Issue #191: Fuqua's Redemption

This weekend I saw a cat.

It’s a pretty good cat.

I also began playing the iOS exclusive JRPG Fantasian (2021), with a story written by original Final Fantasy architect Hironobu Sakaguchi and music by Nobuo Uematsu. It feels like a real, complete experience without any bizarre mobile gaming contrivances. The caveat being I am only an hour in — and it requires an Apple Arcade subscription. Still, worth checking out for fans of the genre.

This week, spoilers for the latest from Netflix and a conversation between me and a guy with broken sneakers.

The Man Made of Discourse: Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty

Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty (2021) really delivered a proof of concept for the Miguel Theory of Directorial Quality. I may have spent a tremendous amount of time badmouthing Fuqua last week, but his latest collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates what a truly exceptional director is capable of — and why Fuqua deserves to be considered one. A Gyllenhaal vanity project (he optioned and produced the film) and chamber piece (the film takes place in three rooms), The Guilty is also a remake of a 2018 Danish film directed by Gustav Möller. The production of the film also took place under some absurd constraints. Fuqua, quarantining because of exposure to COVID-19, directed entirely from a hardwired van. Gyllenhaal shared some interesting photos of the experience while doing press for the film:

With the conceit of phone calls to obscure the live Zoom performances of Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaaard, Ethan Hawke, and others, The Guilty is pandemic era filmmaking that will age beautifully.

The film is a triumph of thriller storytelling — once you turn it on, it will be unlikely you’ll be able to turn away. But, at the same time, it’s certainly politically confused, perhaps because of an adherence to the European source material. Gyllenhaal plays a temporarily reassigned LAPD officer, Joe Baylor, working as a 911 dispatcher rather than with any police outfit. Wondering why he’s answering phones instead of cracking skulls? [Spoilers to follow.]

If you guessed anything other than “he killed someone,” you should watch more movies. The victim of Baylor’s extrajudicial killing is never identified beyond his age and gender — a nineteen year old man or boy, depending on your perspective. Thus, the racism and social antagonism that the film evokes with the backdrop of burning wildfires that could be the LA uprisings of 1992, or the so-called “2020-2021 United States racial unrest” that Wikipedia categorizes as “ongoing,” are a looming absent presence in the work. Even if cops aren’t equal opportunity killers, one might at least entertain the possibility that Baylor’s victim’s racial ambiguity opens up interpretive possibilities rather than closes them off. Baylor himself is hardly a sympathetic character, riffing on his work in End of Watch (2012), but there’s something about this castrated police officer as protagonist that feels anachronistic.

The Schraderian approach to depicting complete existential collapse is mirrored closely in Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay (to which Gyllenhaal supplied uncredited contributions). Baylor suffers from tinnitus, clearly the result of recently having fired a gun. This is another clue, not to the mystery of what Baylor did, but rather to the film’s structuring principle — that Baylor’s obvious transgression is supposed to be a mystery in the first place. He also has chronic asthma, a failed marriage, and perhaps a lingering anxiety disorder. Elements that each evoke pathos but fail, to my mind, to reach the level of outright copaganda. Baylor is remarkably vulnerable, a conceit for the character only carried across because of Gyllenhaal’s livewire performance. Even if you believe End of Watch is the better film (and I don’t), there’s no denying that the performance Gyllenhaal turns in under Fuqua’s direction is far more layered. What makes this film a thrill is not the turns of the more-or-less obvious plot, but rather watching Jake work. By the end of the film, Baylor is dismantled.

Fuqua, Pizzalatto, and Gyllenhaal work through the nexus of punishment, power, and revenge with a principal character who is deeply confused about what constitutes a victim and a perpetrator. Baylor repeatedly takes as his prerogative the ad-hoc punishment of 911 callers. A wealthy businessman who patronizes a sex worker is left to “stew in it” after subsequently being robbed. An injured biker is given the sage advice of “don’t bike drunk, asshole” as a substitute for an ambulance ride. But it’s the call of the abducted woman, Emily Lighton (Riley Keough), that occasions Baylor going above and beyond his limited call of duty. With the power of the badge stripped from him, though he still identifies as “Officer Baylor,” his two greatest tools are wit and diplomacy. Suffice it to say, neither are well honed.

What Baylor comes to realize is that he may have more in common with the abductor, Lighton’s ex-husband Henry Fisher (Peter Sarsgaard), than he would care to admit. This momentarily perceived continuity is hardly the first or last of such realizations Baylor endures, however. As the film approaches it’s conclusion, his self-reflexive recognition becomes more painful and subjectively annihilating. What we see in The Guilty, as in many great films, is a castrated subject par excellence. Baylor is emphatically reduced to using only that which is within the order of the Symbolic — his discourse. He is, after all, gripping a telephone rather than a pistol. But without the ability to frantically grasp for something other, he cannot even deceive himself into thinking there is an escape from his prison of language. The infernal translating machine of his unconscious can only be expressed in signifiers rather than actions which might have fatal consequences.

Clocking in at a lean ninety minutes, Fuqua makes great use of the film’s limited real-estate and the production’s limited filming time. Even if the plot may come across as predictable to savvy viewers, the pace of the film and the fact that you are obviously supposed to be thrilled does a lot of work. Neither a total rehash of End of Watch nor Halle Berry’s The Call (2013), the Baylor character study may not have read the room very well. But, reading the room is overrated and good art usually the opposite.

Naturally Occurring Swag

I haven’t written much about sneakers or clothing lately, because I haven’t been buying any. It’s been 90 days since I’ve last made a gear purchase. But the relaxation of COVID guidelines and anxieties, a more freely-moving American population, and a renewed willingness to strike up conversations with strangers has returned me to an unfinished project about which I am very passionate.

“Coolhunting” or “trend spotting” is a fascinating, if extremely insidious and culturally destructive, enterprise funded by major clothing and sneaker brands. While I have my doubts that this is something still done today given the proliferation of social media, there is something special about the conversation between someone wearing something interesting and the person that wants to take their photo. Even better if that photographer is not turning in said photo to Nike or Adidas. Enter the Naturally Occurring Swag project.

Though my nomenclature is a little bit dated these days, I’m always struck by the rare individual who is wearing something exceptionally cool but made no effort to do so, nor has any cultural context for the significance of what they’re wearing. It all started with a picture I didn’t take but will forever live on in my memory. I was at an art show in Somerville in 2017 and I saw an older woman wearing a pair of highly coveted Air Max sneakers, the Jewel “Ruby Red”.

I immediately approached her and asked about them, and she said she bought them a few days prior on the recommendation from the salesperson that they were “good running shoes.” I don’t think she was trying to pull one over on me. The pure aesthetic appeal of the Air Max reached out and touched someone without the cultural framework or sense of scarcity.

Typically, it does happen to be older folks who fall into the Naturally Occurring Swag category. But, there are also plenty of geriatric sneakerheads out there. I have mad respect for them, but they’re not examples of what I am talking about. Once I stopped an older guy wearing Yeezys and he told me about his vast sneaker collection and love for Kanye. The swag was not naturally occurring.

But the guy I met this weekend really took it to the next level. He was wearing a pair of no-brand leather sneakers with a healthy amount of duct tape on the sole. He was also ready for his close up:

His excitement at being approached about his sneakers was palpable, but I was impressed by the job he had done wrapping the tape around the curve of the toe-box and along the side of the shoe. The line across the side of the sneaker is very straight. It was an eye-catching look, duplicated by controversial and largely swagless sneaker company Golden Goose:

As well as much more successfully done by Maison Margiela:

But, does anything really beat a home-made duct taped shoe? His whole outfit was pretty swaggy:

It would not have taken much convincing on his part to get me to believe his paint-stained sweater was also hand-distressed by an overpriced fashion brand. I asked him if he knew there were designer shoes held together with duct tape, and he told me he had “heard about it.” Here’s hoping his sneakers hold together for a few more years.

At any rate, not to get too “Humans of New England” on you, but I’m hoping I’ll have cause to revisit this topic. Nothing beats the NOS.

Weekly Reading List

Just this.

Until next time.