The Coca-Cola Kid
ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
Fundamental to understanding the anti-Me Generation genre is Robert Altman’s horrendously underrated (or just simply horrendous?) O.C. and Stiggs. Playing on one level like the absurdist-beach blanket species of the Brat Pack kingdom, Altman’s film features the exploits of two high-school pranksters. The object of their troublemaking is neither female nor strike-it-big; rather, the young leads live to rail against and upend the Schwab family—a simple (albeit obnoxious) unit representing everything capitalistic about the bourgeois 80s. While the tools may be lobsters and overgrown shocks on overgrown car axles, Altman’s film is so satirical as to be uncomfortably uncategorizable as comedy.
O.C. and Stiggs is useful for its explanatory power; but the real grandfather of the genre is Dusan Makavajev’s 1985 masterpiece The Coca-Cola Kid. The movie centers around a corporate strategy and its fall-out at the Australian headquarters of Coke. International higher-ups send in a guru named Becker (Eric Roberts) for unspecified purposes; he eventually finds a battle—and then common ground—with a hardened localist making soft drinks in the fortress style of Wonka.
But hold on: It sounds like maybe this movie is openly about capitalism. In a way, it’s forthright; its genius comes in the pluck and peculiarity of tone that keeps it constantly baffling with regards to its genre and bottom line. Unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which makes satire by simply exaggeration, Roberts’ Becker is a capital-based mystic, driven to seek and confront obstacles by uncovering the essence (the authentic “sounds of Australia”) rather than, say, the financial underpinnings of a subject. A bellhop figure mistakes Becker for a CIA agent, and appears regularly with cryptic messages and glances; that the Coca-Cola Kid is nearly oblivious to this presence, busy with his own thing, signals his rapturous devotion. Roberts is fantastic in his role; his repulsion for the first two-thirds of the film towards objectively gorgeous suitor Greta Scaachi is some of the most uncomfortable screwball romantic comedy since Minnie & Moskowitz.
One of the features that sets the Kid apart is his foreign American-ness; the otherworldly movie itself comes from disparate elements. The short story was homegrown in Australia by Frank Moorhouse. The Yugoslavian Makavajev is an avant-garde filmmaker who works in spurts of inspiration more typically found in a documentarian. Most of his films are slightly non-standard Balkan fable, but his other tour de force is the out-of-nowhere WR: Mystery of the Organism, ostensibly about German philosopher and cultist Wilhelm Reich, but more truly just inspired by Reich’s perversity. In this film, the director has attempted to approximate the brand of offbeat Australian filmmaking (found in Weir, Luhrmann, de Heer, and others) that includes rapid cutting and odd camerawork, bizarre cameo figures, wide desertscapes, and plenty of foreboding.
Becker is always worthy of interest; what makes his eventual heroism possible, though, is that his aggressive personality is not reducible to corporate conformity. Rather, it is the make-up of an iconoclast, one finally able to recognize the brilliance of the localist he intends to undercut (as well as, duh, the worthiness of Scaachi). The story’s trick is that, in jamming this culture, the all-seeing Kid doesn’t have to wrestle with the indignity of corporate culture—a lot of his ethical system appears to hold—but needs only to realize that Coke doesn’t encompass the monolithic solution, that meaning can be found elsewhere in honest and dignified style.
There’s no need to reveal the movie’s ending, but Coca-Cola Kid circles back to Altman territory when it begins to parody itself. As events in the world become more distant to the characters, the events themselves become increasingly extreme, composed of unrelated parts and almost apocalyptic in their absurdity. Lightheartedness can only get so light where something always seems to lurk.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-11-16