Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 5:26 am 
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Eugene Jarecki: The King (2017)


Feverish meditation

The King is nominally a documentary, but really more a lecture, a distractingly well-illustrated one. It has access to a wealth of visual information, and many well-known living people, from Ethan Hawke to yes, even Ashton Kutcher, who may represent a fading star like the fortyish Elvis Presley. Eugene Jarecki, the filmmaker, even gets a lot of them to do their talking sitting inside Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls Royce Phantom, which he's mysteriously gotten hold of and is being driven across the country for this purpose. What purpose? To survey the life of Elvis while commenting on America today - thus meditating on the merging of politics and pop culture, with special reference to the rise of Donald Trump and the tendencies he represents and he decline of American power and hope.

During the film's present-time moment, Trump is running for US President, giving Elvis' title "The King" a further ominous foreshadowing of the monarchical impulses on display in today's White House. The singer's lifetime could mean anything, with all the contrasting comments, all the historical clips. This is an exciting, lively film, but also perhaps Jarecki's most chaotic and inconclusive. One can enjoy the passion while regretting the messiness. Others may simply think a mess of a movie is the best expression of today's America. Elvis Presley was the prisoner of his exploitive manager; the US is an empire in decline, the American Dream, never all it was cracked up to be, now a fading Phantom. (The Rolls breaks down at one point.)

Jareck initiallyi traces Elivs to Tupelo, Miss. and Memphis, Tenn., where he was born and achieved fame. His rags-to-riches rise parallels America's great post-war surge, which contrasts to today's loss of options for the working class, destruction of the middle class, and creation of an enormous gap between the obscenely rich and everyone else.

Elvis rose from poverty but obviously this miracle of "opportunity" has an aspect of racial injustice. He was a white man. The American Dream was not so glowing if you bore the legacy of slavery. Two black voices are returned to through the film: Chuck D of Public Enemy, who faults Presley's "appropriation" of black music (but he appropriated white music too, David Simon points out); Chuck D's is on stronger ground when he questions Presley's status as "The King" when black artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry et al. came first and had greater musical dexterity. News commentator and Obama advisor Van Jones critiques Elvis too. He, and this film, refer to how Muhammad Ali vocally opposed the injustice of the Vietnam War, while Elvis served in the army meekly and had nothing to say. This is just part of Jones' intellectually powerful critique of America here.

This issue, of war protest or the lack of it, serves as a transition - but is it? - to the then presidential campaigns where as the Rolls Royce Phantom glided along, Bernie Saunders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump were giving speeches. Alec Baldwin is sitting in the Rolls, he who was doing satirical impersonations of Trump, and says Trump will never win the Presidency. Later on the film interviews poor white Presley fans whose votes for Trump helped him become president: they are afraid of losing out on the Dream if they change the prevailing economic system, unseat the oligarchy. They think Trump is like them, not just using them.

Jarecki's free-association is undoubtedly brilliant, but also crazy, at times, like his leaps from the 1933 film King Kong showing the Empire State Building to Elvis looking at the building in 1950 to retired news commentator Dan Rather meditating on America on the building's roof in the present. Some of the film's voices are keenly analytical, like the Canadian comic and actor Mike Meyers' distinction between the US and his birthplace as being sex appeal. He says Canada stands for "peace, order, and good government," while America makes its need for world domination seem attractive, selling the idea that "democracy" is something Washington has and can impose by force in the countries on which it wages war. (Meyers' anger no doubt reflects Jarecki's own.)

If Jarecki's scattershot method makes some sense here, it's because the chaos of pop culture somehow does define America today. He settles for an impressionistic version of hard social and political facts, and his film doesn't even, after all, do justice to Elvis Presley, whose gifts as a singer and actual performances are lost in the shuffle of stock film clips and glib generalizations, though the blitzkrieg editing does wonders intercutting instants from Elvis' packaged movie career, an Eddie Murphy stage standup routing, and an in-Rolls song by M. Ward. Where The King sings is where it uses the Rolls Royce as a recording studio for various artists, whose songs are intercut with poetic shots of the long silver car speeding across American highway landscapes.

The King, 107 mins., debuted in the Special Screening section at Cannes May 2017, showing in a handful of other international festivals, ending in Jan. 2918 at Sundance, selling to the distributor Oscilloscope in advance of that. Its US theatrical release date is 22 Jun. 2018. Current Metascore: 73%.

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