Sally Potter’s “Rage” (2009) has made itself noteworthy as the latest effort of a name filmmaker to address — or experiment with, or mambo around — the fact that cinema, as it’s traditionally made and consumed, is being starved by digital culture. Everyone knows the drill — movies, TV, music, newspapers, publishing, etc. are all dying pig-stuck deaths because of the internet, although no one dares to say that the internet is, in fact, the problem, and increases its dominance at a very real and looming set of costs to us all.
Filmmakers are being forced to look at inexpensive, or even budget-free, ways to get their material out into the public eye, although obviously it’s a transitional phase, and if indies can’t make a living making films, those films — all films outside of four $150 mil mega-stools every year — will cease to be made. Steven Soderbergh tried to embrace quick-cheap digital filmmaking (with the ostensible series of projects that began and ended with “Bubble”), and now it’s Potter’s turn. “Rage” was as cheap to make as a bare-stage monologue play (which is what it is), and has been “released” first to mobile devices via Babelgum (in separate episodes), then to DVD, then online, and so on in quick succession.
The attempt to cater to “platforms” above and beyond all other considerations is hard to stomach, since, let’s face it, in the history of visual entertainment there has never been a worse way to see a film than on an iPod. I’d consider watching a premiere on a “mobile device” to be a form of punishment, certainly not something I’d pay for; it’s like being delighted by the opportunity to read the new Jonathan Lethem novel printed on postage stamps.
Potter’s movie is, in any case, a self-conscious bit of voguing, a talking-head satire on the fashion industry that despite its pretensions and fatuities is surprisingly watchable. Star power and pulpy drama carry the day when Potter’s restrictive structure grows dull, and if some of the actors are just dreadful (in the shockingly idiotic role of a velvet-suited detective, David Oyelowo proves to be the low point), then others (Dianne Wiest, Eddie Izzard) are hypnotic, subtle and seductive. Lily Cole’s bizarre beauty — an anime face with foot-apart eyes colored a half-dozen shades of cyan — is its own kind of cinematic spectacle.
Potter’s camera stands in for the (improbably high-quality) cell phone one of Michelangelo, an intern in a haute couture firm prepping for a show; as the egos preen and explain themselves to him in front of a green screen, there are unseen murders (you hear gunshots, and then the on-camera characters either dash off or begin to weep, mustering hope that it’ll turn into a game of “Clue”), and the show begins to collapse. But this isn’t a matter of story, it’s character sketches, and of them, Jude Law (in drag as an aging model with a fake Russian accent) may have had the most fun, while Judi Dench, looking like a David Levine caricature of herself and playing an acid-tongued fashion critic just a few years ahead of Addison DeWitt, is the most professional. And so on. If anything, “Rage” is too Warhol — the full-frontal agenda is obviously reminiscent of Warhol’s “screen tests,” muddied by monologuing, and the fluorescent-colored backgrounds are silk-screen portrait hues via Ikea.
The film’s proud artifice rubs the mock-doc set-up the wrong way if you’re keeping score, except that “fashion” is all about the dishonesty of surfaces, and Potter’s film seems to be less about its subject and story than about how to make movies with as little as possible (another Warhol principle) and conform them to the new digital world. (In an interview in the latest Sight & Sound, she calls it “survivalist filmmaking, a no-waste aesthetic.”) The film’s context and methodology are more interesting than its material, and that’ll be so only for the moment, before movies and their restless “platforming” change into something else.