Back in 2001, when the deeply boring movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was released, part of the story around it (as I remember it now, 20+ years later) was that director Simon West threw out the scripts he was given (apparently the producers had more than one writer working separately and simultaneously) and, with a pair of co-writers, wrote a new one in a week or two. Apparently, he said it was not that hard.
A review I read at the time (which I can’t find at the moment) seized on this quote, because of course writing is easy if you don’t care how (or whether) the sequences fit together, or even if they belong together at all.
I was thinking about this quote as I watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy.
On one level, CC is a story about a woman with supernatural powers who is forced to survive in a world of ruthless mobsters. She is considered to be a “lucky coin,” someone who brings good luck/grants wishes, but no one trusts her and she gives every impression of being passive and helpless until suddenly she isn’t.
On another level, CC is an art film with long lingering shots in which nothing happens, slow circular pans in rooms where more time is spent on the wallpaper than the characters, shots full of color, and beautifully composed images.
Me, I like both of these things, and so Copenhagen Cowboy ought to have been my absolute jam. Instead, I admired it more than I liked it. I indulged it by giving it my time instead of feeling moved.
Most of the time, anyway. I certainly loved sections of it, but overall?
There are many art films that don’t want the audience to engage with them on a literal plot and subplot level—movies where you just sit back and experience it. They don’t offer the easy engagement of narrative, because the audience response comes from something else.
Copenhagen Cowboy wants both elements, but doesn’t know how to combine them. It’s a chaotic jumble of pretty shots, images of women being degraded, rotating camera POVs, gross/grotesque imagery, and supernatural nonsense. It’s an interesting failure and little more.
Then I found this interview with him on Vulture. In it, he says that the title of the show has no relation to the show itself. He just thought it sounded cool.
Also, that he shot the series in chronological order so he could change things on the fly “based on how [he feels] in the morning”. For example, there was a scene where the protagonist talks about being abducted as a child, and he changed it at the last moment to being abducted by aliens. Why? Because he’s “always been interested in science fiction”.
In the third episode, he suddenly decided that the main character knows kung fu, so they brought in a trainer and choreographed a big fight scene.
When I read this part of the interview, it occurred to me that my experience of watching all this Dumb Pretty Art TV must have been similar to the experience of the cast and crew as they made it. What? I’m part of an intergalactic race now? Oh, we’re going to resolve this confrontation with a martial arts battle? Okay then. Let’s, um, make that happen.
And this moves the show out of the “interesting failure” category into something much dumber. I’m usually in favor of characters going all karate on each other, but it’s so commonplace that it needs a commonplace structure around it. It can’t be thrown in as a last minute change because you have no idea what should happen next.
That’s the kind of easy writing that doesn’t care how the scenes and sequences relate to each other.
But NWR can (sort of) get way with this in a way that Simon West can’t. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has a lot of beautiful people, locations, and shots, but they aren’t beautiful in an art-house style. LC:TR is beautiful in the background while other, much-plottier stuff is going on.
With Copenhagen Cowboy, the story stops for beauty. The extended rotating pans around a 360 degree set are an intentional (and condescending) choice by the director to deny the audience the kind of editing that grabs your attention. The grotesquery is designed to unsettle. The ambiguity is meant to intrigue.
And I’m pretty sure the scenes of beautiful women in degraded circumstances are supposed to titillate.
None of this is as successful as the director’s fans hope it will be. Personally, I wanted to be one of those fans, but it’s not going to happen on the strength of this show. Not when it feels so careless.
Random comments: NWR talks about this season as the start of his hero’s journey, with a second season ready to go. However, I was sure that the sequence of images at the end of the season showed the main character dying. Ambiguity, people. It’s how you recognize Real Art.
Finally, that Vulture interview I linked above is kinda hilarious. NWR is so fully committed to his Euro Art Nerd persona that he talks about his audience as though he’s “educating children.” He also says he wept with pride often when his daughter, hired to play a critical part that was added at the last minute, refused to take his direction. Amazing.