Sometimes it takes reading a study of Nicolas Cage to realize that you wanted – even needed – to read a study of Nicolas Cage. Being a youngster into indie cinema thanks to an older brother, my initial experience with Cage was in stuff like Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, and Leaving Las Vegas. These are vehicles perfectly suited to Cage's seemingly erratic driving. In these, Cage performs like a capital-A Actor, with the sort of seriousness and intensity that actors playing serious actors on TV usually project. But thanks to being young, I didn't really think there was anything wrong with Cage also taking rolls in action movies like Face/Off or The Rock or Con Air. (In fact, Con Air is still an odd little action flick, featuring Actor-actors John Malkovich, John Cusak, and Steve Buscemi.) The last work of Cage's I took notice of was Adaptation, which felt like career defining stuff in capital-A category.
But I stopped paying attention for a few years and when I looked up again in the late 2000s to see stuff like this:
Cage is perfect fodder for the internet, with its bored, often cruel penchant for sampling and recontextualizing. With performances so big they can be seen from space and his own odd personal life, the actor makes for an especially malleable target. Of course, the internet is more often than not just an exaggeration of ideas already out there in the world. The that Nicolas Cage is a horrible actor and weird person is not new, not an invention of the internet. All his career he has been divisive, covering the range between subtle, avante garde, and flat-out horrible. When Cage was admitted to internet, however, that idea of him overwhelmed the fact of him and now it's hard to see the man for the memes.
National Treasure: Nicolas Cage (ECW) is an apposite response to Cage's meme-ification. The problem with the internet and memes (yes, I know how that sounds...) is the purchase they're increasingly gaining on our reality. The adolescent and oddball perception of stuff online feels like it's starting to leech into the real world. You might never be able to see Cage without hawk hair ever again. That this stuff gets discussed virologically is fitting. A spin gets put on some static thing, and if it it catches – ermahgerd! – that spin spirals out of control, finally distorting and mangling that initial noun. I've started thinking of internet virology as being like Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room, in which the composer reads a short statement and then begins to layer the recording of that statement on top of itself. "I am recording the sound of my speaking voice," says Lucier,
and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.The result is an eldrich metallic ambiance, which is pretty much how I experience exhausted-but-somehow-tireless memes now, gags and absurdities repeated so many times that the lot of it become inarticulate. All of which is to say that once a thing is distorted in the mocking fun-house-echo-chamber of the internet, returning the thing being memed to itself feels impossible.
Lindsay Gibb's National Treasure manages to retrieve Nicolas Cage from the internet's perverting spiral. And she does so by taking him seriously – calm intelligence being, of course, the internet's mortal foe.
"Having to consistently defend something you like can make you love it more fiercely," Gibb writes, in her introduction, of her interest in Cage being treated like an affectation. "And being accused of liking something ironically was, at least for me, infuriating." That lack of irony is key here. What seems to be most risible about Cage is just how earnest he is. When he's doing work that's seen as important, he's giving it his all. When he's doing work that's perceived as fucking bonkers, he's giving it his all.
Gibb doesn't make a case for Cage being the most important living actor or anything, but over the 75 page monograph, employing a wide range of sources, she roots out the logic of Cage's performances and his roll choices, all of which can appear so wildly illogical. The portrait of Cage which emerges is that of an eccentric person with eccentric ideas who is out to explore the limits of performance, to take rolls outside his wheelhouse, and work with people that he can constantly be learning from. Gibb argues and establishes consistency and intention in a career easily perceived as manic and impulsive.
Increasingly, I've been feeling pretty grim about the meme-y ambiance that is more and more turning from how we interact on the internet into how we interact in real life (IRL). One isn't obviously connected to the other, but Gibb's National Treasure: Nicolas Cage feels hopeful. That a subject which has been nearly obliterated by online weirdness can be treated with and withstand a thoughtful kind of respect augurs well for all of us, I think.