Aug. 27, 2008 - Issue #671: The Bullshit Issue
Dial ‘B’ for Bullshit
Four things about films that don’t deserve their reputations
JOSEF BRAUN / email@example.com
There’s no teeth-gritting, guile-gurgling disdain quite like the sort that overcomes you when someone who shares your politics expresses those same politics in a shallow, dunderheaded or deeply unpersuasive way. It’s one thing to have an idiot speak for your ideological opponent, and something else altogether to have that idiot batting for your team. Especially if that idiot gets a lot of attention.
In the last century, one such idiot, if you’ll excuse the personification, has been the movies. Movies can thrill us, stimulate us, challenge us, move us, and yes, even teach us something. But they do so most compellingly when their messages obey the dictates of the fundamental goal: to be art, to be entertainment, hopefully both. When movies decide to focus all their energies on giving us a lesson they nearly always tumble headlong into the arena of bullshit.
Admittedly, there are degrees to which such didacticism can spoil a movie. In the case of some Spike Lee movies, like Bamboozled, didacticism can be framed so audaciously that it works in spite of itself. In the case of two movies reviewed in this very issue, Traitor and The Edge of Heaven, the didacticism is annoying, yet the damage is somewhat offset by how heartfelt certain characterizations come across. This goes for dozens of message movies, which habitually draw in good actors seeking to “give something back”: folks like Sidney Poitier, Don Chealde, Jimmy Stewart, Jodie Foster or Sean Penn—one actor who really needs to distinguish between a genuinely political movie and a movie that’s just about politicos. In Crash, a movie referenced in my review of The Edge of Heaven, didacticism is taken to such obnoxious, facile heights that it becomes a tidal wave of bullshit sweeping everything potentially appealing away—including performances by a truckload of fine, no doubt well-intentioned actors. A bad guy is nice to his incapacitated dad, and we’re meant to have a revelation about the complexity of human nature for Christ’s sake.
But didacticism is hardly confined to the likes of Stanley Kramer, Paul Haggis or Norman Jewison. The often brilliant Michael Haneke’s stupidest movies, both the original German version and recent English-language remake of Funny Games, are as dark and nihilistic as his best—the difference being that, provocative and peppered with weird, fitfully interesting details as they are, they have little to ponder other than their titanic moral about the supposed death of affect.
I guess the essential point here is that anyone can pick an issue, take a (usually safe) stance on it, and throw together a story that rams home the message, usually condescending to its audience along the way. It takes a real artist/entertainer to make a movie that lets us figure something out on our own—which is the only way anyone ever really learns anything.
OMAR MOUALLEM / firstname.lastname@example.org
Bringing Down the House has a Rotten Tomato rating of 34 per cent, but if you were perusing Blockbuster’s shelves for the perfect romantic comedy about a sassy black woman and an uptight white man, you might leave the store with the DVD in tow, thinking you’ve made the best decision all weekend. After all, one critic paraded confidently on the cover says it’s “One of the funniest movies ever.” The same critic called Home of the Brave (Rotten Tomato: 24 per cent) “First-rate” and K-19: The Widowmaker (Rotten Tomato: 60 per cent) “A masterpiece.” Who is this movie-loving movie-quote whore? He happens to be the most recognizable man in media, Larry King.
But Larry King is not a movie critic, he’s a talk show host—or, at the very least, a caricature. His quotes are not attributed to any TV program, print or radio show, only his name. For all we know, his comments could have been overheard from a bathroom stall.
Last year, King was called on his promiscuous quoting by EW.com when he said about Breach, “There isn’t a dull moment,” even though he was spotted repeatedly taking cell phone calls and exiting the theatre during the screening. Although Breach was a very well-received movie, for King, there obviously were dull moments aplenty.
All critics are guilty of overly generous quote-whoring. I once gave School for Scoundrels a top rating and called its maker, “a fantastic character writer.” (I still haven’t showered enough to cleanse myself of that.) But at least we can be called on it as critics. Larry King is a talk show host who once let Jenny McCarthy co-host Larry King Live.
So the next time you’re looking for a take-home movie and you see any two quotation marks proceeded by a dash and King’s name, be weary; it probably means that not a single reputable critic had a positive thing to say, so they resorted to unrecorded comments by a man in suspenders.
BRIAN GIBSON / email@example.com
To update the Sex Pistols (with a little help from Obama’s ex-pastor), God Damn The Queen! Let’s hope The Queen, inexplicably one of the best-reviewed films of 2006, will soon be forgotten, even though it crowned Helen Mirren at the Oscars.
What was the point of this nicely acted piffle? To make us see that Tony Blair and Her High and Mighty-ness are actually human? But we know that—the problem is that the real Blair and Queen so rarely act human.
Suddenly, from a director who’s made gritty, messy dramas at street level (My Beautiful Laundrette), came this disappointingly claustrophobic play at sympathy for someone so out of touch with her “subjects.” And why blow it up for the big screen? Mirren was far better as a more complicated, compromised boss in both Elizabeth I and Prime Suspect: The Final Chapter, two TV miniseries that were more visually glorious on the box than The Queen was in the cineplex.
And both those shows offered a more multi-storied cross-section of England than Stephen Frears’ film, whose best moments are its footage of the public mourning Diana in the streets. But that stunning mass reaction is left as backdrop. Instead the film dwells on aloof Elizabeth II and her misreading of that public, her Wordsworth-ian encounter with a stag on her massive Highlands estate, and her oh-so-sad imprisonment by her role.
But it’s a fate devoid of tragedy—she’s been simply, unluckily born into her life, but so are we all, for better or worse. She’s no more alone than millions who don’t have her millions. Where’s the arc? The tragic flaw? The ebbs and flows to her character? If The Queen had found its true ancestral home—on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre—she would have been, rightly, seen as a middle-of-the-pack chamber drama.
JONATHAN BUSCH / firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m choosing to cut down the out-of-date insensitivity of the Golden Razzie awards, most eloquently demonstrated by the sweep of statues by I Know Who Killed Me, a unique effort by director Chris Sivertson and Lindsay Lohan made infamous by the unfortunate timing of its starlet’s relapse into alcoholism. I’m more often one to indulge in glitzy train wreck moments of Hollywood’s leading ladies, but such occurred in accordance with a rather interesting film that daringly suspended restrictively normalized notions of quality to experiment with genre and performance.
In the film, Lohan stars as Aubrey, a suburban teen survivor of a violent kidnapping—or so we are to believe, as she actually claims to be Dakota, skid row stripper from a completely different family than the ones who take her home after the incident. I Know Who Killed Me borrows elements of Brian de Palma’s early pervy Hitchcockian work like Sisters and Dressed to Kill, thwarting the narrative into often unseen directions that both aggravate and entice the viewer. The irregularity of Lohan’s performance is more than a step into self-parody, as she allows an awkward script to portray her as a sensual, dramatic force within a film that very much knows it is a film. So often, a film must either bear the tiring illusion of realism or a blatant indie-style reflexivity of “breaking the fourth wall” that there is no room for forms of creativity that inspire curious, inexplicable feelings.
In that sense, one-joke institutions like the Golden Razzies gather together a number of misunderstood works to “celebrate” a year of bad cinema. This year I Know Who Killed Me won eight of the nine awards it was nominated for, including “Worst Remake or Rip-off,” with the organizers citing Hostel, Saw, and The Patty Duke Show as its sources, a juvenile cut-down less funny than Killed Me’s biggest competitor, Norbit. Since then, I’ve left several parties drunk and angry that nobody would buy my recommendation of I Know Who Killed Me as valid—an imaginably similar experience to that of abstractly minded critics when Mommie Dearest won Worst Picture in 1982. V
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