The pictures may have gotten small, but Nicolas Cage is still BIG. More often than not, he acts in CAPS LOCK mode. He HOLLERS and SCREECHES and FLINCHES VIOLENTLY and SHUDDERS LIKE HE’S BEING LOWERED INTO ICY WATER and STARES IN TREMBLING AWE like a guy who just glimpsed a portal into another dimension and is trying to figure out WHAT THE FUCK THOSE CREATURES WITH THE TENTACLES ARE!!!
It took me a while—decades, actually—to accept a couple of facts about Nicolas Cage. One: when he’s being subtle, as in National Treasure, It Could Happen To You, Windtalkers and a few other movies, he’s good, sometimes affecting, but he tends to lose his special quality; and (2) there’s something to be said for a performer whose screen presence is so ridiculously big, and often so knowingly anti-realistic, that it obliterates commonly accepted distinctions between good and bad, believable and unbelievable, and instead becomes an uncanny event, something you evaluate less than you witness. The CAPS LOCK nature of Cage’s acting makes him a natural subject for video mash-ups—so much so that my friend Jason Mittell proposed the essay topic “Nicolas Cage as an Axiom of Remix Cinema.” Everything Cage does is so vigorously sculpted, underlined, boldfaced and bracketed that you can lift moments from different movies out of context, string them together, and create firecracker-strings of weirdness. And a helluva lot of videos have done just that.
The best, for my money, is Harry Hanrahan’s masterpiece “Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit,” a symphony of shit-losing backed by a track from Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream score. The music track makes it — ties it together like The Dude’s rug did his room — because Requiem for a Dream is about junkies being slowly dragged down into a whirlpool of masochistic yet unnervingly romantic agony. It’s music fit for a star who can’t help doing what he does: a man possessed.
The most troubling Cage mash-ups are the clip reels from Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. The first one (dated 2007) went viral in a huge way, soon to be held up as proof that the film was poop, its star the worst actor who ever lived. While the out-of-context clips of Cage freaking out are funny enough, they’re also unfair to Cage because they shame him for doing something he was specifically hired to do—and does better, or at least more colorfully, than anyone else. I don’t think the remake works, exactly, but when you’re watching it, there’s no doubt that its overheated ludicrousness is intentional: not kitsch, but about style. (“How’d it get burned how’d it get burned HOW’D IT GET BURNED??!!???”) Who better than Cage to play a truth-seeker, cycling desperately through fairy tale woods, terrorizing little masked girls and disguising himself in a bear costume? Cage makes as much aesthetic sense in this movie as Gary Cooper did in High Noon. And yet YouTube burned The Wicker Man onto Cage’s new calling card and cemented the public notion that he was a rotten actor.
The musical remixes of The Wicker Man were no less problematic, but at least they had a good beat and you could dance to them.
By 2011, the notion of Cage as Crazypants Mega-Ham was so pervasive that Conan O’Brien proposed Nicolas Cage film clips as a replacement for the US government’s recently-discontinued “Threat Level” warning system.
Which brings us to Adam Lucas’s mash-up “Cage Does Cage.” Ostensibly a tribute to avant garde compose John Cage’s “4’33” “, wherein musicians do nothing but sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the piece collects snippets of Cage reacting, brooding, etc., without dialogue. Occasionally the actor exhales, sips a drink, or hems and haws while trying to figure out what to say, but for the most part the piece is a hell of a lot quieter than the Cage-mashup norm.
I wouldn’t say the video works as a John Cage tribute, because, as Peter Guttmann points, out, the composer’s piece “breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic – shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life.” Nothing like that happens while you’re watching “Cage Does Cage.” Let’s face it, this video exists because the composer and the actor happen to share a last name. Rather than turn viewers’ reactions into the subject of the piece, as “4’33″” does, “Cage Does Cage” keeps the focus on Cage the actor, whose subtlest moments as a listener/reactor/paralyzed spectator are still charged with intimations of future shit-losing. (Indeed, at one point Lucas uses a clip from Vampire’s Kiss that was also used in the previously-linked “Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit,” but cuts before Cage’s pained, fearful expulsion of breath.)
Nevertheless, the video is intriguing, because it’s so different from every other Cage mash-up. Its emphasis on reaction and silence casts further doubt on the notion that Cage is a bad actor, as opposed to a performer whose preferred aesthetic doesn’t jibe with fashionable definitions of what’s good. Even when Cage is being subtle, as he is in many of the clips collected by Lucas, there’s an exaggerated (or perhaps “dancer-like”) grandness to the way he listens, gathers his nerve, lies down on a floor, or stares out of a train compartment window. It’s that silent-film thing again: small viewing window, big actor. But that’s not a knock. There’s an internal logic to what Cage does and how he does it. You can see this more clearly by observing the quiet Cage than the manic one.
Perhaps the most sensible response to Cage isn’t, “What a freak” or “What a bad actor” but “Your mileage may vary.” If all acting is small, acting itself becomes small, too; then cinema itself starts to shrink from stylistic risk, for fear of being thought too big, too wild, too “unreal.” As Willem Dafoe recently told Press Play columnist Simon Abrams, “I think in many ways, naturalism has ruined movies … I often like understated performances where the actor disappears. I like that a lot. But this imitation-of-life stuff doesn’t always tap into what’s beautiful about the language and the poetry of film.”
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play and the TV critic for New York Magazine. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall, 2012 by Abrams Books.