January 28, 2014
In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, CoVampire’s Kiss and Face/Off – all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands. To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee. His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.
The Alamo Drafthouse opened its six-screen Yonkers outpost this past August, and imported the “Caged” marathon from its mothership in Austin, although it swapped out a few titles. Famous for serving food and beer during screenings, they also have a strict no talking/texting policy, under which they famously banned Madonna from their chain. This seemed to be contradictory, for what could be more disruptive at a screening that waiters flitting back and forth in front of your seat? As an anti-social cinemagoer, my Platonic theater ideal is the monastic original Anthology Film Archive seats, which included blinders on both sides, so all you could see was the holy projected light on the screen. And yet, at least in the convivial atmosphere of an all-day marathon, the servers did not prove to be a major distraction, and they allowed me to consume a Ghost Rider-themed hamburger (lots of jalapenos), which I can now cross off my bucket list.
The afternoon began with a screening of Con Air (1997), the first feature Jerry Bruckheimer produced after the death of his partner Don Simpson. It is the continuation of Cage’s supposed “sellout” phase, after he pivoted from his Oscar winning role in Leaving Las Vegas to the Michael Bay blow-em’-up The Rock (1996). In Con Air Cage plays Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger from Alabama imprisoned for murder (defending his wife, of course). Sporting scraggly shoulder-length locks cascading around his widow’s peak, and speaking in a halting, syrupy sweet Southern accent, he acts more like an aging rhythm guitarist from Lynyrd Skynrd than an action hero. Cage always introduces these kinds of tensions into his work, emphasizing his own ungainliness. For while he is in great physical shape, shown off under his flimsy undershirt, he is far from graceful. His limbs are too long for his body and his run is an uncoordinated gallop rather than the fleet exertions of a Tom Cruise. Cage is the lead weirdo in a cast full of them (John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle and Ving Rhames all deliver perverse work), introducing genuine strangeness into Bruckheimer’s slam-bang formula.
After the visual and aural assault of Bruckheimer, programmer Cristina Cacioppo slowed down the tempo with Red Rock West, a neo-noir of quiet desperation that aired on HBO in 1993 and disappeared after. For a quick moment director John Dahl (The Last Seduction) looked like a true inheritor of the noir tradition, with his airtight constructions of American greed and vanity. Like auteurs of old, he is now a prolific director on television. Dahl co-wrote and directed this poisonous little thriller about a drifter (Cage) who ambles into the middle of a violent feud between a husband (J.T. Walsh), a wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) and a hitman (Dennis Hopper). Cage is introduced as already debilitated, his leg hanging out the drivers door, a heavy bandage around his knee. He’s playing an out-of-work roughneck who inadvertently steals a hitman’s payday. Dahl continually circles through a few locations, the town of Red Rock a circle of hell to which Cage reluctantly keeps returning, to as if dragged by fate. For Cage it is a quiet performance, as he lets his hangdog eyes and stooped back tell his tale. He defers to Dennis Hopper to provide the scenery chewing, who channels the chattering psychosis of his Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. When Hopper sneers, “You think you’re better than me?”, it feels like a dysfunctional passing of the torch.
Cage literally chews the scenery in Vampire’s Kiss, a pitch black comedy written by After Hours scribe Joseph Minion. The movie tracks the mental breakdown of a NYC literary agent who believes he is turning into a vampire. Cage channels everything from John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Mick Jagger in his most experimental and uproarious performance, in which his character transforms from clean-cut yuppie to drooling savage – done without makeup or effects aside from the plasticity of Cage’s body. In his ritual harassments of his assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso), he becomes increasingly grotesque, popping open his eyes to the straining point and stretching his grin to Joker-lengths, looking like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. His face is one thing, his body another, as it skitters and stutters in unpredictable contortions. Jonathan Rosenbaum compared it to Jerry Lewis, while Pauline Kael said Cage does “some of the way-out stuff that you love actors in silent movies for doing.”
It reminded me most of Jim Carrey, who would break out a few years after The Vampire’s Kiss in Ace Ventura. Both wring unpredictable angles out of their angular bodies, though Cage aims to alienate the audience (at one point he eats a live cockroach) while Carrey is serving it. The whole arc of the film leads to Cage’s horrific self-annihilation, in which his character takes some violently misogynistic turns. Cage borrows some of these destabilizing moves for Face/Off (2007), with his priest’s strained orgasmic stare in the opening matching the death’s head glare from Vampire’s Kiss, lending a symmetry to his work that continues today. He is currently filming a new movie from Paul Schrader (The Dying of the Light), and his Southern gothic drama Joe, made by David Gordon Green, has received positive festival notices. In between, of course, will be the Russian mob thriller Tokarev and the evangelical Christian movie Left Behind. He wouldn’t have it any other way.