54

Watched as part of the June 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#29: A Film Featuring Donald Trump As A Cast Member

2017 movie viewings, #93. I've had a low-key interest in seeing 54 ever since it first came out in 1998, mostly because I had heard good things about Mike Myers' surprisingly serious turn as the disco club's troubled owner, Steve Rubell; and this of course is one of the things I love the most about the scavenger hunts here at Letterboxd, is that they provide a perfect excuse to finally get a bunch of titles off my infinitely long "low-key interest" list. Unfortunately, though, the screenplay by gay-focused filmmaker Mark Christopher (here helming his first-ever full-length feature, after a series of homoerotic short videos that started his career) is so ponderously unwatchable, I had to turn the DVD off after only a half-hour; and for a movie that features an obscene amount of full-frontal nudity and simulated intercourse, it says a lot that I still turned it off right in the middle of the hedonistic shenanigans.

The problem is that Christopher takes way, way too grand an approach here, taking the real-life story of the rise and fall of this '70s New York danceclub and trying to shoehorn it into a framework that is part epic saga, part cartoonish fairytale; and while this approach worked in Todd Haynes' infinitely better Velvet Goldmine (so clearly a direct influence on Christopher that you could almost bring a plagiarism suit against him), the reason is does in that case is because Haynes abandons all pretense of reality from the very first minute, turning in a fever-dream of a film that works precisely because of its over-the-top nature.

Christopher, however, tries to both eat his cake and have it too, juxtaposing the gauzy surrealism of clublife with the gritty reality of protagonist Shane O'Shea's blue-collar life in New Jersey (clearly evoking the spirit of Saturday Night Fever, to this film's discredit), as well as the blase chore-like drudgery of actually running such a club on a day-by-day basis (whose scenes mirror sections of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, another clear influence here), leading to a mish-mash of styles that results in none of them exactly working.

Ultimately the most revealing thing I can say about 54 is that when I watched it, I naturally assumed that the script was based on some overwritten true memoir of some actual club employee back in the day, and that Christopher was therefore legally beholden to the attention-calling purple prose of the original book; so it was a shock to check the movie's IMDB page afterwards and realize that this is a wholly original screenplay that Christopher wrote from scratch, and that he deliberately chose to make it sound like some pretentious ghostwritten memoir from a non-author attempting to make himself sound more important than he actually was.

That says a lot about this film's general tone, that it was consciously made to feel like a mediocre adaptation of a half-baked memoir even though the production team was under no obligation to do so; and combined with the notorious clashes that happened between the director and producers afterwards (deemed "too gay" by suburban test audiences, the producers cut almost an hour out of Christopher's original footage, which among other narrative crimes suddenly turned the main character from bisexual to straight), it results in a finished film that will please no one, too flamboyant for mainstream audiences and not flamboyant enough for the art-film crowd. A big disappointment, and one I recommend avoiding altogether.

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