When Little Directors Get Big Ideas

by Arthur B

Guy Ritchie's Revolver is to slimline diet Hollywood Kabbalah what Battlefield Earth is to Scientology.
So, Guy Ritchie. His career went off the rails for a while there. Between Snatch and RocknRolla his films just couldn't get a decent review - or a decent take at the box offices - and it was only really with Sherlock Holmes that you could put your hand on your heart and say that his career had actually got back on track.

It is fashionable to blame Madonna for this. I don't agree with that; I think people are a little too ready to excuse the mistakes of someone they're well-disposed to by blaming it on an interfering spouse - and in particular, people seem really keen to blame a husband's mistakes on their wives. I think MacBeth doesn't get to be a sympathetic figure just because his wife happened to egg him on - whether he is a weak-willed spineless wuss who lacks the moral courage to say "no" to a bad idea or an ambitious, murderous fiend perfectly capable of doing the deed without outside encouragement, or anything in between those two extremes, doesn't change the fact that he's odious whichever way you cut it. Likewise, I don't think Yoko Ono should take the blame for John Lennon's later career, and I think Ritchie bears full responsibility for his own blunders during his marriage to Madonna. (Well, perhaps Madonna does share the blame for Swept Away, considering that she was the lead actor and all.)

No, Madonna may have introduced Ritchie to Kabbalah - or at least, the form taught by the Kabbalah Centre, which by all accounts is a massively simplified form of an extremely complicated tradition - but Ritchie's eager embrace of it in the mid-2000s was all down to him. And it's this stripped-down, contextless, New Agey reimagining of Kabbalah that informs his 2005 shitpile Revolver. As pointed out by Dan in a past article of his, lots of religious and philosophical ideas end up becoming ridiculous or worse if you take them out of their original context; I suppose it's lucky that in this case that ancient Jewish mysticism filtered through modern-day Hollywood hucksterism and interpreted by a chirpy Cockney director ends up becoming something which is very, very ridiculous rather than anything more alarming.

It is a common practice of directors who are not very artistic but nonetheless wish to declare that their films are Art with a capital A to include quote cards at the start of a movie. Many films with a high artistic value include quote cards too, of course, but what pseud director don't have a fine grasp of is why those particular films elected to open with quotes; they just note that those films have quote cards at the beginning, and they see that those films are regarded as having high artistic value, so they mistake correlation for causation and decide that their work of great Art needs quote cards at the start.

You can see where Ritchie is coming from in Revolver when he begins it with four separate quote cards. The quotes come from Julius Caesar, a Victorian chess manual, an 18th Century banker's tract and Macchiafuckingvelli, though the chess quote may be made up because "The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter opponent" doesn't sound very Victorian to me. Furthermore, that particular phrase is repeated over and over again over the course of the film until you want to perforate your own eardrums with a rusty fork so you don't have to hear any of the actors. And if you weren't already sick of the phrases by the time the opening credits are done, Ritchie actually throws up the exact same title cards later on in the film to denote the different stages of Jason Statham's mystic enlightenment.

Anyway, at the start of the movie our protagonist Jake Green (Jason Statham, playing Jason Statham) is released from jail during a big mess of quote cards. Two years later, he takes his cronies down to a casino owned by feared gangster Dorothy Macha (Ray "I am totally resting on my Goodfellas laurels for the rest of my fucking career" Liotta), who Statham apparently feels owes him money. Statham proceeds to gamble with Dorothy in order to scam as much money out of him as possible; apparently, every character in this film is a chronic gambling addict, because they seem physically incapable of refusing a bet. Anyway, Statham and his cronies make off with a heap of cash, they bump into Big Pussy from The Sopranos (Vincent Pastore), who's calling himself Zach these days, and Pussy hands Statham a note typewritten on a business card which appear to warn Statham that he's going to lose consciousness and fall down the stairs, which he does.

After getting home, Statham finds another card, the instructions on which he chooses to follow - allowing him to escape by the skin of his teeth an assassination attempt which takes out most of his cronies. Pussy swings by and gives Statham a lift out of the ambush site, and they go hang out with Andre 3000 (who is calling himself Avi) at Pussy and Andre's super secret chess club. Mr 3000 tells Statham that his blackout on the stairs was due to Hollywood Cancer, which will kill him in 3 days but will not cause any unphotogenic symptoms in the meantime - and suggests that the only way to save his life is to give Pussy and Andre all his money and do everything they say. (Meanwhile, the Kabbalah Centre insists that it is not some sort of Scientology-style scam preying on celebrities but a real and genuine distillation of ancient Jewish mysticism.) Confusing heists, a lot of confusing talky bits, and more shots of Ray Liotta's naked butt than I was expecting ensue.

The film only comes alive when it drops its pretensions and just tries to be a gritty action movie. It doesn't do this often enough. Yes, there is an incredibly shitty animated segment which I am pretty sure is Ritchie ripping off the first Kill Bill film, but otherwise the action sequences are great - my favourite is the one where Sorter (Mark Strong), Liotta's dorky assassin, has a sudden crisis of conscience when he and Liotta's other goons are called on to kill a kid and then opens an epic can of whoop-ass in order to save her. (Actually, pretty any much scene which Sorter is involved in is vastly superior to anything else that happens in the film, to the point where you could probably edit the Sorter bits to get a short film that tells his story and is vastly superior to the actual movie.)

The high quality of the Sorter bits probably stems from the fact that the script - and in particular, the dialogue - is so miserably bad, and Sorter himself has very very few lines. The best line in the script is actually from Green's internal monologue: "Why are they dragging this on?" It comes half an hour in, and I defy you not to ask the same question of Ritchie when you hear it. As for the worst line... oh god, so hard to choose. "The only way to get smarter is by playing a better opponent" is a candidate for how much it's overused. But the worst has to be "The consequences can kick my black ass" from Ray Liotta (again). We know your ass isn't black, Ray. We wish we didn't.

From early on, you'll notice two things about this film: the first that Statham's internal monologue is incredibly intrusive, and the second is that Ritchie's cinematography, and in particular his use of colour, might be interesting if his shots weren't so incredibly over-busy. In both cases, Ritchie is trying to do something which might be clever if he didn't overcomplicate it, but ends up being completely blundered; there are a few beautiful shots (I especially like the bit where Statham falls reeeeeeeeally slowly down some stairs), but too many are so hopelessly over-cluttered that the parts which are actually appealing are obscured. Furthermore, Ritchie does occasionally throw something really garish and ugly at you for the sake of following his Hollywood Kabbalah-inspired colour system.

There are, in fact, two films going on here - the film which Ritchie thought he was making, which tells a story loaded with Hollywood Kabbalah symbolism, and the film we actually see, where that point is completely lost on the audience because most of it isn't familiar with Hollywood Kabbalah, and even if you are the use of symbolism is so dense that it'd be completely impenetrable - if you tried you'd probably get a dozen different interpretations of any particular point because symbolism is kind of a vague and lousy way to get a complicated idea across. I mean, look at this quote from the commentary track (thanks, wikipedia!):
Blood is red, and blood belongs next to black. So, there's three columns: green is central column, white is right column, black is left column. Everything manifests in processes of three, so you've got: proton, neutron, electron; Sun, Earth, Moon; masculine, feminine, child. Wherever you're going to go, you're going to see a manifestation of '3'. So you've got Zach (or "Isaac"), Avi and Jake: a process of three. They represent positive, negative and fillament, where Jake is the central column. Blood is red, which belongs to the left column, black is extreme left column. So it's the idea that white blood cells are 'mercy', and red blood cells are 'judgement'. Right is positive and left is negative.
The thing is, this sort of New Age numerological colour symbolism is like metaphor for dummies. Rather than actually coming up with your own imagery, or selecting appropriate images from the vast and measureless storehouse of legends and stories and myths and poetry that the human imagination has produced over the aeons, you just use a fairly simple and completely trite system which is supposedly universal. But like astrology it achieves that universality by being so broad as to be meaningless - just like "Geminis will find that associates are getting tiresome to get along with" sounds like an extremely specific statement but it's actually incredibly broad, and pretty much anyone can imagine that it applies to their own life whether or not they are a Gemini. Likewise, I'm sure "Ray Liotta is standing in a completely blue room" meant something very specific to Guy Ritchie when he cooked that up, but filtered as it is through a system of broad generalisations it becomes completely incomprehensible and stupid by the time it gets to the viewer. Even if you were able to get hold of the exact same cabala manual that Ritchie used when he was writing the film and turn to the page of colour correspondences, the statements there will be so broad they will be of almost no use in analysing the film; in the end, it will tell you nothing that every other aspect of the storytelling already established.

This is a major problem when Ritchie chooses to tell so much of the story through colours. The plot which remains comprehensible to the viewer is completely stupid. Statham was apparently sent to jail under a completely mad system where you can get time off if you spend the entire time in solitary confinement, between two prisoners who convey messages to each other through a system which couldn't possibly work. Between them Statham's two neighbours supposedly developed a formula for the "ultimate con". Naturally, it turns out that the two guys were Pussy and Andre 3000, and it also turns out that they're using him to run the ultimate con on Ray Liotta. And it involves assassinating Statham's intrusive internal monologue, who it turns out is Satan and is defeated in a sequence in which Jason Statham stands in a dark lift and babbles to himself incomprehensibly for three and a half long, tedious minutes because duh huh buh let's roll Scientology up in a huge joint and spike it with a garbled forgery of Jewish mysticism and smoke it until we can't speak or see because we don't even want to try and make sense because we're Guy Ritchie and we don't even have to fucking try any more.

This is why Revolver is such a ridiculous and confusing mess. You will see such things if you attempt to watch this movie. You will see Big Pussy and Andre 3000 shooting golfballs over a rooftop whilst they try to explain to Jason Statham how L. Ron Hubbard can free him of his body thetans (no, wait, wrong Hollywood cult). You will see naked people in colour-coded rooms with colour-coded lighting. You will see Jason Statham muttering to himself in a lift for three and a half minutes you will never be able to get back. You will see Ray Liotta in his pants (and without his pants) more often in this film than you'd probably like to. You will see him standing in his underwear, blubbering and dribbling like a baby, yelling "F-f-f-f-f-f-FFFFFFFFFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEAR ME!" whilst pointing a gun at an empty lift. God help you if you try to watch this film in an even remotely unbalanced state of mind because that scene is a sight to push you over the edge if there ever was one.

Oh, and check out the Photoshop Disasters-quality DVD cover. Damn.
Themes: TV & Movies

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 21:48 on 2011-01-04
So that's what Guy Ritchie was trying to do. Huh. Not exactly Kubrick, is it?

By the way, Arthur, I dare you to watch Southland Tales. I've seen it five times, collaborated on a satirical recap of it, and I still don't know what the holy hell it's supposed to be.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 00:33 on 2011-01-05
Am I missing you on the page credits, or are you referring to a collaborative satirical recap of Southland Tales done by someone OTHER than the Agony Booth? That film blew my mind so hard. All I knew for sure was that The Rock was one of the best parts. Everything else was the worst parts, simultaneously.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:59 on 2011-01-05
I actually put most of it together and wrote my parts under the pseudonym "Ivan Druzhkov." It's a name I've used online here and there.

Yeah, that whole project was basically a cathartic act to cleanse myself of that film. Worked pretty well, too.

By the way, did you watch the Youtube clip I warned people not to watch?
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 01:45 on 2011-01-05
Ahhh. An excellent recap, Alasdair. One of the best ones on the site, actually. And I, like probably most of your readers, found myself unable to resist viewing the Youtube clip. Harrowing stuff.
Sister Magpie at 17:50 on 2011-01-05
If I had this on my Netflix queue I would take it off now. For some reason out of the entire mess the line "masculine, feminine, child" stands out to me. Because sure, that whole paragraph of "symbols" is meaningless, but masculine/feminine is a binary. Why not masculine/feminine/neuter or masculine/feminine/androgynous. Mother/father/child makes three, but a child is (generally) masculine or feminine.

I know it's a small point but it seems like a perfect symbol (and this film apparently loves that) for how much it's gobbledygook.
https://thewaysof.wordpress.com/ at 06:50 on 2011-01-06
The way you describe this movie actually makes me think of Gangster No. 1 - which is quite good, pace one major casting/characterization critique I would make. It's very stylish and symbolic, but the symbolism all stems from the story itself and basic intuition rather than a specific, external scheme. I guess one could describe it as a psychological gangster movie in the American tradition but with the tempo and style of the British directors - Guy Ritchie, Mike Hodges, etc.
Arthur B at 12:22 on 2011-01-06
I very vaguely remember seeing Gangster No. 1. But only vaguely. And it might not have been Gangster No. 1. It's a product of that time in British cinema when everyone wanted to be Guy Ritchie and all of those tend to blend together for me.
Arthur B at 12:27 on 2011-01-06
For some reason out of the entire mess the line "masculine, feminine, child" stands out to me. Because sure, that whole paragraph of "symbols" is meaningless, but masculine/feminine is a binary. Why not masculine/feminine/neuter or masculine/feminine/androgynous. Mother/father/child makes three, but a child is (generally) masculine or feminine.

The thing that jumped out at me was "positive, negative and fillament". Presumably this cosmology involves epic battles between the forces of Good, Evil and Lightbulbs.
Shim at 14:15 on 2011-01-06
Mother/father/child makes three, but a child is (generally) masculine or feminine.

Although in some cultures/languages, I seem to remember they're not considered people until they can talk (or similar milestones) which might tie in with that analysis. And I've definitely seen babies just called It or Baby in some older British texts, as in early 20th century, and not handled like people. Possibly tied into child mortality rates? Anyway, I don't find it completely weird, whereas the rest of that paragraph is frankly baffling.

Also: Where does crab blood come in? They have cyanoglobin. What about Spock?
Arthur B at 14:49 on 2011-01-06
Also: Where does crab blood come in? They have cyanoglobin. What about Spock?

Well, if the white and red blood cells correspond to positive/negative or Good/Evil, cyanoglobin probably corresponds to Lightbulbs.
http://jackbishop.livejournal.com/ at 18:54 on 2011-01-16
Blood is red, and blood belongs next to black. So, there's three columns: green is central column, white is right column, black is left column.... So it's the idea that white blood cells are 'mercy', and red blood cells are 'judgement'.

Ouch. I've studied Kabbalah informally, and while every single western mystic of the last couple centuries has had their own little contribution to it, none of it, AFAICT, actually works with that color/geometry/quality association, assuming that they're using the Tree of Life to build their theories. The actual layout of the Sephiroth is pretty well-established, and this is presumably alluding to a coloration scheme where red and black are nearby, chesed is white, and some quality relating to "judgment" is red (note: none of the sephiroth actually encompass the concept of "judgment").

Traditional Judaic sources don't attach any colors to the sephiroth, but the modern tradition derives colors and other qualities entirely from Crowley's book of correspondences, Liber 777. But none of the color-combinations in there (there are 4 of them, of which the "queen scale" is the most commonly represented) work either -- chesed is never white, and a white sephira never appears in the right column. So, AFAICT, the nattering about colors here doesn't even work within the context they're claiming for their symbolism.
Arthur B at 19:01 on 2011-01-16
Traditional Judaic sources

Crowley's book of correspondences

As far as I can tell the point of Hollywood Kabbalah is that you don't need to resort to anything that complicated or academic or old-fashioned to study it: you just buy the bright colourful textbooks with pretty pictures in from the Kabbalah Centre and spend a lot of money on red string.

The fact that I'm using words like "academic" or "old-fashioned" in connection with Crowley of all people ought to tell you something about how cheap and cheerful Hollywood Kabbalah really is.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in January 2011