September 30, 2007

My Impact on Hollywood

Today, at long last, I was noticed by industry professionals from Hollywood.

It did not, however, transpire in the manner I had always imagined.

There are two major films shooting in my native Boston right now: The Women ( and Bachelor No. 2 ( They're both all over the city, so I figured it would only be a matter of time before I stumbled onto one of the sets. Yesterday was the day. My boyfriend called and said that Bachelor No. 2 was filming near his apartment, if I wanted to come down and be a creepy celebrity stalker with him. Um, of course I did. So we follow the big trucks and sure enough, we come to a little set in an alley. There's a moderate crowd, and at first I don't see anyone famous. Boo. Then we see my boyfriend's roommate, who has apparently been staking out at this location for a while, and he has a prime viewing location. He points out Dane Cook to us, who I did not initially recognize because of his now-black hair. I found it weird that Mr. Cook, notorious fan-lover and MySpace celebrity, deliberately had his back to the crowd the whole time and looked pretty grumpy (oh and by the way, he's a native Bostonian). Then we see Jason Biggs on set too. I try to act cool, but I'm not. I am a starstruck tabloid whore, no denying it. I start taking pictures like everyone else. Of course they're sorta far away, and they're hard to see in the pictures even on maximum zoom, but it doesn't matter - I HAVE REAL-LIFE PIX OF CELEBRITIES OMG. So they're doing multiple takes of this one scene, and after a few times I figure out Dane's blocking so that I'm ready to take his picture when he gets as close to me as possible. I am always very vigilant about turning off my flash, primarily because it doesn't look as good but also in this case because it will mess things up. The crew seems kind of annoyed by the crowd and keeps telling us to be quiet and no flash photography, which I am complying with. I've turned my camera on and off a few times at this point, but I turned it back on when I was about to snap the money shot of Dane. I took the picture.

My flash went off.

It was at the very end of the shot, so they finished it up. But then everyone just stopped and looked really pissed. The crew started asking "Whose flash was that?" They were going up to random onlookers and asking if they were the culprit. I was petrified. I stood nailed to the spot. Somehow they didn't suspect me, even though I was pretty much front and center. I whispered to my boyfriend that we should go. We backed away slowly, and then sort of galloped away. And that's when I realized it:

I ruined a take of a major Hollywood movie.

This will be something I can hopefully confess with a laugh when I am a famous director years down the line, but for now, it's my dirty little secret. I may end up seeing the finished movie for this sole reason, knowing deep down that for like 73 seconds on September 29, 2007, Jason Biggs and Dane Cook were pissed at me.

September 8, 2007

What movies get wrong about sex - and why it matters

Movies get a lot of things wrong about sex. Most notable is that the majority of people that a person has sex with in his or her lifetime are not going to look anything like people in the movies! But things like that I begrudgingly accept, because movie stars have always been unnaturally good-looking. However, there is something I've noticed lately that I think is genuinely troubling and should be addressed - and changed.

In cinematic sex, there is no foreplay.

My boyfriend and I were recently having a discussion (which partially served as the inspiration for this post) in which we tried to think of non-pornographic American movies that featured "second base," or a man touching a female's breasts in a consentual sexual situation. I could think of only one, he could think of one where it may have happened (The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Squid and the Whale, respectively). That, my friends, is really fucked up. Boob contact has always been a very obvious, mainstream component of heterosexual intimacy. I remember when I saw the aforementioned The Secret Lives of Dentists - I was perhaps 16 years old. The film focuses on a married pair of dentists experiencing marital troubles. In one scene, the two of them start to get it on in their living room. They start, as is typical, by kissing, but then he unbuttons her shirt and starts to feel her up. I remember being stunned by this - not because it is strange or perverse in any way, but because I absolutely could not remember another movie in which it had happened. We're not talking about the dirty Sanchez or gay incestuous orgies here - we're talking about sexual touch of one of the more notoriously sexualized parts of the female anatomy. What's the deal?

I know that American media can be very prude - you need only see five minutes of a European film to figure that out. And if it was the 1940s and the only intimacy you ever showed was kissing, that would be fine. But for god's sake - American movies feature SEX! The original sin, the act that some consider to be so sacred or vile that it can only occur between spouses, the act that gay people are ostracized for performing - this act can happen anywhere from crappy action movies to surreal arthouse cinema.

I'm not just concerned with the lack of boob-grabbing, but the lack of foreplay in general. Europe, again, is better with this issue - the Pedro Almodovar film Matador, for example, features what has to be at least a two-minute shot of a man's roaming tongue. But I'm not even asking that it be shown - just acknowledged. Because like it or not, people learn about sex from the movies. And in the same way that movies get criticized for teaching society bad lessons about violence, I think they should be criticized for teaching society bad lessons about sex - but not in the way that some conservative people think.

Here is the average sex scene in an American movie: the foreplay consists solely of two people wanting to get with each other for a while. When they do, they make out for a bit, then rip off each other's clothes and shag real hard. And the woman always orgasms within, like, seconds. If you didn't grow up with liberal sex therapist parents, this might be your primary source of sex information.

But it's so, so wrong.

Here's something that even some married men don't know, let alone confused teenagers watching movies: the average woman usually requires at least 20 minutes of foreplay if she is to orgasm. Even if it's sex with Brad Pitt, it is a biological fact that it will take more than some passionate movie star kisses for a women to become naturally lubricated enough for penetration. According to sex therapist Dr. Ava Cadell, for every 30 minutes of sex, only a quarter to a third of it should be spent on actual intercourse. Ian Kerner, Ph.D. and author of "She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman" recommends at least 10 straight minutes of oral sex on a gal before you even think about penetration.

Hm...I can't remember the last time I saw anything remotely like that on a movie screen. Why is this detrimental? Because seeing inaccurate sex like that can make men, women, and couples frustrated and ashamed. Women may think, if Actress X can be over the moon with pleasure after a few thrusts from Actor Y...then why can't I? Men may form the impression that women don't really need foreplay to achieve pleasure from sex. Unlike movie-star looks, where there is well-documented knowledge of the disconnect between fantasy and reality, silver screen sex has yet to be widely exposed as fiction. People know that things like impossibly perfect mood lighting and music won't occur in real life, but there's no public outcry about how misleading the actual sex is.

Also, women in movies orgasm at the drop of a hat (or pants) - or at least reach a state of howling ecstasy within seconds. This, too, is a gross exaggeration. According to Women's Health magazine, only 25% of women surveyed achieved orgasm every time they had sex, compared to 90% of men asked the same question. So when the average girl without much sexual experience of her own sees these multiorgasmic super-creatures on screen, she may feel inadequate. This, too, is something where the fallacy has not been widely addressed. Mothers may tell their daughters "don't compare yourself to celebrities, honey, because they're're beautiful how you are," but I doubt that most will tell their daughters "don't worry, honey, achieving orgasm is a complicated process that requires an attentive partner and lots of foreplay."
So what is to be done? I am not asking for literal 20-minute sequences of foreplay. Rather, it would be a big relief to see at least some acknowledgement of the facts stated above. Perhaps show the beginning of a man's migration south of the border, leaving the audience to assume what happens next. Have a woman start out with soft whimpers, show a leap in time on a clock, and then show her wailing. Use fades to show the passage of time. Show a variety of positions. Show the women's face with the implication that the man is pleasuring her. Show sex not working. Or if all of this is too revolutionary, just show them afterward and avoid showing the sex at all. Whether they know it or not, filmmakers should feel a sense of responsibility to their viewers. You might argue, then, that it's irresponsible to show crazy violence. It's not. Most of us with have sex in our lifetimes; very few will get caught up in a violent mafia ring.

As a final, somewhat related issue, people having sex in movies rarely use any sort of protection. Oh, perhaps the girl is on the pill, or it's assumed that a condom was applied at some point, but this isn't good enough. Yes, I know it wouldn't be very sexy or cinematic to show someone laboriously putting on a condom, but there's no artistic harm done with a quick shot of a frenzied hand grabbing for one. Again, consciously or not, movies are in a position of power to educate and influence. Take the recent crackdown on smoking in films - not only has it sharply declined over the years, but now Disney has announced that smoking will be a factor that contributes to the rating of a film. The idea is that showing this irresponsible behavior without showing the consequences can glamourize the behavior and falsely educate impressionable audiences. Why shouldn't the same idea be applied to safe sex? I'll tell you why it won't happen - because some think that promoting safe sex to young people means promoting sex, period. But if people in movies are going at it anyway, then why shouldn't you show them being responsible?

September 2, 2007

Five lost classics worth checking out

Okay, I know that my use of the term "lost" will probably draw ire from some. I don't mean that they were literally buried in some vault, but rather that they inexplicably did not draw the attention they deserve. They all feature able directors, solid casts and Oscar nominations in some cases. Some are the "lesser-known" projects of famous directors. And before you get your panties in a bunch, I acknowledge that a few readers will claim to have known about these films since they were in utero. But I consider myself fairly well educated in cinematic history, and some of these I didn't even know existed until I saw them on a movie store shelf. So check them out and give them the attention and respect they desperately need.

1. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
How is Spencer Tracy so cool? Whether he's bitching out creationists in Inherit the Wind or bantering with Katharine Hepburn in one of their many comedies, he's just always the man. But I didn't realize how much he was truly the man until I saw this John Sturges film. He plays a one-armed stranger who comes to the sleepy town of Black Rock on a mysterious mission - and let's just say that the locals there don't like strangers. (According to IMDB, the character's disability wasn't in the original script, but they wanted Tracy so badly that they wrote it in, because they claimed that no actor could resist playing someone with a handicap.) Saying too much more would give it away, but I love movies where protagonists can defeat villains with their compassion and intellect instead of just guns, and Tracy takes all the hatred and ignorance with dignity. Received Oscar nominations for best screenplay, director, and actor for Tracy.

2. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Before Eddie Murphy was making movies where he was basically the entire cast, Alec Guinness did the same thing in this British film where he plays the complete extended family of Louis (Dennis Price). Basically, Louis vows to avenge his deceased mother's disinheritance by killing off all the family members that stand in his way of the money. It's black comedy at its darkest. Price is a suave, horrible and compulsively watchable slimeball with deadpan narration, and Guinness is a riot as eight vastly different characters. Despite its relatively below-the-radar status, it's in the IMDB Top 250 (as rated by users).

3. Night of the Iguana (1964)
I rarely rent a movie that I have not heard anything about previously - it takes a lot to sell me on it straight from the shelf. When I was checking in returns at work and this film dropped into my hands, however, I had to see it. A John Huston adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr? How had I not heard of it?! It certainly delivered, though, and launched my mild Richard Burton obsession. He plays a heavy-drinking, defrocked clergyman who now makes a living guiding tours in Mexico. Over the course of a few fateful days, he gets pursued by the criminally young Charlotte (Sue Lyon, reprising her Lolita shtick), meets up with old flame Maxine (Gardner), and does some soul-searching with stranger Hannah (Kerr). Like any Williams piece, it's talky and heavy, but the actors give amazing life to the material. It won an Oscar for best costume design, and was nominated for best cinematography, art direction and supporting actress for Grayson Hall (who plays the relatively small role of a bitchy group leader). I was seriously shocked that the three leads didn't get more recognition for their roles. You'd even think that the fame of the Huston name would have made it more well-known, but it has somehow slipped from everyone's memory.

4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Billy Wilder seemed hell-bent on being impossible to classify. He could produce comedies, dramas, mysteries, satires, and noirs with equal ease. In his brilliant career, this film somehow got shuffled out of view - perhaps intentionally, because it was too dark and controversial. You thought Sunset Boulevard was cynical? This film makes that look like Mary Poppins. Kirk Douglas gives in a stunning, tour-de-force performance as a reporter who tries to make a media circus - and a career - out of a mine collapse (particularly relevant in the wake of the media-infested mine collapse in Utah). The message is clear, although Wilder doesn't violently smack you over the head with it. It might sound kind of boring, but the fact that the stakes are crazy high for every character from the get-go makes it utterly compelling. In describing it to a friend after viewing, all I could say was "scathing." Douglas deserved an Oscar and a half for this performance, but the film's only nomination was for its screenplay.

5. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Where is the love for this film?! I mean, it did win a shitload of Oscars including Best Picture, but I feel that it was immediately forgotten afterward. (They did just include it in the new AFI list, which made me happy). I think it's because people approach Racial Issues Movies with apprehension. Done well, you can get Do the Right Thing - done poorly, you can get Crash (don't get me started on that). The key, I think, is subtlety. People running around screaming "I VEHEMENTLY DESPISE ALL BLACK PEOPLE" just makes for sloppy storytelling. Another reason that it may be fuzzily remembered is that in the very same year, star Sidney Poitier was in a similarly themed but ultimately very different movie - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Somehow, that emerged as the more famous of the two (it did pack the Hepburn-Tracy punch) - but I personally consider it to be the weaker one. In Dinner, Poitier plays Token Friendly Black Guy That Shakes Up Supposedly Liberal White Household; in Night, he's Awesome Badass Detective That Won't Take Rod Steiger's Shit. A sign of a good Racial Issues Movie is that characters express their racism through actions or even just stares, as opposed to spelling it out with words. Steiger had a good sense of this, and got an Oscar for his efforts. Oh, and there's also a totally sweet soul soundtrack that features Ray Charles doing the title song. This film rises above being a Racial Issues Movie to just being an incredible drama that excels in every aspect.

Bonus: All that Jazz (1979)
I made this a bonus one because I felt kinda funny labeling a 1979 film a "classic." Still, I couldn't leave it out entirely because it's a semi-autobiographical musical about death starring Captain Brody from Jaws SAY WHAT?! This is the musical that could beat up other musicals in a dark alley. Roy Scheider plays a slightly fictionalized version of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, whose destructive lifestyle causes him to have a heart attack and reevaluate his life. Song and dance numbers range from a highly erotic and highly naked avant-garde piece in a dance studio to a morbid but razzle-dazzle finale featuring women dressed as human hearts. I feel cliche saying this, but it really is like nothing I've seen before.

What "lost classics" can you recommend?