Late Capitalism’s Death Wish


(versão em português aqui)

So, let’s talk a little about addiction. I’m 38 years old and I’m a Boston Celtics addict. I put far too much investment in a dumb basketball team, it keeps me going in some depressive periods, it gives me fool’s gold hopes, it brings way too much stress into my life. I’m enough of a Celtics addict I have perfect recollections of the night that serves as the backdrop for the climax of the new Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems. I was stuck at my twin cousins 15 year birthday obsessively checking my brother phone while cursing them, the rest of my family and obligatory social events, the stupid Celtics team that should’ve closed the series a couple of games before, every player who was bricking shots that night (and that game was awful), it must’ve been one of the most stressful nights of my life (I certainly thought as many F-bombs through those two hours as people drop in this movie) and when it ended with a win, I didn’t thought none of that was unhealthy, but I got a high and I was talking myself into “Miami is hurt we can beat them, maybe this is the year we get all the right breaks, God own one of those for us” (spoiler: we lost). Uncut Gems get into that obsessive/compulsive mentality much better than most films on the subject, it also expands it to connect it with late capitalist delusions and exploitation with richness few current movies achieved.

Uncut Gems is an addiction drama, but it is also in a larger sense a reimaginagition of Sisyphus myth on current capital pressures and it expert uses the former to enlighten the later. At the center there’s Howard Ratner (a very good Adam Sandler), a Jewish jeweler that happens to be an addicted gambler that is probably one of the least appealing lead characters in a mainstream movie in a long time. It is telling that the only people in his life who shows any affection towards him is his lover Julia (Julia Fox) and sometimes his younger son. Everyone else perceives him at best as a means to an end and at worse would be very happy with just drop dead (if not activing works towards it). He is embroiled in a complicated deal involving the gems of the title which he is sure are a worth something closer to a million and for which he took a 100k loan from a very unhappy loan shark (Eric Bogosian doing more with his pissed off eyes than most actors do with hundreds of lines). Oh, and he land the gems to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett who isn’t very keen in given them back because he is sure they have some mystical value to improve his game. Uncut Gems is a very unusual tightrope for Sandler and Josh and Benny Safdies to walk, the film starts in full crisis mode, Howard is getting a colonoscopy for added approaching death gravitas and the loan shark goons is in his store promising to kill him with doesn’t pay soon and ends a little over two hours later after he expired every option he has in the name of his believe that more is coming soon. There’s barely any tonal variation and save from a few scenes with the lover it barely even leaves his perspective. Most Uncut Gems descriptions talk about it as anxiety attack in form of movie and that is fair, but it is also very good at using the addicted mentality as a propulsive thriller engine: because Howard is always positive sure he is near a big break and since his perspective takes over the film form, the audience is invited to go along with him.

Howard is certain he Is winning, indeed in the film’s most famous moment (eternized in thousands of web memes) he explains to Garnett his ideology of winning comparing KG competitive spirit to his own capitalist entrepreneur ways, in reality he is just pushing closer and closer to his death wish. Uncut Gems is a fascinating case of disaster capitalism in action, one personal catastrophe after another that is spinning as more opportunity for “winning”. Howard never stops losing and hardly even recognize any positive step. He is a man on a mission that he believes is reaching a capital high, but really is just a suicide run. What’s so disturbing about it is that one is rarely put in such close contact with self-destruction devoid of awareness. He keeps bargaining his immediate future in name of an elusive high, an in the moment satisfaction of making a quick profit. Howard isn’t fully happy when Julia shows him her new “Howie” tattoo and pledges devotion, he isn’t happy at the big family meeting or when he finally sells the gem (for far less money than he planned), he is only fully happy when his struggle for more achieves it is inevitable end.

The big scene with Garnett is an achievement of well-modulated resonant drama. From the athlete earnest confusion and how able the Safdies are at connection sports, multiple strains of exploitation, Howard’s self-delusions, gambling adiction and the larger money transactions around them. It is worth pointing out that Garnett’s presence adds some context, he isn’t just a very famous and successful basketball player, but one with an over competitive ugly reputation, there’s multiple stories out there of younger players talking about how they idolized him until sharing court and found out he was willing to do any dirty trick for a minimum competitive edge (once a player with a genetic condition that made him lost all skin hair accused Garnett of calling him “a cancer patient” during a regular season game). He works as an interesting mirror double for Sandler’s Howard. The film is much better than Soderbergh’s 2019 NBA labor dispute drama High Flying Bird in articulating the murky politics of a sport played mostly by young black men that is dependent for high profits of a wealthy white fan base. Uncut Gems is based on multiple instances of predatory exploitation from poor Ethiopian miners to very rich professional athletes whose body is there for entertainment. Basketball is one of those sports whose players can often been turned into numbers, a simple series of data ready to be read anyway the consumer wants (no wonder gambling is a major aspect of fandom be it the big time gambling of someone like Howard or the small time one of fantasy leagues). Garnett isn’t a person to Howard, he is just money, points, rebounds and blocks. The big pep talk at the end of their conversation isn’t about reaching Garnett the person as much as maximizing the stat machine he represents. A large gesture of dehumanization. Most interactions throughout Uncut Gems aren’t fully different, the world around Howard is fully post-human, no wonder there’s barely any affection in his life.  There’s something to say about the film editing (by Benny Safdie and the brothers long-time collaborator and co-screenwriter Ronald Bernstein) and how it articulates the relationship between Garnett image as a 35-year-old player on television and Garnett as a 42-year-old actor playing himself in the dramatic scenes and the ways it plays off on those ideas of exploitation and projected images.

Authenticity has long been a key interest for the Safdie. Extensive New York location shooting is the major recurring element between their films. Some of their early work (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What) is based in some form of the autobiography (the former on the Safdie and their dad, the later on leading actress Arielle Holmes). The more recent thrillers are predicted in the clash between Hollywood stars (Robert Pattinson in Good Time, Sandler in Uncut Gems) with a series of New York types mostly played by non-pros. There’s a good deal of detail thrown-in about the multiple worlds Howard moves that reinforces the sense of lived-in movie. The recurring non-pro faces are important, but it is the Safdie’s trusting the drama to them that stand out most. Garnett presence is very important, but so is Julia Fox, a clothing designer and model, on whom a good deal of the film dramatic weight is shouldered. She brings most of the film warmth and humanity and a chunk of the climax is given to her and not Sandler (in a sub plot that barely has any professional actor in sight). In a world of increasing artificial capital transactions, this faith in authenticity is a deeply political gesture.

At same time, the drama is very written and Sandler performance isn’t about blending in with realistic world, but about using his movie star charisma to traffic through it. Indeed, one of my major disagreements with Uncut Gems reception is how it presents Sandler’s performance as some sort of exception in his career which both ignores that Sandler does auteur films every 2-3 years (he was in Cannes competition with Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories only a couple of years ago), regardless of their qualities and that Howard isn’t some huge break from his persona, but much like his part on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love a large exaggeration of tics and desperations that have been a major part of his comic work (Uncut Gems is to some extant a discussion on Jewish masculinity, I’m letting this for more qualified people than me, but as such it would go equally well together with Nadav Lapid’s Berlin Golden Bear Synonyms as it would with Sandler’s own You Don’t Mess With Zohan). He is great here, but Howard is very much a character closer to his usual interests, only throw in a complete different dramatic context. The freshness of his performance as it exists is much more due to how he negotiates that. Uncut Gems is also edited very much like a tense thriller and Safdie adds many absurd elements to action, as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted the Howard’s richly imagined store has something of a Jerry Lewis set to it, particular the door that works in mysterious ways and serves as key dramatic element for the climax. Lewis use this exaggerate sets for absurd comic effect while the Safdie reinforces Howard’s paranoid entrapment, but both serve to underline the unstable world their characters live. The use of absurdism as commentary on Howard’s unstable paranoid world is also recurring in the scenes with Bogosian’s violent henchmen whose violent threats are both always scary and have a certain cartoon quality to them.

And then there’s the gems of the title themselves. They hang over everything an even changing metaphor, both practical and metaphysical. They are money but also exist beyond traditional monetary compensations. They are haunted by a fantastic quality and at same time grounded on the realities Howard’s world. If he as a character is late capitalist Sisyphus trying to achieve his death wish, the gems are this always elusive promise of something. That’s the addicted ultimate motivation there’s something there almost ready to happen, we are going to win, we are going to make a major profit, the last overhyped movie will justify every word the film critics wrote on them, the gems will be everything they can possible be. We are an addicted society and Uncut Gems give its contradictions, its desire to disappear into its on obsessions a full body. The certainty that we are not winning but taken quick steps toward a disappearance.

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