“I don’t initiate violence, I retaliate.”
Plot Synopsis (major spoiler alert): Jim (Dominic Purcell) is the kind of working class dude New York used to be inhabited by before his ilk was driven out by yuppies and hipsters. He earns an honest living by securing somebody else’s money as a security guard and shares his life and apartment with his ill wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk). When the credit crunch hits and financial institutions are busy getting rid of toxic assets, Jim’s life goes down the drain. His ass-faced broker loses all of his life savings; unable to pay for his wife’s treatment Jim eventually loses his job to return home and discover that Rosie has killed herself. Ah, he also gets an eviction notice. After hiring a useless lawyer in the utopian attempt to bring those responsible to justice, Jim, instead of joining the Occupy protesters, buys a military arsenal with his job severance and goes on a vengeful killing spree, on Wall Street ça va sans dire. Once he’s done, two policemen friends of his close an eye, even two actually. He is now a “soldier of the people” although whose people exactly remains unclear.
“No money, no films. We don’t have to be naïve about this.” Thus spoke Thierry Frémaux, the highest-ranking clergyman in the sacred world of art cinema. His holiness is absolutely right. Not only that, but the amount of money also tends to shape the kind of movie that will come out alive from the vital (mortal?) struggle between desire and commercial impositions (i.e. filmmaking). A higher budget does not always mean greater artistic freedom. Sometimes a higher budget means longer meetings with lawyers, corporate boards and accountants. A lower budget, conversely, can either mean avant-garde experimentalism for the (expensively) educated few or, popular genre moviemaking for the (less affluent) many. It was, after all, in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash that B-movies were born. Cash-strapped moviegoers were in fact offered at their local nickelodeons two films for the price of one. The B-feature usually consisted of a cheaply made, shorter-running, genre flick guaranteed to keep spectators away from their hardships for an additional hour. It’s “panem et circenses” as the Romans used to say, and when panem is running low, give ‘em circenses and they won’t think about their empty stomachs.
From the very beginning B-movies allowed their creators to push their visionary urges in unusual directions as long as they stuck to the hour-long, commercial dimension of the format. Directors like Edgar Ulmer, for instance, turned the low-budget limitations of their films into deviant, imaginative assets. Away from the big studios, unconventional filmmaking thrived, if not economically at least creatively. It took a luminary like Roger Corman to canonize the “bad taste” of B-moviemaking and shock back into life the “highbrows” of dominant taste. Corman’s political economy rested on solid aesthetic and ethical principles whereby as long as your movie is profitable the margins for subversive subtexts are secured.
Throughout his on-going career Mr Corman has produced and directed commercially successful movies – exception made for The Intruder, a too realistic indictment of institutional racism in America circa 1962 – that have constantly challenged conventions. B-movies in general, even those produced outside of the Corman-factory, have always opposed “the limits of contemporary (middle-class) cultural acceptability.” (1) In the introduction to their peerless volume on exploitation cinema and its illicit pleasures, Incredibly Strange Films, the editors, V. Vale and Andrea Juno, point out how “concepts of ‘good taste’ are intricately woven into society’s control process and class structure.” It follows that “aesthetics are not an objective body of laws suspended above us like Plato’s supreme “Ideas”; they are rooted in the fundamental mechanics of how to control the population and maintain the status quo.” As trite and passé as these remarks may sound today, they still describe the way culture, “high” and “low”, is perceived and consumed in our supposedly post-ideological world. In this respect, a most revealing insight into the uncomfortable significance of Uwe Boll’s Assault on Wall Street (2013) is offered by its critical reception.
Almost unanimous in its condescending dismissal, the respectable response to Boll’s latest film while diligently picking at its many imperfections features itself its own share of amusing nonsense. Suddenly everyone is amazed by the absurdity of the main character’s actions, from his public guerrilla training to his limited range of facial expressions. Since when do action scenes have to be plausible in action movies? Since when does testosterone call for immaculate, heartfelt acting? The most ludicrous reaction of them all though has to be the phoney, moral outrage at the film’s body count. Give us a fucking break for Chuck Norris’ sake! The whole of Hollywood history is littered with killing sprees of colossal proportions where Russians and Arabs get nonchalantly killed like flies. But now, out of a clear blue sky, killing, in an action flick, becomes a pressing moral issue. Curiously enough, while everyone was busy noticing how unlikely Assault on Wall Street is, fewer pondered on how likely its premise is. The protagonist’s descent from decent workingman to dispossessed outcast is in fact the film’s most plausible part. Though admittedly filled with a rather unfortunate series of accidents, the potentially catastrophic precariousness of ordinary American citizens that Assault on Wall Street narrates is a concrete reality that we would rather not address. The self-righteous and slightly irritated way in which the movie was written off, one suspects, has something to do with the film’s deliberate breach of the unwritten rules of American popular entertainment. To kill the evil brown guys is one thing; to kill white people in expensive business suits is another thing all together. And at the end of a movie, the bad guy doesn’t get to walk away from the cops, plus, there needs to be a couple (better if with kids) that gets to live happily ever after. Assault on Wall Street is none of those things. The film’s subversive charge lies in its crude refusal of political correctness and socially justified violence. Something that Assault on Wall Street has in common with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), where a victim similarly takes out his victimizers without indulging in too much diplomacy. Needless to say the two films’ similarities ends there.
The thing is that Uwe Boll’s work is a veritable heir to the 60s and 70s exploitation tradition not in the noble, academically approved Tarantino kind of way but more in its original, infamous connotation. His films are badly acted, improbably plotted and poorly executed; and people ridicule them. That was, let’s not forget, what the liberal custodians of “quality cinema” thought of Tarantino’s inspirational muses at the time when they were not such to their eyes. Often addressing unpopular topics and repressed taboos, exploitation cinema can provide a crucial commentary on the darker side of the human dimension. Part of what makes it enjoyable is its sleazy formalism, stiff acting and unfettered creativity. That though, apparently, does not apply to Boll’s work. But when even the wildest forms of iconoclastic experimentation are absorbed by academia and the mainstream press fêtes “dissident” filmmakers, Boll’s unglamorous reputation as the underdog of cinema grants him at least the status of authentic outsider. A pariah, a lumpen proletariat of the 7th Art that with the same grace and elegance of a miner from West Yorkshire has realized some of the most improperly audacious films the 21st century has given us so far (his 2007 feature, Postal, is perhaps the most lucid, if demented commentary on post-9/11 America to date). Assault on Wall Street is Boll’s magnum opus (something even his detractors have admitted); it’s militant cinema for an American working class intoxicated by Fox News, fluorescent soft drinks and virulent fast food. What makes it a confrontational piece of filmmaking is not its ostensibly radical storyline, but its determination not to comply with what is “acceptable” even under an “anti-capitalist” perspective.
Everyone agrees that randomly shooting at a Wall Street crowd is wrong and the only place it can lead is to the electric chair. As much as anyone agrees that our democracy is not perfect but is still better than North Korea or Iran (don’t mention the medieval Saudi oil-monarchy ‘cause those guys are on our side…). Alain Badiou calls this stance “mental corruption”, which leads “to a world that, while being so evidently devoid of any principle, presents itself as, and is assumed by the majority of those who benefit from it to be, the best of all possible worlds.” (2) It is precisely this universal submission to the “best of all possible worlds” (aka western “democracies”) that has deprived the social imagination of any alternative horizon and vision. Never more than now, when democracy has been reduced to a hypocritical, empty catchphrase and its true attributes are being axed, the political discourse necessitates outrageous ideas, implausible narratives and wild desires.
This does not mean that shooting bankers down is a brilliant idea that will bring about a better world, as history demonstrates emancipation can only be collective, never individualistic (the latter is called free market). If anything, the only truly militant suggestion Boll’s film makes is that of the awakening of a long-dead tradition: working class solidarity (a concept as alien to our modern societies as the snow is to the desert). The protagonist’s (working class) friends in fact are the only characters throughout the movie that support him (also materially) as opposed to anyone else who is too busy ripping others off (aka “surviving”). That said, unfortunately, the insinuation that American citizens are finally realizing that third world villains are not their true enemies but their own corporate-owned government is, remains the film’s most ridiculous and implausible suggestion.
America in fact is in no pre-revolutionary mood and the citizens of the land of the free and home of the brave still prefer shooting at each other rather than aiming for the authorities. But that is somehow acceptable, almost ineluctable both in the streets and on our screens; unless someone will start one day complaining about how violent Chuck Norris is…