Years ago I wrote an article on the ‘reboot’ phenomenon that seemed to be overtaking cinema. The world was pissed off at George Lucas for CG spider monkeys, interminable intergalactic senate hearings, and something about a refrigerator I prefer not to remember. I suggested that film was groping for a post postmodern grammar-- How do you tell new stories when there aren’t any left?-- and I suggested both filmmakers and audiences alike were beginning a process of collectively forgetting, unconsciously initiating a self-imposed nostalgia that would allow us to retell and re-experience stories like children again. I did not explore the implications of how this would affect the quality of film as art or intellectual discourse.
This weekend I watched several episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (I know, I’m late to the party), and a scene in Episode 3 shook me to my core. The cold open depicts Rob Kardashian (David Schwimmer) sitting down with his children for a father’s day meal and cautioning them about the fleeting nature of fame and the importance of family. Subtlety is not the show’s strong suit but that’s beside the point. To me, The People v. O.J. represents a new aesthetic, something akin to the ‘nonfiction novel’ as invented by Truman Capote. I’m by no means saying O.J. is on par with In Cold Blood, but it does represent a new kind of pastiche that I feel is emblematic of whatever yet-to-be-named post postmodern movement is happening to mainstream cinema right now.
The People v. O.J. is trashy. I’m not sure if this is wholly intentional but it harkens back to the sleazy movie-of-the-weeks that were so prevalent in the 90’s. I can’t help but think of the pitch-perfect parody of tabloidization from the Season 6 episode of The Simpsons entitled ‘Homer Badman’, in which Homer is accused of sexual harassment and is portrayed on TV by Dennis Franz as a lecherous cat-killing lunatic. Incidentally, this Simpsons episode also skewers the Hard Copy style shows that pre-dated and paved the way for programs like TMZ.
In telling the story of the most publicized celebrity trial of the century, The People v. O.J. becomes a parody of that which it aims to criticize, and this is why the scene with Rob Kardashian and his children fascinates me. We have David Schwimmer, the star of arguably the most popular sitcom of the 90’s, portraying Rob Kardashian as he warns the Kardashian clan about the dangers of fame and shallow behavior in a television series that chronicles a key event that both fed into and helped pave the way for our celebrity-obsessed culture to give into its worst instincts and watch tabloid events unfold like car wrecks (Princess Diana ring a bell?), ultimately giving birth to shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
All the while, The People v. O.J. harkens back to the trashy cable movies that it at once satirizes and emulates, while also elevating its aesthetic to meet the expectations of a higher budget production and a more visually sophisticated audience. Look at Sarah Paulson's perm and John Travolta’s horrific Kabuki-mask visage. To quote my father, he 'looks like they moved him out of Madam Tussaud's during a heat wave'. The show is latching onto broad visual cues we all vaguely remember and squeezing them to the point of grotesque abstraction. It is supremely aware of its own artifice and theatricality and uses these elements to continuously avail the viewer of its construction. Take the infamous Bronco chase, indelibly stamped in the minds of those of us old enough to remember as a low-speed helicopter view from a telephoto lens is reimagined as a cinematic action sequence, the camera dodging and weaving down the freeway in such a manner that I half expected the chase to end with a fiery explosion.
David Schwimmer as Rob Kardashian is brilliant, not for Schwimmer’s acting ability, but for what Schwimmer represents outside the series. Like Kubrick’s casting of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut or Ryan O’Neil in Barry Lyndon, Schwimmer is a mask colored by our culture’s preconceived notion of him as Ross Geller on Friends. It’s exactly the type of B-List resurrection that a cable network would have used 20 years ago for their movie-of-the-week version of the O.J. trial. (Maybe Valerie Bertinelli as Marcia Clark?) The same goes for Cuba Gooding Jr, who peaked early with mega-stardom and an Oscar for Jerry Maguire in 1996 and hasn’t recaptured that lightning in a bottle since. It’s the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino, the king of 90’s pastiche, specializes in; he brings back actors who are washed-up or forever associated with a single role, and re-contextualizes them by casting them as characters ‘once-removed’ from their signature schtick. Take Sonny Chiba and David Carradine in Kill Bill, and more apropos, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. And so hearing Schwimmer-as-Kardashian wax cautionary about the dangers of fame takes on new and poignant meaning. With a glib wink, he is calling out the hollowness of the show while elevating it by virtue of acknowledging its trashiness. The People v. O.J. becomes something new and something old simultaneously. A cinematic uroborus, a reel of film forever eating itself.