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The Last Word
NOTES FROM MY CRAMMED NOGGIN
How to manage an addiction to film.
Whether or not we care
to admit it we're hooked on movies. We're slaves to the taste-makers.
Considering how pervasive the propaganda has become and our inability
to stop ourselves from seeing just one more movie in spite of the
increasing number of recent disappointments, perhaps movies should
be added to the Controlled Substances list.
Whatever your reasons for going to the movies
happen to be, the movie better be entertaining enough to overcome
your expectations or you won't feel very satisfied when it's over.
The resulting cynicism seems to be having a nasty effect on our
Demystifying the process
A few years ago, the more information available
about a film, the more convinced the astute moviegoer could be that
the studio had a turkey on its hands. But now, since the budget
for even a "smaller" movie is around $45 million it's become increasingly
difficult to figure out what the publicity mavens are trying to
conceal. Aside from the already ubiquitous magazine stories and
chat show appearances, most studios also trot out a behind the scenes
documentary either on the networks or on cable. By showing us what's
just out of frame, such as thirty five people standing around watching
a couple of hotties faking sex or corpses risen from the dead earnestly
discussing the next shot with the director, we're not just spectators.
Charismatic actors telling charming anecdotes are meant to make
us feel like we're on the inside but often they have the opposite
Attracting attention to matters outside the story,
such as how the special effects were generated or squabbles on the
set, pull the viewer out of the moment, which is fine for the geeks
and aficionados, but for the rest of the population storytelling
should be seamless and believable. Unless you've actually worked
on a feature film, it's impossible to accurately portray the vast
amount of talent and personnel it takes to put so many far flung
moments together to tell a coherent story. Why diminish it with
a bunch of spurious rumors?
If you're Steven Spielberg there's an even more
insidious way to get what you want. Most likely, Spielberg's main
ambition is simply to tell stories. But if the world were a Twilight
Zone episode, he'd be that little boy who would do unspeakable things
to anyone who wouldn't let him have his way.
There's an anecdote about Tom Hanks insisting
on the deletion of a self-aggrandizing speech from SAVING PRIVATE
RYAN, which subtly ends up ennobling not only Hanks, but the Hanks
character in the movie. So even before you see the picture the impression
of the ordinary guy as war hero has already made its mark. But while
watching the movie, one loses count of the self-aggrandizing speeches.
And just when you think they couldn't possibly cram in another one...
Was this an accident? My cynicism suggests that the mavens conducted
a study on how these stories translate into ticket sales.
Sometimes it bites them on the ass.
Beware of reviewers. If you usually agree with
Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert, go ahead and follow their recommendations
at your own risk. They are mainly trying to handicap what they think
you'll like rather than describing their personal take in any given
review. If you want the real skinny, you have to read the trades
or do yourself a favor and read Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER.
He's the straightest shooter in the bunch and he's funny. Here's
a pointed sample from a 1997 review of BATMAN AND ROBIN: "I thought
I smelled something truly corrupt in this film: its expectation
of what we expect from movies is so low and snarling that you come
out feeling not just swindled but mildly humiliated."
Here is one way we do it to ourselves: The cut of the director
We have set up various relationships with directors
we admire and go see their latest efforts with a set of expectations
in mind. Even if we can't articulate those expectations, we know
what we felt before. Kind of like, "I don't know if it's art, but
I know what I like." Even if we don't know exactly why we like the
Coen Brothers, we have to see their latest film because they are
writing the funniest scripts in movies today. We went to see EYES
WIDE SHUT, in spite of a misleading ad campaign, because of the
legendary status of Stanley Kubrick. Some directors, like Paul Thomas
Anderson, have the critics ascribing genius to the point where we
just have to see for ourselves. If we come out scratching our heads,
we only have ourselves to blame.
Why We Get Sucked in Anyway
We give actors a lot more leeway since our emotional
responses to them is much broader and, most of the time, they aren't
responsible for the content of the picture. Whether the image-making
is canned or fresh it sets up a relationship with the performer
so we feel like we know them. You know so much more about them than
they can imagine that the relationship is creepily unequal. What
an actor projects on-screen may have nothing to do with his personality
off-screen. We may feel we "know" a naturalistic actor
like Jack Nicholson, but the truth is that he's convincing enough
to make us believe that.
Russell Crowe, crowned as Entertainment Weekly's
"Entertainer of the Year 2000," who for all we know may lead the
existence of a monk when he's not working, put it best. When asked
recently which parts of himself he uses in a role, he replied, "[It's]
not about using part of you, it's about using all of you. Committing
to it completely. And that's the way you try and achieve an emotional
connection to the audience. If there's not an emotional connection,
there's no point in sitting around in a cinema, is there?"
What Can You Do
Here are a few suggestions on how to stem the
tide of ignominy and how to keep your hard-earned dollars from flowing
into the wrong hands:
Stop shopping at supermarkets where one has to
run the gauntlet of glossy magazines and tabloids with intriguing
headlines during the eternity spent in the checkout line. Avert
your eyes at the less distracting counter of your local Mom and
Pop market. It may seem like an expensive alternative to the supermarket,
but think of what you'll save in the long run by resisting the seduction
techniques thereby making more judicious choices about where to
spend your $9.00(!?!).
If you love movies you probably watch the movie
channels and they mostly advertise more movies. When a commercial
pops up head for the bathroom or, waistline permitting, the refrigerator.
Beware of parallel television programming, especially documentaries
about real life events depicted in a new release, and channels exclusively
devoted to celebrities and media, like E! and Access Hollywood.
Get your news from alternative sources since the local news is no
longer exempt from shilling for the studios. Or, better still, just
turn off your television altogether and reacquaint yourself with
the classics. In the long run, it'll make you a more discerning
No one has figured out how to make the Internet
pay off in a big way yet, but virtually every web site is supported
by advertising. As far as incorporating it into the publicity machine,
the future is already here and your high-speed phone line just gets
it to you faster. There are a staggering number of web sites devoted
exclusively to entertainment from www.driveways.com (where you can
view Martha Stewart's snow-covered driveway among others) to www.
billybobthornton.net not to mention a number of e-mail services
and "ain't it cool" sites with news and reviews but they are so
similar they should cancel each other out. Mysteriously, they don't.
Stay off the Internet and use your computer for your own projects.
You don't really need to know if Jennifer and Brad are still together,
Once you're actually in a theater you're assaulted
with a mixture of the good and the bad. The lights go down and you
thought you were ready to see the movie you laid down your cash
to see. But first, your nerves are shattered by an escalating electronic
musical note alerting you to the fact that the sound system in the
theater is capable of ridding you of all your body hair if the management
chooses to turn it up loud enough. The good part is that the sound
quality of the film you're about to see will be exquisite and experienced
the way it was meant to be.
Then you're subjected to a parade of previews
for a host of summer releases, most of which you will have absolutely
no interest in seeing and make you wonder what was going through
someone's mind when the idea got the green light. A six month head
start on the Pearl Harbor juggernaut should have the red flags going
up immediately. Too bad it's so difficult to find a seat in dark,
otherwise you could wait until the previews were over to enter the
What to do about people who insist on talking
during the movie could be the subject of another article.