"I just want to tell you that what you said about Hell: that was beautiful. I loved listening to you."
—Kylie to Officer Duke
This is not a movie blog. So why am I writing a non-monetized entry about the film WRONG COPS? The answer is: "No reason." —Now I’ll type more words, to fill up the screen.
The quote that begins this post is spoken by the wife of self-slaughtered police officer Simon William Shine, also known as Sunshine, in Quentin Dupieux’s movie WRONG COPS. Having purchased a disc of that film a little more than a month ago (it never showed theatrically in my city), and having re-watched it every single day since then, I could voice the above quote with honesty if I ever met Dupieux, who, by the way, is not only the director, writer, cinematographer, and editor of the film WRONG COPS – he is also its music man (I mean score writer or beat maker; and, if you get a chance to see the film, you’ll know that that’s an enviable title).
When I was in high school, I encountered movies by directors like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, which changed my view of cinema forever. Then I went on to discover names like Werner Herzog, Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Guy Maddin, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Harmony Korine, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Jacques Rivette, Robert Downey Sr, Charlie Kaufman, etc., etc., etc. Now I add Dupieux to this personal list of heroes.
I’ve heard the director Robert Altman say that if you’ve only watched a film once, then you haven’t really watched the film at all; because the first time you watch a film, you’re only playing ‘whodunit’; that is, you’re trying to figure out simple and basic details about the movie, like the plot, if such a thing exists – and I wholly agree. Many times I’ve re-watched Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK; Antonioni’s L'ECLISSE; Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER; Lynch’s ERASERHEAD; and certain movies by Wes Anderson – I’ve ended up enjoying them dozens of times. But these multiple viewings take place over years, or at least months – I mean, maybe I’ll occasionally watch a movie twice or thrice in a row if I’m dazzled by it; but never before have I felt so mesmerized by a film that I wanted to re-watch it every day, ritualistically, like I’ve done with Dupieux’s WRONG COPS.
Mark Burnham, who plays Officer Duke, is the capstone of this pyramid. The last movie character that I venerated so much was Luke Skywalker from STAR WARS, when I was just a kid. Everywhere I go now, I end up shouting quotes from Officer Duke, doing my best imitation of Burnham’s delivery; and, since almost nobody has seen WRONG COPS, I’m afraid that my neighborhood really does think I’ve gone immortal.
I don’t know how he does it, but the director Quentin Dupieux gets pitch-perfect performances from every last member of his ensemble. Every role, no matter how big or small, is played to perfection: the actors are totally authentic and at ease, in a way that I can’t remember ever seeing before. I normally find children actors painful to endure, but even the youngest actors in WRONG COPS are exactly right – the actor who plays the daughter of Officer Sunshine, for instance, is marvelous.
No one’s paying me to write this, and there’s nothing that I despise more than participating in the creation of a mundane movie review, so I’m just going to keep typing until I get tired. I don’t care if this thing is disorganized – it’s really just a brainstorm of notes.
I’m still wondering why this particular movie makes me feel the desire to watch it so many more times than other, equally great films. I’m convinced that it has something to do with the fact that WRONG COPS is not just a movie – it could be seen as a (very subtle) 80-minute music video for Dupieux’s own discography (Dupieux has been making his own songs for years under the pseudonym Mr Oizo) – because absolutely all the music that is heard in the film is Dupieux’s. I can’t get enough of this fantasy world where every song or sound in every scene – even what is heard on the radios in cheap diners and motels – was made by the director himself. It’s pleasantly claustrophobic. (Even the movie on the family's TV was made by Dupieux.) What artist would not want their own similar utopia?
Since becoming addicted to WRONG COPS, I’ve sought out and examined all of Oizo's albums that I can find (blissfully, by the way); and, in the process, I stumbled upon a customer review by Steward Willons that I thought was exactly right, regarding the use of music in Dupieux’s film WRONG COPS – here’s the quote:
Mr. Oizo’s music for the film, Wrong Cops, is wonderful electro house – loud, boomy, groovy, basically everything you want in this sort of music; however, your enjoyment of it will increase tenfold if you see it in the context of the film. […] It was a delight from start to finish. […] The coolest part is that most of the music is diegetic (meaning, the characters in the film are aware of it) rather than underscoring (meaning the audience is the only one who hears the music). For example, a track is blasting away for a while and then it’s revealed that one of the characters is listening to it on his car stereo. The way that the music is blended seamlessly into the narrative is simply awesome. If you see the film, you will form some special extra-musical connections with the music that carry over into the soundtrack. I highly recommend it.
As I wrote earlier, I’ll occasionally re-watch a movie a few times, if I’m dazzled by it; but never before have I felt so mesmerized by a film that I wanted to view it daily, like I’ve done with WRONG COPS. – I’ve been asking myself, as if I’ve caught a disease: Why me? Why must I feel the need to re-watch this film so much more than any other? Out of all those wonderful movies I’ve seen in my life, why did this one develop into an obsession?
In addition to the idea that the film has the repeatability of a favorite song, because it shares so many aspects with music videos (the cuts and speeches and entrances and exits are timed to the beat; so viewers who have a feeling for rhythm are rewarded in this respect), I think that the general key to my fascination is obvious: WRONG COPS is aligned with everything I love most, and it ridicules everything that I hate most.
What do I love most? First, Alfred Jarry’s brand of absurdity, his ‘pataphysics’. The WRONG COPS character Officer Duke is nicely aligned with Jarry’s infamous Ubu. I also love Tristan Tzara’s version of dada, which seems alive and well in Dupieux’s productions. And the dry, insistent strangeness that I love about the writings of Raymond Roussel is present in the film, in that it refuses to descend into Hollywood obviousness; but, in a weird way, this dry absurdity is married to Jarry’s broader, wilder zaniness throughout the film, in its situations, dialogue, and style (the so-wrong-it’s-right camerawork must be seen rather than described: I can’t put into words the effectiveness of its zoom-prone fun); these rarely coupled traits, which one of the film’s ads quotes a reviewer as calling ‘insipid and pretentious’ are like chocolate and peanut butter to me.
So that’s how the film is aligned with what I love most. But the film also ridicules what I hate most. And what do I hate most? Unmerited authority. In a way that is farcical and intentionally humorous, the wrong cops of WRONG COPS remind me of the Gnostic Archons; but the movie’s farce and humor mitigate their badness, so that you can witness the cops’ wrong actions without wincing – you can watch them and laugh, even. (Without the farce and humor, the vision would be too dark, too serious: we have that dark and serious view already present in daily reality – what we want, and what the film gives us, is a way to laugh at the tragedy.) So the cops are archons or malevolent rulers; and I imagine that this is how the armed forces of the United States appear to the rest of the world: in this way, the city in the movie becomes a stand-in for our globe itself, and the wrong cops can be seen as the U.S. presence on Earth. (I want to add that the movie does not, in any way, require this kind of symbolic interpretation – I’ve just watched it way too many times, so this is the kind of stuff that I dream up when I write about it. The important thing is that the film is open enough to allow this level of participation: it lures the spectator to complete the artwork; which I think is important, especially in our Age of Passive Viewership.)
And although the officers are presented as despicably corrupt, they are all also, somehow, at the same time, in a certain way, attractive. I would call them hero-villains. I end up admiring Officer Duke as a character, despite his constant rudeness to nearly everyone, because he’s not a sadist, he’s not out to harm for the sake of harming: he just loves to listen to his favorite music (the music of Dupuiux’s alias Mr Oizo!) – he seems merely to lack a superego: his conscience is locked away in a suitcase somewhere. So the bad that he does is the same kind of bad that a selfish infant might do. Duke is even pitiably lovable when you see how he reveres his “top priority client” the movie director, whom he refers to simply as Bob. Officer Duke is like a little child around Bob – totally credulous, even worshipful.
By the way, I am convinced that this character of the movie director was named after Bob from the show Twin Peaks. Note also that Duke’s servitude to Bob risibly echoes Leland Palmer’s servitude to his own, otherworldly Bob. And compare the idea of Garmonbozia (from the end of the Twin Peaks movie FIRE WALK WITH ME) to the brilliantly edited shots of Sunshine’s death which are juxtaposed with Duke’s splitting the fish to pack it with weed.
Did I enter with a bias? Since I’m such an enthusiast now, I want to stress that I felt nothing but wariness before viewing the film – I wrote to a friend: “All I've seen is the poster art for WRONG COPS, and it looks badly, broadly jokey to me... I’m worried that it’ll be unable to achieve the greatness of (Dupieux’s earlier film) WRONG.” So I approached the movie as a skeptical outsider, but I was won over unconditionally: I now love both WRONG and its spinoff WRONG COPS.
The only caveat that I need to mention is that I have a penchant for anti-authority movies: especially those that celebrate antiheroes ironically, which is what I take both Jarry’s Ubu plays to be, as well as Dupieux’s WRONG COPS. As I said above, I see the character of Officer Duke as our age’s Ubu. Mark Burnham, who plays Officer Duke, also plays the policeman in those couple scenes from the earlier movie WRONG. Burnham’s performance in WRONG COPS places him among my favorite actors now. He has the most supreme voice and delivery – I’ve been making a fool of myself trying to imitate him every day among my coworkers. And, when I go on walks, I quote Officer Duke to every forest creature that I meet.
3 CENTRAL MOMENTS
The movie is obviously zany and absurd in the best way – but zaniness and absurdity alone could not convert me to the level of fanaticism that I now exhibit. What wins me over is the film’s surprising moments of honesty. I don’t know if Dupieux planned these moments to be as affecting as they are, but even if he were to disavow any intention in making them so touching, I would still happily find three centers of genuine sentiment in the film – three places where any sarcastic or farcical shell melts away to reveal a fiery wisdom shining through:
The first of these centers occurs when Officer Duke’s injured neighbor is transferred to Sunshine’s car – this nameless, dying man interrupts Sunshine’s phone call to say what I take to be (intentionally or not) the filmmaker’s genuine viewpoint:
DYING MAN: “Hey!—turn some music on, please! […] The music – it did me some good, in your partner’s car… It helped me to think of something else… Without the music, it’s very difficult – the pain comes back… and I really don’t feel that well…”
I find the second major moment of honesty to happen near the end of the meeting that Officer Rough attends with the music producer. (Rough's character is played with superlative grace by Éric Judor.) After an uncomfortably comic misunderstanding, just when it looks like the producer is going to refuse to work with the duo, Rough pleads:
“Produce my song – it’s no worse than any other… I know it’s not the biggest hit of the year, but it is a good song… Produce it, please – you can keep the rights to the song; I don’t care: I’m not doing this for the money…”
Again, whether it is intentional or not, I think that this is the filmmaker’s sincere standpoint, which breaks through the movie’s outlandish surface.
Thirdly, Officer Duke’s speech at the funeral seems an authentic observation about our ‘real world’, amidst all of the glorious absurdity. This, by the way, is my favorite part of the film. I laugh at the fact that, after everything we’ve observed Duke say and do, he starts out by declaring “I’m a Christian...” Quickly, however, Duke dives into some ideas that sound to me like they came straight from the filmmaker’s heart:
OFFICER DUKE: Well, if you want MY opinion, Captain, I think that we have the wrong idea about Hell, just exactly like we have the wrong idea about Paradise.
CAPTAIN ANDY: What do you mean by that, Duke?
OFFICER DUKE: I mean, I’m a Christian; but I’ve learned to not believe those things we’re told in those old books—you have to read between the lines and decipher; because, in reality, Hell is here – this world that we walk around in, that we live in every day, is Hell. We have invisible flames around us… We get burned every day, but we just don’t realize it. I mean, we are just miserable slaves to nature.
CAPTAIN ANDY: Duke, I don’t think anyone wants to hear what you’re saying right now. Wouldn’t you rather just say a little word about Sunshine?
OFFICER DUKE: Yeah, well I was getting to it, Andy. …I think that Sunshine left Hell for a better place. I think that we are the dead, and he is alive. ...We should not cry for Sunshine, my brothers – we should cry for ourselves, because we are in Hell.
On a side note, it’s great to see the names Grace Zabriskie and Ray Wise in the credits that begin WRONG COPS. Although the two don’t share a scene, and Grace’s onscreen time is criminally brief, Ray Wise’s part is beyond wonderful: I’ve never loved him more intensely. With regard to this, here’s a quote from an online article:
Inevitably, there are comparisons to that modern touchstone of twisted narratives, David Lynch's Twin Peaks. It even seems like Dupieux made a deliberate nod with the casting of Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie – known to the show's fans as the parents of the ill-fated Laura Palmer. According to Dupieux, it was actually a complete accident. He said, ‘My casting director suggested them, and I jumped because I love both of them. But now I think it's really funny for people who know.’
(I must be Dupieux’s target audience.)
In a video interview that I found, Mark Burnham talks about the experience of making WRONG COPS – his statement amuses me – he says:
I relished this opportunity to show those people [the cops], to be the ignorance that they are. And the best way that I can do this is to be the worst closeted homophobic racist drug-dealing murdering cop that I can be.
I love the atmospheres that Dupieux chooses to photograph – I myself live in the Midwest U.S., and our town looks nothing like Los Angeles – at least not the one that is normally shown in movies; however, throughout the film, Dupieux chooses to shoot as backgrounds the parts of LA that are usually not shown in movies. This makes me feel oddly at home, because my own ugly town resembles the landscape of WRONG COPS: old rundown hotels and motels – “The Flamingo, room 20”, etc.
I love all the times that these authorities are shown yelling at innocent children. I could watch adult cops berate children forever and ever.
Everything that these wrong cops do is performed with an almost innocent stupidity, like the way that adolescents act – you could imagine the whole movie played by teenagers in a high school, with the cops being typical bullies, and everyone else just regular students, and all of the situations would still make perfect sense. They’d probably even make more sense. That’s one of the strokes of genius that I find in the film – the evil characters are totally lovable: they’re humorously clumsy rogues. (It strikes me that the only arguably decent cops are Rough the musician, who nearly kills himself, and Sunshine the "office cop", who does kill himself.)
One of my favorite aspects of the film is that the police officers employ insults that are common only among teenagers and immature youths – I find this hilarious: they call each other ‘dickhead’, ‘little twerp’, ‘fag’, ‘dweeb’, ‘fucking bitch’, and ask rhetorically and forcefully ‘are you STUPID’ with utmost earnestness.
Also note that Duke has a homosexual affair directly before he judges the gay mag: “Yuck, get this away from me before I throw up...” (This reminds me of some scandals of big church preachers.)
The movie is not a broad comedy or a raunchy, violent film like its poster art suggests – it’s a dry and sophisticated commentary on authority; as I said, I often interpret the officers as representing the U.S. presence in the world: These cops are drunk with power, and they’re so accustomed to wielding it that they’re almost bored with the corruption that they habitually commit.
As atrocious as his actions are, somehow Officer de Luca comes off like a little child stealing cookies. But nobody would want to meet him in reality. I love how his would-be victim Julia Kieffer very calmly and slowly takes the mace from her purse before she sprays him. And he just cries like a spoiled child, still wearing his glasses, whining out his demand even as she’s leaving in her car.
Eric Wareheim plays Officer de Luca in a way that is unforgettable: the way he alternately over-pronounces or fumbles his words, the way he moves, his facial expressions (or lack thereof: he makes the best 'empty-headed gaze') – all this is the perfect contrast and compliment to Burnham's Officer Duke.
And the film's CONCLUSION—I mean the scene with the deer—is my absolute favorite movie ending now. I like it even more than the ending to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I keep repeating that the movie concentrates and exposes everything bad about U.S. manners and U.S. authority, but it does this in a way that ironically celebrates all the abuses of power. Dupieux, the director, is from France, and I assume that his European detachment was what allowed him so perfectly to capture the faults of the ‘Wild West’ U.S.A.
Back to the performances – they really amaze me. I was wondering what the secret is. I think that a major cause of the superb acting is that the director Dupiuex does all the cinematography himself, so he can shoot very quickly and with a minimal crew. Plus, he himself edits his own movies; and I gather that he's ruthlessly critical of his own work, so all that ends up on the screen are the most powerful moments. The movie is, at times, intentionally like a bad TV show from a few decades ago: it's all very weird and very beautiful, or (as Dupieux might say) very "shitty"!
I like seeing such a typical mother and daughter watching Dupieux’s first English-language feature film so raptly and exclaiming how GREAT it is.
I love the scenes where Officer Rough is working on his music. I think that anyone who attempts to make any kind of art will be able to relate to Rough in general.
Here's another thing that I love about that scene at the record label – it's obvious, but I like to say it: The producer tells them that their stylish appearance is the best part about their act, but ONLY when he thinks that they’re wearing costumes – and, as soon as he realizes that these two guys are “FOR REAL”, he shouts exactly the opposite opinion (“Nobody wants to listen to some one-eyed cop and an apathetic piece of trash!”) without giving ANY additional reason. – That’s the way the entertainment industry is, I think – so Dupieux has turned absurdity inside out: at this point, he’s holding up a mirror to the nonsense of our own fickle culture's reality.
When the kid in the very first scene looks confused after Officer Duke hands him a rat instead of a bag of weed, Duke explains: “It’s easier to carry, more discreet…” This is of course NOT really true – it’s neither easier to carry a weed-filled rat, nor is it more discreet: in fact, it’s quite the opposite – and that’s where I find great humor.
It is terrible that I have not yet mentioned Arden Myrin. She played the office manager Gabrielle in WRONG, and she is diamond-flawless again as Officer Shirley Holmes in WRONG COPS. Please pretend that I just quoted & described everything that she says & does in these two films, because it’s all spot-on & priceless.
Additionally, regarding Gnosticism: that’s just how I happen to view Duke’s funeral speech – I love the speech, and I’m an admirer of the Gnostics; but my own personal belief (which, thankfully, changes often) is more in line with what the poet Wallace Stevens writes at the end of ‘The Auroras of Autumn’: that we are “An unhappy people in a happy world—” which seems right to me: for, if the world is essentially happy, then it’s our job, as its unhappy inhabitants, to find out how to harmonize with the happiness (and thereby increase the total happiness until happiness is total) whereas Officer Duke seems to believe that both the world and its people are unhappy – this view is interesting and fun to think about; but, after all, I agree with Stevens again when, in the same poem, he rejects Duke’s view by saying: “Here are too many mirrors for misery.” ...I’m just rattling on about a beloved topic; so this might not be making perfect sense, but, as Officer de Luca says: “It makes sense up in my fucking brain.”
Below are some extra fond memories that I’m including for the purpose of making jealous all of those film critics who are forced to truncate their reviews to a certain length. I jotted the following notes during my many repeat viewings – perhaps those who have seen the film will enjoy being reminded of certain aspects that we all admired:
Mark Burnham in general.
The liberal zooming of the camera, which makes the film seem sometimes like a documentary, sometimes like a bad TV show, and is often secretly emphasizing key lines of speech.
Adult officers berating children with adolescent affronts: “Are you dumb or what!”
Duke’s insultingly over-simplistic way of giving instructions: “You take a knife. You split the rat open. You take your weed out. You smoke it.” Also: “You dig a big hole. You throw him in. You bury him. Boom – job is done.”
Sunshine is comparatively gentle and accommodating to Duke’s dying neighbor. He shuts the back hatch of his car so delicately.
Sunshine finds the money bag, which he thinks is a treasure but only causes trouble – then he finds the second bag, which he thinks is a letdown but it actually frees him from this world of hell; so, in a sense, the second bag is a much better treasure than the first bag.
I love how Officer Duke insistently refuses to take care of Sandy/Michael’s parking tickets. And how he perks up, drops the ‘Earth Geographic’ magazine, and moves to turn up the Mr Oizo track when it comes on the air (“I love this song, do you know it?”) – Also the fact that such a song would be coming from such an old fashioned radio.
How Duke takes back his dying neighbor from Sunshine, as if it’s a return of retail merchandise.
Personal note: I owned that exact model of boom box that appears with the childhood picture of Officer Rough.
Officer Rough is so polite and vulnerable, the way he believes in and loves his music. It’s funny that Duke HATES his song, which we in the audience know is made by the same person who made all of the music that Duke LOVES – that is, Mr Oizo.
The dying man’s reactions are wonderful: sometimes he seems more alert & conscious than anyone, and sometimes he seems totally delirious and on the edge of death – it’s amusing that we can’t quite pinpoint his level of awareness.
Ruth’s insistence on having a “quickie”, and how Officer Rough seems to submit to her mainly because “You're right: hockey sucks.”
The refreshing scene where Ruth’s husband appears just as she’s dressing and getting out of Rough’s car – we expect that they’re going to have a confrontation with the husband and there’ll be a fight; but the husband instead just mentions that his friends need more beer, and he even compliments Rough’s music (which Ruth hates)!
Officer Rough’s reaction to the dying man’s addition to his song: “This is good!” and the way he dances.
Sunshine threatens Duke with a kitchen knife “I could slit your throat wide open with this…” and then ends up slitting his own throat with “some garden tool”.
When Screw is angry about the botched exchange, it cracks me up that he returns the weapon to Sunshine and then says “Ciao.”
At the meeting with the producer: I like that Officer Rough is conscientious enough to bring the dying man along as a partner because of his contribution to the track.
Officers Regan and Brown are always listening in from afar – they seem obsessed with (and attracted to) Officer Duke. In the lunchroom scene, for instance. Also, when David Dolores Frank is recounting how Officer Duke kidnapped him, the eavesdropping Officers Regan and Brown seem titillated.
How de Luca spanks Officers Regan & Brown out of the office.
Duke’s astonishment when his rat dealer gives him a bag of fish instead – as if rats are perfectly normal but fish are unfit vehicles for transporting contraband.
The strange and persistent themes regarding cops and music and homosexuality. “Nobody wants to listen to some cop’s music…” Also: “It just makes me want to be in a dance club – with only guys, though; no girls…”
When Duke explains that he won’t share his joint at the funeral, De Luca is so deferential: “I understand – not a problem.”
The looks exchanged by Captain Andy and Officer Duke after Duke’s impromptu funeral address… and the audio on the soundtrack matching the end scene with the deer.
During the party after the funeral (a party after a funeral!) Officer Duke is still completely perplexed.
A note on the film vs the series: WRONG COPS is available as a feature film as well as a seven-part series. I’ve seen both versions, and I can say, to anyone who wants a recommendation, that the FILM is tighter, stronger, & more rewarding. The material contained in both the film and the series is virtually the same – each includes a couple small shots that the other lacks, and slight differences in audio during certain moments; very minor things – but overall the feature film is arranged in a way that is effective, urgent, and overpowering; and the scenes improve radically when seen altogether (they relate and contrast to each other favorably); so my advice is to purchase a disc of the film and watch it ad infinitum… and I’ll see you in paradise.