Sitting at a piano, decked out in Ray Bans and a black suit, Nicolas Cage sings his heart out about “Pachinko”. A sort of cross between a slot machine and pinball, Pachinko is, like your favorite late seventies rock band, big in Japan, indeed it is part of the fabric of modern Japanese capitalism. Gambling is illegal in Japan, yet Pachinko is tolerated. Instead of winning money at Pachinko parlours, players are awarded golden tickets which are thus exchangeable for cash at other locations affiliated with the parlours themselves. The industry, targeting poor and working-class people not unlike video terminal gambling in North America, is primarily staffed by ex-police. While eschewing any moralism, it stands to reason that the gaming sector is, as they say, ‘sketchy’. And here is Nicolas Cage in possibly his all-time best performances in any medium as a pitchman for Sankyo Pachinko, improvising in front of the camera, appearing with animated images, free-associating about smooth peanut butter, slow burning candles and red-haired girls. It is poetry in motion, some of the most absurd yet oddly beautiful moments in a storied career.
Like Pachinko, Nicolas Cage is something that slips through the cracks unnoticed, a phenomenon like Marx’s fetish, full of “metaphysical subtleties”. Pachinko gets around a moralistic law by exploiting both loopholes and an institutional framework that allows for it, custom overriding formal law. In the case of Cage, it is normally the case that when an actor ever lends themselves to a product in the case of television or, as is increasingly the case, online-based advertising, their persona is embedded in the product. Thus a trustworthy-seeming Dennis Haysbert, who has played presidents on television, is trotted out to sell pharmaceuticals or credit cards or insurance. Ray Liotta, a grizzled has-been, touts SSRIs to help quit smoking, and he has the manner of someone withdrawing from nicotine. But Cage has absolutely nothing to do with Pachinko and his acting in the Pachinko commercials is wholly aside from the Pachinko industry, indeed it stands on its own feet as a part of Cage’s body of work. It is perhaps even less problematic than Cage’s exceptional performance, for example, in the film version of Tim LeHaye’s Christian fundamentalist rapture classic, Left Behind.
What is it about Nicolas Cage that has led to this broad re-evaluation of him, from ‘kind of a joke’ to one of the great actors of all time? Perhaps it is that history has finally caught up with his absurdly contradictory persona. A bit should be said on this persona. Cage is a throwback. Like Klaus Kinski, Toshiro Mifune or Cary Grant, he doesn’t play the parts he plays, he covers them. That is to say, he comes into a part like a good band covering a song that they did not write, making it indelibly theirs, in a sense that there is continuity with all of their other material. Like perhaps few other actors working in the English language right now, Cage simply becomes a part. And this persona, that is so right for the contradictory topsy-turvy Trump era, has been around at least since Cage’s classic performance in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona in 1987, and solidifying throughout the 80s, with an unbroken chain of everything from classics to B-movies to advertisements for near 35 years.
This persona is a grotesque of the American subject cast adrift, embodying all of the contradictions of the neoliberal epoch. It is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that Cage is, as they say, really like that. He is playing himself. He is a weird, damaged individual, and we are all that weird damaged individual when we watch four-minute YouTube clips of Cage losing his shit, ten-minute clips of his one hundred best lines and so on, when we rave about films like Joe or Mandy that really use him well. We chuckle at how the latter film was a critical darling due to its director and the Cage renaissance and ten years ago may well have been straight to DVD. This is not identification with Cage so much as Cage is like the “white voice” in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Cage’s controlled manic emotionality, his relishing of life’s pleasures, his adaptability, is what we wish we could be. Not that we’d want to smoke enough crack to see iguanas, but that in 2019, with the fetish of flexibility and destruction and adaptation and “fluidity” capitalism pushes upon us, we see in Cage a sense of unity in diversity. He is the weather man, Snake Eyes, whomever, but he’s always Nicolas Cage. And damn, if it isn’t always pleasurable to be Cage, it is at the very least interesting. Satan, the Illuminati, the FBI, alcoholism, all are fought valiantly.
Nicolas Cage is so Nicolas Cage that he almost evokes a professional wrestler, or better yet, Ernest as played by Jim Varney. For those unaware of the glory of Varney’s Ernest, he and his unseen friend Vern started out as a character in advertisements, first for the Dallas Cowboys but became best known as a milk pitchman. For a number of regional dairies, with different words taken out or added, he became a sensation in the mid-eighties, with his “know what I mean” catchphrase. Rare regional ads saw Ernest continue to speak to his friend Vern for products as diverse as Sprite, Chevrolet, regional grocery, dairy and restaurant chains, state run utilities and natural gas. Eventually he was in a series of beloved family-friendly movies, an entertaining everyman and perhaps addled yokel in all sorts of situations. There was Ernest goes to Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas, and perhaps most memorably (and also critical in its own way of the prison industrial complex), Ernest Goes to Jail. Cage is what happens when you mix Ernest with Andy Kaufman to create an avant-garde figure. Everything he touches turns to strange.
The Coen Brothers likely had a role in helping Cage find this persona at 22 years old, in Raising Arizona, playing a mustached petty criminal who marries a cop involved in his incarceration, a memorable early performance from Holly Hunter. Later the two of them, unable to conceive, see no issue in stealing a child from a multi-millionaire. All for love, but he and Holly Hunter both seem befuddled by the structures in which they are embedded, yet are along for the ride anyhow, as is commonly the case in the best work of the Coens. This was followed by his oddball cougar-bait role in Moonstruck and soon after, the film in which the Cage persona really came into its own, Vampire’s Kiss, solidified in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. And thus was the palate set, with the persona being a pathetic, even hard to watch alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. What was all the more astounding about the latter film was that he’d only two years earlier appeared in a Vegas film with James (Sonny Corleone) Caan, Honeymoon in Vegas. It was as if the same character, who two years earlier had been a degenerate gambler in an aw-shucks gee-whiz sort of way, letting Caan sleep with his wife, a young Sara Jessica Parker, to pay off his debts, sharing screen time with the venerable Pat Morita, was now back in Vegas committing suicide bottle by bottle.
It was with the latter film that the Nicholas Cage persona solidified. The emotive screamer, the Toshiru Mifune glare with puppy dog eyes, the physically visceral table puncher, the high-pitched show-off. And thus, this odd mix, in the “postmodern” 90s, was a good fit for the thinning out Hollywood, competing as it was with a new range of “indie” films, notably produced by that shithead Harvey Weinstein. So this persona had a classic run. He toned it down only to let the spigots burst wildly at certain moments in Barbet Schroeder’s remake of the classic film noir Kiss of Death. He kept even the most hardened cinephiles at the edge of their seats in the Michael Bay schlock masterpieces, Con Air and The Rock. A few adjustments and the precise same character could be an oddball FBI agent and a prison escapee with derring-do. He switched personae with John Travolta in John Woo’s Face Off, but it seemed to merely become watching a “Cage match” – Cage vs. Cage – indeed it was a commendable performance from Travolta attempting to proverbially play Cage. Cage himself didn’t even try. Continuing with the greats, he did the ill-conceived but entertaining Snake Eyes for Brian DePalma.
The Pachinko ads notwithstanding, perhaps his crowning achievement of this or any era was in the Paul Schrader scripted, Martin Scorsese directed 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. His character was a variation on Schrader’s Travis Bickle character in Taxi Driver, a persona that may well have influenced the character of Nicolas Cage in the first place. Capturing the desperate and bleak life of a paramedic, this was perhaps Martin Scorsese’s last truly great film, before the DiCaprio fluff and family fun that marks “Marty’s” work over the last 20 odd years. Cage’s Frank Pierce is an avenging angel, a feature of Schrader’s best scripts. All Pierce wants to do is save people. Yet in doing so, he sacrifices himself, Cage as Christological figure. Michael K. Williams, later to play Omar on The Wire is one of the many brilliant actors to riff with Cage here, at the top of his game, alongside John Goodman, Ving Rhames and the great Patricia Arquette
Thus, come the new millennium, Cage has gone off the deep end and will appear in anything and everything. Artsy films like the somewhat overrated Spike Jonze Adaptation were followed by fighting the Illuminati in American Treasure. Manic comedies like Weatherman led right into horror/fantasy masterpieces like indie director Neil LaBute’s remake of Wicker Man. The latter is the most “memeable” of all Cage performances, with one liners and moments that can be viewed completely out of context, merely to experience the glory of Cage, like hearing a Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix saxophone or guitar solo without the context of a composition. He just killed it, knocked it out of the park. Still making eminently satisfying B-movie after B-movie (my favorite of that period is Ghost Rider), he once again killed it in Werner Herzog’s kinda-sorta remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. While Harvey Keitel is subtle and primal as the junked out degenerate gambler cop, Cage merely extracts parts of his past roles, from Raising Arizona to Wicker Man, to jump out in a performance that transcends the films’ absurdity and lack of originality.
And he continues, in recent years, working with David Gordon Green on the moody and underrated Joe, working again with Schrader on Dying of the Light, mentor to Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s biopic. In both these films, Cage took the well-worn trope of the cynical late-career spy, the Smiley character, as it were, and revealed its dark and absurd paranoia. This same basic template is romanticized by Stone, and problematized by Schrader. In a Gonzo turn, he even appeared, as noted, in a film version of Tim LaHaye’s rapture novel, Left Behind. Showing the absolute misunderstanding of his craft, this film in which Cage is the same Cage he is in all of his films, won a Razzie, an award for “worst performance of the year”. Yet this shows the bourgeois misunderstanding of Cage just as much as his advertising for Pachinko gambling parlours. Cage is a living instantiation of the popular avant-garde, a figure out of Marcel DuChamp or Samuel Beckett coming to life on screen and proverbially streaking his way through Hollywood and beyond for 35+ years. It may be worth remarking on that Cage is his stage name; he is the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. Yet this Nicolas is in a cage, and in channeling the bourgeois subject of the neoliberal epoch, he attempts, but always fails gloriously, to break out of Nicolas’s Cage. One looks forward to him once again failing better.
Jordy Cummings has been called the Tin Pot Beria of the Counterculture and teaches International Studies at Glendon College in Toronto. He is the Coordinating Editor of Red Wedge magazine.