In the course of my search for new music, I was recently turned on to dubstep poster-boy Skrillex. (For the record, I am aware that his music is not necessarily all that representative of dubstep, just like Trent Reznor and Goldie’s respective music, in their respective days, was not representative of industrial or jungle music. Respectively. You break quasi-mainstream with the techno figurehead you have, I guess, not the one that you want.) I’m looking for a new rock band to get psyched about, of course, so Skrillex doesn’t fit my criteria at all, and the search will continue. Nevertheless, I’ve decided that I’m a fan, mostly because 1) he has a song called “Bangarang” and 2) no other reason.
Actually that’s not quite fair or accurate. Skrillex does some really, really interesting things with octave displacement and timbre. More generally, his music is exceedingly harsh, which is a trait I typically value in music across a wide variety of styles. Furthermore, ever since I first read his name I’ve been wanting someone to ask me “What’s the name of a baleine whale’s favorite dubstep DJ?” so that I could answer “Krillex.” Which isn’t funny even a little, but I just made you read it. I’m sorry.
Anyway, let’s talk about that video, which is my reason for writing this. I’ve loved a lot of art in my day, and hated a lot of art as well. It’s not often, though, that I begin by liking a piece so much and end by liking it so little. It’s rare that a piece of art gives me such aesthetic whiplash. And I’m not talking about getting tired of it on the third listen, or anything like that. I like the beginning of the video tremendously. I hate the end of it a lot.
It starts so, so, strong. The blasted hyperghetto of the environment, the sinister little kids in their sinister little bandana masks, evoking equal parts Wild West and Second Intifada. The bloated ice cream truck driver, his pillowy jowls evoking Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote with their every quiver, his moustache evoking the self-satisfied Victorian middle class, nemesis of street urchins everywhere.
You know instantly that this guy is a villain. Nobody should be allowed to drive down a street that poor in a shirt that white, nobody should be allowed to eat ice cream in a truck full of ice cream in a world full of poverty. He is guilty of being well fed, of being content. And for this he will be judged.
The second segment of the video, the little kids’ heist, is more awesome still. What’s brilliant about it is the degree to which the joke does not need to be explained. We’ve all seen enough heist movies, enough episodes of burn notice, to know how this works. The kid with the firecrackers is the explosives expert, first setting off a cosmetic charge to distract the driver, then blowing out the engine block with a rocket launcher. The kid with the joy buzzer is the Q-division type, using a clever jury-rigged device to apply non-lethal force to the driver of the armored car. (Did I mention that in this metaphor the ice cream truck is clearly an armored car? No? Okay: clearly, the ice cream truck in this metaphor is clearly an armored car.) Red handkerchief kid is the bagman, grabbing the precious cargo and getting out in three seconds flat.
The heist has a pair of glorious punchlines. The first is that the kids are just trying to steal a handful of ice cream. When you see this elaborate clockwork heist, you’re expecting that they’re going to do something cartoonishly ambitious, like throw the driver out of the cab and make off with the entire truck. (Or maybe something sinister like murder the driver and bathe in his blood. Feral children haven’t gotten less creepy since Hostel came out.) The fact that their goal is about on par with the criminal geniuses that run snatch-and-grabs on the freezer case at the Kwiki Mart is a neat little comic subversion. “Oh, they’re just kids after all!” And then the penny drops: the driver grabs one of their sleeves, he’s reaching for something nasty, and in the name of leaving no feral child behind, they end up catastrophically mangling the driver’s hand.
So far so great. If they’d just stopped there, with the kids enjoying their ill-gotten Cornettos, it would be one of my favorite music videos of all time. It would stand as a brilliant deconstruction of the whole heist genre. It’s fair to say that a lot of the pleasure inherent in watching a movie like Ocean’s Eleven, or Sneakers, or shows like Burn Notice and The Unit, is engaging with the desire to be one of those badasses. The heists always run like a well oiled clock: we want to be a gear in that clock. In comparison to our own jobs, which mostly involve a lot of pointless meetings and TPS reports, they present us with a world where serious men (and one serious love interest) perform serious tasks to accomplish serious goals. Their world seems more serious than our world, and although I know I’m kind of hammering that word into the ground, I think it’s worth paying attention to. Heist criminals are more grown up than we are in the audience. Our belief in this proposition is context specific, of course: I doubt I would think Danny Ocean is more serious than I am while I am doing my taxes, but I never encounter him when I am doing my taxes. I encounter him in movie theaters, where I am passively vegetating and eating popcorn, and he is the prime mover of a universe of interlocking gears. The heist as a crime is a triumph of rationality. We love it when a plan comes together for the very specific reason that it shows us the triumph of order over chaos. The heist ringleader imposes his will upon the world, and in reward the world dances to his tune. That’s what it’s really all about, after all. The money is just a way of keeping score.
Transplanting this into the world of children exposes an interesting double-bluff. At first, a kiddie heist seems so natural. For all that I was talking about his rationality half a paragraph ago, Danny Ocean pretty decidedly unserious. Flirting with Tess, riffing with Rusty (or maybe the other way around), he’s a big ol’ overgrown kid, isn’t he? Except not really. When it comes to the job, Ocean, and the whole team, even Casey Affleck, are serious as a heart attack. Professionalism is the highest of values, and the fact that Ocean can crack wise while maintaining his professionalism shows just how badass he really is. That’s how much control he has. He cracks wise like a surgeon cracks wise, like a fighter pilot, like a secret agent. Some people goof off to disrupt the rules, because they are threatened by the rules. Others goof off precisely because they are not threatened by the rules, which are their own. Similarly, the team in a heist movie typically enjoys the heist, but it’s the sober professional joy of a job well done, not the giddy childlike joy of breaking the rules. They seem like kids, but really they aren’t.
But then again, really they are. Suddenly seeing a heist done by kids, who are giddy, makes us realize that this in fact was always what heists were about. None of us have ever, even once, taken part in a daring casino heist, but many of us have played cops and robbers. The desire we feel watching Ocean’s Eleven is not, after all, the desire to be what Billy Ocean is deep down, i.e. cool and professional, what we aspire to be. It’s the desire to be what Billy Ocean is right on the surface, i.e. George Clooney goofing off and playing with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, a child, what we once were, and left behind. The first couple of minutes of the video delve into the archetype of the badass-man-of-action-working-in-grim-silence-on-a-complex-plan-with-other-badass-men-of-action, and exposes it as a juvenile power fantasy. The fact that the prize is just a bag of ice cream plays into this too. The kids aren’t executing this heist because they are improbably and precociously badass. They’re just playing a game where they do the kind of stuff kids think is badass.
But then the rest of the video happens. I still enjoy it right up to the point where rocket launcher fires, mostly because they got an actor who looks — for only a second, and through a bandana — just plausibly like a young Dante Basco. But I’d like you all to scroll back up and read the second sentence of the sixth paragraph: “The awesome part about the joke is that it doesn’t have to be explained.” Showing a “real” version of the heist is flagrantly unnecessary, like the director’s commentary on Trapped in the Closet where R. Kelly is all like “see, here the gun is a Beretta because I needed something that would rhyme with sweater,” except that’s a brilliant piece of outsider art, and this is an embarrassment. The back half of the video is wasted space and time — there’s nothing as creepily menacing as the kid strapping on the joy buzzer, nothing as evocative as the truck driver’s outfit, no hilarious “a-ha!” moments like the beat where you first realize that the kids are running a heist.
I do get the narrative that they’re trying to construct. That the kid feels bad about the arm, and makes restitution — maybe even sets up the second heist just to make restitution. But even that narrative is totally incoherent. He feels really bad about his crime, so he tries to make up for it by committing exactly the same crime? “Listen, man, I feel really bad about that time I jaywalked in front of you. So I’m going to jaywalk across that street to the ATM and get twenty dollars to make it up to you.”
What’s worse is that there are many ways this could have been salvaged. If, for instance, the “adult” heist had been really a shot for shot, beat for beat (or at least event for event) repeat of the “kid” one, complete with slippery stuff on the floor, one guy almost getting caught, and the door slamming on somebody’s hand, and so on, that would have at least been formally interesting. It’s not, though, because they wanted to make room for badass gunplay and fight choreography. If they had put in another punchline, where instead of money or jewels, the armored car turned out to be full of ice cream, that would have been hilarious, suggesting that even the adult version of the heist game is just a silly lark. But such luck, the truck is carrying money. (But if it’s a bank truck, why are the drivers wearing ski masks? More questions.) They also could have played a neat little trick by having the “adult” gang get robbed, in the process of making their getaway, by the kids from the first half of the video: the ol’ “you thought we moved in time but in fact we only moved in space” trick, and would have at least been genuinely surprising.
The version we get, however, is a giant irony fail. Rather than tell us something new about the heist movie genre, it tells us something old and dull about it: the grown-up heisters are criminals now because they were born to the game, they grew up to be serious and badass because even as kids they were seriously badass. The ice cream heist was just practice for the armored car heist. Criminals really are as cool as we always thought Danny Ocean was. There’s nothing juvenile about power fantasies. Rather, they make you more mature: the main kid physically grows up after the first successful heist (I mean yes, it’s supposed to be the shadow of the maimed ice cream man looming large in his subconscious, but it also stands in for his aging process), and the second allows him to settles his accounts with poor defeated Captain Hook. Oh, gag me with an ice-cream scoop.