Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, DVD released 12/12/06
Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Film Forum, closes 12/14/06
Last week at Film Forum I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I also watched the new DVD of Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and I’m having a little trouble keeping them straight. Two or Three Things is a grab bag of scattershot references to all things 1967, a study of people whose lives and psyches are firmly fixed to the mechanisms of capitalism. Talladega Nights is pretty much the same thing, forty years later. In 1967, it was Vietnam and tights designed to look like knee socks; in 2006 it’s Applebee’s and Diane Sawyer.
Of course, there are a few minor differences. While in McKay’s film the plot is negligible, in Godard’s it is nearly nonexistent. Talladega bagged belly laughs at my bedside while Two or Three Things churned up only the occasional chortle from the Forum audience. Ricky Bobby is a whore for corporate America – he is bound by contract to mention Powerade in daily prayer – while the whore of Her is an actual prostitute. But the metaphorical implications of her profession aren’t too thematically distant from those of Ricky Bobby’s. While Talladega insists that Ricky Bobby cannot be truly victorious without dropping his corporate sponsorship, Godard implies that freedom of the individual is unattainable in the grips of capitalism.
Godard once claimed that he would have liked to take the film he made simultaneous with Two or Three Things – the more narrative and amusing Made in U.S.A. – and interweave it with Two or Three Things by alternating reels, from one film to the other, during presentation. I can’t help wonder what content and context overlap would emerge if we were to project Two or Three Things in alternating reels with the more narrative and amusing Talladega Nights.
Combining the films would conflate their seeming differences and illuminate how much they have in common, and how rewarding it is to read a seeming piece of trivial slapstick as a cultural yardstick. So, to stick to my guns: Both films get some laughs out of an actor portraying a character of a different nationality than his own, making a mockery of believable accents. In the Godard film, national identity is reduced to a flag on a t-shirt, in McKay’s, it’s a macchiato and a paperback. It would be lovely to watch the child in Godard’s film recite his dream about North and South Vietnam uniting right before hearing Ricky Bobby’s kid claim that Washington, D.C. is the capital of his home state of North Carolina. It plays like a silly joke about a stupid kid on its own, but infused with Godard’s subversive sense of humor, it might read more like a statement about political policy forming the center of a child’s psychology in its formative stage. (The line that follows, about pissing his peepants, however, would still play like pure McKay).
Both films deal in semantics, and some dynamite could be found in intercutting the two films’ concerns with words as arbiters of thought. If only the tender interaction in which Godard’s heroine tells her son that “language is the house man lives in” could be followed by McKay’s lengthy scene centered around word choice during prayer. When Ricky Bobby disagrees with his wife over whether he may pray to an infant Jesus (“Christmas Jesus,” as he hilariously christens his deity), he begins a comical roundtable discussion on whether an immortal savior has a fixed age or image as an omnipotent spirit. Ricky Bobby has transplanted the commonly uttered phrase “baby Jesus” from the spoken to the thought, and now he is defending the image the words have formed in his mind as though it was a conscious decisions on his part, which he probably thinks it is. His wife’s dismissive accusation that he’s being stupid is an attempt to circumvent Ricky’s more analytical (if flawed) perspective on prayer. If we got lucky and the reels matched up right, we’d properly punctuate this scene with one of the lines spoken to the audience in Two or Three Things: “we often try to analyze the meaning of words but are led astray. One must admit that there’s nothing simpler than taking things for granted.”
The most striking similarity between these two films is the way they deal with contemporary symbology. The interiors of Two or Three Things are cluttered with logos on boxes and posters – there’s a perverse pleasure in how indistinguishable advertisement becomes from décor. What marvelous synthesis would be had between Godard’s image of a modern kitchen as a soap advertisement with Talladega’s pan over a dinner table of logos and corporate packaging. One chapter heading in Two or Three Things is “Symbology of Forms.” Underlining how pervasive commercial labeling is, Godard offers the title as a sort of book cover, yet another commercial image cluttering the composition. A direct line could be drawn from Paris to Charlotte if we then jumped to the shot in Talladega in which Ricky Bobby is literally blinded by corporate agitprop, a Fig Newtons logo emblazoned across his windshield. Godard’s contemplative fascination with the doldrums of the free market – whether a dress shop will reserve an article of clothing, the sputtering of draft beer, a straight-faced presentation of a day care doubling as a brothel – would be energized by McKay’s fantastical broad brushstrokes.
Talladega is a reflection of how all-encompassing commercialism, slogans, and logos are in contemporary society. The NASCAR environs – with nonstop signage and billboard apparel – make advertisement seem as much a part of our everyday lives as Godard seemed to be prophesying it might become when he made Two or Three Things. Of course, as part of the Hollywood machinery, Talladega is shilling these products more than employing them for Marxist deconstruction, but the effect would be undeniable in a Godard-McKay mash-up.
Sure, McKay isn’t tracing the contours of human psychology being shaped by commercial imagery. And rather than serving as an investigation into the “symbology of forms,” his references to The Lion King, Bennigan’s, and Coca-Cola are more fodder for the joke-per-minute ethos of the film than they are signifiers of contemporary zeitgeist. In Two or Three Things, the war in Vietnam is name-checked alongside a magazine article about knee socks in a spectacular moment of reportage of mass murder flattened into pop culture dispatch. Unfortunately (save for an easy joke about Halliburton) the war in Iraq is conspicuously absent from Talladega, even though working class NASCAR fans are likely to have close family members fighting this war fought on a lie.
In the end, Talladega is less an extension of Two or Three Things than it is guilty of an accusation Godard throws at government in his film, in that “through the mask of modernism” it is “regularizing the natural tendencies of capitalism.” Still, a movie that posits that the U.S. has offered the world nothing more than George Bush, the Thighmaster, and the missionary position would play well if we were chuckling at its goofy gaffs as though they were Godardian gags.