January 30, 2010

Is this actually a [poster]? #8

My boyfriend and I have had Netflix streaming for a few months now, and it's pretty much the best thing ever. Today I was browsing their new arrivals, and the fun thing about browsing their new arrivals is that usually it's a page of stuff you've heard of and then page after page of movies that have no right to exist. I discovered that there's a children's film called "Dog Gone" whose plot isn't that outrageous in the grand scheme of kid movies, but the poster was too insane not to share. You're welcome.

January 25, 2010

Boston in cinema - Part II

I have already written about the dismal state of my home city/state on screen, focusing mostly on the city itself and trying to dispel the myth that it is all a thug-ridden shithole. Now, due to a series of pop-culture and personal events, I feel the need to be vocal again - this time about the Bay State's population.

I had a job interview recently in my current home of Portland, Oregon. The interview went well, and at the end the woman noted my place of origin from my resume and then said, "Wow, you totally got rid of your Boston accent."

She skipped right over "did you ever have an accent?" to go straight to "the only explanation is that you had one and then it went away." I blame movies.

I explained to her what I call the "Boston Accent Ring." You make a dot - that's Boston. No one is from Boston proper, in the same way that virtually no one is from Midtown Manhattan. It's all professionals and students. Now, there's a ring of smaller towns around the metro Boston area where people DO have the accent (also, a few scattered towns nearby and parts of New Hampshire). And then beyond the ring, nothing. Massachusetts has about 6 million people in 351 towns/cities. Scanning a list of towns, I could only come up with about 17 that definitely (or probably) produced the accent, some very small. And that has to assume that parents of child have to have the accent as well, so the family would have to be in that area for at least two generations. Plus the greater Boston area, due primarily to its acclaimed colleges, draws mostly people from other parts of the country and/or world.

With that math in mind, how does it make sense that EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN EVERY MOVIE SET IN BOSTON has this accent? Did they all grow up in these 17 towns? Let's use New York to give some perspective: that's like saying that every person in New York State is from Queens, or giving every cinematic New Yorker a Polish accent because New York has a bunch of Polish people. Actors are making themselves look stupid and producers are spending money on all these dialect coaches for NO REASON. (I'm only referring to modern-era movies - the accent started cropping up in the 70s and by the end of the 90s no Boston film was without it).

Why does this matter? It's just a silly accent, right? Well, yes and no. The Boston accent, unlike, say, a British one, has really bad connotations. It implies that you're a near-illiterate douchebag whose head is so clouded with love for the Red Sox that you literally cannot form another thought. You're rowdy, impulsive, dumb, trashy. And, if you're in the movies, you're probably also a criminal. The accent carries with it a whole persona. (Slate writer Jessica Grose suggests "Massholes" as a follow-up to "Jersey Shore." Hey, it makes sense.) When the woman at the interview expressed her amazement that I got rid of my accent, she said in a weird way that seemed to contain echoes of "Barack Obama is really eloquent for a black person."

In a way, the onscreen Boston/Massachusetts goon evolution somewhat parallels (parallels - it's not nearly as bad, I'm aware of that) what happened to African-Americans in movies. In both cases, a stereotype/archetype was born that the audience couldn't get enough of, and became so pervasive that people thought it was actually true of everyone in that group. Now, these Massholes do exist, but again their numbers are so small that it's ludicrous to have them represent a whole population.

Where's my evidence that people can't enough of the Boston goon? The first episode of this season of American Idol, that's where. It was the Boston audition round, which I feel especially qualified to discuss since I was there. Yup, I was a PA at the first round of auditions. So anyway, they shuffle the locations for the auditons each year. For example, they wouldn't go to Boston and New York in the same year because they know that people from one will go to the other and vice versa. So essentially, we had the entirety of the East Coast hopefuls in attendance up to where the next audition spot, Atlanta, started taking over. I watched the episode only because I worked on it, and I noticed that aside from the really good people, they showed a disproportionate number of Boston goons. They must have really hunted for them, because I stood behind one of the tents (they don't show this on TV, but in the first round you sing for a couple of producers in one of 13 tents) for hours and hours and don't think I saw a single one. Why? Why can't you have just generic weirdos? My only explanation is that they're trying to give America what America thinks Boston is. And there's no sign of slowing down, with Edge of Darkness and Shutter Island on the horizon and Julianne Moore's absurd representation on "30 Rock" (where I guess admittedly, they do mock everyone). Are producers afraid of having their films called inauthentic because their audience doesn't know the truth?

As I mentioned in my other post, I can't think of another city has this representation problem. Aside from Chicago in the 30s, when the movies would have you believe it was comprised entirely of sneering gangsters, every on-screen city has hoodlums, intellectuals, professionals, losers, winners, uglies, hotties, everything. Even the South, which a lot of people thoroughly and honestly believe has nothing but toothless incestuous people in trailer parks, has the rich and restless suburbanites of sex, lies, and videotape, the pretty young lovers of The Notebook, and the pimps and thugs of Hustle and Flow, among others.

It's a stupid stereotype that somehow completely erases the fact that Massachusetts is somewhere between first and third most educated state in the nation (whether you count it by bachelor's degrees, college graduates, advanced degrees - it's always in there), and has historically been really progressive. We wouldn't have all the history, accomplishments and notable figures to our name if we were all just a bunch of meatheads.

Lest you think I'm being too sensitive, I can totally laugh at my own people - I always thought the SNL sketches with Rachel Dratch and Jimmy Fallon as screaming Massholes were hilarious. It's just an oversaturation issue that's actually causing America to think badly of a state that doesn't deserve it. I don't want to live my life in other states perpetually explaining that I didn't escape from Planet of the Sox-Obsessed Apes. We gave America basketball, the birth control pill, the telephone, the liquid-fueled rocket, the Kennedys. We're on the cutting edge of medical and scientific research. We had the nation's first public library, high school, compulsory school attendance law, planned industrial city, public park, subway, college, and right for gays to marry. We're kind of a big deal. Let's hope these caricatures don't erase that.

P.S. - In researching for this article, I heard about Next Stop Wonderland again, which appears to be the only modern-era Boston film where people are normal? It's definitely on my to-see list now.

January 6, 2010

Middle-aged people who can't behave at the movies

I will begin with a story. When I was a lot younger, I used to go with my mom and sister to a community pool during the summer. In the women's locker room, I started to notice that all of the women that were in their 50s or above would wander around stark naked. You would get an eyeful of everything from a few wrinkles to varicose veins and boobs dragging on the floor. And there was no discretion, no modesty - these women almost seemed like they were wandering around the locker rooms aimlessly in the nude. It was rather inconsiderate to those who, um, didn't want to see all that. One day, I asked my mom, "Why do they do that?" Her response? "They just don't care anymore."

What does this have to do with moviegoing? Well, believe it or not, I've noticed a parallel between locker room nudity and movie theater politeness. As a child, you have no self-awareness. You'll scream indiscriminately in a movie theater because you can't comprehend that it's an environment where you shouldn't. Similarly, you'll run around naked in a locker room (or often, any number of places) because you can't even conceive of that being a problem. Then, as you get older, you get self-aware and insecure. You would never be seen naked anywhere. This continues through your teens, twenties, thirties. You start to learn appropriate behaviors for different environments. But then, as middle age hits, you've served your time. You've been polite, you've held back. So you let loose. And this is my explanation for why at about half the movies I go to, there are middle-aged people behaving worse than children. I didn't want to get ageist here, folks, but you made me do it.

I should first quantify this statement: I probably don't see as many blockbusters as the average person. I was nowhere to be found for Transformers 2 or 2012, but I did see and enjoy Sherlock Holmes. Those types of films are the ones where the audience pest you're most likely to find is the teenage hooligan. Since blockbusters comprise the backbone of the American moviegoing experience, the teenage hooligan has been generalized as the number one theater pest. But triple their age, and you'll find yourself with the primary menace to foreign, independent, and classic films.

A couple of summers ago, my local rep house did a series of rare film noir double features. My boyfriend and I (read: early 20-somethings) hurried off to the theater with geeky film-nerd excitement. We were by far the youngest people in attendance (we even bumped into one of my professors). Everyone else was 40+.

It was the worst-behaved audience I have ever seen in my life. And I'm counting kid's films and blockbusters.

Everyone, EVERYONE talked at full volume the whole time. They made snarky comments. They laughed nonstop (and these were not comedies). Since this was a small, university-owned venue, there were no ushers. It was unbearable. It makes you wonder why they even bothered to come.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I saw A Single Man. It's the artsy film debut of a fashion designer - like, you're not gonna wander into it by accident, and on the off-chance you do, it's probably because you meant to see A Serious Man. It stars Colin Firth, and there's a scene where his character is on the toilet. It's not supposed to be funny - it's just the vantage point of the character's house where he can see his neighbor's yard. You can't see any genitalia or anything. There's no bodily function noises. And yet, the second they saw someone on a toilet, the whole highbrow audience started laughing. I've seen the same thing happen at other indie/foreign films when someone is naked, there's a sex scene, etc. You know, things that would make a 12-year-old giggle.

My theory for this is that this middle-to-upper-class middle-aged folks see good reviews of these films in The New York Times and want to seem edumacated and sophistimacated by seeing them, yet they apparently lack the maturity to do so. I don't know exactly, but this isn't blind prejudice because I'm just reporting what's actually happening.

And teenagers and young people aren't the only ones fiddling with their phones, either. I saw The Yes Men Fix the World with my 54-year-old dad at the Film Forum in New York, and he texted THE ENTIRE TIME. I kept gesturing to him to stop, and he wouldn't. I thought it was maybe something urgent or business-related, but no, he was just trying to arrange to get tickets to a baseball game. Clearly, stepping outside for a single brief call would have been out of the question.

So I implore you, baby boomers: BEHAVE. Indie and foreign films often contain sexual situations and other things you have to be 17 to see, or artistically challenging moments. If these situations are literally outside of what your maturity level allows, please don't attend. There are people there trying to experience serious art appropriately. Put your god damn phones away. Try to set an example for the young whippersnappers.

P.S. - This extends to other art forms too. I'm a big dance buff and last year I saw an amazing show by Jirí Kylián called "Black and White." It featured dancers moving their bodies in unexpected but really dynamic and interesting ways, and even periodically using their voices. For some reason people moving their bodies in unexpected ways makes most people really uncomfortable, so my evening was almost ruined by rampant laughter and coughing. (Whenever there is silence in a live theater piece, the audience goes wild coughing.) And again, these are blue-blood fine arts patrons.

Have you found this to be the same problem as me? (All ages welcome to comment, of course!)

January 1, 2010

Judging adaptations on their own merit

My boyfriend always says you gotta be able to separate the stuff from the stuff. This cryptic phase has a plethora of applications, but I'm finding it increasingly relevant in discussing how critics and audiences receive certain cinematic adaptations. I recently saw Nine and, despite going into it with low expectations from the critical beating it had received, thought it was pretty great. It's no instant classic, of course, but it's definitely nipping at the heels of Chicago, and that puppy won Best Picture! It's sexy, fun, well-acted, well-sung, well-designed, and an all-around fulfilling time at the movies. Quality-wise, it's like Zombieland, another well-executed popcorn movie that critics loved. So I can't help thinking that this critical trashing has something to do with the fact that Nine is not as good as its source material, a little movie you may have heard of called 8 1/2.

Consider this quote from respected critic Claudia Puig: "Nine should have been called 4 1/2 because it doesn't come close to the work of the master who inspired it." That's a completely unfair assessment. Just because a movie isn't as good as one of the greatest films of all time, it's crap? Here's another, from critic Rob Thomas: "You don't have to love Federico Fellini to hate Nine. But it helps." Roger Ebert: "Nine is just plain adrift in its own lack of necessity." Roger, nobody asked you to evaluate the necessity of this film, just the film itself.

All this has got to stop, because it's keeping people from enjoying a good film that never even tries to be as iconic or great as 8 1/2 (and that's not a bad thing!). Classic films have been musical-ified at least as far back as the 50s, maybe further. I think the only unnecessary kind of remake is one that takes a really great and beloved film and makes it again without changing much. Making it a musical, updating it with new technology, changing the circumstances, or reinventing a film that wasn't that good to begin with all create something that's different enough to give a fair shot.

Films adapted from sacred cows of literature have the same problem. The Road, while received much more favorably, drew a lot of grumbles that the "unfilmable" book was ever adapted. Youth in Revolt (which admittedly hasn't come out yet) has drawn preemptive grumbles lamenting that the 500 pages of brilliance captured in the novel can't all be conveyed on screen. That's true - but you have to accept that film and literature are different mediums that will most likely tell a story differently. Film will rarely be able to achieve, for example, the character depth of a source novel, but it also adds visual and auditory elements.

As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as an "unfilmable" anything - look how many successful films came from material stuck with that label. Things might be adapted poorly, but that's not the source material's fault and should never prompt declarations that the film's real problem is just its existence.

So if you ever find yourself using "it's not as good as the original" as a critique, stop yourself and think. What's really the problem? Is it the directing? The screenplay? The acting? If you can't answer that question, then you're not really giving the film a fair chance. After all, think how silly that critique sounds in certain contexts - like, nobody complains that The Ten Commandments isn't as good as the Bible (arguably the most beloved source material of all time!)

What do you think? Are you as sick of this trend as I am?