Thursday, December 11, 2014

Don Gilroy | Nightcrawler

by Douglas Messerl

Don Gilroy (writer and director) Nightcrawler / 2014

Last weekend, on our way to LAOpera, my companion Howard suggested that we drive by the way of Third Street, an unusual route for us. At Western Avenue, he asked, “Do you see a Chinatown Express? Oh, there it is. It’s really there!” he chuckled to himself. “That was in the movie I saw the other day, Nightcrawler. Wow.” He seemed as excited to see the site as if the movie’s star, Jake Gyllenhaal, was standing outside to wave as we drove past. “You liked that movie, didn’t you?” I asked. “I did!”

      Having read A. O. Scott’s review of the film in The New York Times—wherein he had described the movie, in its theme of the media’s fascination with morbidity, as being a bit “shopworn,” and, in its concern over the possibility of everyone with a cellphone being a possible video journalist, as creating a “hyperventilating sense of scandal”—I had determined not to see the film. Not only Howard’s enjoyment of the film, however, but my attempt to attend a Russian film, Leviathan, showing in the AFI Film Festival a few days later, conspired against my prejudice. Preparing to catch the bus to Hollywood yesterday, I was stymied by the fact that Fairfax Avenue was closed due to a marathon to help raise money for breast cancer. Instead of returning home, I decided to proceed on by foot to the Grove theaters and attend the Don Gilroy movie. And I am glad I did.

     Scott got the focus of this fine piece of filmmaking all wrong. The central character, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhall)—a figure like Joyce’s character, who undergoes his own Ulysses-like journey—is not so much lured by the news media into his career as a stringer photojournalist, as he is by the Internet. Indeed, Bloom might be said to be a creation of the computer world, a cyborgian organism who, as he himself admits, is a fast learner, sucking up the thousands of self-help messages throughout the computer world as if they were honest pearls of wisdom. 
     Although Bloom begins the film as an utter innocent, a petty thief who steals scrap metal fencing and manhole covers for a cheap financial fix; when he accidentally encounters a deadly car crash and discovers in the process a new world of hangers-on, photojournalists who trail after tragic events, he’s as star-struck as if he were a member of the paparazzi who hound the stars. It’s a lonely and sleepless job—perfect for just a man such as Lou, who has no friends and lives in a small apartment with the barest of necessities. The simple tools of the trade—a good camera and a police scanner—can be procured with a simple robbery of a bicycle! 
     What this thoughtful movie also makes clear, however, is that, despite that loneliness while chasing after the ugliest of events, the job has the remarkable perk of revealing the neon-lit city of Los Angeles in its most glamorous make-up. The city itself becomes a beauty that is hard for Bloom—and us, as viewers—to resist. Clearly it’s time to watch the Thom Andersen film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, which Netflix just sent. 
    Not only does Bloom quickly adapt to the demands of the job—putting a strong foot to the pedal, gleaning the ability to interpret the various police and ambulance codes, and developing a good eye to weed out the white and wealthy neighborhoods to haunt—but he simultaneously develops a business plan. He not only wants to bring in the money, but to move up the various echelons of his non-existent business world. Hiring an intern (a hilarious spoof on how large and small companies use and abuse unhireable young men and women—a course of study I once offered to desperate Philadelphia university students), Bloom quickly establishes his non-existent company, Video News Production. And over the course of a few nights he gets close-up shots of several automobile accidents—including the seemingly inexplicable crash of a fellow photojournalist stringer—and murders, in one instance arriving at a murder of three individuals in a wealthy mansion before the police arrive.

     We might even admire this entrepreneurial young man were we not quickly to recognize that he is quite mad, a sociopath who—far from, as his partner Rick (Riz Ahmed) accuses him, not knowing how to relate to others—is someone who simply doesn’t like others and, as Lou himself soon after reveals, is ready to destroy anyone who might possibly cross him. We’ve already seen him cutting the brake fluid-line of his competitor’s van (the one which has run into a tree) and watched him move another body from under a car to get a better photo shot.  A short time later, having pre-arranged a police encounter with murderers so that he might film the arrest, he allows Rick to become a murder victim after a police car crashes into the criminal’s auto, filming the final moments of his “intern’s” death.
     There is something almost endearing about such madness, a quality that reminds us of Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s brilliant movie of that name or of the clueless cypher of the Peter Sellars character in Hal Ashby’s Being There. Like Wood, in his total commitment to his own agenda, Bloom is often highly convincing. In attempting to establish a sexual relationship with news producer Nina (Rene Russo), Bloom is at once beguiling and monstrous in his assessments of the slightly over-the-hill producer’s needs, capabilities, and desires. In order to keep her job she needs the photos of the “hot” murders and deadly crashes he can produce—reproduce or even create if need be. Like a would-be stalker or, worse, like a would-be hacker into the human brain, Bloom has studied her life so thoroughly that he can outwit her in all her attempts to wiggle out of such an awful commitment. What he also knows, as we suspect, is that she, in fact, is the perfect mate for him, being a woman of no scruples determined to keep her job against all odds. 
     As director Don Gilroy noted in an interview in Bluecat, Bloom increasingly gains knowledge throughout the film, but he does not, because he cannot, change. Even the police, suspecting his involvement in events, seem unable to stop him. By film’s end, he has, in fact, created the very company which he has previously imagined, staffed now by three “real” interns to replace to desperate homeless man who he has felt it necessary to destroy. 
     At one point in the film, Bloom expresses his desire to not only provide such news to his television company, but to one day own it. And we can only imagine, given his quick rise during the course of this movie, that we will soon realize that aspiration. Besides, many another cyborg like him surely have already taken over news stations across the nation long ago. Isn’t that why we watched the bloody police car chase the other day? Why we cried along with the woman who just lost her child to neighborhood gunfire? 
    The character at the center of Nightcrawler in not as interested in gathering up shocking images for money or even in controlling how the media uses those images, as he, like a burgeoning Rupert Murdoch, is interested in the viewers of those images—in us and the way we think.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2014

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