, well now this is just awkward, apparently unable to perform with people he might actually like, the self-loathing prick; and, just to top it all off, he and Denny, in a nihilistic tour de force, go from restaurant to restaurant staging chokes: Victor will deliberately choke on his food, you see, and then flail about the place, giving a stranger - preferably a wealthy one, wealthy people generally being the self-hating types who will always give away money in an effort to convince themselves that they are not, in fact, wretched people - the opportunity to "save" him. He is, in other words, hopelessly lost.

If this all sounds a bit overdone, if it sounds a bit like a Slothropian spiral into pointless deviance, that's because it is. Unlike Fight Club, in which deviance was used to treat the societal disease, the deviance being often more tolerable and appealing than the plastic and manufactured norm of a soulless and largely homogenized society, Choke uses deviance as an end unto itself, so that, as with Victor's friend's self-pleasuring addiction, the result is basically potency without creation. All the elements of a satiric roll in the cultural hay are here but none of them feel genuine, as if both Palahniuk and the filmmakers just decided to sit down and manufacture of sort of Thomas Pynchon-lite experience, one that on the surface seems meaningful and important but which is ultimately not much more than a hollow recitation of moral horrors and empty obscenities. If I may make a comparison, the appeal of the Tyler Durden character lay in his refusal to participate in, and his willingness to viciously exploit, the casual shallowness of post-modern society. Fight Club felt like a mythic restructuring of culture at the hands of cultural deviants, and it all appeared teleological - Durden was burning down society but in order to create another one. His actions had an end, a goal. Victor, on the other hand, is a character with no power (even though Rockwell is a powerful actor). He is neither the rallying, messianic figure of a post-modern cultural revolution nor is he an audience surrogate, a stand-in for some sort of shared cultural experiece. If this is some half-addled attempt at satire, it is lost on me because satire requires at least a few points of affinity, some touchstones with which we can say Yes, that's me or Yup, that's true. But there are no touchstones here. It seems too disconnected from ordinary experiance, too outrageous in its pruriance to be meaningful satire.

And yet, even after this heavy mountain of criticism, I'd be lying if I said that there's nothing here to like. Sam Rockwell, for instance, is fantastic. It always seems to me as if he is on the very edge of greatness but always fails to get the recognition he deserves. Also, tonally speaking, this movie is dramatically different than Fight Club, which I appreciated, and which is probably a good thing, both for director Clark Gregg and Palahniuk. (I keep bringing up Fight Club, and I feel bad about that, but that film/book really does cast quite a long and deep shadow over the rest of Palahniuk's work and over all other, but at this point largely hypothetical, Palahniuk adaptations (Edit: oh, I just checked IMDb and I guess another Palahniuk adaptation is on the way)... anyway, but so Fight Club had this iconoclastically epic feel to it, which was appropriate for a film about cultural apocalypse. Here, Gregg wisely steers the project into a much more subdued, and dare I say intimate, direction.) Though, returning to my earlier criticisms, I do think that an unintended, or probably unintended, consequence of this direction is that the film's subversive elements, if there are any here, are undercut by a sense of stylistic mediocrity, as if the movie's style and theme don't quite cooperate with each other.

So out of all of this can I pull a recommendation? Sure. It's not a bad movie. It just isn't great. But coming from Palahniuk, the man who gave us Fight Club, I want greatness, or at least I want meaningfulness. This just feels small, and not in a good way, but as if both he and this film are retreading already well-worn paths, and not treading them nearly as well as others, or as in Chuck's case, as well as he himself, have done in the past. It's satire unhinged, aimed at nothing, and in the end more nihilistic than useful.

Experto Crede: Choke isn't all bad. It's just not all that good either. If you are counter-cultural, or if like me you just enjoy every once in a while adopting a counter-cultural posture, you might like this. You just as likely won't, though.

* This has more to do with my own biography than with any innovation on Fight Club's part. I simply hadn't seen many "important" films at that time in my life.


Life of Turner said...

This is more evidence that you should be paid to do this. I really think that you bring some great analysis of Fight Club to this piece. I do agree that it is unfortunate that all of Palahniuk's work (and Fincher, and Norton, and Pitt) will be measured against Fight Club, but it is part of the nature of the art of criticism to create a standard by which to measure others. I think that the problem comes when the standard is meaningless or inappropriate, like how much money a film earns. Your comparison is justified here, and it helps us understand this film, so good on you.

dcornelius said...

Thanks, man. Hey, if someone wants to pay me to do this, I'm all over that!