Movies postsSunday May 04, 2008
It's Sunday and I'm a little disappointed in Manohla Dargis
The questions Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott ask on page 3 of the New York Times Summer Movies section — respectively, “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the men in movies just overgrown boys?” — are answered on page 6 of the New York Times Summer Movies section. Michel Cieply writes, not very interestingly, about Hancock, a movie about a bum of a superhero, a guy with superpowers who drinks too much and crashes on park benches and goes to prison. The movie stars Will Smith and opens July 4th weekend and the studio is nervous because the subject matter is considered edgy. They feel like they’re breaking the box. That’s what writer-producer Akiva Goldsmith says in the article’s last line. “Everybody knows that you want to break the box. It’s just that the act of breaking the box is really frightening.”
So if a summer movie starring Will Smith as a superhero is considered “breaking the box,” what chances do movies about real women and men have?
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Ms. Dargis. She’s sharp but this time she conflates two issues: “Where are the women?” and “Why are the few women here so unrepresentative?” The first issue is true and undisputed: the second isn’t limited by gender, as A.O. Scott’s article shows. Hell, the photo accompanying her article shows it, too. It’s the Incredible Hulk in low growl. Ms. Dargis complains that the new Anna Faris movie, The House Bunny, about a Playboy Bunny kicked out of the Playboy Mansion because, at 27, she’s too old, will be another Legally Blonde: “...one of those aspirational comedies in which women empower themselves by havng their hair and nails done.” I looked at that line, looked at the Hulk again, and wondered, “And how are boys empowering themselves? What is their fantasy?"
The issue of representation onscreen is a sticky one. Most of what we see onscreen is some combination of identification and wish-fulfillment. Action movies tend to be mostly wish-fulfillment, comedies mostly identification. Or are comedies anti-wish-fulfillment? You feel superior to the main characters: the 40-year-old virgin; the chubby slacker living with his loser stoner-friends; the chubby schlub who can’t stop crying. You see some possible version of yourself and think, “There but for the grace of God...” But there’s still wish-fulfillment, because these guys get girls they couldn’t possibly get: Katherine Heigl and Catherine Keener and Mila Kunis.
Men aren’t hard to figure out. We thrill at super versions of ourselves and laugh at lame versions of ourselves and in either version we get the girl.
As for women? Who is their identification and what is their wish-fulfillment?
Answer these questions and you’ll render Ms. Dargis’ first question moot.
5Top Cinematic Stoners
Latest MSNBC piece. Not bad for a guy who never really smoked pot.
"'Never really,' Mr. Lundegaard? Are you telling us that you did smoke pot?"
"Well. Implying it anyway."
"So you inhaled." (Laughter from the gallery)
"You know, Pres. Clinton got a lot of flack for that line, but I understood it. The first couple of times I smoked pot I got nothing out of it because, not being a cigarette smoker, I didn't know how to inhale properly, which is what I assumed he was saying. He smoked, but he didn't get the effects. Also, Jimmy Carter was never attacked by a killer rabbit, but that's another story."
For more on pot, check out Dan Baum's book, Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
The most popular movies of all time are chick flicks
The highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, is Titanic, a chick flick. The highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is Gone With the Wind, a chick flick. The third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is The Sound of Music, a chick flick.
Moreover, all three films have the same basic storyline: A woman choosing between two suitors against a backdrop of historic tragedy.
So Rose has to choose between Jack and Cal (no choice at all, really) as she sails on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
So Scarlett has to choose between Rhett and Ashley (a little more difficult, but not much) as she struggles to survive and thrive during the U.S. Civil War.
And so Maria has to choose between Captain von Trapp and God (perhaps the most difficult choice of all) during the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
If Hollywood is looking for a template on how to make a blockbuster, this is it: A woman choosing between two men (that’s how you get women in the seats) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (that’s how you get the men in the seats).
Given how much money Titanic made — $1.8 billion worldwide, more than $700 million ahead of the second-highest-grossing film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and almost a billion dollars ahead of the highest-grossing film from last year, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End — I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood hasn’t attempted to make more of these types of films. Then I found out they had. A friend, a screenwriter in Hollywood, told me that in the late ‘90s he worked on a water-themed movie because water-themed movies were big then. He said that was the lesson the studios picked up from Titanic’s success: People like water.
Some part of me doesn’t quite believe this. Some part of me thinks, “Surely the people in charge are smarter than that.” Then I remember that great line about the Nixon administration, and people in power in general, from All the President’s Men: “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
Some may argue that the above films aren’t really chick flicks. That chick flicks are smaller-scaled, modern and light. That there is no historic tragedy in chick flicks.
Here’s the point. “Chick flicks” implies that movies for and about women are their own genre, or sub-genre, and don’t do well at the box office. That implication is 180 degrees from the truth. Boys may flock to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, but they don’t flock the way that girls flocked to Titanic. Not even close
In fact, in order to create a blockbuster, all you’ve got to do is find the right actress, the right actors, the right historic tragedy, and then cross your fingers that you’ve created Titanic rather than Pearl Harbor. Which, I should add, still grossed $449 million at the worldwide box office.
The formula works even when the movie doesn’t.
"In the Shadow of the Moon"
Here's a couple of lasts.
1) Last night I watched the David Sington doc In the Shadow of the Moon and this morning looked it up on IMDb.com. The site listed two under that name: the 2007 doc about the Apollo missions (mine), and something being released in 2009. For a moment I was excited. "Hey, are they making a feature film out of this?" and clicked on the link: "Small Northern California town deals with a pack of modern werewolves." Nope.
2) Last fall Shadow was playing a block from where I work, at the Uptown theater in lower Queen Anne, and I wish I'd seen it then. Wish I'd seen it on the big screen. Or a big screen. The doc also celebrates a time when the world came together, proudly, because of an American accomplishment, so feels like it should be part of the communal experience of theater-going rather than the singular experience of TV-watching. But I blew it. Many didn't. It did alright for a doc — $1.5 million globally — but you feel like it should've done better. It's easy to watch, makes you proud, fills you up. Apparently we can't sell this anymore. Even to me.
3) Last week P and I went to a birthday party in Fremont where I met Rick Shenkman, author of several books and editor at the History News Network, and he and I and some others were talking about his latest book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, which comes out in May, and we got on the topic of the specialization, or "niche-ization" (someone come up with a better term, fast), of the national dialogue, and our current lack of a national meeting place, which is a well-worn topic for me. Someone asked, "What was a national meeting place?" and before I could answer, Rick said, "Walter Cronkite." Exactly. You could also say the Apollo lift-offs were national meeting places, too.
Shadow is made up mostly of interviews with the men who flew to the moon (sans Neil Armstrong, strong on Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin), with the emphasis, obviously, on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently if 11 didn't work, NASA had two back-up missions ready, both in 1969, to ensure that President Kennedy's promise of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely before the end of the decade would be kept. Nice to have national goals. At one point Jim Lovell, commander of both Apollo 8 and 13 (Tom Hanks played him in the movie), talked about how Apollo 8 was switched from an earth orbital launch to a flight to the moon, which he thought a bold move. "But it was a time when we made bold moves," he says. He should've added "smart" to that. We still make bold moves. We still have national goals. They just haven't been smart for a while.