Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die: "The Counselor" And Its Cult


The present-day “film maudit” is typically a Hollywood production (or English-language international venture) lavishing ill-advised expenditure on deeply personal oddball content, a combo destined for a poor return on investment and whose impractical existence is itself cause for celebration: whatever its failures, such a work can’t be confused with by-the-numbers mediocrity or four-quadrant compromise. The term was coined for a festival celebrating cinema’s overlooked and undervalued: 1949’s inaugural “Festival du film maudit” exhibited a cross-section of works from 1932 right up to the present moment. The following year, the second/final installment narrowed its scope from 1942 to 1950. Remarkably catholic, both lineups presciently included many now-accepted classics made on a relatively modest scale: Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night,” Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” and so on. The idea of near-instantaneous re-evaluation’s built into the very origins of the “film maudit,” which doesn’t require a generation or more to ascend from disastrous grand folly to more-or-less accepted classic (e.g. the recent return of “Heaven’s Gate,” for example).

Same-year reclamation’s one thing, but how’s two weeks for a death-rebirth-backlash life cycle? “The Counselor” was screened an ominous three days before release for American critics — not as bad a sign as no advance screenings at all, but a move unapologetically meant to circumvent publications with long-lead requirements. Initial reviews were largely brutal, with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir (a college mentor, please note) providing one of the more representatively apocalyptic reviews, going off on “the worst movie in the history of the universe (or at any rate, one of the worst I’ve ever seen).”

Eight days (!) after the film’s release, Chuck Bowen was able to publish a piece already in backlash mode against a now too-celebrated work. His premise was that “The Counselor” and Claire Denis’ “Bastards” are both elliptical and nihilist, but that “sadly” the “higher-profile and less rewarding film” has received more discussion. By virtue of one of being a Hollywood product that cost $25 million and was released to 3,000+ screens and the other being a French film that’s so far played on all of two screens, that would be inevitable even if “The Counselor” was bland slot-filler product. What Bowen meant was that “discussion” has taken over an echo chamber of self-defined cinephiles more attuned to Significant Cinema than marketing pressure.

His piece succinctly outlines what happened: an initial wave of “poisonous reviews” proved “too poisonous,” and “these instances of hyperbole have probably emboldened ‘The Counselor’’s inevitable and eventual status as a misunderstood masterpiece within enthusiastic circles that unquestioningly accept Scott’s, and particularly, McCarthy’s artistic sainthood.” I’d strip out those misapplied adjectives: on the rarefied pages of Fandor, where Bowen was published, the director (most recently of “Prometheus,” “Robin Hood” and “American Gangster”) is anything but revered (the case with the public at large, as it currently happens), and while McCarthy’s widely celebrated I think “sainthood” is pushing it. But “hyper-digested” is exactly the right term for the rapidity of reclamation.

The number of such releases in the last decade’s been incredibly scanty, with studios increasingly unwilling to throw money at clearly untenable projects. Obvious candidates include Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” and “The Box,” – his totally unhinged attempt at making a more straightforward follow-up – Andrew Dominik’s three-hour art Western “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” (whose failure led to the director being unable to make another feature for five years), and Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” a movie whose outsize emotional mood-swings and total disavowal of realism was too much for recent audiences. All had their instant defenders and small continuous cults, none of which stopped them from bombing.

“The Counselor” isn’t an $80 million folly like “Elizabethtown”; Nikki Finke alleged it exists as a modest $25 million thank you note from Fox to Ridley Scott for delivering the fiscal goods with “Prometheus,” which seems like the only plausible reason the film could exist. It’s no surprise multiplex audiences didn’t care for “The Counselor”, which is essentially a series of anti-naturalistic didactic dialogues expounding a frankly simplistic macho nihilism combined with purposeful ellipticism. The CinemaScore rating was a “D” and the opening weekend returns dismal, but a re-evaluation occurred with remarkable speed, buzzing through Twitter and other social networks. By Monday morning Scott Foundas was mounting a spirited defense of the film — in the pages of “Variety” no less, a journal whose attitude towards movie reviews generally trends utilitarian middlebrow rather than contrarian auteurist.

To state the obvious: the “real world” of viewers that could — by showing up out of curiosity in sufficient numbers to make this a profitable film — could give two hoots that “The Counselor” is now a Film Of Interest. First-draft (English-language) film discussion — clique formation, battle lines, vigorously volleyed pros and cons — is increasingly a matter of internet discussion/screaming, enacted on message boards, Twitter and online journals where passive-aggressive jabs are taken at unnamed colleagues in the bodies of reviews, wars enacted for the relatively small number of people bored enough to follow updates all day at their jobs. Sending out word of overlooked greatness or simply novelty is a natural byproduct of having a medium to alert people in real-time to get to the theater before it’s too late; for sheer oddity alone, what’s happening with “The Counselor” is seemingly inevitable (it’s slightly odder that word percolated up to the industry/trade level, but that’s not an unwelcome development).

“The Counselor” has been found by viewers comfortable with overt artifice and (as film buffs normally are) starved to the point of near-unreason for anything that’s non-normative and at least semi-competent at it. The hyper-accelerated timeline is a seemingly inevitable consequence of tools (primarily Twitter and Letterboxd, though your viewpoint may vary) allowing those who care about such matters to narrow their critical intake to groups of writers and viewers whose primary reference point is each other. That sounds like a hermetic nightmare, but the ability to organize who you find useful to listen to is one of the great boons of the internet age; in this paradigm, you can shut out the Harry Knowles and Peter Travers of the critical world (or you can make them your guiding star, whatever works for you).

Is the film worth it? “The Counselor” is a didactic movie about how a) women are predatory whores (Cameron Diaz is tattooed with cheetah spots to drive the point home) b) a man defines his character by being appropriately stoic about death. It’s an idiotic exercise in some respects, but a rare opportunity to watch talented performers (Diaz aside) figure out the rhythms of non-naturalistic dialogue that’s quite fascinating when you ignore its offensiveness; it’s not quite “Cosmopolis” or Harold Pinter, but the exercise is in the same ballpark. Novelty filmmaking perhaps — another 20 movies like this simply wouldn’t do — but the multiplex is better for it, and it’s proof our internet Red Alert mechanisms are working faster than ever.

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