This World, Then the Fireworks
When you watch a movie, is there always a giveaway about how intentional a level of incompetence is? What I mean is, at what point does the appearance of satire or parody drift off into the area of just plain old dreadful?
Unless you were in the director’s brain while he was on set, there’s no way to know for sure. Any individual image could either be a worn out cliché or a sharp mocking of filmmakers — with no creativity whatsoever. The only way for us to properly hazard a guess is to compare the director’s films to each other. Do they share a style or point of view that signals whether or not they knew what they were doing?
That conundrum is never more relevant than in Michael Oblowitz’s This World, Then the Fireworks, an adaptation of one of noir king Jim Thompson’s final short stories. The story was published 28 years posthumous. And part of that might have to do with its downright sleazy content, over and above the standard sociopathic protagonist in a Thompson story (The Getaway, The Grifters). Oblowitz was coming off commercials and music videos. So quick bits of style were already in his repertoire, which accounts for This World’s 1990s version of a 1950s small town. It doesn’t explain why so much of the film is scattered and distracted, with plot points showing up far after they’ve been dealt with, nasty bits of macabre violence, and then a sudden shift to a solemn introspective tone.
It’s probably not fair to compare This World, Then the Fireworks to Oblowitz’s later films. But if there’s a hint as to the narrative and editing messiness, it’s the two direct-to-video Steven Seagal films he directed in 2003, Out for a Kill and The Foreigner. Both, even for Seagal’s low standards, are more than slapped together and incoherent, they are frankly unwatchable. The works have none of the unintentional humor that is a staple of Seagal’s DTV phase.
In This World, Then the Fireworks you can see inklings of the habits that he went all out on in Oblowitz’s Seagal era, even if a lot of it plays like straight humor (“She’d been sorely undernourished and frequently raped”). So the dry amusement of the Thompson story that should have crept to the forefront won’t occur to you until later. For instance, the lead actors Billy Zane and Gina Gershon play characters — twins — who are beyond immoral. The twins never turn their noses up at a scheme or a murder, and yet they still live with their ailing mother (Rue McClanahan). Hell, Gershon’s character, a divorced prostitute, still shares a wall with her mother.
All of this material was basically covered in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, which is similarly overheated and ludicrous. But Mailer’s misogyny and self-seriousness is all over his film, and Oblowitz is more than happy to give us Zane floating from moralizing to laughing to crying — often within the same sentence — which, supposedly, makes him irresistible to women. [Is it any wonder that Zane took a producing credit? The whole movie is an ode to his oily good looks and charm.] Gershon vamps and vamps; her curly Joker lips have never seemed more appropriate considering they do all the work that the screenplay does not. Sheryl Lee, as the cop who Zane is scamming and sleeping with gives such a terrible performance that is simultaneously absolutely perfect.
Oblowitz’s hardboiled-noir shortcuts and flashy contrast-heavy photography help out the actors, because they mean a character — such as an overweight private detective following Gershon — already looks like a frog before we seem him practically ribbit when he’s flummoxed. The style is almost Coen Brothers in its approach, using noir and standard caricatures for the humor. Except Oblowitz takes the whole thing very seriously; which, in the end, makes no difference because the movie is just as odd and as it is funny.