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Traffic
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 3:52 pm - Traffic
In the last two decades of the 20th century Steven Soderberg did what many young movie directors have thought about but few manage to bring off; he took over a middle class home for a few days and shot the very perverse and cheaply made Sex, Lies and Videotape for nearly nothing, then watched it become a cult favorite. There are a genre of such films: Tobe Hopperís The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sam Raimiís The Evil Dead series and even Quentin Tarentinoís Reservoir Dogs.
One shoots almost everything in a small space, one has a plot such as a kidnapping that explains the very narrow range of found sets one is using, and one gives the actors and crew points of the potential gate if it makes money. Usually the story line is a variation of a niche genre, thriller or horror tale the producer can then offer an easy handle to the pitch for a film cast with unknown actors, directors and production values that donít include too many outdoor scenes at all much less expensive computer graphics and car chases.
Sex, Lies and Videotape had a kind of prickly bizarre character though it is in style a sort of uncomfortable comedy that appalled to the young, glandular challenged and furious. White, affluent, and puerilely disenfranchised, living in a small city in the heartland, its characters were at once nubile and charmingly obnoxious.
Shot with a single camera, though it had a kind of triangular plot about two sisters it was really a parable about the terminal follies of watching too much x-rated television. A young protagonist films the amorous confessions of people he encounters as he wanders throughout the country, collecting them and perhaps masturbating or making love while he saw them or directly afterwards.
Although not on the surface an attractive subject Soderberg gave the script and direction a panache and fatigued brio that turned this skewed style into a virtue.
Much like resonating with the stalwarts living in urban emptiness in a David Lynch film, even one far from such juvenile self-disgust as myself became I am a certified crone felt an angst for the thee main characters, the male videographer and the two delectable if banally depraved sisters, because they were without caution, checks or boundaries in a world that wasnít fostering either direction or measure.
Most people though probably not enjoying the rather vacuous and empty things the characters had to say nor being much amused by the lack of action probably felt the afflatus of these hollow folk as speaking for them as James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause once appeared to mirror the alienation of White suburban youth in the late 50s.
The general feeling of sleazy betrayal and amorality was disturbing. The story was at bottom about various kinds of fantasy and masturbation. The treachery wasnít only a perfidy of two sisters but a kind of detachment from commitment itself of any kind in all the characters.
The power of this narrow and intense movie came from how ordinary and even sympathetically these very amoral world was pretreat. It seems like raw stuff as does Quentin Tarentinoís films; one has the feeling, much as one did with John Cassavetesí old flicks, that the actors werenít given a script but fed situations and told to improvise. Steven Soderberg was on the map as a director who could sum up a feeling about life of young people in America of his time.
Sex, Leis and Videotape not only made money but give a movie career to Soderberg and at least one of his actors. Like so many movies, Sex, Lies and Videotape was made eclectically from found bits and pieces of other films, the central idea was a jejune variation of Antonioniís Blowup, but something Soderberg brought to the film in the way of fearless audacity and taking things over the top and beyond really set the film apart, derivative and even meretriciously sensational as it might have been otherwise.
One had the feeling as in several of David Lynch and Quentin Tarentinoís almost semi-documentary style films that one was a voyeur oneself, invisible in the presence of savage and opaque characters who were capable of anything. Like a tale of lunatics acted out in masks, the very lack of depth in these actors made them interesting; it seems to reflect the triviality of the realms they lived in. Its satire was dry and deadly.
Schizopolis, Soderbergís next film, had a much bigger budget, was very wild and as sleazy but had a kind of incoherence in its broader satire of corporate life in the heartland that wasnít helped by its jerky style and rather graphic emphasis on masturbation. Soderberg was not only the director; he played the lead and faked masturbation for us or perhaps wasnít faking. He is not really a one man show like Orson Welles. He would have done well to gave the part to one who could act or at least masturbate convincingly.
It reminded one of David Lynchís early Eraserhead, itself hardly a model of classical propriety in choice of characters or telling a clear story. Schizopolis had a sensational and coarse nature untainted by any insight into its actors and lacking a real plot was terminally boring. Itís overt rage at the affluent yet vertigoes corporate world it portrayed was fatal; it was in its was preachy in a jejune way that made one annoyed at the bad manners of the prophet.
If one is condemning a society as Soderberg is, the way to do it is to make it and those villains in it sympathetic as possible. Thatís why most films about hitmen are high mora discourses about honor and way Citizen Kane is a great movie and Schizopolis is boring.
Traffic is Soderbergís landmark expensively produced film and as well as narrative that corrects the indulgent postures and extrusive narrative fragmentation of Schizopolis. It is a straight ahead even banal tale of teenage drug users, a middle aged couple palmed by Michael Douglas and Amy Irving, some ruthless and violent scenes of border smuggling and killing in Mexico and Southern California. Its script and characters were clichťs though Soderbergís improvisation like technique make them more interesting at odd moments than they should be.
There is in this movie like Rebel Without A Case some attempt to suggest that the neglect of the adolescent children in the story by the very career oriented or neurotic parents who had spent no time in building a family with emotional charity or generosity were in some way mechanically complicitious in the emptiness of the adolescent drug takers. If one has lived a while one can take this easy moralizing several ways.
Any family lives or dies on the taints and virtues of the merely mediocre; families are rarely run by geniuses or astrophysicists. We all come into our adult life with major scars, plenty of limits and defects, have to relate to children in the middle of levies that require our attention as centrally if we are going to be free and powerful adults. As one gets odder many of the points of view about parens and their derelictions in Traffic as well as Rebel Without a Cause mentioned in passing seem silly. Could most of the high school James Dean goes to be skewed by the faults of their parents? If so we ought to blow up the planet.
These pious commentaries when one hears them are all based of course on a mechanical theory of psychology that itself has been rejected by a time subsequent to its fashionable heyday because while claiming to be scientific and creating a priesthood with a respectable flow of money into its coffers it is a pure faith system in disguise; it doesnít describe life. We donít know why some kids turn out good and others rotten. We donít understand human nature well generally.
In the end Traffic leaves us with a disturbing feeling that things are out of control that Pentheus has in Euripidesí The Bacchae. We donít understand anymore than the characters in this film why these posh gaggles of affluent suburban teenagers are junkies.
We also donít know why habits that are plainly destructive, illegal, unhealthy and unravel the character are popular at all with anybody. Traffic has that sinister resonance because it really offers no explanations.
The plot with the teenager daughter becoming a prostitute in a ghetto to obtains money for drugs, other teenagers overdosing or otherwise polluting themselves if it ere merely sensation would have been pretty stale stuff. Soderberg makes the chief seller and dispenser of drugs an almost satanic preacher for such instant action; in a long speech to Michael Douglas he never explains it but says its Bacchic aims are more powerful than reason and measure.
Movies that are landmarks through the America of the late 20th century and beyond mythically feature the ordinary and clichť ridden nature of both plot and characters. These qualities arenít why Traffic became the hit and watershed movie for the young of its time. Like Sex, Lies and Videotape it was a film of patches, a collection of bits form other movies, a motley collages; unlike many of its models it was uncomfortable to an audience in a way that transcended its rather ordinary if well executed homages to the standard violent thriller.
On the surface Traffic is about the contagion of drug use among the American young as well as their obsession with media images, hardly an astonishing subject one might think would be filled with surprises. Yet at various points Soderberg has a few of his characters sermonize in a way that almost reminds one of Charlie Chaplinís talkies. This preachiness about the ineffectuality of any adult force in America attempting to contort drug use or the drug business gives Traffic its over the top ferocity.
The blame for the troubled youth isnít put squarely on the parents by Soderberg as one sees in many films; The fathers and mothers in this movie arenít brilliant family types; they arret disasters either. They have a kind of dogged competence, pretty much the best we can go in large social situations to bring to any dilemma as a common standard for what can be expected form any of us in the way of resources. Soderberg says they arenít good enough.
Thereís also no artificial and contrived denouement and resolution as there is in Rebel Without a Cause in this movie. The teenage daughter goes in and out of rehab but things go on as usual. How long that will last we donít know. One infers from the film that as these various banal characters struggle and scramble their way through life, some crumpling, some doing batter, they are meeting an indivisible explosive force of chaos and rage as it roams through the society in the vessel of their actions and thoughts that is only superficially described as a world of drugs.
Soderbergís Traffic like his other films is a covert sermon against the terrors, limits and defects of epicurean materialistic life anywhere. He portrays the drug culture and its trivial pleasure it offers as an epidemic against which the measured adult world has no remedy.
If the agent of destruction comes for the young in the form of a needle the older people in Soderbergís films seem not less tormented, only more trapped and enduring. Soderberg doesnít suggest that there is some alternative way of existence that is better. His Mexico is a totally ruthless nightmare. His Mexican characters are filled with terror and panic for good reason.
Unlike the other two films, Traffic has a broad social veil of a Have and Have not imperial world in which one is better off as a Have but not by much. There are some unforgettable moments in Traffic where Michael Douglas is wondering through a Washington ghetto to find his daughter hold up as a whore in a dump somewhere that has a mythical significance in a growing world of Haves and Have Nets and their very involute and equivocal dialogue in America.
There ar other episodes early in the film in which the merciless and pulverizing quality of the Mexican drug smugglers and the lack of good guys among these diverse and internally curling bunch is also singularly disturbing. In each case Soderberg pushes a banality into territory that makes the clichť audacious if never quite utterly original.
One of the virtues of Traffic as well as Quentin Tarentinoís films is its guerilla style derived from John Cassavetes of shooting narratives which seem as if they are documentaries filmed by hidden video cameras. Real or not, one has the feeing the actors are making up their lines, told by the director to be as bizarre and sensational as possible.
Itís a technique Cassavetes used, wonderfully, it had a charm in Bertolucciís Last Tango In Paris. Bertolucci recognized Brando had that ability and used it. It wouldnít have been successful had he told Lana Turner to do the same thing.
Such films absolutely depend on how much an actor ca respond to that sort of directive. Some like the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellars, Samuel Jackson. Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper really scintillate when they are left along to make up their lines and get over the top.
I have the feeling that once Brando showed what he could do in Last Tango In Paris and he had a disinclination to learn lines anyway, other directors told Brando to get very free with the script in other movies. I had an intuition Brando had improvised his way through The Missouri Breaks, The Freshman and The Island Of Doctor Moreau to mention a few examples; if not he made the style of improvisation a manner he brought to his lines.
If a director can take that kind of freedom in an actor and the actor has that talent it can be very persuasive though itís harder for others without that gift to bring into a rehearsal.
As somebody who has acted a lot both in front of a lie audience and in front of cameras, I would testify it is very hard to be wild and crazy without riding the energy of an audience. Thatís why Douglas Fairbanks always played to a crowd behind the cameras, even had a pit orchestra.
Actors get manic optimally when they are at that kind of theatrical party. I wouldnít want to give those free instructions to most actors; an actor trains to say a playwrights lines as if they are his own because he hasnít got anything inside he can or wants to share. Actors who seem most extrovertish in this way are hermits and introverts.
Of course the risks of this imprimatur are less than in movie than they are in a live show. Soderberg can shoot a great deal and cut to what he thinks is most effective. Michael Douglas, in real life a very articulate man, comes through beautifully in an improvisational style as he never does in other movies. The other actors arenít as impressive. Yet even when they arenít, the sense of voyeurism, its detachment and protected quality, certainly one of the themes of Sex, Lies and Videotape generates in a deep way the gritty stylistic manner of this film. Traffic while being a darkly prophetic film in the guise of a thriller about the future of conventional American life in our time has a curious optimism as well if this crazy ebullience is often hidden b y Soderberg. As stupid, violent, wasteful and corrupt as life gets in a Soderberg film one always has the sense that the satire is directed not against the general inaptitude of humanity or its social milieu but sees any attempt to harass or control lifeís vital energy as wrong or tragic.
Thereís a humor in the way his characters scramble though farcical situations that are not only absurd but totally beyond their gifts to meet them, even eluding their mere understanding. Itís a cruel humor; Soderbergís time often funneled its primal and profound rage into an indelicate vessel of tawdry cold satire.
Unless Soderberg wanted to go back to makes guerrilla files as David Kronenberg called cheap movies, he wasnít going to get the production loot to make films with these kind of options. In the end, needing to compromise with his money men, Traffic is almost necessarily a sermon and a satire disguised as garbage, or seeming trash veiled with some artistic integrity, take your pick.
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