YouTube satire tops Gangster Squad

Hazelle Goodman gets it in Demand CGFT.

Hazelle Goodman gets it in Demand CGFT.

Gangster Squad is not the first important cinema work of 2013—that would be the YouTube clip “Demand Celebrities Go Fuck Themselves”—but the two are related. Both deal with violence, the top-ranking political issue this news cycle, as an undeniable part of our culture. It was a Gangster Squad trailer playing at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater when last summer’s massacre occurred. The trailer reportedly included a scene of mobsters mowing down a movie audience. That scene, a meta prophecy, has since been deleted from the release version, apparently as a show of respect, but it borders on hypocrisy.

That Hollywood hypocrisy is the hilarious, devastating subject of “Demand Celebrities Go Fuck Themselves.” The clip edits a public service announcement where various celebrities plead against guns. They look into the camera, pronouncing the place names of recent massacres, their faces overly serious and voices full of pious importuning; it’s how privileged people exhibit their self-righteousness—typical of how celebrities have recently displayed so-called political commitment, here compounded by their deep, unctuous feeling “for the children,” “for America.” It’s part of the infuriatingly fatuous way people react to the Sandy Hook calamity as an incident of personal sensitivity rather than a specific tragedy.

The YouTube re-edit cuts through movie star bullshit by juxtaposing the celebrities’ bleeding-heart piety next to their craven life’s work: making movies that glorify the violence they pretend to abhor. The interspersed killing clips make liars of these pretend humanitarians. My favorite is Julianne Moore, that p.c. paragon from Savage Grace, The Kids Are Alright and Game Change. In what is probably Moore’s most effusive acting ever, she begs forbearance (“Enough!”), then we see her armed with a semi-automatic weapon gunning down actress Hazelle Goodman in a clip from one of the most tasteless, violent movies of the century, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.

The YouTube clip’s suggestion that celebs take a hike essentially suggests that viewers wake up and take notice of the dishonesty behind Hollywood’s liberal piety. The current gun-control campaign, which has triggered the opportunism of many politicians and editorial writers, is driven by the same sentimentality and excessive self-righteousness of filmmakers who disavow any connection between their exploitation of audiences and the impact of their violent fantasies upon the culture. The YouTube clip makes that disavowal impossible.

It’s a marvelous and funny piece of cinema, a greater work of assemblage than Christian Marclay’s vaunted museum piece The Clock. “Demand” employs the Kuleshov effect, where the juxtaposition of images creates new meaning—in this case, a fresh and insightful political argument about the accountability of irresponsible yet moralizing entertainers. This breed of hypocrite has been particularly overbearing during the current political era. It’s high camp when career blasphemer Sarah Silverman implores “How many more houses of faith?” or jokester Chris Rock cries “as a human being.”

The “Demand” clip highlights the problem of truly gratuitous violence (the issue argued about since the days of Bonnie & Clyde, Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange), since not a single clip comes from a good movie. A newer version updated with Django Unchained clips includes Jamie Foxx on Saturday Night Live, one of TV’s fatuous entertainment programs, blurring the line between humor and political propaganda. Foxx boasts, “I killed all the white people, how great was that?”—a line not even Long Island shooter Colin Ferguson was crazy enough to utter. Foxx’s obscenity (following his mawkish cry for peace) shows the extent of Hollywood shamelessness. And it goes farther and deeper than the particular movies; “Demand” uncovers an entire careless, insensitive way of business, primarily geared to money—Hollywood gangsterism. They sell gun violence as fun—each one of these clips (from Hannibal to Django Unchained, Gangs of New York to A Perfect Murder) is more culpable in the madmen’s acts of vengeance than the National Rifle Association.

These damning quotes are the essence of what copyright lawyers call Fair Use, here used as cultural criticism. One might argue that this counterpunch coup catches celebs in a moment of personal weakness but their p.c. grandstanding is also a moment of political power; they take advantage of their fame and media access to force a disingenuous political point of view upon the public. It’s a roll call of fun-and-profit “killers”: Jamie Foxx, Paul Rudd, Michelle Williams, Amy Poehler, Jeremy Renner, Amanda Peet, Jon Hamm, Reese Witherspoon, Will Farrell, Rashida Jones, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Garner, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Rock, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Dinklage. These anti-gun hypocrites are a p.c. gangster squad.

The effect of the “Demand” exposé should be seismic (if only the mainstream media chose to broadcast it the way they do viral videos of dancing pets and acrobatic infants). It could also be revolutionary and teach viewers the lessons of semiotics and structuralism that universities failed to make matter.

As for the Gangster Squad movie: Director Ruben Fleischer takes the same juvenile approach to violence as in his comedy Zombieland but without the implicit social commentary. Here, Fleischer employs the violent thrills audiences find permissible in gangster movies. It’s possible that the expurgated theater shootout scene might have had a meta-cinema justification, giving the film’s constant facetious references to genre movie clichés, a complex, abstract point.

But Fleischer isn’t sincere enough to make the clichés matter, and his callow cast keeps even the adult moral issues and romance on a childish level. Sean Penn hasn’t aged well; part of his actor’s gift is to maintain a youthful creative impudence even in roles such as Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen (Although Penn’s career may be haunted by Cohen’s line “Now my whole crop of cunt is ruined”). The young stars—from jug-jawed Josh Brolin to petulant, pouting Ryan Gosling to puerile bad girl Emma Stone—recall Bugsy Malone, a Little Rascals version of mob history. Like so much Hollywood gunplay, Gangster Squad misfires.