Blitz Patrollieby Kavish Chetty / 09.05.2013
I have taken a roughly year-long absence from local cinema, and in that time I have seen its phantasms in my peripheral vision – films beckoning for a full evisceration like Mad Buddies or Sleeper’s Wake (which André Brink, reaching for the direst of cliché, calls a “tour de force”). I have resisted the anti-seductive lure of this kind of criticism, because what can be said beyond the usual critical platitudes, easily-summoned, boringly-dispatched? The worst kinds of prophecies are fulfilled when I return, having given local cinema a year since the age of Material – by the most gracious account, still a trite film – and discover that Blitz Patrollie is the avatar of our times, our selection for the Cannes film festival this year. This manages to elevate Blitz, now no longer confined to domestic squalor, to the level of a national embarrassment. Once again, the usual disclaimers before I get truly acidulous: comedy in South Africa would be impoverished in manifold ways without Kagiso Lediga (scriptwriter) and the Late Nite News. But Blitz is a failure at every level conceivable: technical, imaginative, cinematic. In fact, I have not seen this level of technical incompetence (the specifics of which, later), this dereliction in the most basic savoir-faire of cinema, since Jock of the Bushveld.
In a recent interview, Lediga said the following about the Cannes selection: “…a German company had a look at it, and it killed them. They called us and said it was the funniest thing they had ever seen and they had never seen anything like it from Africa […] they said it reminded them of ‘80s Hong Kong action films.” There are two matters of intrigue here. I have italicised “from Africa” to remind us of the both sinister and banal logic with which this film will end up in France. It is a phenomenon which Graham Huggan calls “the postcolonial exotic”, a process whereby “foreign” icons of the third-world are imported into global economies of desire, made available for Western consumption through their mere “exoticness”. It is, in other words, of paramount regard that ze Germans had never found anything like this “from Africa”. They have seen these kinds of bumbling cop dramas spilled endlessly from the grand maw of America, and now – the natives are trying it out too! This film becomes for them what it cannot be for us: another touristic trinket, a whole Green Market Square of voyeurism. But this is made even worse by the inclusion of their patronising remarks about ‘80s Hong Kong action films. “Hong Kong action films” stands in as a codephrase for “shit, but saved through irony”. It marks a vast territory of attributes, recalling the bad dubbing or split-lipped accents, the poor plotting, the mimicking of American tropes, the slim budgets and comically-choreographed fight sequences of Asian cinema. What ze Germans are saying is that this film is utter garbage by their standards. But by the standards of the third-world – and let’s not forget that this continent is still a shroud of fascinating enigma to the travelling European and his mighty currency – this film makes a suitable spectacle. They are laughing at us. We are their new Hong Kong, producing artefacts of madness for their amusement.
But I should resist this idea of a rescue through the ever-present postmodern power of irony for the following reason: South Africa is not foreign to us who live on its soil, and hence, this film, never rising even from the level of the mediocre to the profane, is in fact irredeemable through appeals to irony. It’s that truly atrocious level of bad where not even the badness itself is amusing. And as a biographic indulgence and to ease my conscience, I should add that it gives me no pleasure, no sadistic thrill, at having to critique this film with the mercilessness it demands. All the processual struggles, the micro-narratives and individual talents, have been absorbed into a diorama of mediocrity and I am left only with that end-product to review.
Blitz Patrollie continues in a tradition that I would like to mark as “inorganic cinema”. It has a simple prerequisite: that its film-makers drink deeply of American cinema and imbibe its “formula” (in the sense of both a set of rules to be followed, and a manufactured foodstuff for babies to suckle on while they’re incapable of getting their own “essential” mix of nutrients). Nourished on this formula, and here’s where my metaphor reaches its end, they then transplant these rules from a foreign context into a local one, having no regard for the process of adaptation by which this material must come to make sense within its new domain. This adaptation would require film-makers to have a consciousness about how South Africa reacts to American tropes, whether South Africa even allows these forms of representation, and would produce an intelligent script wherein the rules of genre are exploited and used for the purposes of local storytelling. What almost always ends up happening instead is a cinema which is in thrall to Hollywood, and which must therefore subordinate the breathing reality of South Africa to its rule-system. The result is cyborg-ish, inorganic; in the truest sense, “weird”. Blitz makes this obvious immediately through its sheer technical incompetence: the soundtrack drowns out the dialogue; the editing is schizophrenic and inelegant; the special-effects (gunshots and the like) look like they were designed in the era of the Pentium 2; the pacing is breathlessly inconsistent and tiresome; the acting is awful; there is zero comic impact to be felt; no dramatic tension at all; and crises resolve themselves uninterestingly.
It is not simply the technical level at which Blitz fails to accomplish. The plot and characterisation are equally determined by the worst desires to emulate America. Blitz is a buddy cop-drama, and you can feel the outside influence – that inorganic sense of fascistic “rules” – working as the very engine of its drama. The film opens up on the inner-city grime of Joburg, seen through the filter of that colour-bleached ghetto realism. Rummy (Joey Rasdien) and Ace (David Kau) are two incompetent policemen, seen fucking things up from the very beginning. The narrative structure is as follows: they are losers – they stumble upon a conspiracy – they fail to solve the mystery – their reputation as losers grows – they are taken off the case – they have nothing to lose – they manage, without any hint of character development whatsoever, to storm the castle and solve the case – they are garlanded as heroes, the bad guys are put behind bars, and their critics are shamed. Does this sound nostalgic, familiar or unoriginal to you (depending on your levels of optimism)? Rummy and Ace manage to blunder into a drugs conspiracy that has its subterranean network linked up all the way to the top (and includes a brick sniper: someone who assassinates his target with a well-aimed brick to the cerebellum) and the film follows these two unsympathisable underdogs on their on-rails journey.
Blitz flattens all its characters into the worst stereotypes. The bad guys include a trio of Chatsworth-style coolies called “the Naidoos”, prey to the most predictable registers of infamy: the accent, that whole style of Indian working-class two-bit criminality (and in an effort to mix things up, one of these brothers is an adopted white guy (Quentin Krog), but this is really an afterthought attempt to make the merciless tuning of Injuns a little lighter). There is a fat, black plutocrat and a domineering mother-in-law; a tough-guy Afrikaner boss and a threatening new Scorpions-style detective to pull rank and play foil to our underdogs – what’s actually new here?
But Blitz continues to disappoint at a representational level: the women in this film are limited to a histrionic hostage victim, an aggressive and loutish mother-in-law, a whore, a morbidly-obese and nasty policewoman, and an ineffectual and barely-there wife. One of Ace’s heroes – soccer star Happy – turns out to be gay at some point in the film, and this development serves absolutely zero narrative function other than a catalyst for two or three non-laughs at Ace’s expense, because hell, worshipping a homosexual sportsman is a contradiction in masculinity, and hint at cellphone footage of this guy sucking some other bigshot’s dick. Little needs to be said about Joburg correctional services, the entire apparatus of this enforcement being turned into a mess of idiots, incompetents, those with BMIs in tragic surrender to the sovereign power of the common cheeseburger, and other species of delinquent. There is almost zero texture and zero sophistication in any of these portrayals, producing a kind of cinema that might have been pardonable during the genesis of Schuster, but is no longer excusable. There are even jokes of the Chuck Norris and Eskom vintage here, catapulting us seven years back in time.
Things within the diegesis of Blitz Patrollie do not make any sense: everything that happens feels pushed along by artificial forces, and indeed they are: reality, and its infinite texture, succumbs to the rules of genre, and slowly, three dimensions are flattened into one. This film is a fucking shame – a waste of Lediga (who has the only passably funny role in the movie, and even this one does no justice to his comic worth) and David Kibuuka. It’s another example of the latent forces by which cultural imperialism continues to shape our cinema. Perhaps when Lediga – and fucking everyone else who are making films like this – decide to ditch the grand dicta of commercial cinema and try something from the heart, it might come out more watchable than this. My words are harsh, but my word is bond, yo.