Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Flying Cars of Television


I have a new article at World Cinema Paradise called "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Other Flying Cars of Cinema."  But, before you head out to read that article, I want to take this opportunity to briefly acknowledge the flying cars of television, which played an important role in children's fantasy series of the 1960s and 1970s.

The flying cars of the period were put forth to amuse the many baby boomers transfixed in front of their televisions.  The trend started with Supercar, a series that debuted on British television in January of 1961.  The multipurpose Supercar, which could travel in the air, on land or beneath the sea, was no doubt influenced by Jules Verne's infamous Terror machine.  Gerry Anderson, the creator and producer of Supercar, went on to feature flying cars in many of his later series, including Joe 90, Thunderbirds Are Go and Space Precinct.


Children who witnessed the premiere of The Jetsons in 1962 were enchanted by the futuristic utopia presented by the series.  The robots, the holograms and the various push-button conveniences made the Jetsons' daily life look like great fun, but nothing in the family's possession drew more envy from the series' fans than the aerocar.


Other flying cars followed.  The Fantasticar debuted in the third issue of The Fantastic Four, which arrived on newsstands in March of 1963.  The Fantasticar made its earliest appearances on television on an animated Fantastic Four series that aired on ABC from 1967 to 1970.

 
The Flying Sub, which looked and functioned much like a flying car, was introduced on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1965.


Doctor Who obtained his own flying car in a 1974 Doctor Who episode called "Invasion of the Dinosaurs."


It was inevitable that Sid and Marty Krofft would produce a live-action children's series starring a flying car.  The series, which debuted on ABC in 1976, was Wonderbug.



Additional Note

I came across an interesting shot comparison in my research of this article.  You can find it at http://shotcontext.blogspot.com/2010/07/landing.html.



Edit Note

Doug Krentzlin, one of my fellow writers at World Cinema Paradise, was kind to point out to me that a flying car was introduced in the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic book in the 1960s.  This car is significant in that its folding tires concept was later adopted by the folks who designed the flying DeLorean for Back to the Future (1985).  The S.H.I.E.L.D. car was created by legendary illustrator Jack Kirby, who previously came up with the Fantastic Four's flying Fantasticar.  Kirby modeled the car after a Porsche 904. 


But Kirby did not bring the first flying car to comic books.  That credit goes to another comic book legend - Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman.  Siegel's car, the Star Rocket Racer, belonged to a superhero named the Star Spangled Kid, who was an obvious imitation of Kirby and Joe Simon's Captain America.  Yes, the creative community is indeed incestuous.  The Star Rocket Racer debuted in Star-Spangled Comics # 1, which was released to newsstands in October of 1941.  The artist who came up with the actual bubble-top design for the car was Hal Sherman.


The Star Rocket Racer made its live-action television debut in a 2010 Smallville episode called "Absolute Justice, Part 1." 


The S.H.I.E.L.D. car made its live-action television debut in the premiere episode of ABC Television's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Series creator Joss Whedon decided to name the car Lola.


Now that we have gotten that out of the way, I need to relight my pipe and get back to reading Great Expectations.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stocks, Bonds and Pratfalls


The Wolf of Wall Street is a drug comedy.  Forget the fact that the film involves stock fraud.  Forget the fact that the film is based on a true story.  Forget the fact that the film was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated in its Best Director category seven times.  The Wolf of Wall Street is Cheech and Chong Rip Off Investors.  I should point out that the self-proclaimed "wolf" does not ply his sleazy practices on Wall Street, but literal titles are not important when it comes to dopey comedies.  Consider that Abbott and Costello never actually make it to Mars in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953).


There's not much to this story of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played with demonic glee by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Belfort defrauded investors, snorted a vast amount of cocaine, and had sex with countless prostitutes.  The film numbs viewers with relentless debauchery throughout its running time of 180 minutes.  Scorsese devotes more time to telling Belfort's story than he previously devoted to the story of Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004).  More time is devoted to Belfort than was devoted to the story of Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961) or the story of Abraham Lincoln's slavery-snuffing administration in Lincoln (2012).  The Wolf of Wall Street is only 11 minutes shorter than Gandhi (1982).  You know Gandhi, right?  He is just the guy who used nonviolent civil disobedience to lead India to independence.  He is just the guy who inspired a worldwide civil rights movement.  Belfort is an idiot who enjoyed snorting cocaine off a hooker's ass.  What justifies this epic of excess and stupidity?

Interestingly, DiCaprio gets to crash an aircraft in both The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street.  The crash in The Aviator is gripping and tragic.  The drunken crash in The Wolf of Wall Street is nothing more than juvenile.  It makes crashing an aircraft look like fun.  Scorsese has argued against criticism that the film was made for 14-year-olds, but this scene fails to make that case for him.  

The film reminds me of a Randy Newman song called "It's Money that I Love."  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

They say that money
Can't buy love in this world
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love
But it is all right

The song provides the same message as The Wolf of Wall Street, but it does it in three minutes rather than three hours.


FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) pursues Belfort and his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), as doggedly as Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach, Jr.) pursued Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke (1978).  Belfort spent 22 months in a country club prison, where a fellow inmate persuaded him to write his Wolf of Wall Street memoir.  That fellow inmate was Tommy Chong, who knows a funny drug story when he hears it.  A big difference between a Cheech and Chong film and The Wolf of Wall Street is that cannabis joints went up smoke in the former film and people's life savings went up in smoke in the latter film.


I have found that I am not alone in my thinking.  The A.V. Club staff called The Wolf of Wall Street "a drug comedy in financial crime drag."  This may be the reason that industry insiders do not expect the film to be taken seriously by Academy voters.

The scene from the film that people are most talking about features DiCaprio zonked out on Quaaludes.  The timing of Quaalude episode could not be worse as DiCaprio learns that his partner is about to unknowingly give away incriminating information to a banking associate on a tapped phone line.  Though he is barely able to function in his drug-addled state, he has to speed off in his Ferrari Testarossa to stop his partner from saying something that both of them will regret.   

This is a comedy routine that can be traced back to the early days of the British music hall.  The routine typically involved a wealthy man drunkenly stumbling home after a night of revelry.  Of course, the inevitable problem with merrymaking at a club or bar is that the person has to get home afterwards.  The most common trait of the various versions of the routine was the comedian grappling with an inanimate object.  A popular version of the sketch centered on a comedian getting tangled up with a lamppost as he put on his jacket. 

Early film comedians made extensive use of this premise.  Bad (K)Night (1902), a comedy produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph, involves a man coming home drunk and mistaking a suit of armor for a person.  Later, similar routines were performed by a number of popular comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Max Linder, Roscoe Arbuckle and Lige Conley.

 
DiCaprio grapples with a very grand inanimate object - that white 1988 Ferrari Testarossa.  The Ferrari/Quaaludes scene was named one of the best scenes of the year by the A.V. Club staff.  This was their evaluation: "The scene. . . is a go-for-broke piece of bizarre slapstick comedy, with Belfort trying to squirm and writhe his way out of a country club. . . It’s the pièce de résistance of DiCaprio’s gonzo performance.   The scene climaxes with an interminably long, unbroken shot of Belfort trying to open his car’s butterfly doors using only his feet."  Colin Covert, Star Tribune critic, tweeted, "DiCaprio opening his Ferrari door with his foot in Wolf of Wall Street is the top comic moment of 2013."  Bob Grimm, Reno News Review critic, wrote, "With this film, [DiCaprio] proves he’s a physical actor of phenomenal talent. . . DiCaprio rivals the likes of Steve Martin and Charlie Chaplin in his ability to pull off physical comedy.  What he does with a Ferrari car door and his leg must be seen to be believed." 


So, I am not the only one to make the connection between DiCaprio and Chaplin.  Chaplin famously performed the routine in One A.M. (1916).  An intertitle introduces Chaplin as a "tipsy playboy."  Chaplin's only plan after paying a cab driver for getting him home is to enter his home, take off his suit, and climb into bed, but he finds in the process that he must contend with various objects, including a fishbowl, a grandfather's clock, a seltzer bottle, a tiger skin rug, a rotating table and a Murphy bed.  A sober man will find that these devices have been designed for convenient use, but a drunken man will get his foot caught in the fishbowl, get hit in the head by the clock's pendulum, get soaked by the seltzer bottle, get frightened by the tiger skin rug, get spun in circles atop the rotating table and get knocked to the ground by the Murphy bed.  Let's look at a clip.  Unlike DiCaprio, who has trouble getting into a car, Chaplin has trouble getting out of a car.

video

Alcohol addles the brain, slows the reflexes, and upsets coordination.  Quaaludes mess up a person much worse.  These little oval-shaped white pills suppress the central nervous system, reducing muscle tension, causing motor control circuitry in the brain to malfunction, and ultimately inhibiting the body's mobility.  In other words, a person who abuses his body with this sort of intoxicant could not be a bigger fool.

Jim Carrey performed essentially the same routine (and performed it very well) in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995).  Carrey's Ace Ventura is desperately fleeing tribesmen of the savage Watchootoo tribe, but he is struck by a number of poison darts and finds himself quickly losing muscle control.  Like DiCaprio, he finds that he is unable to move his arms or legs and he is unable to produce intelligible speech.  The poison dart chase was a spoof of a scene from Papillon (1973).  It was one of the great moments of Carrey's career.  To be frank, DiCaprio's efforts are not at all gonzo by comparison.


The biggest problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is a dumb, silly comedy about a subject that is not at all funny.  Scorsese sacrifices any sense of human decency when he makes it seem that stealing from investors is the most fun that a human being can possibly have.  It may be the most irresponsible, offensive and immoral film ever made by a major director.  Complain all that you want about The Birth of a Nation (1915), the fact remains that Scorsese's shameless recruitment film for future Wall Street crooks is far more inflammatory.

Films have the power to affect behavior.  Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) influenced John Hinkley Jr. to stalk President Ronald Reagan and fire six shots into a crowd in an attempt to assassinate our commander-in-chief.  Jordan Belfort admits that he was inspired to engage in financial shenanigans by Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).


It is harmless fun to see Chaplin's tipsy playboy get his foot caught in a fish bowl, but nothing is harmless about the rampant stupidity depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Beyond the Boohoo


I am not the biggest fan of sad movies.  I have suffered enough heartache in my own life that I don't need to pay hard-earned coin to suffer heartache over the tragedies of movie characters.  This is probably the reason that I love comedy films more than dramatic films, which are so often about death and despair.  I don't want to see old-fashioned weepies like The Champ (1931), or Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), or Old Yeller (1957).  If I have had a hard week at work, I am not going to reach for a DVD of Sophie's Choice (1982) or Terms of Endearment (1983).

When I was eleven years old, I was seriously bummed out after seeing They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).  I saw the film at the RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing.  I had to take the 28 bus down Northern Boulevard to get home to Bayside, but the film left me in despair about life and I was tempted to step in front of the bus as it angled towards the curb.  You want to really depress me?  Remind me that the once beautiful RKO Keith's Theatre now looks like this.


Last year, I had a big falling out with my son and we are now estranged.  It has been hard to deal with this situation.  The fact that I am living Stella Dallas makes me see no benefit in watching the actual Stella Dallas (1937).  Let me watch Buster Keaton's The Navigator (1924) instead.


I have never seen Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and I am sure that my life is better for it.  I will not shun a film just because the story includes a tragedy, but I will shun a film if it focuses entirely on tragedy and the characters who are involved are helpless to cope with their unfortunate circumstances.  Johnny Got His Gun, which centers on a soldier who was blown apart in an artillery blast and is missing his arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose and mouth, may present more hopelessness than any other film ever made.


Hope and fortitude separates the dispiriting film from the uplifting film.  Rabbit Hole (2010) shows a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) working through seemingly insurmountable grief after the death of their young son.  It isn't easy for them, but they go deep within themselves to find the strength to survive.  In the end, the human spirit triumphs over tragedy.  What could more positive than that?

Filmmakers of the Twenty-first Century are obsessed with death and despair.  Their work stimulates an audience by emphasizing the sensational aspects of life's suckiness.  So many of their films are despair porn.  Some critics blame 9/11 for this gloomy trend, but the trend started earlier than that.  The year before 9/11, we had such gloom-fests as Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).  Both of these films were highly praised by film critics and were nominated for Oscars.  People more important than me obviously like death and despair.  Of course, many of those important people can take refuge in a nice home with a heated swimming pool.  

Recent films have delivered little joy and celebration.  David Denby recently wrote in The New Yorker, "America is in trouble (no kidding), and many of the best movies this year, intentionally or not, embodied the national unease, the sense that everyone is on his own, that communal bonds have disappeared in a war of all against all, or the indifference of all to all."  He pointed out that, in 2013, many notable films touched on loneliness.  The loneliness theme was especially obvious in Gravity, All is Lost and Her.


Films have long examined loneliness because, frankly, much of life is about loneliness.  The death of a loved one can bring loneliness.  A time of life, including the bewildering days of childhood and the distressing days of old age, can bring loneliness.  A person can feel lonely when they become isolated in a new community.  The world is filled with disturbed or anguished loners, who are represented in a wide variety of films.  It wouldn't seem that Taxi Driver (1976) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) have much in common, but both films have a central character who is a loner.  Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant) shows the way that loneliness and isolation can lead to distress and madness.  Loneliness is a problem for a person stranded alone on an island (Castaway) or traveling alone in outer space (Solaris).  Two lonely people can find each other (Lost in Translation, Sleepless in Seattle, and many more).  Comedians are good at expressing loneliness.  Think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), or John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles (1987), or Bill Murray in Broken Flowers (2005).


I always found A Christmas Carol (1951) to be a great film about loneliness.  But this film, as many other films about loneliness, has a happy ending.  Loneliness, though sad, does not reach the heights of tragedy.  It is just part of life.  We all have to deal with loneliness at one time or another and it is comforting to see a film character find a way to cope with these feelings.


This year, I was tricked into watching an achingly sad film.  The film was The Spectacular Now (2013).  As I sat through the first half hour of the film, I could have gone down my official list of good film elements and ticked off every last box.  I believed in the characters and I cared deeply about them.  But then, suddenly, this delightful teen romance introduced a plot twist that completely caught me off guard and radically changed my perspective of the film.  Spoiler alert!  I advise you to read no further if you plan to see the film.  Okay, I can now get to the twist.  Our charming, affectionate and wisecracking protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely, turns out to be an alcoholic.  Miles Teller, who portrays Sutter, is a promising young talent.  He is a cross between a Say Anything-era John Cusack and a Swingers-era Vince Vaughn.  His love interest in the film is played by the marvelously gifted Shailene Woodley.  I am unmoved by most leading ladies today.  I much prefer watching a film with Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur than watching a film with Rachel McAdams or Reese Witherspoon, but I found myself completely enchanted by Woodley.  Woodley is intensely moving in the role of Aimee Finecky, a smart and sweet-natured young woman who falls in love with Sutter.  You can feel the love that she has for this young man.  This makes it difficult when Sutter's problems with alcohol come to the fore.  Sutter breaks up with Amiee because he feels that he's not good for her, but the truth is that he doesn't love Amiee as much as he loves getting drunk and feeling numb.

 
The film is based on a novel by Tim Tharp.  The last scene in the book reveals Sutter getting drunk in a bar.  The bar scene is featured in the film, but the film continues for another ten minutes.  The writers in charge of the film adaptation, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, tried to tack on a more hopeful ending.  It makes sense as many of the people who read the book complained about the abrupt downer ending.  So, how does the film end?  Sutter is embraced by his mother when he breaks down crying.  His mother assures him that he is a good person.  Sutter becomes committed to giving up his drunken, hedonistic, live-for-today ways and making something of himself.  He applies for admission to college and he could not be more hopeful and confident when his application is accepted.  He drives to Pennsylvania to visit Amiee at her new school.  On campus, he sees Amiee coming out of a building.  She looks like a new person.  She is clearly centered and confident.  Sutter approaches her tentatively.  The final shot of the film focuses on Amiee's face, which expresses her mixed feelings about seeing Sutter again. 

I came away from the film feeling less than hopeful that Amiee would accept Sutter back into her life or that Sutter could control his personal demons.  The film made me feel so sad that I regretted having seen it.  Look, I admit it, I am a disgustingly sensitive guy.  You know, it has been almost forty years since I first saw Annie Hall (1977) and I am still sad about the ending.  I need to learn to let that go already.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Escaping a Bad Movie

 

I celebrated (or at least begrudgingly accepted) my milestone 55th birthday in July.  As the years cruelly advance, I have come to realize that I am becoming less and less patient.  This lack of patience has extended to my movie-viewing habits.  For years, I somehow felt obliged to sit through a film that I wasn't enjoying.  After all, I did pay for my ticket and it would be throwing away money to leave.  Also, I felt that I needed to secure my fanny in its place out of a misplaced sense of morality.  How would it be fair for me to judge a film that I hadn't seen from beginning to end?  I couldn't leave the theatre declaring that a film was terrible unless I had actually witnessed every last frame for myself.  I could only hope that the film was going to get better and the story would reach a satisfactory resolution.  I now look at myself as having been foolish to suffer through films that were useless, irritating and hopeless.  It was unreasonable for me to sit through a cinematic disaster until the bitter end just for the unlikely chance that the film would pull out of its perilous tailspin and accomplish a breathtaking last-minute redemption. 

The multiplex made it easy for me to reject a film as it took little effort to stumble out of the one dark theatre and slip into another dark theatre next door.  Whenever I did this, I was sure that the film being exhibited in the other theater could not be worse.  I was usually right.  But, now, I no longer feel the need to sneak, or slip, or stumble.  Now, I proudly walk out of a theatre rather than subject myself to another nauseating moment of a bad film.  It is even easier when I am watching a bad film at home and all I need to do is press the eject button on my DVD remote.  Sometimes a person needs to accept defeat and cry out, "No mas!"

Film critic Rex Reed was widely criticized for reviewing a film even though he had walked out after the first twenty minutes.  But I have to defend Reed on this matter.  Reed made it clear in his review that he "happily deserted" the film at an early stage because he found it "unwatchable."  Fair enough.  I admitted in my review of I Saw the Devil (2010) that I didn't watch the entire film because I could no longer endure the film's relentless blood and brutality.

I recently gave up on American Hustle (2013) after 40 minutes.  I couldn't figure out what I was watching.  True-life characters were represented by surreal comic grotesqueries.  With his conspicuous belly bulge and funny wig, Christian Bale just needed to put on a clown nose and he would have been ready to drive around a circus tent in a clown car.  With blackface, Bradley Cooper's manic, bug-eyed federal agent could have traded barbs as a dandy in a minstrel show.  Of course, you also have Jennifer Lawrence accidentally blowing up a microwave, which Bale keeps calling "a science oven."  I expected Cooper to show up and say, "You done blown up the science oven.  Yuck, Yuck, Yuck!"  I didn't make it through twenty minutes of The Bling Ring (2013), which had some of the same problems that American Hustle had.  I have long had issues with filmmakers deviating wildly from the facts of a true story.  This unfortunately diminished my appreciation of Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and Lone Survivor (2013), which were well-made films that needlessly fabricated characters (the chauffeur in Saving Mr. Banks) and events (the firefight climax of Lone Survivor).

The one film that I most happily deserted this year was About Time (2013).  The film introduces its protagonist, Tim, as an unfortunate individual who deserves our sympathy.  In the opening narration, Tim describes himself as "too tall, too skinny, too orange."  But we soon find out that this young man is a wealthy snob who has enjoyed unending privilege throughout his life.  He really sees himself as being highly attractive.  He certainly believes himself to be better than this nice woman that he rejects.  She expects to get a kiss from him at midnight on New Year's Eve, but he simply reaches out and shakes her hand.  She turns away looking devastated. 


He thinks that he deserves this woman.  


This actress, Margot Robbie, is by no means an average young lady.  In the real world, Robbie is rumored to have lured Will Smith away from his wife of 16 years, threatening to destroy one of Hollywood's great power couples.  Many critics are of the opinion that Robbie uses her considerable charms to steal The Wolf of Wall Street from superstar heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.  In a review of The Wolf of Wall Street, Kara Warner declared Robbie "a scene-jacking breakout star."


But this fellow who admits to being "too tall, too skinny, too orange" still doesn't think he's so bad that he cannot attract Robbie.


The plot of About Time is set in motion when Tim's father (Bill Nighy) reveals to Tim that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time and, if he uses this power wisely, he could greatly improve his life.  I had a hard time accepting that a rich young man really needs time-traveling abilities to improve his life.  I can only dream of having the life that this person has without the time-traveling hoodoo.  Why should I waste my sympathy on him?  The insufferable problem of the film is that its writer and director, Richard Curtis, is unaware that Tim is a jerk.  He assumes that viewers will have no problem instantly falling in love with Tim and tirelessly cheer his efforts throughout the duration of the film.  It wasn't long before I ejected the DVD.


I also value my remote's fast-forward button, which allows me to skip past irritating characters and uninteresting subplots.  Let's take, for example, The Way Way Back (2013).  The central character is a 14-year-old boy named Duncan.  Duncan vacations at a beach house with his mother and his mother's overbearing boyfriend.  Duncan is able to get away from this gloomy, dysfunctional couple by performing odd jobs at a nearby water park.  The water park is the only place where Owen is happy and the only place where I am happy to see Owen.  I fast-forwarded through the awkward and unpleasant beach house scenes and focused my attention on the warm and funny water park scenes.  This made the film half as long and twice as entertaining. 

My message today is for film fans to march fearlessly out of a film that has fallen far short of their expectations.  Life is too short to do otherwise.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Strange and Twisted Love of Movie Spoilers


While browsing the Internet one day, I came across a heated debate about movie spoilers.  Surprisingly, many of the debaters were strong supporters of spoilers and took the position that cinephiles were entitled to spoiler information.  They protested the efforts of producer J.J. Abrams to keep plot details of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) under wraps.  They saw it as unjust for Abrams to prevent spoilers from being leaked to the public.  It was as if they wanted Congress to draft a constitutional amendment on the issue.  As hard as I tried, I didn't understand their logic.  These film fans demanded to know the complete storyline of a film from beginning to end.  One commenter said that he found that he was able to enjoy the nuances of a film more on second viewing because he was not burdened by the need to sort through various bits of plot information.  The fact that he understood the plot meant that he could better focus on the characters, the performances, the environments, and the effects.  Why, he thought, shouldn't he have that same experience the first time that he saw a film?  This was one of many times that I wished that discussion board profiles provided the age of the user.  Usually when I read strange comments on the Internet, I assume that the author is much younger than me and our differences of opinion represents that deep divide commonly known as the generation gap. 

I assure you that this group of spoiler supporters is not alone in their thinking.  The same points have been put forth in other forums.  One person stated that spoilers allow a person to "rest easy and enjoy the whole experience rather than worry about the end."  Another person wrote, "[W]ith Harry Potter, I would always read the end before I read the rest of the book, no matter how much I tried to resist.  For me, I feel like it made me enjoy the book more, not less.  Having the big questions answered at the outset made it easier for me to appreciate the little things along the way."  One person made the point that modern audiences are so familiar with storytelling techniques that it is impossible to create surprises.

Those who advocate spoilers say that spoilers enhance our love of films and make our lives better.  One person wrote in a forum, "I think it is because learning about the movies or books ahead of time is fun in and of itself.  So in effect, it is a kind of prolonging the pleasure of a film. . . If I read the rumors and the spoilers I get the months of pleasure learning about it as info trickles out before I get to see the film."  The idea that spoilers are fun is something that I hear often.  Charlie Jane Anders, a critic on the io9 website, wrote, "[O]ften the speculation about what's coming is more entertaining than the reality turns out to be."  Of course, there is also the  illicit pleasure of a spoiler.  A person browsing the Internet can feel empowered coming across a spoiler.  They now possess forbidden information about a film that most other people don't have.  Still, as alleged by the pro-spoilers faction, the most powerful benefit of sharing spoilers is that it helps to build a community around movies and television shows.  But doesn't it impart too much importance to the latest film to build a community around it?

An unbelievable twist to this phenomena is that fan reaction to spoilers has actually caused filmmakers to reshoot scenes, which is what happened in the case of Termination Salvation (2009).  Anders made the point that the Internet has made entertainment "much more interactive and audience-driven."  Those who believe that film fans should be allowed to participate in the filmmaking process are bound to see filmmakers who closely guard plot points as fascists who need to be dragged out of their castles and hung by their ankles in the town square.

No matter what spoilers supporters say, the demand for spoiler information is impossible for me to accept.  In my mind, these people are horribly impatient.  They are restless children crying out, "I want to know what's going to happen next!"  No thought.  No surprises.  They just want to sit back and mindlessly immerse themselves in the action.   It reminds me when my son was four and I took him to see a James Bond movie.  The film included shoot outs and car chases.  Every few minutes, my son tugged on my sleeve and asked, "Daddy, daddy, are the bad guys going to kill James Bond?"  I kept telling him that I didn't know and we were going have to watch to find out.  That answer never seemed to satisfy him.

Spoilers are everywhere nowadays.  The advertising campaigns for films have become reckless in the way that they deliver spoilers.  Should we learn in the trailer for The Devil's Advocate (1997) that Al Pacino's character is the actual devil?  I laughed when I read this man's complaint of the trailer for Castaway (2000): "It showed him saying goodbye to Helen Hunt, scared in the plane during the storm, first shipwrecked on the island, talking to Wilson, spearing a fish, making fire, on the plane on the way back asking who was in the coffin, and reuniting with Helen Hunt.  Literally every major plot point was covered."  Yes, he's right, that's too much information.  I found it appalling that the poster for Quarantine (2008) gave away the ending of the film.  I was astonished recently when a critic described in detail the ending of Blue Jasmine (2013).  No one cares anymore.  Last week, Jon Stewart offhandedly gave away a funny plot twist of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) during an interview with the film's star, Oscar Isaac.


The trailer for Her (2013) was pieced together from footage from the film's opening act, which introduced the main characters and set up the premise.  The many twists and turns that happen in the second and third acts are entirely concealed in this and other promotional material.  This made the film a rich experience for me as I watched the story unfold and never had the slightest idea what was going to happen next.  The film was scary at times because I was on a deeply emotional journey and I didn't know where it was going to take me.    

Spoiler-free poster for Her (2013).
If the Internet had been around throughout the last century, the endings of many classic films would have been spoiled.  A moviegoer would have bought his ticket to Citizen Kane (1941) knowing full well that Charles Foster Kane's dying word "Rosebud" had to do with his beloved childhood sled.  Before Psycho (1960) reached theatres, it would have been well known that Norman Bates was Mother.  Reimagining the past in that unpleasant way makes me shudder.

In today's upside down world, storytelling has been turned on its head.  The relentless assault of media has rewired the brains of consumers, who haphazardly suck in as much data as they can in the hope that something will produce a visceral twinge.  I see that many people today regard linear storytelling as a boring artifact of yesteryear.  They want flashbacks and flash-forwards.  They want films that tell stories sideways and backwards.  Writers have replaced the old Smith Corona with a Cuisinart.  Plot details are jumbled together and funneled into the appropriate hemisphere of viewers' brains.  It is, indeed, a new world.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Two Dead Dogs


People are strangely fascinated with dead dogs, which is probably the reason that a dead dog has turned up in many popular films.  These furry corpses most often serve as a harbinger of death and mayhem.  A dead dog with stab wounds or a snapped neck will make the protagonist aware that a homicidal maniac is on the loose and his life is in danger.  This was certainly the case in Rear Window (1954), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and, most recently, Evil Dead (2013).  Even when the dead dog isn't slaughtered by a homicidal maniac, it tends to portend death.  This thriller standard is evident in Of Mice and Men (1939), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Badlands (1973), Se7en (1995) and Cabin Fever (2002).  Dead dogs can sometimes be sad, as in Old Yeller (1957), and sometimes be funny, as in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).  It is an example of the blackest of humor when Chevy Chase forgets he tied a dog to his car's bumper and drives off at high speed with the dog dragging behind him.  But, believe it or not, I have found two rare instances in which a dead dog allowed a filmmaker to blunt the harsh edges of a dark tale.


The first film up for discussion is Wonder Boys, arguably the most overrated movie of 2000.  A big problem for me was that the film reminded me of a much better French film that I had seen in the late seventies.  The French movie, which was released in 1978, was called La  tortue sur le dos, which translates into English as Like a Turtle on its Back.  It had the same basic plot.  A writer enjoyed acclaim for turning out a brilliant first novel, but he subsequently came down with writer's block and wasn't been able to produce a follow-up.  He had come down with a drastic case of sophomore slump.


The writer in Wonder Boys, played by Michael Douglas, doesn't seem to have it so bad despite his writer's block.  He's making a living as a college professor.  He's attending cocktail parties where people still tell him how great his book is and do their best to suck up to him.  His wife has left him (for reasons that the filmmakers never bother to explain), but he hardly seems to care as he is busy canoodling with the dean's wife.  In the writer's nice little world, his agent has somehow managed to remain best friends with him.  Why exactly?  The agent has every right to disown this unproductive client, especially as his failure has both damaged the agent's reputation and diminished his bank balance.  The reasons don't really matter in the end.  The bottom line is that none of this makes for an engrossing film.  Where's the crisis?  Where's the conflict?  Where's the drama?  Oh, I remember, the professor and one of his students get attacked by the dean's dog and end up shooting it.  They hide the dead dog in the trunk of the professor's car and panic at every contrived instance when someone asks to put something into the trunk or take something out of the trunk.  Toward the end of the film, people are noticing the odor of rotting flesh coming from the trunk.  This is supposed to be good for even more laughs.  Someone will mention the suspicious smell and this will give Douglas the opportunity to mug to the camera.  The movie wasn't much more sophisticated than Dude, Where's my Car?, which came out the same year.  But critics included the movie in their Top Ten lists at the end of the year and couldn't explain the reason that the general public had rejected it.  What did they expect? 

Let's compare this with that other film about writer's block, La  tortue sur le dos.  Paul (Jean-François Stévenin), the writer of the story, is having serious financial problems.  And that should be the main problem in a story about writer's block.  If writing is your livelihood and you're not writing, then it follows that your main problem will be money.  Paul has spent a generous advance, which doesn't make him popular with his publisher.  He might as well be dead as far as his agent is concerned.  His wife had to go back to work to support them and she has come to resent her useless partner.  She has found it best for her peace of mind to simply ignore him.  It has become so painful for him to sit idly at his typewriter that he usually spends his days wandering the streets.  This empty, ineffectual man feels like a bum on his best days and a ghost on his worst days.

One day, Paul drops into a movie theatre hoping a movie will take his mind off his troubles.  He meets a college girl, Nathalie (Virginie Thévenet).  She does more than the movie to take his mind off his troubles.  Nathalie makes him feel truly alive again.  But, then, he gets the young woman pregnant, which abruptly ends his romantic illusions about their relationship.  Nothing can be more real for a broke writer than having his gal pal tell him he's going to be a daddy.  Nathalie can tell Paul isn't happy to hear she's pregnant, which causes her to lose her temper and break up with him.  His wife finds out about Nathalie and kicks him out.  He's walking down a rainy street, homeless, penniless and friendless, when Nathalie's father catches up to him and punches him hard enough to knock him to the ground.  The father continues to beat him, leaving him off so badly that he has to be hospitalized.  This provides a lot more drama than a smelly dead dog in a car trunk.

What was the point of the dead dog in Wonder Boys?  I could be generous and say that the dead dog symbolized the writer's creative muse, which had sputtered, collapsed and died.  So, now, the writer is feeling burdened to drag this dead thing around and having nosy people threaten to expose the putrid thing.  In the end, though, the dead dog was a silly plot device that served to mitigate the bleakness in a story about a writer who can't write.


Now, let's look at another film that made dubious use of a dead dog.  Insomnia (2002) was the film that really made me wonder what happened to Al Pacino.  I couldn't imagine that a ham actor could stay alive sword-swallowing that much scenery.  The paint, the glue, the nails, the plasterboard… that stuff is bound to kill you.  The title Insomnia is appropriate as our star keeps shouting his lines to keep the viewer from nodding off.  Pacino has never been right since the race car drama Bobby Deerfield  (1977).  What did that film do to him exactly?  It is possible that he suffered brain damage sniffing the exhaust fumes or it could be that, by driving too fast, he rattled loose vital grey matter in his braincase.  All I know is that, ever since that film, Pacino has been permanently enrolled in the Hoo-Hah School of Overacting.

Pacino has been useful to filmmakers looking to avoid subtly.  Insomnia was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian movie of the same name.  The original version opens with a man walking off a plane.  You have an understanding of this man as soon as you see his grim and tired face.  This is a man who's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  Pacino, as the same character, has to bellow how he's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  He makes a speech about this in the airport.  He makes another speech when he arrives at his hotel.  And, for latecomers, he makes a third speech when he has dinner at a restaurant.  This tumult could not have been more different than the original Insomnia, praised by film critic Steve Rhodes for being "lean" and "economically directed."  The Norwegian original was effective for its stoic and ambiguous characters.  That's not to say the original was a classic.  For my tastes, the film could at times be too spare and subdued.  But, still, it towered head and shoulders over something as contrived and bloated as the remake.


When they made the original, the filmmakers didn't care if the audience liked their main character, Detective Engström (Stellan Skarsgård).  But, no, Hollywood producers weren't willing at the time to take that risk.  They would risk boring an audience, but they would never risk angering or alienating an audience.  So, scriptwriter Hillary Seitz made it a priority to develop and maintain sympathy for Pacino's detective character.

In the original, the story takes a turn when the detective accidentally shoots his partner while in pursuit of a murderer.  The incident unhinges the detective, whose reputation as an expert detective is his one accomplishment in life.  He slowly loses his grip on both morality and sanity.  He lies to his colleagues and goes about covering up his mistake.  His first task is to find a dog that he saw in an alley earlier that day.  He beckons the dog with a treat.  The lean and hungry mutt does not hesitate to approach him.  Engström lets the dog eat the treat out of his hand before he draws back his revolver and shoots the helpless creature.  The scene is not played for shock value.  The detective acts with a ruthless efficiency.  All he cares about is digging the spent bullet out of the dog and using it to replace the bullet that killed his partner.  In the meantime, he remains on the hunt for the murderer.  Later, he becomes frustrated while interrogating a cocky teenage girl.  To get her to provide vital information, he takes to intimidating her and goes as far as thrusting his hand up her skirt.  In the end, he is even willing to conspire with the murderer to protect his dark secret.


The detective ends the movie having in no way redeemed himself.  Another detective, Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), turns up evidence against him, but she hands him the evidence as he is packing to leave.  She doesn't say much, but you can tell from her face that she feels both disgust and pity for the man.  She thinks enough of his accomplishments as a detective not to arrest him, but she's disappointed in what he's done and just wants to see him leave town.  That was a lot more powerful than the maudlin way these characters resolve the same conflict in the Hollywood version.  Pacino, shot and dying, is cradled in the arms of Hillary Swank.  He has given his life to rescue her from a killer and he's expressing his regret as she drenches him in crocodile tears.  She promises, right before he dies, that she'll destroy the evidence of his cover-up.


But Pacino has had a bunch of halos piled on his head prior to the fatal climax.  The main reason Pacino talks so much about his career in the opening act is so he can let the audience know the great things he's done.  He talks about the murderers he's caught.  He tells how he arrested a man who tortured and murdered children.  You're ready to forgive this supercop almost anything.  But that's not all.  The point is made that, if something he's done wrong discredits him, there are corrupt lawyers willing to use that mistake to discredit his past cases and possibly free all those murderers.  So, now, you have to support his cover up unless you want more little kids tortured and murdered.

Even then, they won't let Pacino shoot a dog or molest a teenage girl.  It was laughable when a guilt-ridden Pacino stumbles blindly through an alley and conveniently finds a dead dog to shoot.  Think about this for a moment.  The filmmakers were willing to preserve sympathy for Pacino's character with a pre-dead dog.  Again, the dead dog was introduced to blunt the drama.

The Hollywood version even had to sanitize a minor character, a hotel desk clerk.  In the original, Engström's partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is an old lecher who can't help flirting with the pretty young lady checking him into his room.  The clerk doesn't like his flirting and she lets him know it.  "Don't flirt with me," she coldly demands.  Ouch!  The next day, the clerk tells Engström she heard of his partner's death and she was sorry she treated him so harshly.  In the remake, the partner doesn't flirt with the clerk and all that the clerk tells the man is "I hope you have a good stay."  When the man dies the next day, she remarks to Pacino that she can't believe he was standing in front of her the night before.  "I hope I was nice to him," she says.  Lame. 

I learned a lot about storytelling from these two films and I cannot think about the films without remembering those two dead dogs, who gave their lives for safe drama. 


Additional Note

Wonder Boys was mainly hampered in its efforts to generate dramatic tension because its lead character was healthy, happy and financially secure.  The need for money can motivate bold and desperate action in a film.  If a character in a film has more than enough money to provide for his needs, it is harder to justify him doing anything that will create drama.  Money is contentment.  Money is an antidote to drama.  This can make rich people boring protagonists.  The wealthy noblemen in Shakespeare's plays had lives that were much more complex than the lives of wealthy people today.  Petty power struggles and wanton adultery bore me. 

Let's take, for example, This Is 40 (2012).  The film shows a couple enjoying an opulent lifestyle and then expects us to take it seriously when the couple later complains about financial problems.  In between scenes in which they complain about financial problems, they sneak off to an upscale resort for the weekend.  This undercuts the film's efforts to create dramatic tension. 

I am also reminded of the 1963 comedy The Thrill of It All, which involves the marital problems that result when a housewife (Doris Day) sets aside her domestic duties to star in television commercials for The Happy Soap Company.  It is emphasized in the story that Day is lured into the job by a hefty paycheck.  However, Day's husband (James Garner) is a successful obstetrician and he is able to more adequately provide for his family.  The subject of the paycheck comes up in many conversations, but no plot point is introduced to make the money significant to the story.  It's not going to pay for surgery that will enable a crippled child to walk, or pay for a long overdue honeymoon, or allow the couple to buy their dream house.  It is as if the filmmakers believe that money is money and no one needs a reason to want it.  But storytelling requires specific motivations, especially when Day's job as a pitchman goes on to create so much turmoil in her life.