Caged: A Nicolas Cage Marathon

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In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off - all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands.  To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee.  His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.

The Alamo Drafthouse opened its six-screen Yonkers outpost this past August, and imported the “Caged” marathon from its mothership in Austin, although it swapped out a few titles. Famous for serving food and beer during screenings, they also have a strict no talking/texting policy, under which they famously banned Madonna from their chain. This seemed to be contradictory, for what could be more disruptive at a screening that waiters flitting back and forth in front of your seat? As an anti-social cinemagoer, my Platonic theater ideal is the monastic original Anthology Film Archive seats, which included blinders on both sides, so all you could see was the holy projected light on the screen. And yet, at least in the convivial atmosphere of an all-day marathon, the servers did not prove to be a major distraction, and they allowed me to consume a Ghost Rider-themed hamburger (lots of jalapenos), which I can now cross off my bucket list.

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The afternoon began with a screening of Con Air (1997), the first feature Jerry Bruckheimer produced after the death of his partner Don Simpson. It is the continuation of Cage’s supposed “sellout” phase, after he pivoted from his Oscar winning role in Leaving Las Vegas to the Michael Bay blow-em’-up The Rock (1996). In Con Air Cage plays Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger from Alabama imprisoned for murder (defending his wife, of course). Sporting scraggly shoulder-length locks cascading around his widow’s peak, and speaking in a halting, syrupy sweet Southern accent, he acts more like an aging rhythm guitarist from Lynyrd Skynrd than an action hero. Cage always introduces these kinds of tensions into his work, emphasizing his own ungainliness. For while he is in great physical shape, shown off under his flimsy undershirt, he is far from graceful. His limbs are too long for his body and his run is an uncoordinated gallop rather than the fleet exertions of a Tom Cruise. Cage is the lead weirdo in a cast full of them (John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle and Ving Rhames all deliver perverse work), introducing genuine strangeness into Bruckheimer’s slam-bang formula.

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After the visual and aural assault of Bruckheimer, programmer Cristina Cacioppo slowed down the tempo with Red Rock West, a neo-noir of quiet desperation that aired on HBO in 1993 and disappeared after. For a quick moment director John Dahl (The Last Seduction) looked like a true inheritor of the noir tradition, with his airtight constructions of American greed and vanity. Like auteurs of old, he is now a prolific director on television. Dahl co-wrote and directed this poisonous little thriller about a drifter (Cage) who ambles into the middle of a violent feud between a husband (J.T. Walsh), a wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) and a hitman (Dennis Hopper). Cage is introduced as already debilitated, his leg hanging out the drivers door, a heavy bandage around his knee. He’s playing an out-of-work roughneck who inadvertently steals a hitman’s payday. Dahl continually circles through a few locations, the town of Red Rock a circle of hell to which Cage reluctantly keeps returning, to as if dragged by fate. For Cage it is a quiet performance, as he lets his hangdog eyes and stooped back tell his tale. He defers to Dennis Hopper to provide the scenery chewing, who channels the chattering psychosis of his Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. When Hopper sneers, “You think you’re better than me?”, it feels like a dysfunctional passing of the torch.

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Cage literally chews the scenery in Vampire’s Kiss, a pitch black comedy written by After Hours scribe Joseph Minion. The movie tracks the mental breakdown of a NYC literary agent who believes he is turning into a vampire. Cage channels everything from John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Mick Jagger in his most experimental and uproarious performance, in which his character transforms from clean-cut yuppie to drooling savage – done without makeup or effects aside from the plasticity of Cage’s body. In his ritual harassments of his assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso), he becomes increasingly grotesque, popping open his eyes to the straining point and stretching his grin to Joker-lengths, looking like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. His face is one thing, his body another, as it skitters and stutters in unpredictable contortions. Jonathan Rosenbaum compared it to Jerry Lewis, while Pauline Kael said Cage does “some of the way-out stuff that you love actors in silent movies for doing.”

It reminded me most of Jim Carrey, who would break out a few years after The Vampire’s Kiss in Ace Ventura. Both wring unpredictable angles out of their angular bodies, though Cage aims to alienate the audience (at one point he eats a live cockroach) while Carrey is serving it. The whole arc of the film leads to Cage’s horrific self-annihilation, in which his character takes some violently misogynistic turns. Cage borrows some of these destabilizing moves for Face/Off (2007), with his priest’s strained orgasmic stare in the opening matching the death’s head glare from Vampire’s Kiss, lending a symmetry to his work that continues today.  He is currently filming a new movie from Paul Schrader (The Dying of the Light), and his Southern gothic drama Joe, made by David Gordon Green, has received positive festival notices. In between, of course, will be the Russian mob thriller Tokarev and the evangelical Christian movie Left Behind. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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10 Responses Caged: A Nicolas Cage Marathon
Posted By Richard Brandt : January 28, 2014 5:00 pm

Just on a tangent: Carrey had his own comic take on vampires in “Twice Bitten,” but it failed to be the big breakout role he kept swinging at until “Ventura.”

Posted By Qalice : January 28, 2014 11:37 pm

The TV show Community recently introduced the question, “Is Nicholas Cage a good actor or bad?” and concluded that it was unanswerable. For myself, I prefer an actor who does too much to one who does too little — so many contemporary film actors seem to be afraid anyone might notice that they’re acting. No one could accuse Nicholas Cage of that!

Posted By Dave : January 29, 2014 12:45 am

“If I was in 70 films over 30 years and I spent each one talking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar.” – Yvette Nicole Brown on “Community,” 1/2/2014

Posted By Doug : January 29, 2014 1:13 am

Perhaps Cage is playing the game of lowered expectations.
Here’s what I mean-Meryl Streep? High expectations, because she always delivers.
Cage, I think, always WANTS to do a good job, but he might not be driven to excel like Streep. Acting is WORK, and he’s been at it his entire adult life.
Perhaps too many producers hired him ‘just to show up’ when he was at his most popular. They didn’t challenge him; they were just happy to have his name/image on the poster. A lot of films that should never have been greenlit gummed up his reputation.
So now we have lowered expectations, and he doesn’t have to work as hard…unless the right role comes along, like “Leaving Las Vegas”.
Then he can stomp on the gas and really dig into it, surprising us and maybe winning an Oscar due to our lowered expectations.

Posted By Matt Carman : January 29, 2014 5:11 am

Once Bitten. Carrey was bitten twice in the film, but the title doesn’t reflect that.

Posted By Jenni : January 29, 2014 1:49 pm

I don’t know how it began but my sons like to tease our oldest daughter that she “loves” N.Cage. I think I’m going to email her this article to add to the fun.

Seriously, though,Cage has been acting a long time, won an Oscar, and then bad money decisions happened. It could be that he has to take roles in lesser films just to be able to pay off the debts, pay the bills, etc. and to keep his name afloat in Hollywood.

I finally watched ConAir for the first time this summer, AMC was showing it-I enjoyed it for what it was and Malkovich-he’s the master at playing weird!!!

Posted By Susan Doll : January 29, 2014 5:13 pm

I have always loved Nicolas Cage — ever since Valley Girl. I prefer Nicolas Cage the movie star over Cage the actor. Give me a movie star with charisma, energy, and performance value any day. So tired of “acting.”

Posted By robbushblog : January 30, 2014 10:36 pm

I’m sorry that you had to sit through Con Air AND Vampire’s Kiss both in one day. Not even the goodness of Red Rock West and great, popcorniness (New word!) of The Rock could make up for that.

Posted By george : February 1, 2014 9:05 pm

Cage has expensive hobbies — like collecting Ferraris and Lamborghinis — which may explain why he takes so many roles, often in terrible films.

But when he’s energized, instead of just walking through a film, he can be great. His hilarious Adam West impersonation in KICK-ASS somewhat redeemed that ugly film.

Robert De Niro is another actor who doesn’t seem very selective anymore (somewhat like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman in the ’80s and ’90s). I recall a description of De Niro as “a hack — the thinking man’s Charles Bronson.” There are times when I agree with that. Then a SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK will come along, to remind us that De Niro can still be great.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2014 8:29 pm

There’s always hope for Cage, I loved his collaboration with Werner Herzog in the sort-of sequel to Bad Lieutenant, and those ludicrous National Treasure films show he can at least hold down some sort of successful franchise (I put them in the “enjoyable, but insubstantial” category).

But one of these days, I will get around to watching Bangkok Dangerous, for kicks if nothing else.

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