Nic Till You're Sick

A One-Day Nicolas Cage Film Festival

Nic Till You're Sick

This is America. We don't do small. And we don't do natural very well, either. The nature that we set aside for the sole purpose of appreciation is there because it's too huge to ignore: mountains, grand canyons, redwood forests. Hell, even our long tradition of naturalism is huge, bursting with contradictory multitudes. "Realism" doesn't exist in America because reality bores the shit out of us.

But for too long now, our movie stars, the faces we look at when we want to imagine ourselves at our biggest and most godlike, have been obsessed with realism. Despite Brando's tremendous appetites, he was obsessed with tiny movements, with tremorous flinches of the eye, little puffs of disappointed breath, a perfectly timed swallow. Strasberg school movie-star naturalism has practically become self-parody; actors are squinting and tensing their jaws in order to convince us that the tennis ball on a stick that they're staring at is actually, say, a spaceship, or a chimpanzee rebellion, or a flatulent dwarf sidekick. Our movie stars try too goddamned hard to sell reality to us, when reality is something with which we've never been concerned*. American pictures, as Norma Desmond slurred in Sunset Boulevard, got small.

This is why Nicolas Kim Coppola is a prophet. Born into the most prestigious American film family, he tossed out his surname and named himself after Luke Cage, an outsider African American superhero published by Marvel Comics. (Cage seems to love the inky four-color world of superheroes more than his own bloodline; he named his son Kal-El, after Superman's Kryptonian birth name.)

Like all outsiders, Cage has been subject to more than his share of ridicule. Sean Penn sniffed in a 1999 interview with the New York Times that he considered Cage to be "no longer an actor," that he was "more like a performer" instead. It was a self-serious actor taking a cheap swing at something he couldn't understand.

Cage calls his acting style Nouveau Shamanic, but I say he's leading a one-man war against the wrongheaded tradition of American cinematic naturalism. With his instinct for the huge and the romantic and the out-of-control, he's the only honest American movie star. Cage's style has been very thoughtfully constructed from silent movies and manga and anime and Saturday morning cartoons and sports-team mascots and televangelists and soap operas. In one movie, he models his performance after Elvis; in another, Gumby's horse sidekick Pokey is his muse. I'm pretty sure that in at least one film, Cage's performance signified that his character believed he had been transformed into a cartoon dog, even though nothing in the script indicated that this was the case.

Cage is known for his bombast and his over-the-top performances, and that's as it should be: Nobody is bigger or brassier or—yeah, I'll say it—better. But there's a subtlety there, too. His performances are lined with hidden pockets crammed full of shimmering gems and chicken bones and Family Circus cartoons with obscene genitalia sketched over them.

The internet has embraced Cage's style even if critics haven't: He's become an online phenomenon, with his likeness mashed-up into board games and memes and videos by an army of adoring fans, including a Reddit subgroup (r/onetruegod) that straight-facedly treats Cage like the god of a new religion. Sure, some of this adoration is born out of irony, but I don't think most of it is coming from a place of mockery. People recognize when someone is doing something special, something different. As much as I love George Clooney or Matt Damon, for example, ordinary people just aren't going to write theme songs for those two actors the way that several folk artists have composed music for Cage**.

Obviously, not every Nicolas Cage movie, or even every Cage performance, is great. We all know about his tax troubles—at one point, Cage owned 14 homes, one of the world's most impressive comic-book collections, and at least one dinosaur skull before the IRS came for just about everything. Cage's financial need dictates that he has to work too often, and too indiscriminately, to do justice to every role, but I'm confident he'll come out the other side of this grinding-it-out experience with new insights.

When SIFF Cinema Uptown programmer (and longtime friend) Clinton McClung approached me with the idea of a one-day Cage film festival called Nicolas Cage Match, I immediately agreed. The idea of screening six of Cage's best movies end-to-end was too beautiful to pass up. The effect I'm hoping for is that his performances will bleed from one to the other in the audience's consciousness and enact subtle changes in their perception, like the cinematic version of a psychedelic drug study.

The selection process was difficult. McClung and I had to go back and watch the few Cage movies we'd never seen—Amos & Andrew is the hands-down worst movie he's ever made, if you're wondering—and then we had to pare our favorites. Face/Off has too much John Travolta. Wild at Heart didn't work with the flow of the other movies. Peggy Sue Got Married didn't have enough Cage in it. We had enough truly great Cage movies left over to throw one or two more of these festivals.

What we came up with for the lineup is a sampling of Cage's work that stretches from his earliest starring roles to some late-career triumphs. In order, they are: Raising Arizona (1987), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Vampire's Kiss (1988), Adaptation (2002), Con Air (1997), and The Wicker Man (2006). I can't pick favorites, but there are two films I'm personally excited for: Bad Lieutenant, which I first saw when it opened at the pre-SIFF Uptown, is maybe the most underappreciated film of the lot. Cage's rococo Nixon riff is an expertly smarmy take on the dirty-cop story. And I've never seen Vampire's Kiss on a real movie screen. Cage's first real full-scale experiment with the operatic tones that would win him an Oscar feels like a silent film—Murnau's Nosferatu, maybe?—that's somehow drunk on color and sound and modernism.

But it wouldn't be appropriate to throw a Nicolas Cage film festival without some baroque fun added in. There will be a lunchtime visit from the delicious food truck Now Make Me a Sandwich, which will be serving special Cage-themed sandwiches. Highlight reels of Cage's more adventurous moments not represented in the festival will be shown between films. There may be a special field trip later on in the day. By the time The Wicker Man ends, you will either understand exactly what I mean when I say that Cage is the sole, visionary master of a vital acting discipline or you will go insane. Either way, I can't think of a better way to spend a day of the Fourth of July weekend. God bless America. recommended

* This is the problem with digital special effects, too: When you can do anything, you become obsessed with making your imagination look as real as possible, and so your digital fantasies become hampered by a desire for practicality, and all your unbridled imagination starts to look dull. In short: I'd put a man in a Godzilla suit up against the pasty old Cloverfield beastie any day of the week.

** My favorite Cage song is Ken Grobe and Darci Ratliff's "Nic Cage Adventure Theme," which begins: "Who wants to have an adventure? Nic Cage!/Who wants a haunted ice cream cone? Nic Cage!" You can find it here:


Comments (28) RSS

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I think I read a Werner Herzog interview around the time of Bad Lieutenant, when the interviewer asked Herzog if Cage was actually a good actor. Herzog, was taken aback, and said something like, "Of course, how could you even think of asking such a stupid question?" I take Herzog's opinion very seriously in such matters; he cuts right to the heart of things and isn't distracted by what an good actor is supposed to do, etc.
Posted by Jude Fawley on July 3, 2013 at 11:37 AM · Report this
gcm 2
Sounds fun. Technical web-comment: With an article containing footnotes, considering that it is now the 1990s, er, 2000s, er, 2010s, maybe there is some sort of internet wizardry that could have the footnote be hyper-linked to the text so that I don't have to scroll down to the note and back up?
Posted by gcm on July 3, 2013 at 11:51 AM · Report this
It's a mistake not to include Wild at Heart
Posted by Robert Peru on July 3, 2013 at 11:58 AM · Report this
What about Valley Girl? I'm not kidding. Great film, even has The Plimsouls in it.
As a young kid growing up in SC in the early 80s, that film meant so much to me.
Posted by boses on July 3, 2013 at 12:19 PM · Report this
merry 5
I only recently saw 'Vampire's Kiss' for the first time, and I was completely gob-stopped. I found the movie irredeemably flawed in tone (comedy? tragedy? WTFery?) but Cage was riveting. At some points I felt truly uncomfortable, like a voyeur watching this guy lose his marbles...

Not sure that I want to see it again (so soon) but the movie and Cage's performance were certainly memorable... At any rate, the Nick Cage Match sounds hella fun!
Posted by merry on July 3, 2013 at 1:07 PM · Report this
I'd have loved to see Lord of War in this lineup, but otherwise it looks perfect.
Posted by Narbles on July 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM · Report this
Sounds rad. Wicker Man - Out, Wild at Heart - In.
Posted by DVNODVNO on July 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM · Report this
As a Cage novitiate, I've got to wonder: Why no National Treasure? It's big, it's dumb, it's recognizable, and it has a treasure map drawn on the back of the Constitution.
Posted by Ruke on July 3, 2013 at 1:27 PM · Report this
Look, I know he won his Oscar for it, and therefore it's not worthy of consideration as a serious film but it has to be said. Leaving Las Vegas stands astride these also-rans like a colossus.
Posted by nastecine on July 3, 2013 at 2:01 PM · Report this
kathotdog 10
I watched most of Vampires Kiss a couple of weeks ago with no volume - I started at the gym and then continued it at home - it was so amazing to just concentrate on his face.
I love Con Air (so many good folks in that movie), and Valley Girl and I even liked Snake Eyes. And holy crap! IMBD says he is in Expendables 3!!!
Good luck on your Day of Cage.

I'm a vampire! I'm a vampire! I'm a vampire!
Posted by kathotdog on July 3, 2013 at 2:20 PM · Report this
ferret 11
"Leaving Las Vegas" and "Red Rock West" are probably his two best performances as an actor. His best roles are that of a tragic hero and down in the luck hero.
Posted by ferret http://!/okojo on July 3, 2013 at 2:20 PM · Report this
I want to add another vote for Lord of War, a powerful (and highly entertaining) anti-war film. The opening scene shot from the bullet's point of view is sheer genius. As are Nic's voiceovers explaining the international arms trade, and the U.S.'s role in it. And lest you think it's Hollywood make believe, just Google "Victor Bout."
Posted by Bethmi on July 3, 2013 at 2:34 PM · Report this
fletc3her 13
I would have picked a somewhat different set of movies, but then I enjoyed Amos & Andrew, Sir Mix-A-Lot end credits and all. Con Air is one movie that I have just never understood. If only I had Saturday free maybe the context of a film marathon would help my brain be flexible enough to understand the subtleties of its charm.
Posted by fletc3her on July 3, 2013 at 3:08 PM · Report this
Tracy 14
Had our tickets for weeks now. Can't wait. Sad to be missing Face/Off. But it's a solid list. Was most anticipating CONAIR on the bigscreen, but we've got pals doing the "Thankskilling" musical at Balagan. So going to have to sneak out of the festival (may have to miss the very end of Adaptation, darn it). Miss all of Conair, and return for the madness that is Wickerman. So an imperfect cagematch experience. Still, looking forward to it.
Posted by Tracy on July 3, 2013 at 3:47 PM · Report this
Why no leaving Los Vegas?
Posted by j2patter on July 3, 2013 at 4:40 PM · Report this
lolorhone 16
@13: The charm of Con-Air is that it's a complete piece of shit that KNOWS it's a complete piece of shit. There's an abandon to it that I like- not enough to see it again sober, mind you, but still pretty fun.
Posted by lolorhone on July 3, 2013 at 5:59 PM · Report this
Paul Constant 17
@everyone: As I said in the piece, there are a lot of great Cage movies that could've been swapped in or out of this mix. This isn't my list of the six best Nic Cage movies; it's six Cage movies that Clinton and I thought would work well together and represent a range of his work. All your recommendations are great, and in fact if we culled this comment thread, we'd have more than enough for Cage Match 2: The Nic-ening. (Though I am surprised by fl3tcher @13: you liked Amos & Andrew? I would love to hear more about that.)

Also: We are selling tickets for each movie individually on the day of the festival. If you only have one or two favorites you want to check out, feel free to stop by and say hi.
Posted by Paul Constant http:// on July 3, 2013 at 6:06 PM · Report this
How can The Rock not even be mentioned?????
Posted by Hanoumatoi on July 4, 2013 at 2:21 AM · Report this
Paul Constant 19
@18: The Rock was in serious consideration, too.

I was thinking about this thread last night, and it occurred to me that the fact that everyone has their own passionate opinions about what should've screened during Nic Cage Match is a better demonstration of Cage's acting ability than anything I could've said in the piece. Which is to say, you guys are awesome. Thank you! Sorry your personal favorite wasn't included.
Posted by Paul Constant http:// on July 4, 2013 at 9:59 AM · Report this
Bringing out the Dead. Bringing out the Dead. Bringing out the Dead. Bringing out the Dead.

Martin Scorsese? John Goodman's second best role (King Ralph, fwiw)? Tom Sizemore's finest moment. The downfall of Patricia Arquette as a serious actress?

Oh, and who knew it was the last American title released on Laserdisc?

That said, I will never forgive Cage for building himself a pyramid-shaped crypt in New Orlean's Saint Louis #2. Heresy.
Posted by six shooter on July 4, 2013 at 10:27 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 21
Part 2 (Nick Cagier) definitely should be: Bringing Out the Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, 8mm, Snake Eyes, Wild At Heart, Face/Off.

Ideally, I would have swapped Bringing Out the Dead for Adaptation, and Leaving Las Vegas to put The Wicker Man between Wild At Heart and Face/Off.

Then you'd have one day of normal-ish Cage films and one day of WTF?! Cage movies. Also, I just realized that my list is a who's who of directors. Scorsese, Figgis, Schumaker, De Palma, Lynch, Woo.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on July 4, 2013 at 4:11 PM · Report this
gttrgst 22
Without Birdy you don't have no Nic.
Posted by gttrgst on July 4, 2013 at 8:52 PM · Report this
Are there really people that watched "Bad Lieutenant" without feeling embarrassed for Cage and the director and the screenwriter? The only interesting thing about the movie was, which of the 3 was most terrible.

The plot was so unrealistic and stupid that 1/2 the film's budget must have gone to the screenwriter's coke consumption. Cage's acting was so bad that the director must have been dumb enough to let him ad lib and then didn't cut it.

Folks, to call Cage an actor at this point is to say Bush the Idiot Son is a humanitarian.
Posted by Lee_T on July 6, 2013 at 11:29 AM · Report this
Yes, Lee there are such people.
"Yes, sir. Everything I take is prescription. Except the heroin."
His delivery of that line has stuck in my mind for years now...that's not acting?
Posted by kallipugos on July 6, 2013 at 10:58 PM · Report this
I love Nick Cage and appreciate this piece. He was great recently on Jimmy Fallon, check out that interview if you're a fan.

I really liked Family Man (although I knew it wouldn't be included here) and he did a great job voicing the dad in The Croods.
Posted by SaraJean on July 7, 2013 at 4:15 PM · Report this
During the brief but fully glorious moment that was the Raising Arizona-Vampire's Kiss Era we can see, indisputably, that the man laid down groundwork for becoming what, in my humble layman's estimation, can only be termed: The Single Greatest Goofball Actor of All-Time. From top to bottom to all those tiny, hairy little places in between, nobody plays goofball like Cage. Cage pulls off the goofy goofyball, the evil goofball, the serious goofball, the mordant goofball, the sleazy goofball, the hero goofball, the love-interest goofball and even, if that's not enough, the voice-over goofball. Not that he doesn't have chops to pull-off more serious roles, but the first thing that ever comes to mind when I see/hear the man's name is "diaper chase". Oh yeah, that and those big, goofy eyebrows.
Posted by the shirtcocker on July 8, 2013 at 5:59 PM · Report this
Tracy 27
@21 I hate 8MM so much. Can't even get into all the problems with that flick. Blergh.

But otherwise, I like your proposal for CageMatch 2: Electric Boogaloo

@23 I really enjoyed Bad Lieutenant initially, and as part of the film fest. It seems to solidly know what type of movie it is and has a solid voice/vision throughout. Also, how had I completely blocked out all of the freaky LIZARD VISION moments. WTF?!? Man, and that dying gator in the car accident, with it's slowly flapping hind leg? Mesmerizing!
Posted by Tracy on July 9, 2013 at 11:48 AM · Report this
thelyamhound 28
Sounds like fun, but The Wicker Man is a woefully wrongheaded remake of a stone classic that was both truly better and also "bad-better" ("better-bad"?) than Cage's weird outing.

Also, big mistake not to include Wild at Heart. That said, Bad Lieutenant and Vampire's Kiss would be worth the whole long, strange trip.
Posted by thelyamhound on July 10, 2013 at 8:54 AM · Report this

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