Want it all, Risk it all, Lose it all’ – the tagline from The Counsellor
Not only Directed by Ridley Scott and written by the Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor (2013) also boasted a beyond star-studded cast of Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, and yet, and yet still managed to comatose audiences and critics alike with what seemed to be an icy tribute to its own failure.
Not simply a film that fails to entertain or convince, but one that seems to unwittingly reveal the festering machinations behind its failure. Each symptom of its oddly misjudged tone – be it zero suspense, the sheen of production, character inertia, or the stilted dialogue that communicates a little less than cold brevity with a little more than vacuous excess – each of these symptoms seem to reflexively turn into parodies of their buried cause. Consequently, The Counselor casts an involuntary and icy light on the ugly capital of ‘the star’ in Hollywood promotion, in addition to the symbolic potency and expectations that such ‘stars’ have historically delivered.
In a silent comedy from 1927, Clara Bow, one of the very first stars of American cinema became synonymous with the film’s title: It. She was the ‘It girl’, ‘Miss It, California’, the birth of ‘It’, a title and description originally suggested in a magazine article by the English writer, Elinor Glyn – who had a cameo in the film. The value of ‘It’, though mainly unmentioned as a mysterious quality, does surface in a couple of definitions: the male protagonist’s best friend reads out that ‘the possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely “un-self-conscious”, and must have that magnetic “sex appeal” which is irresistible’; in Glyn’s cameo she defines ‘It’ as ‘self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.’ Bow’s allure as a star came from her supposed ordinary-ness; an exemplary and working class background that ostensibly leant her energy a lively naturalism that distinguished her from other more consciously thespian modes of melodrama. It was an attraction that conveyed her plucky spirit as both relatable and in the currency of sex appeal, attainable – thus spinning off into another mythic toxin of male fantasy: ‘star’ quality in ‘the-girl-next door-syndrome’. By the age of 28 Bow had left Hollywood. Not because, as is suggested, through her incompatibility with talkies, but through exhaustion: she was overworked (completing 46 silent films and 11 talkies, all completed from the age of 16 to 28) and increasingly in the 30s attacked by the press. She retired to a cattle ranch with her husband and suffered from various psychiatric illnesses for the rest of her life.
Rather than simply (or only) encapsulating a cautionary example of stardom, there is something telling about the supposed qualities of her objectified ‘It’ status and how that has changed. Described as ‘un-self-conscious’ and giving ‘the impression that you are not all cold’, Bow was celebrated for a spirit of naturalism in a medium that was trying to evolve beyond the artifice of a carnival attraction, or the emulation of theatre. Not far off a hundred years later and American cinema now has a history of ‘It’; manufactured naturalism and the impossibly glamorous, warped, undercut or consecrated idols of everyday have been through whole legacies of influence, reaction and growth. Alongside that cinematic change, inevitably the currency of the ‘it girl’ and having ‘it’ has become something very different. Now the ‘it girl’ phenomenon is usually attributed to a famous for being famous socialite, whose primary purpose or ambition seems to be courting the press. The ‘un-self conscious’ has become the consciously calculated and ‘the impression that you not all cold’ has been newly configured as a coldly performed version of warmth. Yet in The Counselor the performance has lost its currency, the potential ‘It vitality’ of its cast seems dislocated, remote and unsure.
The first time we see the titular ‘counselor’ (played by Michael Fassbender) and his lover (Penelope Cruz) they are writhing beneath white sheets in a luxurious bed. There is an extended take hovering over the bed, bodies discernible only as draped forms and pre or post-coital small talk between them supplied in voiceover. Rather than a heated sense of intimacy, the extended lingering on white sheets feels almost sepulchral. Clearly aiming for an evocative scene of promiscuity and proximity, the draped and entirely concealed bodies (no erotic glimpse of flesh) become only the awkward trace of sex – clinically remote from its physicality in folds of perfect white and closer in appearance to squirming body bags, or absurd mummified shapes. The camera then joins them beneath the sheets: a close up, looking from Cruz’s point of view at Fassbender’s confident smile as he says “tell me something sexy”, we then see Cruz for the first time as she brushes away a strand of hair and replies “I want you to put your hand up my dress”. Her smile is as white as the sheets, disturbingly white, the tone of her voice an awkward attempt at shy and girlish daring. Fassbender grins, enjoying his sense of playful wit, “but you’re not wearing a dress -”, “what does that have to do with it?” is Cruz’s gnomic response, followed by: “something you’d like for me to say?” Fassbender then tutors her, “but it has to be real doesn’t it?” Dirty talk has to uphold the pretense of pertaining to the situation, to being real, otherwise it is just an excruciating charade. Just as this scene demonstrates.
Both actors, despite ticking the requirements for a standardized type of Hollywood beauty and exchanging breathy lines of flirtation, feel remote and even embarrassed, and despite the camera’s nestling intimacy we – as the audience – feel coldly removed from the scene. A scene of dirty talk that acknowledges the need for a sense of realism that it itself lacks. An opening scene between the film’s central romantic relationship not only fails to inspire any connection or care in the viewer but similarly seems strained to convey its connection between the characters, all of this while evoking a deathly white shroud in the disheveled sheets. For a film written by the infamously bleak Cormac Mccarthy surely this could all be intended? A portent of Cruz’s later fate (kidnapped by members of the drug cartel and killed in a snuff film), a foreshadowing of her death and the film’s end latent in its beginning? I would like to suggest that this would be too generous and forgiving a reading of the film’s manifold failings. Instead, though I believe there are elements of awareness to the film (reflexive, cine-literate nods), what is more compelling is its haunted sense of that which escapes awareness. I would like to read the film as a prolonged demonstration of a kind of visual parapraxis, whereby the repressed is the Hollywood star system and the implications of its modes of representation. The desire to escape this, both intentionally and at times without knowing, causes in The Counsellor a troubled documentation of its own inability to exist as either a critique of a Hollywood film or as a Hollywood film – falling instead into a confused and uneasy neurosis between the two.
The film’s most obvious and perhaps more conscious attempt to parody and distance itself from Hollywood ‘star’ systems is through an explicit referencing of its existence. Michael Fassbender appears as the male lead, central protagonist and, by star rules, a hero. Fassbender is cold, unreadable and for the most part uninteresting (especially for a central character whose peril we should ideally care about). He recalls the automaton, ‘David’, he played in Ridley Scott’s previous film, Prometheus (2012). In a scene before one of the film’s most memorably jarring sequences, Fassbender looks at a photo of the actor Steve McQueen (the earlier icon of lead action roles) as though wistfully observing a past version of himself.
Brad Pitt – in this lineage of male stars – appears as jaded middleman, eternally wearing a cowboy hat, a memento that literally tips its hat to his much earlier role in Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991). A film when Pitt arrived as a star – with sex appeal, cowboy hat and youth. No longer an object of lust (at least in this film) and thus not a bankable star at the top of the business, Pitt appears as a weathered figure reduced to a lecherous version of his previous success – the middleman criminal who has seen it all and reports ‘it’s all shit’.
Cameron Diaz, an actress who was ‘discovered’ (that creepy euphemism) as a model and then, after her first role aged 21 in The Mask, was declared a sex symbol, appears in The Counsellor as its femme fatale. Her sexuality is a mark of strength, wielded in increasingly contorted versions of itself. Meanwhile Penelope Cruz perhaps suffers most as the romantic interest: the ornament with which to furnish the male lead. She is not only devoid of any discernible character, being a lazy counterpoint to Diaz’s libidinous empowerment, but she also becomes the expendable body (after being killed), that is unceremoniously and literally dumped as waste.
Whilst this suggests a degree of conscious parody, I would argue it breaks down around Cameron Diaz’s character, Malkina. Javier Bardem (Reiner) is fatally obsessed with Malkina and, in the jarring scene that follows Fassbender looking at the portrait of Steve Mcqueen, he recollects a disturbing sexual incident. He reflects that he found out too much about women and by way of a begrudging explanation, Bardem tells Fassbender that Malkina literally ‘fucked his car’. This involves a cut away of Diaz removing her underwear, climbing up the car’s bonnet and on to the windscreen, where she then spreads her legs – sliding herself up and down to orgasm. Rather than being turned on, Bardem is left in a mixture of horror and appalled curiosity, describing the action (as seen from the car-seat, staring up into her exposed and sliding vagina on the windscreen) as like a “catfish – a bottom feeder” before concluding ‘it was too gynecological to be sexy’. It seems a fevered and uncomfortable enactment of the actress as star, sexualized in film not through her own comfort or realistic sexuality but through pressures of a pornographic leering, here the cinematic male gaze and its fantasy becomes grotesquely realised in its objectivity. This is at the repressed heart of the film and its cold but obsessive relationship with sex and stars. Bardem stares up at a literal screen and when he gets what he wants in its most unadorned form, a front row seat to the sexual worship of his financial, phallic and four-wheeled status – he is horrified. This sequence is also notably the only flash back in the film, a conspicuous detail considering we never find out the past of ‘the counselor’ let alone his name. For a film with many other unanswered questions about what came before, this - sex, commodification and masculine wish-fulfillment – is the only flash back.
When the fantasy is made real it is ‘too gynecological’, is this a hysteric victory for Diaz’s Malkina in a critique through literalizing extremes, or is it perhaps more complicated? I would suggest it is more complicated, mainly for the reason that the film, neither in McCarthy’s screenplay nor Scott’s direction, seems to know precisely what is meant in this scene. Is it possibly a moment of witness, where the star system is turned into an unwanted strip-tease revealing the exploitation of its own base logic: a vagina rubbed up against the screen while the male viewer is in the driving seat. A vision later repressed as like a ‘catfish’ – and then, again unsure of its own implications beyond the image, the phrase “a bottom feeder” unwittingly attempts to control the fantasy made real through a denigration of power. Or is this the ultimate death dance of the femme fatale, the film noir creation of anxious misogyny, parodied here by a powerful woman…or perhaps it is just the logical extension of the femme fatale taken to its seemingly perverse extreme (The Counsellor alludes explicitly to film noir, when Pitt quotes the neo-noir Body Heat,1981, itself heavily drawing from Double Indemnity, 1944). Does Malkina’s act expose sexist expectations in star culture through a horrific and absurd image, while also offering the self reflexive critique on Cameron Diaz as sex symbol? Or, does it only extend those expectations as a dangerous fantasy, one to be buried and then incorporated into a star-led film as a semi-repressed acknowledgement, later dismissed by men in a recollection that mentions ‘catfish’ and the loaded insinuation of ‘bottom-feeder’. This jarring and somewhat neurotic instability, both in tone and interpretation, spreads out throughout the film.
In the film’s concluding scenes, we join the counselor on the phone to a man whose role is one of questionable philosophical aid – helping the counselor realize he has no choice, all the significant choices that can be made have been made, he must now choose only to accept this fact. Again we approach this through the windscreen, the glassy separation of the screen and a visual slip back to the Malkina scene. The criminal system into which the counselor has entered, through his very entrance, has set into motion choices and movements that cannot be avoided. In the star system, as with the film’s narrative, agency and choice are gone. As by this point, is anything resembling the viewer’s interest. The ‘it’ of Clara Bow as arguably Hollywood’s first star has grown, from a celebration of warmth and lack of self awareness, to the critique of a cold self awareness, one that remains unaware of how inextricable its own critique is from that which it criticizes. I used the phrase ‘visual parapraxis’ as a way of imagining this troubled slip, a symptomatic accident of clarity that has at its root something not fully acknowledged or made entirely consciously available. This is the unresolved flashback of Malkina and the equally unresolved involvement and legacy of the star system. The original German word used by Freud, from which parapraxis was translated, is Fehlleistungen. A word defined as either “faulty functions”, “faulty actions” or, most significantly for all involved in The Counselor "misperformances".