Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Apr 04, 2003 3:38 pm 
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Gutter grandeur

Jonas Åkerlund's "Spun" certainly is fun, of a very grungy sort. It takes a foreigner, this time a Swede, music video director Åkerlund, to see the grotesquerie and absurdity of America and to cherish this country's most garish and tasteless details. For Åkerlund, a motel room, a sleazy strip show, an old trailer, or a convenience store are all wonderful rinky-dink artifacts worthy of a Saul Steinberg drawing.

Because everything has an outer layer of strangeness, the danger and toxicity of the world Åkerlund is examining are considerably lessened and even the most menacing street tough turns into a goofy pushover. The world "Spun" focuses on is suffused with drugs and because of the insane glamour of oddity Åkerlund finds in it, there's a kind of aesthetic distance. Deadly intoxicants are seen so coolly that though the users are wasted and lost, sometimes the drugs can actually be fun and also quite sexy, though as in "Macbeth" the stuff may well promote the desire but decrease the performance. Åkerlund has found an excellent cast and created a bustling mood.

His plot doesn't go anywhere much, but then dopers' lives don't either. If you see the movie as nothing but a series of brightly lit, manic vignettes, you'll have a good time. It's funny to see choir boy type Patrick Fugit of "Almost Famous" as Frisbee, grunged down and covered with obviously fake pimples that change position from scene to scene. Brittany Murphy (Nikki) and Mena Suvari (Cookie) are tightly wound, scantily clad floozies. John Leguizano and Mickey Rourke have a good time. "Spun" never ceases to take itself lightly.

Åkerlund's movie instantly invites comparison with Arnovsky's "Requiem for a Dream," whose appeal to the young and hip was surprising in view of its relentless moralizing and audience manipulation. To some extent "Spun" is an homage to Arnovsky's arch condescension, but with a decisive difference. "Spun" has a similar intensified color scheme and expressionistic visual style and uses much the same vertiginous quick-cut editing to convey the first rush of a drug high, but unlike "Requiem," it is blissfully free of any point. Whereas "Requiem" presents its cautionary tale with irritating repetitiousness, "Spun" reads as a wild crazy ride even though it goes nowhere. "Requiem" deals with heroin addict youths and a mom on diet pills, but "Spun" enters a scummy lowlife subculture of crystal meth, though it steers clear of the actual speed freak world of bikers and criminals in favor of a few kooky individuals.

We begin in a bombed out looking apartment (like the seller's flat of "City of God" in its last stages) where sits Fugit, a doubly addicted youth (whose 400-pound mom we later briefly encouner) haplessly playing an obscene violent video game. In the room with him is John Leguizamo, as Spider Mike, a paranoid, preening dealer, and his girlfriend Nikki. Along comes Ross (Jason Schwartzman, star of "Rushmore" and principal in "Slacker")), a middle class white boy whose life's gone down the tubes as his need for crystal meth has enlarged, looking humbly for a fix. Whatever follows from this, follows.

As in real life drug experience, trifles become tremendous. Spider thinks the cops are outside his door. Looking for a lost stash becomes a global enterprise. Whether or not they'll have sex that day becomes a couple's only issue. The big excitement is to meet the man who makes the product, the Cook (Mickey Rourke), and the ultimate experience is to encounter the drug lord, The Man himself (Eric Roberts, with wig and two pretty boy body builders), who sets up The Cook whenever he has to move, and who with populist lust worships him as the ultimate Macho Man. Spider's girlfriend freaks out because her tiny green-dyed dog is sick -- she thinks; and so a trip to the vet is another major enterprise. Since Spider has no car and Ross drives an old Volvo, Ross becomes the taxi-man, and that's pretty much the plot. Once in a while Ross goes back to his motel-like apartment where (he keeps forgetting) he's got a girl tied naked to a bed and they're spied on by a lesbian neighbor (Debbie Harry). What happens with this drug is that everything becomes intensified beyond logic or imagining or time.

The funniest sequences perhaps are in the convenience store where a pair of Latina twins flirt with The Cook and dis a streetwise punk who fancies they're his girlfriends. The climax occurs when the dense Frisbee (Fugit) gets forced to wear a wire by two crooked cops who work for a certain tv real crime series and when he gets caught, Spider shoots Frisbee where it hurts the most, standing wearing nothing but one sock, as in the famous Chili Peppers album cover. To say this scene is pushed would be to forget that in "Spun" everything is over the top.

This is where the movie shines: its visual style involves magnification of everything into pulsating, seething images that make it all so transcendently hyper-ugly it transmogrifies into a wild outcast kind of beauty. Luscious girls and young flesh look better sometimes in a bed of grime and Åkerlund and his cinematographer, Eric Broms, know this. Even the old Volvo seems to be having a joyous heart attack and we see its wheezing fan belt in a quick inserted closeup every time it starts or stops. Color is highly saturated, then drained out. Every pimple, bit of dirt, bad tooth, needle in the arm, even bowel movement, gets a closeup, with appropriate cranked up sound effect (again there is a debt to other films that have been there before, like not only "Requiem for a Dream" but "Trainspotting" and the absurd caricaturing of drugs in movies like "Reefer Madness"). Ross has a "nice" girlfriend Amy (Charlotte Ayanna) who's dropped him and whom he owes $400. She's done with him, but he doesn't admit that. Restoring her trust is his only dream, an impossible goal under the circumstances. The wonderful thing about it all is that he's not addicted; he can stop at any time -- just not right now. Lots of trips back and forth, always in a race against time that's useless because these people have lost their sense of time.

Mickey Rourke is in good form and high spirits and rolls his eyes in a way he never has before. His snakeskin boots and tight jeans and cowboy hat fit him like a glove. So does his fiery finale, the traditional end of all meth lab operators, which happens in a tiny Speedstream trailer. Other than that explosion the movie just seems to end. Ross has met with his girlfriend, only to be kissed off. When the movie climaxes he's sitting in his car doing nothing.

Writers Will de los Santos, whose life this purports to convey, and Creighton Vero, know whereof they speak. A drugalogue like this needs no moralistic overtones. Sure, there's a tacky glamour about the addict world, sometimes, and fun, and sexiness, and excitement, and laughs too. You don't have to point out that these lives are down the tubes.

April 4, 2003

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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