Mistress

Mistress

I have mixed feelings about Mistress, which is about a director trying to get his movie made without totally selling out his artistic vision.

At least one description I saw of it labeled it a “black comedy.” In the past I probably would have thought that sounded promising, but I’ve noticed with these movies I’ve been watching lately, most of the ones described as black comedies I’ve experienced as duds or semi-duds. Usually because the comedy part doesn’t click with me for whatever reason.

That may be more an issue with foreign and indie films; maybe I’m not sophisticated enough to be in tune with what those folks are ridiculing, so it falls flat for me.

This has more the trappings of a regular, mainstream movie though. It’s from the early 1990s, with Robert DeNiro, Martin Landau, Robert Wuhl, and other name actors.

Anyway, the first third or so I thought was fairly funny, average or above for a comedy. I’m not sure, in fact, what makes it a black comedy rather than just a comedy. Then in the next third one gets a little better feel for why the director cares so much about this film and about not compromising his artistic vision, and I found myself getting into the serious side of the film more.

So I was into this film a decent amount for at least that long. But from some point around there I felt my interest gradually wane. I never fully turned against the movie, but I wasn’t finding much to laugh at any more, and the serious part didn’t develop in a way that hit me at a deep level. The film kind of fizzled for me.

The ending itself puzzled me, though there’s a good chance I’m just missing something. The director is still torn up about having to compromise, and finally the producer—who up until this point has been much more willing to humble himself and schmooze the investors and do anything it takes to get the film made—decides he’s had enough and blows. As they walk away, having lost the deal, the producer announces that they never should have compromised at all, that he’s willing to gamble on the original project with all he’s got. I would have thought the director would have responded very favorably to this, since it means getting at least some funding for doing the film exactly the way he wants, and even if they still have to go to investors for some of the money, at least now he has someone fully in his corner who will work with him to make sure the film gets done right, rather than just another voice urging him to play the game and compromise. Instead he just gets a look of disgust and drives off.

Well maybe it means that he’s so fed up with the whole process that in his mind all that’s changed is he’s now being offered a way that he foresees will still eventually require compromises, just fewer, and even that isn’t acceptable to him. Except that in the closing scene, he’s told about a possible new investor, and he jumps back in after all.

So I don’t know. Maybe there’s not supposed to be a consistency to his behavior. But it wasn’t an ending that connected with me.

The whole issue of sticking to your principles versus playing the game to achieve success is obviously very important. Even though it’s in part played for laughs here, the portrayal of the movie business is certainly an unpleasant one. It’s a miserable world where the people with money call the shots and get to behave like assholes, and the more you care about art and creating something of value and being true to yourself, the less you’ll fit in the culture.

For me, I wanted the director to stick to his guns even more than he does. Even if it were just a matter of a generic movie I would hope someone in his position would insist on making it the best it could be, but in this case the specifics of the movie are profoundly important to him on a personal level, so there’s all the more reason for him to take a “my way or not at all” attitude.

So when his wife turns out to be unsupportive, chastising him for letting his stubbornness keep him a failure in spite of starting with so much talent, I don’t sympathize with her position. I mean, I understand in the abstract why you’re supposed to, why someone in her position could understandably feel the way she does, but it’s so diametrically opposed to my values that to me she’s just a bitch he’s better rid of.

The film did make me think about how no doubt in the case of just about any film that gets made, the filmmaker had to adjust it in ways he’d have preferred not to in order to placate a studio or investor or someone. I mean, for a lot of films that doesn’t really matter, because the filmmaker’s just a hack trying for the highest commercial success, so there are no principles to compromise. But for those who are trying to create something according to their own artistic vision, they must have to let themselves be influenced by other factors or their film would never see the light of day. They never say that publicly of course—“My movie is in part what I wanted, but I also compromised a lot”—so there’s this perception that what you’re seeing in a film is some sort of autonomous creation of the filmmaker, but I’m sure there’s a large element of myth to that. As there is with authors and journalists and just about anyone expressing himself or herself in a commercialized context that requires the cooperation of other people with other agendas.

In a way I can see myself in the director’s conflict, and in a way I can’t. My decisions not to compromise tend to come so early in any process that I wouldn’t be interacting with the kinds of people he is and facing the same kind of dilemmas. I’m much more an outsider or a non-participant in the conventional world than one who flirts with success in it and can’t quite bring himself to make the final compromises to get there. I’m a very intelligent person and arguably have, or could develop, the skills to be materially and conventionally successful in some area or other, but I never played the game nearly as much as even he does. I’m a much more thorough failure relative to the standards of someone like his wife and doubt I would ever have gotten her hopes up that I’d be otherwise, thus I could never really disappoint her.

Insofar as I beat myself up for not achieving more in life—such as making a film like the one that is so close to his heart—I rarely if ever think in terms of how I should have compromised more, that my obstinacy somehow wasn’t worth it. Instead I feel like I should have worked harder and been more resourceful and such about finding ways to achieve more with, if anything, even fewer compromises. Because it’s certainly possible to do a lot more good in life than I have without sucking up to rich people or being unscrupulous or whatever.

It’s harder to do just about anything when you have moral principles limiting your range of action, but harder doesn’t mean impossible.

I also thought it was interesting the way I responded to the “mistresses” of the title. (One of the ongoing gags is that the investors all have girlfriends they expect to be cast in the movie.)

When the mistress was a “bimbo with a heart of gold” type, I found her at least a somewhat positive character. You know, someone who benefits from dating a rich guy, but isn’t real conniving about it. Someone who gains certain advantages from being young and attractive, but is nice to everybody along the way.

And I wasn’t particularly appalled at the way the rich guys were exploiting the mistresses or whatever. Superficially, my reaction was probably more that if I happened to have a lot of money, it would be quite enjoyable if one of the perks was having much younger, hotter girlfriends than I otherwise would, but that I hope I wouldn’t use my money to please her specifically in a way that messed up something else of value, like damaging the quality of a movie that was somebody’s dream to make. But as far as the overall “casting couch” element of pretty girls benefitting by putting out, I mostly chuckled at it rather than was offended by it.

But the more “empowered” mistress who was deceitful and doing everything with eyes open, and knew it was all a shitty practice but refused to feel the slightest bit guilty about it as long as she got what she wanted, I found to be a real turn off. I mean, I know the character is purposely over the top because the movie is in part a comedy, but I totally rooted against her.

It’s one thing to naively participate in a common social practice that is arguably a negative one, and to be a good and sweet person on an individual level while doing so. It’s another to knowingly participate in it with no conscience because all you care about is yourself and getting ahead.

There’s some indication that she also cares about her art—ironically she’s the one who might well be a successful actress if everything were somehow decided on merit—but she’s so ugly in her personal interactions and so smug about her amorality that I wanted someone to tell her to go fuck herself even if she had manipulated the situation to where it was contrary to their self-interest to do so.

So maybe my reacting viscerally much more negatively to her than to the old guys getting better quality pussy because of their money indicates some remaining latent sexism in me. I’m sure a lot of people, especially women, would be a lot more outraged by the practice in general, and would excuse her if not applaud her for turning it to her advantage and using the other people as much or more than they’re using her.

In the end, I guess Mistress is decent. It held my interest most of the way, and it gave me some things to think about. And it was an “easy” film to watch in that the production values and the acting and such are of high quality compared to most of the films I’ve written about so far. But I can’t say it’s any more than decent. I think it had more potential than it ultimately lived up to, both as a comedy and as a serious movie about the pressure to compromise one’s principles as an artist.

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