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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 collective psyche.

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 effect.

   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 viewer.

   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, do you?

   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 theater.

   What to do about people who insist on talking during the movie could be the subject of another article.

Lisa Andreini



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