Tuesday, 19 December 2017

“Vuil Wasgoed” Doesn’t Remove Stains

Vuil Wasgoed, the new film by Morné du Toit, who also directed this year’s Nul is nie niks nie, is a particular cinematic experience that is peculiar to summarise and describe. It’s an enjoyment without joy, a stylishness without style, a sentimentality of little sentiment, an assured thought with no thinking, calibration without precision, and velocity without force. It is, in other words, the best of South African cinema. So obsessed are so many of our country’s filmmakers with the dazzle and the cultural and commercial heft of the international mainstream that most of their efforts seem like dizzy attempts for them to either match up to or ostentatiously remove themselves from the treads and territories of general Hollywood fare.

Read what others had to say about Vuil Wasgoed.

Du Toit is in the aspirational camp. The script was written by Bennie Fourie and Bouwer Bosch, who also both star in the film, and du Toit finds just the right cinematic cliché to match the bathos and banality of every gag and every signifier they give him. The script does not develop much of its threads beyond their initial conception, and the direction doesn’t find or even look for anything beneath its colourful surfaces. Production values on South African movies are on the up, and have been over the past decade, and there’s a terrific professional gloss to this film; every scene is brightly lit, each character is fastidiously dressed and made up, each setting is meticulously prepared, hard work obviously went into creating a sound design and musical soundtrack to support the images, and the various production assistants and teams have paid clear attention to much of the detail included in the film. Each scene is diligently calibrated to fill out a mood, convey a plot point, or thrash out a few self-satisfied wisecracks and pratfalls.

But, while South African filmmakers have been working hard at polishing the surfaces of their movies, they have yet to discover methods of locating and developing an interior to those glossily finished exteriors — movies like Vuil Wasgoed are handsome products, but not worthwhile artworks. There is nothing distinctive or personal to be seen or said about Johannesburg, the people in it, the goings-on depicted and indeterminately satirised, nor the narrowly defined culture shown in the film (let alone the very fact of its narrowness). There is much to entertain an audience over an hour and a half, and even some jokes and storylines they’ll remember much later. But there’s little revealed to them, little given to them to contemplate, even on the wing, and little by way of experience that has not been encountered by every one of us.

The plot races headlong from the very first scene right to the end, in the same one-damn-thing-after-another system as the American crime drama Good Time, from earlier this year. But while Robert Pattinson’s misadventures in that marvellous film drew out the vexations and desperations of a restive soul, no such sign of real personhood alights on Vuil Wasgoed. The characters — as conceived in both the script and the performances — may be jovial and pleasantly framed, but are mere ciphers, whose attributes are slapped on to incite jokes and to thrust the narrative towards its dramatic conclusion, not to enlarge or shift the movie’s perspective, deepen its feeling, or introduce and develop ideas. And, where the Safdie brothers unleashed an expansive energy on an ever-widening milieu, within a tightly controlled framework and the severe limits of their resources, the Vuil Wasgoed filmmakers’ imaginations seem to have been constrained together with their budget, as their energy and ideas narrow while their story ricochets between the same few settings.

The tone of the film, however, is far from that of Good Time, and seems to me to have been aimed at the kind of shock-gore comedy of off-Hollywood crime films like Pulp Fiction or Seven Psychopaths. Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh are conspicuously detached from their movies’ plot events and the experiences of their characters by a perceptible vast and lofty irony. But du Toit is merely detached by an impersonal connection to his characters, their experiences, the locations, the events, the dialogue, and the very images he obtains of each of them.

Some things in the movie are quite funny and hearty laughter arose from even the very small audience in the screening I attended. But a lot of the jokes are neither conceived nor executed in the full, explosive audacity of comedic filmmaking. The gags are devised and not unleashed. I saw a number of studio-era Hollywood comedies this year, by masters such as Frank Tashlin and Blake Edwards, whose films are uproarious adventures of serious thought and furious determination, not because either of them strained themselves to fill the pages of their scripts with funny shit (they both wrote many comedies in addition to directing them), but because they had set a saddle upon their own mutinous imaginations and — subject to the bridles and riding crops of the studios — raced them a few times around a chaotic racetrack. When their films’ comedy sharpened or grew more ludicrous, the sense is not of the filmmakers searching for ways to extend the edge of any envelope, but of holding themselves back from driving their works towards insanity.

Fourie and Bosch may have thought up some preposterous jokes for Vuil Wasgoed — and my feeling is that it really was Fourie and Bosch, and little if anything was added to the humour by anyone on set after they received their scripts — but there isn’t a sense of an anarchic worldview or outrageous sensibility trying to escape its bounds. The filmmakers and actors work to hit their comedic markers, and they maintain their poise and control throughout. Think of the comedies of Judd Apatow and vicinal filmmakers — works like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This is 40, Trainwreck, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, and Spy. In these films, the funny people are placed in front of the camera, and let loose. Much of the comedy is improvised on camera, and the framework gives both space and direction to the actors to develop their own styles and explore their own faculties — as well as to lose control, which is where the thrill and higher pleasures of comedy come from. The spontaneity and volatility of the resulting performances reveal — each time with the demonstrative flash of surprise — the finer feelings and larger ideas at play, and the apparently vulgar and ribald comedy seeks progress, both dramatically, through the set-ups of the plot, and existentially, through the difficulties of life.

I’ve written before that true comedy arises from breaking rules, yet South African comedies’ staple mode is to stick to templates — most of them copy each other (or South African television), while some, like Vuil Wasgoed, set their sights far wider on international successes — which is precisely why so many of their jokes, as a good number of this movies’s do, land with such a reliable thud. When our filmmakers unfetter themselves both from templates and their own imaginative restrictions, we’ll finally arrive at a form that can be thought of something like art.

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