Film Club / Putting His Pen Into a Pencil Sharpener

The MaskThe Mask
Directed by Charles Russell

 

 

 

 

Obviously writing this in the middle of the second lockdown that title has very different connotations than it did back when it was first released. I mean nowadays it kinda sounds like a movie about someone who needs to learn a lesson about – well – wearing a mask when they’re out and about so that they don’t catch / don’t spread the deadly Rona. Maybe it starts off and they’re one of those “Freedom Means Not Wearing a Mask” types and they see The Mask as a form of oppression that eventually – through a series of hilarious events – they learn to embrace. Or something. 

Obviously that’s not what The Mask is about. In fact I don’t think Jim Carey or anyone else mentions the healthy benefits of wearing a mask once. Maybe that’s something they’ll get around to in the remake (starring – Pete Davidson? That dude has got a pretty stretchy face right?) 

But if The Mask isn’t about deadly pandemics and keeping yourself and others safe – what is it about

Full disclosure. I saw this movie A LOT when I was a kid. To the point that I could probably quote certain scenes from memory. This was compounded by the fact that not only did we have the VHS but – goddamn it – I also had a copy of the novelisation as well. (Written by Steve Perry as if you didn’t know that already – who also did a few of the very excellent Aliens books too. Not even joking here). And well yes I feel like most of you dilettantes reading this probably feel like you know The Mask but until you’re read it on the printed page I don’t feel like you’ve ever really experienced it properly you know? It’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings in that respect. 

But yeah it had been an awful long time since I’d actually gone and well – put The Mask on (so to speak). But running it through my head before I watched it I tried to work out what kinda movie it really was you know? Like – what’s the thing that’s driving it? What’s inside the engine? What’s at the dark heart of it? 

I remembered the snappy iconic tagline from the posters “From Zero to Hero” and as a half joke to myself I was like – oh yeah – obviously: The Mask is a film about being an incel and sexual frustration. Ha ha ha. (That’s probably not what it’s about). 

And so then I start watching the film and right away this happens: 

That’s erm quite the name you chose there guys. 

But ha – I mean – I’m guessing that’s probably the extent of it tho – right?

Nope. Not even close. 

I mean holy fucking shit the whole of the bank scene where Cameron Diaz and Jim Carrey first meet cute is practically overflowing with nervous sexually energy that I’m not afraid to admit went totally over my head when I watched it as a kid but totally smashed me in the face watching it now. 

(Of course first there’s the little bit of preamble with where Jim impresses the girl he likes with hot exclusive tickets to a sold out show and then she’s like “oh my friend” and he just capitulates and settles for a pat on the head because he’s ahem – “such a nice guy” but hell unraveling that could take all day…)

But yeah – like when Cameron first sits down Jim offers her his large box of tissues (COUGH) and then goes straight from there to putting his pen into a pencil sharpener (which just seemed like a funny gag when I was younger but now I’m sitting there crossing my legs and wondering what Sigmund Freud would say) and then there’s this whole exchange which (AHEM) has a very different meaning now than what it used to: 

HER: That’s an interesting tie, Mister… 

HIM: Ipkiss, Stanley lpkiss. 

HER: Tina Carlyle, it’s a pleasure. 

HIM: Pleasure’s all mine. 

HER: May l? 

HIM: What? 

HER: I’m such a mess. 

HIM: Oh, of course. That’s what they’re there for. 

HER: As I was saying, that tie… reminds me of those, what do you call it, ink blot tests. 

HIM: A Rorschach test. 

HER: Right. It sort of looks like… a young woman riding bareback. (!!!) Sort of… Lady Godiva or something. 

HIM: Of course. 

HER: What do you see, Mr. Ipkiss? 

HIM: I don’t know. Bright colors… It’s a power tie. Supposed to make you feel… powerful. 

HER: Does it work?

At this point of course I’m standing on my chair going HOLY FUCKING WOW. 

(Oh – and let me save you the bother of googling that – “Lady Godiva is mainly remembered for a legend dating back at least to the 13th century, in which she rode naked—covered only in her long hair—through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband, Leofric, imposed on his tenants. The name “Peeping Tom” for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend, in which a man named Thomas watched her ride and was struck blind or dead.” Of course of course). 

And that’s before we get to the bit where Jim’s best friend Charlie says of Cameron Diaz: “A girl like that is always looking for the BBD. Bigger Better Deal.” (SPLUTTERS) and the bit where The Mask is all like “sorry wrong pocket” 

And oh – how does he take revenge on the Auto Repair Guys?

“I want a proctologist standing by. What? You heard me! The best one you can find”

Of course. Of course. 

I mean – I thought this was a funny and zany little kids movie and I’m watching it now and it’s like rewatching Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and realising there’s an orgy scene (“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go”). 

Little bit of trivia for you: “In terms of global gross compared to budget the Mask is the most profitable comic book movie of all time and remained so until 2019, when Joker surpassed it.” And like Joker got a whole lot of attention in terms of the corrupting influence it was going to have on people – but now I realise everyone was paying attention to the wrong movie.

(I mean seriously – the whole of the Joker “boo hoo my life is so sad” is basically over and done with in the first 15 minutes of The Mask – and then it gets to the all the fun and glorious revenge which by my understanding is how a movie should work. Joker is basically the same film but instead it stretches out all the misery to tedious extremes and instead of finding a magical mask that fixes all his problems – he gets a gun. Lol) 

Like – I’m sure everyone knows this already but one of the absolute best things about The Mask is the little speech that happens just after he’s done the whole thing with the balloons and the Tommy gun:

“This is incredible. With these powers I could be… a superhero! I’d fight crime, protect the innocent… work for world peace. But first…”

And of course that “but first” takes up the whole rest of the movie (and then at the end he throws the mask away). But what it mainly seems to involve is: getting revenge on the people who’ve wronged him and erm being INCREDIBLY HORNY for a woman he’s only just met. 

I’m trying to work out what messages this implanted into my young fragile brain when I first watched it all the way back when. I’m not sure it was anything good. 

And oh yeah – just to mention – the only way they manage to defeat Zed Dorian Tyrell at the end is by Cameron Diaz saying she wants a kiss from the real him before she dies (and then – of course – she kicks the mask away when he’s distracted). But the point is – the only reason the good guys manage to defeat the unstoppable force of the evil bad guy is because even the bad guy is INCREDIBLY AND UNSTOPPABLY HORNY. I mean – I’m trying to think of how many other films are like this – is The Evil Emperor defeated because Princess Leia shows off her gold bikini? Does Hans Gruber fall off the building because Holly Gennero McClane flashes a bit of leg? Does Voldemort’s wand explode because Hermione does something obscene with her patronus? 

Anyway. The Mask is a filthy movie and none of you should watch it. And if you have watched it then I recommend you clean your head out with soap and hot water. It’s depraved filth from beginning to end and definitely shouldn’t be shown to kids (oh yeah – and there’s lots of smoking too. Although I guess that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise bearing in mind it’s one of the (many!) catchphrases). 

“Ooh, somebody stop me!” to which I can only agree. 

Yes. Somebody should. 

 

I hadn’t really considered how the framing of Ipkiss as a nice guy who always finishes last can in today’s context look more like an incel horndog. I think the way the film tries to get away with it is to surround him with guys who are cruder (his co-worker) and meaner (the villain), so Carrey ends up looking better in comparison. He’s just a hopeless romantic obsessed with cartoons, so when the mask gives licence to those aspects of his repressed personality, he becomes a schmoozy lothario around Diaz who also doles out Tom & Jerry violence to the bad guys. Ipkiss skirts the edges of consent, whereas the villain ignores it. And while Carrey’s violence is undercut by comedy, the villain’s is an exercise in fear and power.

The film is actually pretty upfront about what it’s about – wheeling out a psychologist to explain the metaphor of the mask to Ipkiss. The fantasy genre works by taking the metaphor literally. We all wear invisible masks that hide aspects of our personalities in order to coexist in society, and wearing an actual mask can take those inhibitions away. It can be a liberatory experience personally. Ignoring the rules of polite society is also a route to amass fame and power – you become a superhero or supervillain. The film is interesting in that it’s a superhero origin story that ends with the notion that masks and capes are juvenile at best and dangerous at worst. Carrey gets a girlfriend and leaves behind his boyhood power fantasies (and sexual frustrations). Uncle Ben is wrong – power and responsibility are mutually exclusive, and Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers should really just grow up and throw all their gadgets in the sea.

 

It’s easy to imagine the high concept pitching session for the mask was simply “what if Jim Carrey’s face, but more?” And it’s worth bearing in mind that that in 1994-96 – Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, Ace Ventura 1+2 and the Mask were essentially all based on this premise. On one side it can be considered extraordinary for one actor to take the world by storm in this way to the extent that in two years he comes from nowhere to basically having is own genre. On the other side I am old enough to remember that rip-offs were a big deal at the time. If a song, game or film did any business you would see 10 billion clones with 2 years – the cleverest thing Carrey did was to make that genre his face and being very willing to make the most of that. 

Perhaps what made the Mask stand out was that at a time where people were a little tired of seeing Jim Carrey they found a way to both double down on that and show that he too was also getting fatigued with his own antics. My friend used to mock the “serious” episodes or character arcs in genre TV as “aah they’re doing a Alison Mack range episode I see” and the mask is a good excuse for Carrey to just do a bit of everything, ironically at a time when he was already doing everything he was building a step ladder out of doing the same schtick for the next 30 years, a step ladder I guess he didn’t need. 

If this sounds like I am being downbeat on the Mask, I’m not. I have written before about how excellence was just what I expected at certain points in my cinematic timeline. Looking at 80s hits like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes I just expected films to all be that good. And in 94-96, the golden era of cinema, it was like every film new was Usual Suspects or Pulp Fiction. Even Pretentious art house films were Trainspotting and Three Colours Trilogy. So rather than thinking “well I guess Jim Carrey performed the fuck out of that film” I just sort of shrugged and was like “aah, I guess he’s doing that thing he does” without realising he was touching the face of god. OK maybe that’s a slight exaggeration given that Bruce Campbell and Dan Ackroyd had been doing the same act years earlier, but still, for all the relentless IP theft of that era the mask remains a strange and unique beast – too weird to live, to rare to die. 

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