Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Tortured Entertainment

Being a resident of a nation that tortures, my mind often wanders to torture in popular entertainment. And thoughts of torture naturally lead to thoughts of television.

The TV Set is a movie that chronicles the process of making a television show from script to audition to pilot to premiere. It is also a lesson in torture.

The premise is that David Duchovny's character has a brother who committed suicide, and Mr. Duchovny believes the best way to honor the memory of his dearly departed is to pitch his personal life as a television situation comedy.

The film then chronicles how Duchovny's personal dramedy/character study slowly gets transformed into a full-on situation comedy complete with catch phrases and fart jokes. It then gets "funny" when Duchovny's character begins to suffer physical maladies brought on by the stress of having his home movies slowly and methodically turned into a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The idea of submitting something intimate as mass-consumption art is fundamentally a bad idea, but this avenue of thought is never considered or explored. Instead, the film asks us to root for Duchovny as he endures and suffers. It also asks us to laugh at his suffering - to both feel his torture and laugh all the way through the tears.

I assume that the film is striving for an absurdist comedy along the lines of the brilliant Brazil, but the stakes just are not as high or as interesting. While Brazil questioned issues about human rights, government authority, and mental stability, The TV Set tries to show you how much work and effort goes into an 'Everyone Loves Raymond' episode. It seems like a lot of sweat over a mere narcotic diversion.

At times, particularly when Duchovny is hobbling around on crutches, I thought that maybe the filmmakers were striving for a dark comedy where none of the characters are sympathetic and the humor comes from seeing horrible people do horrible things to each other until everyone is dead and gone, in a sense getting their comeuppance. But this doesn't really work, either, because the story is structured around you rooting for the little guy with the big dream and then chuckling at the horror when he realizes that the big personal intimate dream doesn't penetrate a particular demographic.

It also hurts the film that the main character is also the most pathetic. The "villain" of the piece, Sigourney Weaver, not only has the funniest and most quotable lines, she is the only person in the entire production who genuinely enjoys her work. Yes, she is supposed to be the source of all evil, but she single-handedly commands the only bright and funny moments in an otherwise dreary comedy.

Ultimately, the film comes up short because it is not as subversive, intelligent, or satirical as it could be. If it were really daring, it would have made the Sigourney Weaver character the focus of the film all the while actively encouraging the audience to root for her and her sassy attitude as she slowly, methodically, and single-handedly dismantles entire swaths of people to achieve her dreams of a larger market share. Because we are in a nation that tortures, we should be relating to the people with the power, not the victims.

All He Needs is a Shelf of Bowling Trophies...

I was going through some blogs of film criticism and saw a number of surprisingly positive comments about 'Death Proof' - the Quentin Tarantino half of the 'Grindhouse' double feature.

So much of 'Grindhouse' evaporated from my mind mere days after seeing it (if there was any sign that a film should be dismissed, this is it), but when I try to summon up an image from it, this is what I get:

Quentin Tarantino as a bartender, a woman under each arm, weighing about 30 pounds more than the last time I saw him. And he's prattling on about the greatness of 70s cinema. And, accompanying that image, this revelation...

Quentin Tarantino is that creepy relative. You know, that uncle or cousin you can't really believe is related to you, but still, there he is at every family gathering. He sits in the corner and yammers on obsessively about some not totally geeky, but still a little odd topic. Say, maybe, bowling.

Yes, Tarantino is the bachelor uncle obsessed with bowling and he has a shelf of bowling trophies that he cares a little too much about. His entire life is a wreck, but on League Night, he is King of the Universe.

This was something of an "a-ha" moment for me.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Why do People Overpraise 'Once'?

When what I thought what was a pleasant enough, solid-three-star movie 'Once' suddenly turns up on all sorts of Critic's Best of 2007 lists, I feel a tiny bit of dread - the dread of seeing something get undo attention and praise. I suppose this is the same sense of dread most critics feel when films like 'Ernest Saves Christmas' debut at number one at the box office or when Rob Schneider films make any money at all.

When a dimly-lit, camcorder-ugly film get placed on a pedestal over visual masterworks like 'No Country for Old Men', 'Ratatouille', or 'Atonement' I feel like wringing my hands and saying, "What is wrong with film critics today? Why do they overpraise a merely good movie, instead insisting that it is a super duper pile of greatness and that perhaps it redefines the very definition of a movie musical?" (Side note – someone really wrote that ‘Once’ redefined the movie musical, as if after seeing the film, the makers of 'High School Musical 3' suddenly ceased production, scrapping all of their prior work and hastily resetting the production in dark rooms filled with drunken, crooning Irishmen and filmed the whole thing with a shaky, cheap, hand-held camcorder.)

Some perspective is needed. Because last year's 'Hustle and Flow' does everything 'Once' does and manages to look amazing. So does this year's 'Heima'. And let's not forget Glen Hansard's first film, 'The Commitments' which is superior to 'Once' on every conceivable level.

The main difference is that those films do not have an aspect to them that 'Once' does. That aspect is a little something I call emo-porn.

Emo-porn involves a freak-show display of emotion that some people would call "real" or "raw." It usually involves overly sensitive people screaming (the "emo" part) and it involves people not acting and really doing what you see on film for reals (the "porn" part).

The key to understanding the "emo" portion of 'Once' comes from the music it features. The other films feature different types of music, from rap to art rock to soul. But 'Once' focuses on a guy with a guitar. A sensitive guy with a guitar who's idea of wooing a woman is to get her into his bedroom for a music rehearsal and then beg her into bed with his little sad, pathetic puppydog eyes. All he needs is some dark bangs brushed into his eyes to be the perfect poster emo boy.

Everyone with pretensions to being a sensitive guy with a guitar, every film critic with a secret desire for the whiny guy to quietly mew mew mew his way to triumph, every over-emotive over-exaggerating, over-praising person on the planet can't help but glom onto this film, waxing eloquently about about how it moved them like no other film, and how it drove them to write bad high school poetry for the first time since... well, since high school.

And what exactly makes the mind go to high school poetry?

Check out these lyrics from one of the songs:

When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.
When your mind's made up.

When the lyrical complexity of a song is about one-tenth that of 'Oh, Susannah', a musician would normally give up and start over. But this song works because each line is sung with a different level of emotion. Sometimes, "when your mind's made up" is whispered, sometimes "when your mind's made up" is screamed.

Surprisingly enough, this actually works as a song, but it doesn't really work as a piece of film. Because film is essentially a visual medium, and because the filmmakers decided somewhere during the planning stages that the songs were the best part and that they shouldn't focus on any of the visual aspects of production (like, oh, lighting and focusing), it fails. As a soundtrack it succeeds, but as a movie, it comes up a little bit lacking.

What it does have, though, is the "porn" part of the "emo-porn." Because during the filmmaking the two principle cast members fell in love, so what you are really watching is not really a movie, but instead two people fall in love for reals. No longer can you say that the acting performances are off, because the people aren’t really acting. In a strange marketing twist I like to call "The Ewok Effect" everyone seems to know these two people fell in love even though it is not pertinent the movie itself, just like everyone knows the word "Ewok" even though that word is never mentioned in any Star Wars movie.

So in effect, by saying 'Once' is a solid, three-star film, over-emotive people will think you are giving love itself three-stars, and you are a cold, cruel person with no discernable soul. When you point out that 'Once' isn't as visually enticing as, say, ‘Zodiac’ you will be reminded that love is blind and you are a heartless person for suggesting that something so fragile as new love needs a camera crew who knows the best way to film in low-light conditions so everything doesn’t seem like an under-exposed, reddish brown blob.

Essentially, by taking the film out of the context of being a film, critical discourse without passing judgment over the people involved becomes impossible. And for people like me, people who like talking about films just as much or even more than watching them, it puts us in the uncomfortable and unpopular position of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Not the Younglings!

As 2007 closes and 2008 comes into the forefront, it strikes me that the world needs another film and cinema blog.

Not the Younglings! is just that blog.

In one sense, it is a call out to one of the most ill-conceived lines of movie dialog ever written (thank you George Lucas for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith). In another sense, it is about what I want to see in cinema - films made for and focusing on "not the younglings".

What the hell are younglings anyway? My guess is that the word "youngling" is filmmaker slang for that lowest common denominator film-goer that all of the marketing and focus groups seem to want to please.

The year 2007 seemed like a nice step in the right direction. Much hay has been made over the fact that three major American films (Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno) seemed to take a stand on the abortion issue, but I think the real bit of cultural zeitgeist that has been captured in the films of this year is the real sense of things not being sewn up in perfectly happy endings.

I think of some of the great endings I have witnessed and the ones that really stuck with me were the friendship-ending shot at the climax of 'Superbad', the final interview segment in 'Atonement', the last speech of 'No Country for Old Men', the unresolved conclusion of 'Zodiac', and the ending of the documentary 'No End in Sight'.

These endings were ones of uncertainty. They ended with the feeling that there were no pat answers and that the best thing we need to do as an audience is grow up.

This makes me excited for 2008.