Monday, May 14, 2012

The Curious Case of Charlie Casanova

Is All Publicity Good Publicity?

Charlie (Emmett Scanlan) laughing it up: Image courtesy of Studio Canal
 A few months ago I reviewed Terry McMahon's Charlie Casanova. By all accounts, I didn't like it, although did express a respect for McMahon's low-budget achievement and attempt at crafting something different. A failed attempt, in my opinion, but an attempt none-the-less. Anyway, six months later, and Charlie Casanova has received a modest yet impressive theatrical release in Ireland and the UK. It's being proudly advertised on the side of buses Dublin-wide, which is unheard of for an arthouse Irish movie with a €1000 production budget. And the critics and the general public? They hate it.   

It all kicked off when Donald Clarke, film journalist for newspaper The Irish Times, wrote a rather bemused article observing how the quote 'a jaw-dropping piece of work' had been taken out of its original (negative) context and put on said giant bus posters. It's a harmless opinion piece - with Clarke noting it's written with amusement rather than anger - mostly content to provide a brief, light-hearted history of critical misquotes in marketing materials. And Clarke is more than entitled to express his distaste at what he perceives as a misrepresentation. However, Terry McMahon reacted badly, and responded with what can only be described as a rant on a specially set-up blog. To give you a taste, in a closing paragraph (for those who got that far) he writes 'What offends is there is an entire generation out there that you and the Irish Times know nothing about. What offends is we exist in a culture where alleging a politician has a predilection for booze results in a 450,000 Euro payout but you can say or write whatever you want about anybody from the working class with impunity'.

Wait, what? Working class? Cultural elite? There's an awful lot going on in that post, and very little of it relevant to the discussion Clarke initiated. In one step, the debate has turned from wry observations about marketing mishaps to name-calling, accusations of defamation and some bizarre Marxist theorising. McMahon is seemingly channeling his fictional protagonist here, and it could certainly be interpreted as a devious publicity ploy. In that regard it worked, because it got a hell of a lot of people talking about his film. This bus quote saga may, frankly, have been the best thing that ever happened to Charlie Casanova's marketing campaign.

And so a week later Charlie Casanova was unleashed upon the world. If you were to look solely at critical reviews and audience opinion (take this thread over on the reaction has been almost overwhelmingly negative. Little White Lies kind of liked it, but that's pretty much it. Everyone else seems to have hated it: properly despised the film and everything about it. Well, not everyone. Before its wide release, it was supposedly well-received at SXSW and the Galway Film Fleadh (awarding 'best new director' to McMahon), and was nominated for several awards at the Irish Television and Film Awards. So it has fans, albeit seemingly in a silent minority at the moment.

McMahon himself has regularly spoken about how it was designed to be hated: how it's a 'new paradigm' in cinema. On today's Liveline - a thoroughly objectionable yet absurdly popular national radio show where the general public moan endlessly about all sorts of nonsense - other fans finally emerged. One was McMahon's twin, so that doesn't count. The other defenders - including film-maker Mark O'Connor, responsible for my least favourite Irish film of the last decade with Between the Canals, so consider my reaction slightly tinged with bias - were keen to emphasise that it was decidedly 'not mainstream' (an infuriatingly condescending suggestion) and is simply misunderstood. Destined to be a 'cult classic', as one caller put it. O'Connor explains how his new film Stalker was directly inspired by Charlie. I look forward to seeing how that plays out. But: they're entirely entitled to their opinion, and we can only believe that they genuinely were deeply affected by the film. It is nice to hear a positive response to the film to give a bit of balance to the ongoing debate, even if I'm not entirely convinced.

Anyway, according to McMahon and the film's other supporters many people who have expressed their dislike of the film are part of a supposed cultural elite or simply 'not ready' for Charlie Casanova. Here's the thing though: it's not hated because people aren't getting it. It's not exactly a hard film to get after all: the basic gist being the murderous depravity of the upper middle class, represented ad nauseam through our psychopathic protagonist. So repetitive are the protagonist's clearly absurd rants that it's impossible not to recognise that McMahon is critiquing a very specific class of upwardly mobile assholes that have emerged in a greed-driven contemporary Ireland. No, 'not getting it' is not the root of the backlash here. Indeed, it could have been a provocative, contemporary thematic focus (think Irish Psycho). Alas, not so. Charlie Casanova's fundamental failings as a feature film are the problem.

You see Charlie is such a relentlessly one-note, repetitive and frustrating experience that it invites the audience not to like it. That's the whole point according to McMahon, but it doesn't mean the overwrought dialogue, deplorable characters (it's not just Charlie suffering from that particular failing) and technical ineptitude (in fairness, understandable given the resources) are any more worthy of applause. Charlie Casanova is, for what's looking like a vast majority, merely an ill-conceived and poorly put together film.

Which makes McMahon and company's constant insistence that we just don't get it, and we're all just part of a working-class hating elite, somewhat infuriating. The writer/director is illustrating an admirable tough-skin in the face of relentless criticism: for that I applaud him, as a director should stand by their vision come hell or high water. But the vitriolic responses are not in-line with his supposed master plan for an audience dividing cinematic revolution. It's because people genuinely think the film is god-awful. And the more he and others insist that a 'cultural elite' is to blame, and that Charlie Casanova is meant to be hated, meant to provoke these furious responses, well then the angrier people are going to get. In someways, it's no longer about the film itself: it's Terry McMahon's reactions to the reactions that have everyone up in arms. And perhaps, eventually, that will be the final downfall of Charlie Casanova. While a few curious onlookers will give it a look to see what all the fuss is about, the more negative opinions and controversy that emerge may ultimately doom the film critically and commercially. Such a reputation - for film and filmmaker alike - may well harm the film going forward.

It's great to see a film getting discussed so passionately. And I genuinely wish McMahon well in his future endeavours - I, unlike others, think there is potential hidden (deep) in Charlie Casanova. But for most Charlie Casanova is simply a bad film, and there aren't any insidious, ignorant or elitist motives at play.

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