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.
* 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: bit.ly/151KgvM.