Chaos Theater Redux is a Features series that follows up on topics previously discussed during the podcast’s 2011-2017 run.
As I get older and my tastes change, I like to occasionally revisit media to see if I find something new and/or fun in it that I hadn’t prior. It was thanks to Chris that I was able to understand Nine Inch Nails through listening to Year Zero and going back from there. One adaptation to my taste is the enjoyment of the terrible movie. I used to dismiss movies that weren’t traditionally considered good, but thanks to the exposure of films like Birdemic, Miami Connection, Samurai Cop, and of course The Room, I now understand how something that utterly falls flat on its face can have worth. Part of that journey lead me to a revelation:
I actually like Nicolas Cage as an actor.
What that doesn’t sound like a particularly shocking statement, old listeners may remember my opinions on the works of Cage. Basically, he sucked and I could barely stand seeing him on screen. I thought his overacting ruined the films he was in and now about of spinning a character could change that. I would look at compilations of his performances, laugh at them, and wonder how the hell he got as far as he got. Barring his Hollywood-royalty credentials, I thought he was, at best, a community theater actor that failed his way to the top.
So how I change my mind about all this? Well, it took diving deeper into the world of Camp and how the bad can often be more satisfying than the good. For those that don’t know what Camp is, have a look at “Notes on ‘Camp” by Susan Sontag. Give it a read and come on back.
Caught up? Great. Written in 1964, Sontag summed up Camp as the joy of artifice, exaggeration, and the naïve attempt to say something seriously in a failed way. Some people already know this through the previously mentioned The Room, a movie so deliciously terrible it spawned a book and movie about its making that STILL is unable to demystify the mind of the man who made the whole thing. This extends further if you watch the films of John Waters, the man who embodies these ideals in every movie he’s done. Even at his most accessible, the classic Hairspray, it’s still not a “great” movie by most people’s standards. What makes it pop is how much everybody treats the movie and premise seriously. It looks cheap, but my god everybody is trying that hardest to make it work and it worms its way into your heart. It’s genuine and that makes land.
So right there you might see why I started enjoying Cage’s work, but like Nine Inch Nails, I needed the right entry point. Yeah, he’s over the top in Kick Ass and Face/Off, both films I already enjoyed. But those movies were good despite his performance. They used Cage well, but ultimately anybody else could’ve come in. No, I needed something that would’ve crashed and burned without his performance. Thanks to my partner, I found that in Vampire’s Kiss.
In short, Vampire’s Kiss is about Peter Lowe, literary agent who has a one-night stand (?) with a woman (?) who may or not be a vampire. Why so many question marks? Because the movie wants to leave you wondering if this actually happening or is in the mind of Lowe. It’s a bad movie, no doubt about it. But the one thing that saves it is Cage’s Lowe, who chews every piece of scenery he’s in with a wandering accent and randomized volume control. You probably have heard Cage angrily reciting the alphabet, a scene that’s somehow crazier in context than out. Every decision Cage makes is the perfectly wrong choice and it makes the movie a joy to watch.
Going back to Sontag, she says that the purest forms of Camp rest in the naïve, the pure, and in the purity the essential element is that it fails. That failure isn’t a bad thing, in fact that failure is essential, that failure has to come from ambition. She says, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously but cannot be taken seriously because it’s too much,” and HOO BOY is Cage’s performance way too much. That attempt to say…well, I’m not entirely sure what Cage is trying to say in Vampire’s Kiss, all I know is that he decides he needs to walk around with plastic vampire teeth and pretend he’s Nosferatu. It’s perfect and just the thought of the scenes in this movie brings a smile to my face.
From there, I started actively seeking older Cage movies that I ignored to see if was a flash in the pan or if I’d continue to like what I saw. Thanks to the amazing podcast How Did This Get Made, I saw Deadfall, which had Cage as some sort of hitman/mob tough who, again, has a dumb accent and acts weird as hell. Pre-Vampire’s Kiss, I would’ve thought it was a standard terrible performance. However, I could now see he’s just trying to embody this strange, strange hitman and it made me laugh almost every time he popped on screen. And what was great was that I was able to actually enjoy his better performances, like Raising Arizona. Granted, it was directed by the Coen Brothers who could probably direct a blowup doll to a Golden Globe nomination, but they knew how to get a stirring performance out of Cage long before he won his Oscar.
The only problem is now enough people have this same appreciation for Cage that they’re trying to force him into intentionally Campy roles and it’s hit-or-miss. Sometimes it’s very enjoyable, like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent or The Color Out of Space. Other times it’s not as good, like Willy’s Wonderland, which attempts to play against Cage’s mad-lad reputation and instead just makes a boring movie. However, I’d much rather be on this end, able to enjoy an actor who isn’t as good as he thinks he is, but my god does he try.