Nic Cage: American Psycho or Purveyor of Weirdness?

In Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), the frighteningly detached Patrick Bateman states, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.” I imagine that Nic Cage utters these lines to himself each morning before rising from his dragon’s lair hearth for the day. Of course, he probably adds a visceral “Ugh” as an exclamatory end-cap – revealing only a hint of the passion for real emotions that Nic Cage was once able to convey in his early acting career in films such as Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Adaptation (2002). What can be said of Cage today? Well, Nicolas Cage exists. Whether or not he is a governmental experiment – a weird cautionary android so ill-fit for society who, through his example, compels Americans to stay the course – remains to be seen.

Here’s a quick history lesson for those of you who don’t know the IMDB version of Cage’s life. Cage is the son of literature professor August Coppola and choreographer Joy Vogelsang; nephew of famed director Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire; cousin of director Sofia Coppola, actor-musician Jason Schwartzman, and writer-director Roman Coppola; and attendee of the same high school as Lenny Kravitz, Angelina Jolie, David Schwimmer, and Betty White. The scion of a cinematic family dynasty, he was born Nicholas Kim Coppola in Long Beach, California on January 7, 1964. He is part of the third generation of Oscar winners in his family, along with his cousin Sofia Coppola (Best Original Screenplay for 2003’s Lost in Translation). David Lynch once referred to him as the “Jazz musician of actors.” As Andy Samberg might respond to Lynch’s commentary when he impersonates Cage on Saturday Night Live, “That’s high praise.”

Cage gave compelling performances as drifters and outsiders in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), and his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). In 1995 Cage gave a stirring performance as a functioning alcoholic quickly fading into oblivion in Leaving Las Vegas. But after another emotionally devastating performance in Adaptation and solid acting in 2005’s Lord of War, Cage had finally become simply an extension of himself in his performances. This can be seen in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2010). (But give Herzog the credit for seeing that this would be the perfect role for Cage).

 

In the film, Cage’s lieutenant plays a morally dubious, drug-addicted vigilante, with a very slight strain of compassion. This compassion seems directed towards the people living in the lowest echelon of American culture. At one point, Cage (as bad lieutenant) cuts off a rich woman’s (who lives in a nursing home) oxygen tank as a means of extracting information pertaining to an investigation. Herzog’s depiction of New Orleans is void of the Mardi Gras hullaballoo, and for all we know, could have been filmed in any Gulf-coast city or town. The houses are dilapidated, the streets barren, and the businesses hide behind facades of abandonment. What’s important, however, is the suggestion that post-Katrina New Orleans and its people live beyond a rigid moral code. They are a forgotten people, left to fend for themselves in a shanty nether-region. And hence, Cage’s lieutenant somehow champions these people, this place, and this decay, while the man himself works consistently and always on non-vital projects like Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance (2012). Cage’s flourishes and fancies are like the games played by and the lives lived by those of the lowest grade in the American order: an escape into a realm of fantasy as a means of self-preservation in a world where real opportunities for life improvement simply do not exist.

The why and when of how Cage became this entity is beyond the point. But if I were to extrapolate, I’d reference the fairy tale, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Only Cage is “The Man Who Cried Crazy.” If you don’t think the following YouTube compilation of Cage freaking out isn’t absolutely hysterical, please check your pulse for signs of life.

Jim Nelson, the Editor of GQ, ran into Cage at a local restaurant in New Orleans and went on to write a hilarious and dreadful retelling of the night’s festivities in the May, 2011, issue of his magazine. Apparently, Cage was wearing a pair of angel’s wings while sitting at the bar alone, chatting to anyone who would listen to his pompous drivel. At one point Cage told a girl, “You’re a contender” and said to her friend, who was sitting directly beside her, “You’re not.” Later in the night, Cage clung onto the inside of the restaurant’s doorframe, like Ash (Bruce Campbell) being sucked out of a cabin door in Evil Dead II (1987), as workers carried him out. But again, this happened in New Orleans, where the music and culture is simultaneously bluesy, melancholy, jazzy, and violent. Cage’s actions beg so many questions…

Is Cage the defender of the gunslinger of old – the Teddy Roosevelt – who’s been replaced by the idiotic gun-carrier George W. Bush and the castrated and pallid Rick Santorum – the new weird? Is Nic, the incumbent weird, threatened by the oncoming? Wasn’t weirdness just the thing of one people – the working class rejects (whom Nic championed early in his acting career)? And now is it a part of every level? Is Cage actually a suburban dad trapped in Hollywood? Did he have it too easy getting into the business? Has the guilt of his success trapped him between stardom and absolute depravity? Is Nic Cage, the dread man?

I started to watch Season of the Witch (2011) and couldn’t help but think: Nic Cage, you must be nuts if you think you can wear a wig of long orange waves, speak like Nic Cage, jest like a modern man, and yet come across as a crusade warrior? “Uh-uh, Mr. Cage,” I thought, shaking my head and snapping my fingers. And then I pondered why anyone would want to see this film. Or for that matter: Ghost Rider (2007), Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance, National Treasure (2004), National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), The Wicker Man (2006), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010), Drive Angry (2011), Trespass (2011), Seeking Justice (2011), etc.

The common thread in all these films is cinematic synecdoche – each film only explores a single area of interest to represent the entire film. Ghost Rider is not a film about Johnny Blaze, so much as it is about his creation, but without all of the subtle film techniques that might make the film compelling. In other words, the director of the film seemingly has zero interest in dissecting the story’s worth, and Cage is happy enough to simply allow the story to be told. No round or whole characters exist within these films. Rather, they are embellished caricatures of old stereotypes. This is where a strange inversion takes place. It seems from Ghost Rider on, Nic Cage plays himself onscreen while doing more acting off-screen. Take, for example, the show that he put on in the aforementioned New Orleans restaurant.

Similarly, The Wicker Man seemingly chooses the wrong medium for its expression. Anyone who’s ever played the Playstation game Silent Hill (1999) can attest to its creepiness (but we actually control the flat character in the game and therefore have a stake in its outcome). Cage is as flat as, say, Cloud from Final Fantasy VII (1997). The only interesting element of the character is that he exists in a fantastical world. Are viewers simply happy enough to live vicariously through Nic Cage as he holds up a torch in an underground passage and looks for some ancient scroll in a world that doesn’t exist? (Of course, Harrison Ford does that in the Indiana Jones films (1981-2008), but at least Indy is charismatic and the filmmaking is intriguing).

In a scene near the end of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman confesses his murderous sins to his lawyer: “Now, Carnes. Listen to me. Listen very, very carefully. I-killed-Paul-Owen-and-I-liked it. I can’t make myself any clearer.” His lawyer responds, “But that’s simply not possible… I had…dinner…with Paul Owen… twice…in London… just ten days ago” and finally dismisses Bateman with the confusing, “Now, Donaldson… If you’ll excuse me.” Of course, Carnes’ confusion of the Bateman’s identity works as a literary device to suggest that Bateman has no singular identity because he is uncannily just like his coworkers, who are all defined by their possessions and Republican ideals. But what’s scarier is Bateman’s confusion. The book ends with a reference to the sign in Harry’s Bar, an equally uncanny allusion to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944): “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.” Will Bateman ever escape the Hell of being ignorant to himself? And if not, what does this entrapment mean for an entire group of people living in that Hell?

Nic Cage seems so disinterested with contemporary life that his actions allude to a life lived in a spaceship watching Earth from space. Has he run his course as a credible actor in film? Or will directors like Werner Herzog continue to find work that matches Cage’s unique skill? And if not, will Nic Cage’s antics in real life lead to early expiration?

Maybe there’s an alternative answer to be gleaned from Nic Cage’s appearance on SNL’s “Get in the Cage” segment (February 18, 2012), in which Andy Samberg mocks Nic Cage’s propensity to make films, as well as his eccentric idiosyncrasies and overzealous line delivery. In the skit, Samberg (as Cage) says, “As everyone knows my dream as an actor is to be in every film ever released. However, until now I’ve only been able to muster a measly 90%, bringing shame upon my dojo… I’m proud to announce that my cloning experiment has finally come to fruition.” Of course, the joke is that the clone will pick up the 10% of the remaining films Cage would otherwise not star in. The real Nic Cage pokes back, “While physically we are exactly the same, there are some slight personality differences… (regarding Samberg’s Cage) This Nic is an exaggerated screaming psychopath who just doesn’t exist.” Samberg’s Cage responds, “That’s high praise!” The real Nic Cage ends the skit, “We’re going to have a three-way with the Declaration of Independence,” and he doesn’t sound unbelievable at all.

Now here is the point: Nic Cage doesn’t break a smile or even hint at the possibility of one during the entirety of this gut-busting sketch. Here is the loose association: Cage is like a star of a John Waters’ film – stoically unaware of the extent of his ridiculousness and yet somehow aware of its effect – except that he’s in every film except for any John Waters’ films. Here’s the proposition: maybe John Waters could make a great film about Nic Cage….

Here’s what I’ll leave you with. I like Nic Cage. I think he’s funny and creepily charismatic. I wouldn’t mind him being my buddy. He is delightfully weird. If he continues to make “blockdusters,” I will forgive him his dramatic transgressions. Because deep down, I truly believe that Nic Cage exists solely to shake up the status quo, to put a boot-spur into the balls of normalcy, and to judo-chop the hell out of anything that gets in his way of being the weirdest mother-fucker alive. The dichotomy of film actor and real person has blended like the splotches of a Jackson Pollock painting. We may never know the real Nic Cage. And I respect him for that. So pick up your goblet of demon’s blood, Nic Cage, and take this article as an exclamatory “Cheers” to the entity that is you.

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3 Comments

  1. Nic was fantastic in Raising Arizona. I watched it again this past weekend. "H.I. McDunnough" may be my favorite role of his. Well, that and "Fu Manchu".

  2. Cage was also fantastic in Matchstick Men. It's one of my favorite Ridley Scott films and easily in Cage's top 5 best performances.

  3. I thought Cage was terrific in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Nobody does a better Elvis than Nic!

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