By Paul Risker.
One of the intriguing occurrences that forms part of the spectatorial experience is the point when you will silently interrogate the source of your enjoyment. Perhaps it is that the characters, the pictures and the music have touched your sensibilities on an emotional level. But sometimes there is a moment where one is filled with a foreboding sense that you cannot intellectualise the reason for your enjoyment. All you understand is that you are experiencing a pleasurable sensation, not altogether dissimilar to the machinations of the chemical reactions that determine your mood throughout the day. But we should not forget that life sits upon binary oppositions, and in equal measure it follows that the pleasure a film can create is offset by a propensity for evoking displeasure.
Accidental Love is a film that provokes a strong emotional response, albeit a negative one. If the account of the chaotic history of interruptions to production that eventually saw David O. Russell (pseudonym Stephen Greene) depart the project is correct, and the final film was a patchwork job of O. Russell material lifted off the cutting room floor, then it is impossible for him to escape the melee unscathed. Although that said, his dissatisfaction and departure does him credit – absolution in part through knowing when one needs to accept that some films and stories are just not meant to be told. Therein the circumstances of its release points to an unwillingness to allow it to find a resting place in the populated graveyard of unrealised projects. Instead of being permitted the compassionate fate to find a peaceful resting place, Accidental Love whether in theatres or on DVD resembles a car pileup – each spectator forming a queue of morbid motorists that slow down to stare at the disaster. But unlike Godard’s lengthy pan of a traffic jam in Weekend (1967), this metaphorical image of Accidental Love that runs to 100 minutes is a dissatisfying experience – an attempt to hit a satirical high, but one that misfires. It has the feel of a slow grinding pan of a disaster that is destined to be remembered as an example of the arrogance of the film and the distributors for putting a vulnerable film out into the world rather than letting it fade into obscurity with dignity.
Given that film is run as a business that does not subscribe to the exclusive output of works of art with integrity, only a naïve individual will be astounded that a convoluted work such as Accidental Love would manage to secure distribution over the multitude of worthy films that are left behind on the festival circuit. With its bankable cast of Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, James Marsden and Tracey Morgan amongst others, and the hot topic health care issue in both the U.S and the U.K, it is reasonable for any distributor willing to throw their lot in to assume that it will draw the gaze of spectatorial curiosity and the inevitable result – the aforementioned filmic pileup, not of mangled flesh and metal but a disjointed satirical comedy.
There are those filmmakers that have attained an immortality through film – Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock being two of the most notable recipients of art and culture’s gift of immortality. It has always occurred to me that in order to appreciate the true value of great works or the mastery of certain filmmakers, the lesser works in contrast serve to create a counterbalance that testifies to the uncertainty of the creative process. In the context of Accidental Love’s frailties, we can look back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as to the more recent New American Cinema through two filmmakers: Howard Hawkes and Robert Altman. Stephen Greene’s attempt at satire reiterates Howard Hawkes’ sentiments that with comedy one can never try too hard. Meanwhile, in equal measure Accidental Love’s comedic vigour, in comparison to Robert Altman’s pitch perfect Hollywood satire The Player (1992), is shown to be a miscalculation of significant proportions. It certainly does not follow that an emphasis on comedy is necessarily ill advised, but Greene’s error in judgement is to pander to mainstream humour and performance. If we take Altman’s subversive satire or black comedy M*A*S*H (1972), its broad appeal was unexpected.
Satire often requires a movement from the fringes towards the centre, and at its core some of the most successful satirical comedies are askew to popularist humour, because by its nature satire is subversive. To mix popularism with the subversive is a difficult balance to strike, albeit not an impossible one, and if not struck, as is the case with Accidental Love, it is to the film’s detriment. In looking to The Player, Altman was able to strike a harmonic balance between the genre/narrative elements and the comedy, in which the film takes the form of a black comedy through its mix of crime and thriller elements that serve on some level to cast the humour as a happy coincidence. Of course an obvious intention, the satirical humour weaves itself within the fabric naturally, almost lurking in the shadows of its serious side. And harking back to Hawkes’ belief of comedy needing to be effortless, in comparing Accidental Love to Altman’s satire, then what is presented is a comparative guide on how to create an effective satire versus how not to. But Greene’s film has neither love nor respect for the subject it is attempting to satirise. Instead, it takes the form of an oversimplification in which politics and politicians are sneered at and used as caricatures. But accidentally the film celebrates the pearly words of wisdom of a past master, as well as a modern satirical gem from a filmmaker who left us too soon.
Looking past the pseudonym to consider O. Russell’s career to date, his films have generally had the presence of momentary encounters that are lost within the shadows of film history. He is not a filmmaker who creates cinema that seems to last and stand the test of time. Look to The Fighter (2010), which while Oscar nominated is overshadowed by enduring films of a similar subject matter such as Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). While an accomplished technical filmmaker, the failings of Accidental Love infer his narrative weaknesses. This was exhibited in the recently drawn out American Hustle (2014), which portrays him as an actor’s director as well as a technical director. He creates a great stage for his actors and a pleasing aesthetic, yet there is a sense that everything else is generally lacking. Unfortunately, O. Russell has yet to be afforded filmic immortality, left to wait to see what the future holds.
Within the filmmaking process, the director is tasked with driving the production forward by uniting the visions of a host of collaborative forces, both in front and behind the camera. But when one looks to Accidental Love, the story of its production is one of looking back to its past in order to piece together its future. While every film creates a paradox in the way it merges the past, present and eventual future, the director is the conduit of forward momentum. While Hawkes and Altman illuminate the failings of Accidental Love, the film itself expresses the hardship of crafting a film, and from a certain point of view how every masterpiece of the cinematic art form is a miracle in and of itself. We must remember that as unpredictable as the audience is, the creative process itself is equally unpredictable and sometimes failure is the traveller that is met on the journey.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom
Accidental Love is available on DVD courtesy of Arrow Films.