25 July 2009

Give It To Me Straight Movie, What Are You About?

I went to the bank yesterday and the employees couldn't have been more polite. Or more facile. Like the local version of the grocery chain I frequent, corporate has evidently established the policy of obsequious deference to all customers.

I'm perfectly happy to be asked, how I'm doing and my opinion on the weather is available at all times. I will further accept your wishes for a nice day, wonderful weekend or staggeringly stupendous evening. But a dash of sincerity should tincture every salutation. Our local bus drivers are under no compulsion to be genial so if ever one manages a kind word I know it's from them and not command central. That many drivers are grumpy is swell by me. They're just regular folks doing their jobs and not putting on the Ritz in the process.

You should no longer have any doubts that I abhor phoniness.

I hate it in people and I hate in movies. Herein is a problem with modern movies that I've alluded to frequently. Too many movies are formulaic. The plots were developed out of Screenwriting 101 and possess all the artistic integrity of painting by the numbers. Indeed these type of films are not artistic endeavors but ways to put Diet Coke buying butts into cineplex seats. They're ultimately not really about anything, they are thus as insincere in intent as those servile bank tellers.

You can spot these movies coming down Broadway. They boast A List Hollywood stars or mass market product tie-ins, or hip new soundtracks or combinations thereof. Some are even too vacuous for mainstream film critics (except of course Rolling Stone's Peter Travers who LOVED IT!!!). Most manage to sell themselves to a few or even a consensus of critics. Make no mistake many are quite watchable, few stay with you. They are often re-makes, sequels or from James Cameron.

But enough of them. What makes a movie genuine? How does one spot a film that may actually have artistic merit? First of all you may want to navigate away from your local multiplexes or any theater that has a video game in the lobby. If you've got an independent theater in your neck of the woods you're in good shape. Revival houses, film archives and any place that shows independent, foreign or films from the 1970's and before are likely destinations.

Sadly your best bet may be DVD rentals and Turner Classic Movies. That's fine, but you miss the big screen experience.

The difference between these films and your corporate pre fab films is the difference between being taken on a guided tour to someplace you've already been and wandering the streets of a foreign city for the first time.

Example: I could have walked the plot points of the last Iron Man (2008) movie in my sleep. Robert Downey Jr. was delightful, the film was fun and I forgot it before I'd left the theater. Meanwhile, I Loved You for So Long (2008) was a journey to unknown places on a circuitous but fascinating route. This movie stayed with me.

There is a basic honesty in the film making of directors like the great William Wellman. Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Public Enemy (1931), and Heroes for Sale (1933) (photo above) . All capture the time in which they were made. They are about real people in dire, difficult or demanding circumstances. They are unflinching and effective. There is a rawness in the performances whether from James Cagney as a gangster or Frankie Daro as a Depression Era kid riding the rails.

Many films of the 1930's, particularly of the pre production code era, emphasis characters and relationships over the flash and dash of today's Hollywood. In Baby Face (1933) Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top. She does not find true love as Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez would in a similar movie today. The film is too honest for cheap sentiment and love scenes played to that new hit single from today's most popular new recording artist.

In Three On a Match (1932) Ann Dvorak does not find redemptive love after "going bad", she sacrifices herself in a stunning act of bald face truth. Movies were not always made by focus groups. Nor to be fair are all films of today. See The Visitor (2007) from last year which had the very unsexy but very real Richard Jenkins in the lead. The movie didn't do boffo box office in large part because Americans have become addicted to junk food and junk movies. The Visitor told the totally unexpected story of a middle aged man's unexpected journey of self discovery through a couple of illegal immigrants. He also meets an attractive woman who would be perfect for him. They do not have sex to the strains of American Idol runner up Joe Hot Star.

Movies that do the expected and obvious are lying to us. They are pretending life is something that it isn't. We don not live in a world with soundtracks, perfectly timed rescues, bitter enemies that we vanquish, perfect loves that we realize despite all obstacles. I do not minimize the need for movies to sometimes provide a distraction from the day's cares. But a movie can provide loud laughs and still explore relationships in an honest way like Superbad (2007). A movie can provide thrills and chills and still be original, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). A movie can explore true love and not revert to schmaltz ala Brokeback Mountain (2005).

I'd like bank and store employees to continue to be polite. But if they're going to go beyond that and express some sort of interest in my welfare, I'm not really interested. Because they're not really interested. I'd like movies to extend the same courtesy. Be real. Give it to me straight, don't sugar coat. I can handle it. Honest.


Matt Mergener said...

Thanks for the great post. That pretty much sums up the argument I attempt to make to friends when they ask me why I see "all those crazy art house films."

O'Horton and 12 immediately come to mind as films released this year (at least in my area) that bring to life the sincerity in filmmaking that you allude to. 12 is also a great example of someone taking an American classic and reinventing it through the eyes of a different culture.

Juliette. said...

How marvelous-- thanks for the interesting and insightful post. Your lead especially...well done. :)

I like that you mentioned at least one modern movie that did the trick-- I've Loved You So Long. Couldn't agree more.