Oh, the stories Scurlock tells. There are Kafkaesque ones, of people mistakenly declared dead on credit reports who must be dead, damn it. There are ones that start out goofy, like the guy who gets into a wrangle with his credit-card holder, Providian, over the billing for a piece of junk that was supposed to melt his abdomen fat. It becomes less goofy when we hear about Providian’s habit of holding or losing checks to bump up customers’ interest rates, which led to a fine against the company of hundreds of millions of dollars—which led, in a roundabout way, to the nomination of Providian’s former president to be George W. Bush’s business-ethics czar.
I could list more examples, but you get the idea. Given the statistics, you might have gotten the idea already, thanks to a minimum balance you once couldn’t pay and the nice people you met as a result. Scurlock profiles Robert Johnson and Chris Winkler, two prosperous young entrepreneurs in the jolly business of debt buying, men who discover new ways every day to ratchet up the pressure on the folks who owe them money. Thanks to legislation that the movie says was written by MBNA, it’s more difficult than ever to escape them by declaring bankruptcy.
One of the many strange—and delightful—things about Maxed Out is the way it uses an old-fashioned educational short in which a sagacious authority figure counsels a student couple on the wise use of credit. We’re used to rolling our eyes in the face of such stern fifties patriarchal propaganda—but damned if that old white guy doesn’t make good sense. How curious that the patriarchs of the 21st century want to steer us into debt.
Documentaries like Maxed Out make for excellent aversion therapy. Although weaned on Quarter Pounders with Cheese, I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since I saw Morgan Spurlock vomit one out a car window in Super Size Me. Is Spurlock related to Scurlock? This is an even scarier movie. After watching Maxed Out, I vowed to pay off all my credit cards at once and buy everything thereafter with cash. Of course, if I carried around that much cash, I’d need a gun, which would bring me smack up against another aversion-therapy documentary, Bowling for Columbine. No wonder people drive into rivers.
Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels centers on the efforts of a writer-director, François (Frédéric Van Den Driessche), to capture, on film, “the grace of pleasure” on the faces and bodies of women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. The brave fool doesn’t realize what a dangerous game this is, female sexuality being as primal, as Camille Paglia–esque, as it is. That François will be punished for meddling with “the infernal machine” is foreshadowed by the sporadic appearance of two “fallen angels”—black-haired harpies who gaze on him balefully as he privately auditions actresses to gauge their “potential for exhibitionism.” One actress, the lovely and tremulous Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), has plenty of exhibitionistic potential indeed, mainly owing to mental illness and a history of sexual abuse. She has (very explicit) sex with Julie (Lise Bellynck) and then with Julie and Stéphanie (Marie Allan) together—and it all goes like gangbusters until the first day of shooting …
François is apparently the director’s alter ego, which makes it sad he’s such a lox, and that his face conveys nothing as he watches these women (laboriously) getting one another off. Exterminating Angels is meant as an autocritique—and yet the director can’t get past his notion of himself as a fearlessly transgressive artist-hero, a martyr to the limitations of male gaze. With all those lovely naked women helping him act out his own Promethean fall, it’s less autocritique than autoeroticism, an especially pretentious entry in the French cinema du wank.
Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon also tells the story of a director’s comeuppance, but the filmmakers have the modesty not to try to pass off their self-consciousness as self-criticism. Written by David J. Stieve and Glosserman, this is a rambunctiously postmodern exploitation flick—a mockumentary in which a film-school hotshot (Angela Goethals) decides to follow around a novice serial killer who’d like to be in the same league as Freddy, Jason, and Michael (all of whom exist in this particular alternate universe). His name is Leslie Vernon (twitchy Nathan Baesel), and he’s such a insightful student of slasherdom—and such a bitter misfit—that he could almost be a film critic.
Working in a mini-genre whose bones would appear to have been picked clean by the likes of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, Glosserman and Stieve find a few pints of fresh blood. Glosserman doesn’t get much out of Robert Englund (not as Freddy, but a variation of the Donald Pleasence psycho-hunter in Halloween), but there’s a marvelously creepy-funny scene with Scott Wilson (back from Korea) as a retired slasher who has made a cozy home with his last “Survivor Girl,” and the film crew’s documentary-ethics debates (do they or don’t they warn Leslie’s victims?) seem, in this day and age, amusingly un-farfetched. It’s too bad that in a sop to the slasher audience, Glosserman discards the mockumentary setup about fifteen minutes from the end and delivers a real hack-’em-up climax—suggesting that post-post-modernism might in fact be careerism.