Saturday, April 21, 2007

WMC - The Wardrobe Malfunction Channel

If you don't like a movie, you have no one to blame but yourself. And I don't mean that what's good or bad at the movies is just a matter of taste; the fact is, you are to blame for the creation of almost any bad movie you can think of. OK, you and your neighbor who thinks that people tripping and falling down is funny, are responsible. Or maybe just him.

If you want things to improve, you will have to break his Tivo, steal the red envelopes from his mailbox, tell Nielsen that he is not really a family even though he eats like one, and cut his internet service. You might have to keep him from the watercooler at work, and maybe bind and gag him. Of course he may want to do the same thing to you, unless the two of you get together to watch PFD - The People Falling Down Channel, while enjoying the beer-ish drink that sponsors its number one show, Dancing With The Stars Bloopers.

In this cynical essay, I will talk about the creative process, and three things that inspire creative Hollywood film makers: The Neilsen Ratings, Tivo, and the Netflix member database. I will also cover the focus group, which helps creative people in Hollywood decide how to cut film in a way that's creative enough to turn a profit.

OK you say, how are Netflix, Neilsen, and Tivo inspirational? They are actually what defines creativity in the movie business.

I will start with the Nielsen Family. They're creepy and they're spooky, and no one really knows who they are. Nielsen chooses them at random from zip codes they hope reflect the demographic balance of the entire American TV audience. So you and your neighbor for whom Shadenfreude is better than regular German have an equal chance of influencing programming for a big TV network, or worse, a small one. They attach an Orwellian-device called a "Peoplemeter" to your television, and suddenly you are afraid to watch HBO's Cathouse Season 2. Since the Nielsen rating process is self-reporting, i.e. you are very aware that you are being watched, you are likely to change your viewing habits while you are a Nielsen family based on whatever predjudices or insecurities you might have.

How does a TV rating service inspire films? Since US audiences spend more time in front of the TV screen than the movie screen, measuring response to TV programming drives the production of all kinds of entertainment; and the sudden glut of movie actors accepting TV roles that started a few years ago indicates that actors who once thought TV roles were a step down from film are willing to take that risk to reach Mom, Dad, and the kids all at the same time without having to compete with animated ogres or penguins, and for free and on a school night to boot.

According to many media research firms, the number of US households with at least one TV is about 112 million, or roughly 1 TV for every 3 US residents (THEY will soon outnumber us). About 19 million, or 17% of US housholds with TVs, are connected to a DVR; Compared to the 5000, or .0004% of that audience Nielsen calls family and has been the statistically significant basis of the industry-defining rating service for years, Tivo's data is 42,500 times more reliable to a creative Hollywood person than Neilsen data. It is also dynamic rather than static; Tivo can measure the number of times you rewound and re-watched Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction to be sure you really saw what you thought you saw, not just what you hoped you'd seen. Nielsen would only report that you were tuned into Super Bowl XXXVIII instead of Soylent Green, a pretty safe bet for that Sunday anyway; and since sponsors' dollars are already committed at the highest level years in advance to the big game, the Peoplemeter really only tells creatives who among U2, Prince, or the Stones are better lip-synchers.

While a grad student taking a Crisis Management class, I was actually teamed with other students to defend Janet Jackson to a hypothetical but hostile press corp after the supposedly accidental malfunction, which happened two weeks before she was to release a new album. With Tivo data in hand, I might have realized that a good offense is the best defense, and suggested that Janet change her album cover to cover her even less. The "Wardrobe Malfunction" remains Tivo's most replayed moment, after overtaking the Madonna/Britney Spears kiss of 2003's MTV Video Music Awards.

Netflix has it over the other sources of inspiration for creative people in Hollywood because it is self-programming; no one has to guess what an audience will watch from choices on a time and date matrix, the audience picks its poison. I am a Neflix member, and now I wonder how I ever lived without it, and I love its interactive website. Netflix allows me to rate films online, and tells me to what degree my "friends", with whom I exchange opinions about the films we rent, agree with my ratings. This calculus of taste and demographics makes it easy for film makers to be creative; all they need to make the next blockbuster is to check the numbers and follow the recipe. Having worked with databases in my career, I know how easy it is for Netflix to search member-generated content for keywords in notes and reviews, see who has created "friend" connections (e.g. parents and their children or other parents, co-workers, siblings, and friends), find out what they like and what they tank, and where everyone's tastes intersect. The more you add to your already extensive network of electronic friends by participating in this rating and review-writing process, the more influence you have in Hollywood's creative process (and if you are a participative member of Netflix, you must be a good movie consumer with a valuable opinion). If anyone wanted to buy this data for their own sinsiter purposes, Netflix could charge a pretty penny for it, and I bet they have at least one such penny in their piggy bank already.

So if your neighbor's poor taste seems to influence more programming than your own good taste, you can fail to invite him to be a Netflix friend and try to grow your own list of like-minded friends. You can sneak into his apartment while he's out and change his Tivo to record The Discovery Channel and Masterpiece Theater, making sure his Peoplemeter is catching it all.

But he might still be invited to participate in a focus group.

When I think of focus groups, I harken back to the movie studio executives that plucked Barton Fink from Broadway because he knew "the poetry of the street." They robbed him of what he considered his most important work and forced him to churn out Wallace Beery wrestling pictures for the duration of his contract.

Have you seen films in which the ending doesn't seem to flow from the rest of the movie? Or a film adapted from a book that changes what you read, maybe more than a little? You are watching the winds of the focus group blow, forcing creative Hollywood film makers to bend.

My favorite example is John Grisham's The Firm, in which Tom Cruise plays a young lawyer who discovers that the Southern law firm from which he accepts his first job offer is a front for the mob, and decides to do somthing about it. Grisham's book ends with lawyer Mitch McDeere and wife Abee fleeing the country after exposing the firm and preventing it from concealing criminal activities and killing partners, at considerable risk to their lives. At the end of the the movie version, Tom Cruise's Mitch tells a hard-boiled FBI agent Wayne Tarrance, played by Ed Harris, that the way to get the mob is to go after its lawyers for overbilling, one-by-one; Tarrance actually seems to think this is a fine idea, though the success of this plan would depend on the mob's cooperation in turning in its own employees for charging it too much, while spending millions of FBI man hours and replacing agents like Tarrance with accountants. TomDeere and his wife then decide to move to another city, maybe Boston, to find a small but promising law firm at which Mitch can start over (and the mafia will never find him as long as he changes his name to "Bob").

To whom did this ending make any sense? Maybe the accountants in the audience? No, it was a focus group that was influenced by current events and felt anti-lawyer enough that week to press the Happy Button more often in response to the implausible ending than Grisham's. No matter that the original ending helped Grisham sell thousands of copies of The Firm; Paramount and Tom Cruise needed a winner, and couldn't risk taking the wrong side of a hot issue and angering the public, who, to be fair, were actually invited to tell the script writer what to write.

So even though you would never dream of seeing films like RV, Baby Geniuses, or Hostel, you and your friends didn't engage your Tivo, Peoplemeter, or Netflix friends enough to get better films produced; or at least, you didn't rip the remote out of the wrong people's hands in time to prevent tragedies like Battlefield Earth or Monster-in-Law.

So the bad film you just saw is really your responsiblity, and you will just have to work on making a better movie yourself. And though you don't have a budget, and only you and your friends who don't seem to have much infuence in Hollywood will be paying to see it, you can finance your future masterpiece by making one or two popular movies first. This should be easy, since you live right next door Hollywood's most influential creative consultant, your neighbor. Just look over his shoulder and past his fat head, and you too can be creative.

As a matter of fact, I've tapped my own neighbor's insights and have begun to write my own hit movie script based on his impossibly dull viewing habits so that I can move on from being a mere movie blogger to an Art Film Director. It's going to be a Wallace Beery wrestling picture that takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


When Larry the Stooge plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" on his violin, Curly is suddenly fearless and invincible, and can win a fight with anyone. Otherwise, he begrudgingly tolerates abuse from Moe, who squeezes his head in a vice, pokes his eyes, and strikes his head with a hammer.

Now, does that sound like comedy, or the sequel to Slingblade or Deliverance?

Sure, you say, laughing at three guys who do nothing but beat each other up does seem perverse. But those were the good old days of talking pictures, and the Stooges were masters of slapstick humor that everyone thought was funny in the 1930s.

But it looks to me like violence on film and tv has only gotten more Vaudevillian since the then. For example, wrestling fan Santino Marella recently won the WWF's Intercontinental championship after being pulled into the ring from his arena seat by Vince McMahon (this is according to people who are far, far away from where I am standing). Wrestling's new Cinderella achieved this high honor by beating someone named, "Umaga." Characters played by Bruce Willis, Jason Statham and Matt Damon are routinely beaten with metal pipes by guys twice their size in fight scenes that resemble professional wrestling, and they do it without smudging their greasepaint, or doing any unattractive bleeding or bruising. Their villains are poorly developed characters, as human to audiences as Star Trek extras, and they all seem to be alumni of the same school of cock-eyed marksmanship.

In the most ridiculous example of the invincibility of the contemporary action hero, we have Keanu Reeves' Neo, who fights hundreds of smirking Agent Smiths at the same time using powers few other action heroes can match, in the theoretical world of The Matrix (endearingly referred to as, "The Camer-a-trix," by a friend who calls this film her favorite guilty pleasure). Rules of physics exist in The Matrix only to keep Neo's sunglasses from falling off.

So why do we pay good money at the movies to see this stuff?

According to media author Barbara Olsen in her essay, "Violence Formula: Analyzing TV, Video and Movies," violence in entertainment has the following three characteristics:

1. Violence Drives the Storyline: Without the violence, there would be no story. A crime, a murder, a fist-fight are used to launch TV and movie plots. Violence is often the very pretext for the action that follows.

2. Violence Has No Consequences: TV violence doesn't bleed. There are lots of shootouts and fist fights, but amazingly! no one gets seriously hurt.

3. A World of Good and Bad: Media violence takes place in a world of good and bad. In most TV programs and movies, viewers' emotions have to be enlisted very quickly. Starkly contrasting good and bad characters help accomplish this. Deeper, more realistic, more ambiguous characterizations make it hard for viewers to know who to root for. It also requires more screen time that takes away from on screen action. "

In other words, violence sometime is the story, or at least, the reason an audience stays awake. And we know when violence (or violent opposition to violence) is justified because it happens in a world where absolute good and absolute evil are our only choices, and cannot coexist. It doesn't go far enough to turn us off, and it sucks us into the experience with emotion without letting our brains distract us.

But what consequences does this have? We know it's pretend, just acting and stunt doubles and special effects. And if characters are thin, could the violence mean very much?

I have observed a few things about violence in film that have made me think twice about its consequences. And while I am not suggesting that every kid who watches the Power Rangers will become a criminal or that violent films bring about bad karma, I think audiences should consider the effects of casually viewing the behavior modeled in violent films, and whether the entertainment value of these films is even worth the cost of admission.

One can hardly avoid violence in film. Recent Best Picture Oscar winners with violent themes include The Godfather and its sequel (1972 and 74), Rocky (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Unforgiven (1992), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), Gladiator (2000), Chicago (2002), Lord of the Rings (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Crash (2005), and this year's winner, The Departed. The longest span of time between these Best Pictures is eight years, and the average span is 2.25 years.

So a film with a violent theme has been given the American Motion Picture Academy's highest honor about every other year since 1970.

Of course, film violence isn't always meaningless and formulaic. Besides Gladiator and Chicago, which are among Oscar's weakest Best Pictures, the violent Best Pictures are pretty worthy entertainment. Violence in these films is not gratuitous, and helps audiences understand a great story about worthwhile characters or important periods in history. It would be dishonest to water-down the violence in Schindler's List or Platoon. Though I would never recommend a child watch it, I think Taxi Driver is one of the best, and also most violent, films ever produced. And I am passionate about Shakespeare, whose work is full of duels, poisonings, torture, betrayal, and war; there is hardly a character in any Shakespeare play that doesn't have blood on his or her hands.

But lately the mark of a popular leading man in a Summer Blockbuster is his ability to give a tough look, deliver a perfectly timed one-liner, and punch another guy in the face. This hero usually gets the girl and is admired by others. His violent acts are justified because the bad guy did a bad thing, and he is called upon to make things right because he is either the fasted gun in the West, a cop who cares more about fighting crime than kissing up to the Chief, or just looks better punching faces than anyone else in the film. If an actor is very good at these hero-skills, he is seen by more people than most other actors, and gets to do it all again in a more expensive film the following Summer.

When I hear frustrated drivers react to the unsafe driving of others, it rarely sounds like, "I'm going to see to it that the careless drivers are forced to change their ways so that there are fewer auto accidents and fatalities in the future. I am going to ask my representatives in government to focus on this problem, which will make the roads safer and insurance cheaper." Way too infrequently does it sound like, "I had better be a more defensive driver in the future and model safe driving for my kids."

Usually, it's something like, "I'd like to run that Bleeping cabbie into a ditch," with a hand taken off the wheel to show the offender who is number one. Though it is probably unrealistic to expect drivers to lobby for more traffic regulation, the example demonstrates a common inclination we have to handle difficulties with knee-jerk emotional reactions rather than think, and to dehumanize the objects of our frustration, just like Summer Blockbuster heroes do. Even if it is only in the driver's thoughts that the cabbie is ever in the ditch, the fact that this is the initial, and usually the only, thought the driver will give to another human being is telling.

Does exposure to movie violence cause this? I think the short answer is yes. Stories told in many violent films teach impulse rather than consideration, not only by modeling violent behavior, but also by ending on a high-note; the good guy wins, evil is defeated, everything works out for the best. When you are the good guy, your problems can be solved just by showing the jerks how you feel. There is no need to think too hard if you are a generally nice person, if God favors your tribe, or if you are otherwise in the right; as long as you put yourself in the role of the good guy in the story, you have the right to abuse the bad guy, and probably will.

I also believe that the entertainment value of mainstream film has been compromised since the Stooges' prescient parody of films to come. How many times can producers churn out these formula films, and make millions for it? How many Teflon heroes will we watch before we walk out of theaters clutching our $8.00 bags of popcorn, wondering why this fiftieth incarnation of John Wayne is attractive to women of this decade? Isn't it finally time to demand a better and healthier story?

Here is one that could have had a better ending. In 1980, one of the century's most influential people, Muhammad Ali, was examined at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose the cause of slurred speech and tingling in his limbs, and a hole in the protective membrane of his brain was discovered. Today, Ali can no longer speak at all because of the hits he took doing something called an "Olympic Sport." Granted he might owe his influence to that sport, but the punishment Ali endured while boxing cut it short. Soon after his diagnosis, Ali decided to step into the ring for what was supposed to be his last fight, and took an embarassing beating from Larry Holmes, who played him like a violin.

Why did Ali decide to fight when he knew his brain was damaged? Why did he risk his future for a few more rounds? He was already rich and famous, and his best years could have been ahead of him in whatever field he chose.
Perhaps it was because he lived in a world in which he was expected never to back down from a fight, to sacrifice his health for glory, and to emulate a popular film character who endured unrealistic abuse from Apollo Creed to win the celluloid heavyweight title. In other words, Ali was motivated by the same insecurities and shallow impulses that motivate Rocky and too many other film heroes. Alas, Ali couldn't let his fight with Holmes be his last, and he took further punishment in a final loss to Trevor Burbick, which may have silenced him for good. Sylvester Stallone also did not know when to quit, and made millions producing and starring in Rocky III, IV, V, VI, and Rocky Balboa, which was released late last year.

Sad indeed to watch two more violent Stooges waste their talent.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pee Wee and the revival of Film Noir

Lately, I have noticed a renewed interest among film makers and audiences in Film Noir, a loosely-defined film genre that Wikipedia describes as, "...a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity and sexual motivation."

Here are a few quotes from classic films of the genre that can help one appreciate what it means to be Noir, and why Noir can be a very funny color:

A classic from Bogey in The Big Sleep:
Humphrey Bogart, speaking of Lauren Bacall: She was worth a stare. She was trouble.

From The Big Steal:
Jane Greet: Stop calling me Chiquita. You don’t say that to girls you don’t even know.
Robert Mitchum: Where I learned Spanish, you do.

From Crack-up:
Claire Trevor: You can’t expect to dodge the police indefinitely, George. Wouldn’t it be smarter to go to Cochrane and get this thing out in the open?
Pat O’Brien: Just about as smart as cutting my throat to get some fresh air.

From Ace in the Hole:
Jan Sterling: I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.

From Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in what may be the greatest declaration of alienation ever captured on film:

Pee-wee: There's a lot of things about me that you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand. You don't want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

The Wikipedia volunteer author goes on to describe the origins of Noir:

"Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography, while many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Depression."

Though this seems like a pretty clear definition of a film genre with a definable origin, hardly anyone can agree on what Noir is, what films qualify as Noir, or even if it is a proper genre at all. Is it simply a stark visual style, or must it include storytelling that focuses on society's dark and gritty elements (materialism, lust, or crime)? Or will we only ever know Film Noir as a story of a loner-detective who struggles to pay his rent and keep his lusty secretary at a distance to protect her from his personal pathos, featuring heavy first-person narration and lots of smoking?

Sub-genre of Classic Noir (The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity) include psycho-noir (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Sin City or other Frank Miller graphic novel adaptations), Sci-fi Noir (anything from Philip K. Dick) and a salad of post-classic and foreign-Noir categories. There is even a noir-parody category that couldn't be mistaken for any other kind of comedy (any adapted Elmore Leonard, Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, or Leslie Nielson's The Naked Gun).

While unmistakably Noir, recent releases Brick and 13 Tzameti don't clarify the definition of the genre; in fact, they probably obfuscate it further. And though neither can match the pathos of Pee Wee as he hunts for his Bicycle Thief, they are rich in stark human emotion and tragic character motivation, and ably bring Noir forward in time.

I'll write about 13 Tzameti first, and tackle Brick in a future post.

Watching 13 Tzameti reminded me of the first time I saw Silence of the Lambs; I wanted to look away but couldn't. This film was showered with awards on the 2005 Festival circuit, and deservedly so. In 13, Georgian director Géla Babluani literally puts a price on the souls of men, and his characters gamble with those stakes. It is gripping, and audiences can easily sympathize with youthful Sebastien, played by Babluani's brother George, who unknowingnly tags-in for a dying criminal in a macabre game of death that he is forced by his "sponsors" to play to its conclusion. Sebastien is an innocent victim, but his tragic weakness is his pursuit of a fast and easy payday, and he, like Faust, must give the devil his due.

If you put 20 goths kids in a dark room, took away their meds, and asked them to come up with the ultimate metaphor for alienation and materialism, they'd be hard pressed to beat Babluani's game in which men play Russian roulette in circle-jerk fashion for betting sport, with the winner/survivor taking the pot. Babluani makes his audience unsure whether Sebastien is better off living through each torturous round of the game, or dying to preserve his soul. As he is handed a revolver and ordered to load, spin his cartridge, and aim at the head of the man in front of him while the man behind him does the same, Sebastien, who is not a killer, must decide whether to hasten the death of the man upon whom his gun is trained by shooting quickly, or wait until that man has discharged his weapon, possibly eliminating other contestants from the game, and postponing for precious moments his own murderous act. As he loads, spins, and repeats, Sebastien can only hope that he'll be lucky enough to survive the game with a fraction of the humanity he started with; the financial rewards for which he entered the game become meaningless. Max Von Sydow's chess match with Death in The Seventh Seal seems like a Sunday bridge club compared to this, and though 13 Tzameti comes close to being a parody of itself, Babluani makes it work by steadily increasing the film's visual and emotional intensity without letting up for even a single light moment.

To be fair, there were times while watching 13 Tzameti that I felt like the victim of an elaborate practical joke because of the outlandish nature of Sebastien's circumstances. And suggesting that watching this or any noir film helps audiences seriously consider their priorities is like playing the game in which kids decide whether to freeze to death or be burned alive; one simply can't choose between these crazy extremes. But the world seen through 13's Noir-colored glasses is undeniably absorbing, as long as the viewer doesn't allow disbelief to cloud those glasses up. In the words of Film Noir's reigning king Pee-Wee Herman confronting his nemesis:

Francis: Pee-wee listen to reason.

[Pee-Wee cuffs his hand around his ear in a listening motion]

Francis: Pee-wee!
Pee-wee: Sh! I'm listening to reason.
Francis: You'll be sorry, Pee-wee Herman!

Don't listen to reason, just enjoy 13 Tzameti at a visceral level. But be sure to eat dessert first.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I can hear it now...

"Another blog about film? Al Gore will have to invent a second internet to make room for all of these critics' ruminations. The one thing the world needs less of is opinions not kept to oneself."

To be honest, I agree with those statements in general. So why would I create another blog about film? And why do I bother to say that I am cynical and critical, when that ought to be a knee-jerk reaction to the work of a group of artists who call their best things like, "Gladiator," "Shakespeare In Love," "Titanic," and, "Chicago?'

In the opening pages of his 2007 book
I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter recalls his mother's reaction to a 15-year-old photograph of his father, shortly after his passing in 1991. "What meaning does that photoraph have? None at all. It's just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It's useless."

To console her, Hofstadter reminded his mother that the book of Chopin etudes at the piano in the family living room was also only dark marks on paper, but its contents had a profound effect on people all over the world for 150 years.

"Thanks to the black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin's heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin's interiority - the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being - his suffering, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions - and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.

"In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his getleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.

"Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live."

Substitute the words, "Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo," for, "Photograph of Dad," in the above paragraphs. Try switching, "Frederic Chopin's Etudes," and "Weekend at Bernie's II." Or perhaps you shouldn't.

I believe that the films of great directors and the characters they create live in the medium of the brains of their audiences, they are the soul-shards Hofstadter describes. But the interiority of souls like Travis Bickle or Maggie the Cat may have a greater impact than the shards of any photograph or piece of music, because films show people who live and breathe in dolby sound on a screen that is larger than life, whom anyone can get to know intimately.

Since I beleive that, and since I care deeply about the interiority of the little girl attached to my lip in the picture to the left, I will be critical and cynical when I would urge a reader to duck the incoming shards, but say nice things about films that share an enriching human experience. I want to write about new films, but also about those that are 15 years or older because they have been under our skin longer and may influence what else we let in.

And I want to enjoy it and not get too heavy about the damage left by Bill and Ted or David Lynch.

So, if you have read this far, perhaps you will read more (and if you have, email me and I will send you a bozo button.)