Nightcrawler

I've heard that doctors don't like most movies about doctors, and I know that most scientists find most science fiction movies hard to buy. Which makes me wonder: how do paparazzi feel about Nightcrawler? The film isn't exactly about a paparazzi, because Lou Bloom, the hungry bottom feeder at the story's core, is searching for footage of car accidents and other traumas to sell to the news instead of candid snapshots of celebrities, but the principle is the same: stalk vulnerable prey with a camera and then profit off their pain.

On the one hand, I could see them being frustrated by Nightcrawler. Bloom definitely does not come off well in this movie - he is depicted as being completely amoral since he is willing to endanger himself and anyone around him to get a sellable shot. When his partner questions his willingness to create chaos in his mad pursuit of footage, Bloom's response reveals a deep seated misanthropy that wouldn't be out of place coming from Daniel Plainview. The only possible defense you could mount for his behavior is that he might be somewhere on the autism spectrum, but while that might explain some of his antisocial tendencies it doesn't excuse them. Overall Nightcrawler is not a flattering portrait of tabloid journalists, and I imagine that if you shared Bloom's line of work you might think it was unfair to be judged against such an extreme example.

On the other hand, Nightcrawler is not a one sided diatribe. The film does give Lou some dignity - he might be misusing his natural fearlessness, but his desire to succeed at all costs is respectable in it's own way. (Again, he's not unlike Daniel Plainview, who was another strong willed individual acting as a stand in for the sins of capitalism in general.) More importantly, the film places Lou's actions in context by making it clear that Lou is only able to profit off his footage because there are institutions around that want to buy it and they only buy it because there's a passive audience that wants to see it. If Wall Street types can buy Gordon Gekko's argument that he isn't a bad guy because the suckers on the bottom deserve to be fleeced then I could imagine a self aware paparazzi photographer sympathizing with Bloom's argument that he's just a guy giving the people at home what they want.

I'm glad that Nightcrawler's ultimate take on Lou Bloom leaves some room for moral ambiguity, because it would have been very easy for the film to be nothing but a diatribe against our corrupt media establishment. (Actually, there are times it veer dangerously close to being that, but it generally finds a way to steer itself back into the center.) Yes, on the surface Bloom is a completely monstrous character, but underneath it all he's not unlike a talented soldier or C.I.A. operative - he's the guy with dirty hands that you're glad exists until the moment you notice that he's there, at which point his dirty hands seem utterly repulsive.

It might sound bombastic to compare Bloom to a soldier - after all, we don't really need the nightly news to get us exciting footage in the same way that we need soldiers to keep us safe. But I think it's actually a fair equivalency, because Bloom's rationale for his actions is pretty similar to the rationale that the corrupt Colonel uses in a Few Good Men: Americans don't mind a few Dirty Wars being waged in their name as long as they don't have to know about them and they get to profit off the spoils.

Nightcrawler happens to be a critique of the media, but there's a reason why I compared him to an oil baron and a stock broker - underneath the surface this is less of a story about one man's bad deeds and more of a parable about the passivity of the general population in our age of globalized capitalism. Honestly, for all of the well observed details about Lou Bloom's specific profession, the story would have worked out the same way if he had been in a battlefield or an oil field or a brokerage house, because all of those stories raise the same issues about how we want what we want but we don't want to know anything about what it took to bring it to us.

Let's return for a second to my opening question about whether a member of the paparazzi should like Nightcrawler or not. Of course they should: after all, it makes their lives look a lot more exciting than they probably are in reality, because Bloom spends a lot more time in high speed car chases than he spends hiding in bushes waiting for a celebrity to head to their parked car. More importantly, Nightcrawler flatters their egos by allowing Bloom to paint himself as a necessary evil, thus offering an out for people who can ignore the "evil" part in favor of the "necessary" part.

But more importantly, paparazzi should like Nightcrawler because it expands the circle of blame past the people who are blatantly acting like creeps until it covers the people who are passively acting like creeps - which is a more generous take on their way of life than they normally get. But that does raise a more difficult question: should the people in the audience like how this movie portrays us?

That's a harder question to answer, because it's not always clear who should take the blame for our morally bankrupt (but financially lucrative) media landscape. At first it was easy for me to say "well, I don't consume tabloid journalism so this movie isn't talking about me." But I buy gas and I don't care what hole in the ground it came from, and I have a 401K and I don't care where the profit comes from, and I can live in this country as long as I don't think about drone attacks too hard. Once I started putting those puzzle pieces together I started to realize: oh no, I am a person who is content to let the Lou Blooms of the world do my dirty work, and thus I am complicit in this movie's critique. And you know the sad part? I'm probably going to be stuck feeling guilty any time I think about this movie, while my hypothetical paparazzi member is letting himself get off scot-free. Those fucking remorseless bastards!

Winner: Me

Nightcrawler on IMDB