Red Rocket + Notes on the Current Cinema

This post contains full spoilers for Red Rocket, as well as minor spoilers for Uncut Gems & The Wolf of Wall Street. Thanks for reading!

Earlier this year, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson generated conversation with his latest film Licorice Pizza, a love story between an older girl and a younger boy. The film, which depicts the younger guy as cloying and flirty, while the older girl is reluctant, inspired talk about the romanticisation of unhealthy relationships between couples of different ages. Of course, Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have often been about the humanisation of potentially poisonous relationships (see in particular; Punch Drunk Love and Phantom Thread). What marks Anderson out as such a beloved writer and director for so many is that his films are refreshingly free of judgement, asking the audience to consider his characters for their humanity, rather than judge them for having what might be not the stereotypically healthiest of relationships. Anderson’s films celebrate relationships for their difficulties and messiness, refusing to provide simple answers for complex questions.

Where Anderson might show you an uncomfortable situation and ask you to find the beauty in it, director Sean Baker’s latest film, Red Rocket, does almost the complete opposite. Its approach to beauty is equally layered in a different way. In Licorice Pizza, Anderson gently probes the audience – in Red Rocket, Baker confronts us, even aggressively, with a horrendous and difficult reality. Both movies shoot on film and provide beautiful vistas that transport the viewer to a particular time and place, but the audience response will be polar opposites. Anderson’s film has likely provoked more conversation because of his name status as the king of independent cinema, but compare it to Baker’s film and it starts to seem almost simplistic in its approach.

Red Rocket is about Mickey Saber, a former porn star who moves back in with his ex-wife in Texas after being run out of California for unknown reasons. Half of the things Mickey says in the film are obvious lies or exaggerations, highlighted by Baker’s camera focussing on Mickey’s wife’s face whenever he tries telling a story about his past or present. His reliance on these falsehoods permeates from his stories about winning an Adult Video Award for receiving the best blowjob to the fact that even his erections are a kind of lie, stimulated by viagra. Mickey is charming, but the audience will sense that he’s a kind of egomaniac – a braggadocio who is engaging to watch but infuriating to be around.

Around a third of the way through the film, audience allegiances are put to the test. Mickey meets Strawberry, a 17-year old girl who works at a donut shop nearby. He immediately starts grooming her, initially for sex and then with a hope that filming her will enable him to move back to California and act as her pornographic agent. Mickey constantly brags to his neighbour about his conquests and how quickly he’s gotten this girl to not only sleep with him, but also to agree to do porn for him. Mickey never sees Strawberry as anything more than a chance for him to get back on top, and his self-centeredness becomes increasingly vile as the film progresses.

In the film’s climax, Mickey does get some comeuppance; all the money he’s been raising selling weed is stolen off him by his ex-wife and the local drug dealer’s daughter, and he’s forced to move out with only $200 to his name and his clothes in a bin bag around his shoulder. In the very last scene, he makes it to Strawberry’s house, but it ends in a dream-like sequence, the audience unsure of Mickey’s fate.

Red Rocket, more than any other film I’ve seen, forces the audience to hang out with someone who is not just a bad person, but a genuinely heartless one. While including multiple scenes of genuinely funny comedy, Baker’s film is almost unique among recent films about terrible people by avoiding the get-out clause of having any redeemable qualities for Mickey, or by exaggerating his awfulness to the point of farce.

In Uncut Gems, 2018’s stress inducing masterpiece from the Safdie brothers, protagonist Howie is a sleazy gambler who takes undue risks with his own money, as well as the money of those he borrows from, but he never directly hurts people in the same way Mickey does; he’s not great to his family or those around him, but in the end he gets what’s coming to him. When protagonists don’t get what’s coming to them, like Scorsese’s Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, this is again normally when they’ve been guilty of crimes to the system – Belfort harmed a lot of people in his scams, but this was mostly in the fiscal sense, and the film ends with an indictment of the specific system that allowed Belfort to get away scot free; Belfort himself is just a symptom.

If anything, Mickey bears most resemblance to Dennis Reynolds, from the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Dennis is a pretty heartless sex offender, who talks constantly of ways to exploit women for sex and even has a system of how to get women in bed and emotionally manipulate them into coming back to him whenever he wants. The difference, of course, is that Dennis is a kind of cartoon caricature of this kind of man; in the elastic universe of It’s Always Sunny, his actions turn from hideous into comedic. Red Rocket never softens its punches in this way; Mickey’s actions are played out with toe-curling realism and specificity. From the moment he locks eyes on Strawberry, the rest plays out exactly as in the audience’s worst fantasies.  

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with presenting the more horrific side of humanity; far be it from me to start moralising. The interesting part of Red Rocket isn’t that Baker’s protagonist is a terrible person, nor that he doesn’t really get what he “deserves”, but how Baker presents this all visually, and even politically.

In his previous film, The Florida Project, Baker turned his lens to children living in an estate in Florida. His views of the building, presenting it as a kind of unconventional beauty, melded well with his child’s eye view of the estate building, although it opened him up to accusations of poverty tourism. In Red Rocket, the surroundings are less visually interesting, but Baker still manages to find a way to make them beautiful; in particular the shots of Mickey riding his bicycle across the Texas landscape.

In the first third of the film, these bike riding sequences help the audience to identify with Mickey; their unpretentious beauty helps us see a similar lack of pretension within Mickey; indeed, these sequences are a brilliant example of visual humanisation. Everything we hear from Mickey, even before he embarks on his project of grooming, is pretty terrible (even when he’s turning on the charm). But as he rides his bike in silence, drenched in sunset and past the liminal space of a huge power plant, we see a beauty that we reflect into Mickey.

When the turn happens, Baker doesn’t ditch these moments, though. Instead, they continue weaving throughout the film, throwing audience sympathy back at the audience; Baker confronts us with our own initial impressions of Mickey. It’s a perfect cinematic trick; without use of dialogue or plot, Baker perfectly presents the way con-artists and groomers like Mickey work – it’s not just the smooth talking and the promises of freedom that are attractive; we look for the humanity in people, even those who only show us their worst.

There’s another point to these shots of rural America – the political angle. In perhaps one of the more obvious moments of the script, Red Rocket is set during the 2016 American election, which runs throughout the narrative in the form of “Make America Great Again” flyers seen in backgrounds and cutaways to Donald Trump talking on TV. But this comparison between two self-entitled sex offenders isn’t particularly incisive or interesting. More subtle (and more in-line with the rest of Baker’s filmography) is the depiction of poverty in the film.

Red Rocket isn’t exactly Parasite, a film which explicitly drew on the protagonist’s poverty as explanation for their increasingly desperate actions – and it’s right not to be. Poverty isn’t an excuse for anything that Mickey does, but in spending so much time on the surroundings that Mickey grew up in, Red Rocket goes some way to presenting it as an explanation. After all, Mickey isn’t the only one longing for escape from rural Texas by any means possible. So is Strawberry, and to a certain extent so is Mickey’s ex-wife, another former pornographer who now seeks an escape through opioid abuse.

Speaking of Strawberry, she’s probably the film’s weakest point. Returning to Licorice Pizza, that film was arguably Gary’s, but as it progresses it makes more and more of an effort to flesh out Alana’s point of view. In the end, you understand perfectly why the two of them want to be together, no matter your ethical stance on the situation. Red Rocket is a film about Mickey, and doesn’t do much to explain Strawberry’s stance on the situation. At times, Baker seems to veer scarily close to reducing Strawberry to a kind of archetype. There’s just about enough in there to show how and why Strawberry reacts to Mickey, but some moments, particularly those in Strawberry’s dreamlike house, feel too much like you’re looking at her through Mickey’s eyes.

This might be the point though. For all the conversation that Licorice Pizza caused, that film is far more rigorous about examining its central relationship. Both participants in it are drawn carefully, and Anderson has a great amount of sympathy for his leads. Red Rocket is a film of almost refreshingly honest horror. This is a film about Mickey Saber – about just how awful he is, about the levels of depravity he’s willing to go to. Nothing in the film excuses his actions, and like Mickey himself, it only really cares about Mickey. In this way, Red Rocket feels like a key text for films about bad people doing bad things; it’s always willing to push things further, and never settles for easy answers.

This section of the post contains minor spoilers for Don’t Look Up, and very minor spoilers for Dr. Strangelove and Shin Godzilla.

If I’m destined to keep talking about one filmmaker here, it might as well be Adam McKay, whose most recent film, the disaster satire Don’t Look Up, has had some of the most mixed reception for an Awards season contender since Green Book. I would watch Don’t Look Up over Green Book any day of the month, but that isn’t to say I think Don’t Look Up is some masterwork or anything. But it did make me think about how to make a current day satire that can succeed in both being a well-made film and communicating a relevant point.

Let’s first look at the issue at hand – climate change. The one movie that comes to mind on the issues is Paul Schrader’s (the other director I’m doomed to keep talking about) First Reformed. Unlike Don’t Look Up, which uses the central metaphor of a comet to discuss climate change, First Reformed sees the lead character talk directly about climate change, and research real life problems about our current slow-moving apocalypse. First Reformed is a great film, and is clever about climate change, centring on the discussion of the need for violent action. But the film ends without providing a satisfying answer, because it’s far more interested in its main character than it is about the actual issue. First Reformed is about Reverend Toller and his interest in climate change, not about climate change itself, making it a better film, but a less effective comment on the issues.

The Japanese film Shin Godzilla is perhaps a nicer counterpoint to Don’t Look Up. That’s because it too uses one of the biggest metaphors of all, Godzilla, to discuss the topic of the incompetence of the Japanese government in response to natural (and man-made) disasters. Like Don’t Look Up, the film follows a bunch of rebels in the government who try as hard as they can to overrun the entrenched bureaucracy. In Shin Godzilla, they succeed. In Don’t Look Up, they fail. This is one strength that Shin Godzilla has over Don’t Look Up; it tries to proposition a solution to a problem. It might be a bit of an idealistic one, but as the film correctly posits, we do need people in positions of power who are able to bypass the problems of a government too set in its place. Of course, Shin Godzilla is specifically about Japan and responds to its own particular governmental problems, but the power of presenting solutions still manages to mark it out, proving that it’s possible to be both funny and optimistic.

Don’t Look Up is incredibly pessimistic, showing that even those who try and solve the problem are doubtless going to be corrupted by power, and the ones that aren’t simply won’t ever get close to having any power. It shares this pessimism with its most obvious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick’s film is the best example of a comparison to McKay’s, because it proves that at the end of the day quality is the most important definer of a political satire. Both films are talking about extremely contemporary issues, and neither are really subtle about them at all. The people who complain about Don’t Look Up’s lack of subtlety might have complained the same about Kubrick’s film – but Kubrick’s has stood the test of time by being exceptionally made and acted – and most importantly still very funny; far more laugh out loud funny than any of McKay’s work post-Other Guys.

There’s one other reason why Kubrick’s film succeeds where McKay’s fails; its cultural context. When Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, the idea at laughing at the American military complex and the figure of the President was far less common. Colombia Studio voiced concerns that the film was anti-military, or even anti-American before its release. In 2022, criticisms of the American government and large corporations are commonplace, and so feel like they have far less impact now. If Saturday Night Live can take potshots at the President every week, McKay doing it feels blasé.  

People often talk about films “not being able to be made today”, but when they do so, it’s mostly talking about issues of racism or sexism. Dr. Strangelove, however, is the kind of film that might not be able to be made today, and Don’t Look Up proves it by trying to make it in 2021. When we’re constantly laughing at the abysmal reality we live in, it’s a lot more difficult to remind us of that in a way that doesn’t just feel condescending. Of all the art forms, satire may just have the most struggle flourishing in the 2020s. What it might need in order to survive is to abandon the pessimism that has defined it and attempt to offer something new; a flourish of optimism could be more shocking than the relentless mirror to reality that we’re so used to.

Pixar’s latest feature, Turning Red, has received mostly positive reviews from critics. I can’t say it’s my favourite of their output, but then again I’ve had very little opinion about almost every Pixar film released after I reached the age where I was excited for new Disney films (The only ones that still work for me are the ones which come with attached nostalgic value (and The Incredibles)). However, one review became a notable outlier; Sean O’Connell’s writing for his website Cinemablend became the subject of such controversy the review was eventually taken down, with O’Connell apologising on twitter for his writing.

Doubtless, O’Connell’s review was poorly written and had an even worse central argument; the idea that any of the film’s faults come from its specificity are ludicrous. Still, at one point I had to wonder what set O’Connell’s review quite so much apart from another poorly written review of the film I had read the day before, which praised it for its specificity and nothing else. The fault of both reviews were that they focussed on features mainly irrelevant to the film’s quality but relevant more to their personal attachment, or lack thereof, to the circumstances of the filmmaking.

There is one obvious answer to this; which is that O’Connell’s review smacked of lazy male entitlement. But there’s another reason why reviews like O’Connell’s can be actively harmful, and it links back to a concept known as the canon.

Poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) moonlighted as a literary critic, and was adamant in his calls for literary criticism to be “disinterested”. Critics, Arnold argued, were to be unbiased upholders and defenders of the literary canon. The popularity of the canon in Imperial Britain is undoubtably due to the fact that it enshrined mostly British works – to create a supposedly unbiased collection and list of works, then to say most of those works came from the Western world was yet another way of reasserting British superiority – this time using cultural rather than military tactics.

Almost all attempts at making a canon, whether that be literary or cinematic have been criticised for much the same reason as we criticise the old Victorian canons; they centre Western, mainly white, male voices above all else. Part of this must be said to be a question of reach, especially in cinema. An industry dominated so heavily by white men will, as a question of numbers, have white men produce many of its foundational texts. But with regards to literature, enough time has passed for our understanding of literary history to move beyond Shakespeare. And with cinema, the medium is young enough for any attempts to consider a formal canon to be laughable. Cinema is at the perfect stage of development as an art form to not require a canon – old enough that it shouldn’t need to feel it has to prove itself against literature or fine arts, but young enough to change the way we talk about its history.

And yet, is it possible for critics to exist without the formation of a canon? Every time someone publishes a top ten list, or says they like The Incredibles more than Turning Red, an invisible hand shuffles around names on an invisible scoreboard. We don’t need someone making a formal canon of cinema – as long as there are critics adding points to that indefinable and unseeable “conversation” about film, there will be films that rise to the top and those that sink to the bottom. Every letterboxd review or tweet about a film, as insignificant as it seems, is a contribution to a collective canon.

The problem with pointing at the canon and calling it outdated is that this doesn’t do anything to harm the canon – like it or not, the canon will always exist, whether it holds that name or not. What’s more important than trying to topple the canon is to keep adding to it. The more diverse additions to critical fields, the more diverse the canon becomes. The Academy Awards are a perfect example. Films like Moonlight or Parasite have existed for a long time, but with the expansion of the Academy Awards voter base, they have gotten the chance to make their way up the canon.

So, more diverse critics are needed for a better balanced canon. But personal canons are important too. Sean O’Connell has since removed his review of Turning Red due to criticism. But in doing so, perhaps what’s been accomplished is giving readers less information about his personal canon. Understanding what different critics value is a great idea of seeing how their tastes will align with yours. Maybe you don’t have to be a genius to work out that the man who loved the Synder Cut might not get the most out of a Pixar film about menstruation, but knowing his reasons for it does something to inform a reader about his other opinions – about who he is as a critic.  

The reason why the Victorian canon has come to fall so far out of favour is because it tried to position itself as disinterested. But all criticism is interested – it’s the nature of the medium. And so, as we form a cinematic canon, this must be kept in mind. Sean O’Connell’s review showcases an outdated attitude that we may wish to remove from the canon. But it will be impossible to remove all instances of bias from the canon – instead, they must be balanced out, with the hopes that we can create a more equal opportunity vision of cinematic greatness. Whether you believe in the worth of creating a canon or not, one is being created as we speak, so we have to choose how to foster its creation to be something worthwhile, rather than a celebration of outdated values.

Thanks for reading! I normally try not to engage in current “discourse”, but a couple of things had caught my attention recently as to want to write some longer, tangentially related thoughts. It would be remiss of me to publish anything without urging any readers of my blog to donate to help those currently in Ukraine and surrounding areas; a resource I found useful was this article by Vox. As always, if you liked this, you can do me a huge solid and follow me on twitter or donate on patreon.

2 Replies to “Red Rocket + Notes on the Current Cinema”

  1. I really loved your take on the canon and Sean O’Connell’s writing – the idea of adding to the canon rather than dismantling it, and a personal canon coexisting with a collective canon, is something I’ve never considered before, but makes so much sense. Really cool article!

    Liked by 1 person

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