April 30, 2004

high school movies (what's up with)

Here's a line from a review of Mean Girls by Emily Hall, from The Stranger, Seattle's free weekly rag: [Seattle Weekly? What's that?]

There are moments of writing so smart you want to stand up and cheer (some helpful students map out the lunchroom hierarchy for Cady, pointing out the usual gathering places for jocks, nerds, and "girls who eat their feelings"), and then you have to sit down and wait a while for this kind of insight to poke its head up again.

Did your jaw drop? If not, maybe you should skip this entry.

My point isn't to excoriate Emily Hall or Seattle movie critics in general. (Aside: Let it be known that, generally, Seattle movie critics are awful. The only ones worth a damn are Sheila Benson, full of wisdom and experience, and Barley Blair, who I suspect was a pseudonym for Sheila Benson. Oh, and Vern, if he counts. Vern's corporeal existence might reside in the Puget Sound, but I always considered his spirit to belong to the whole of America.)

And my point isn't to cast aspersion on just how smart this bit of writing is; in fact, I could give Ms. Hall the benefit of the doubt and assume that the smart bit of writing is referring to the "girls who eat their feelings line", and not the "lunchroom hierarchy" in general (although if that is what she meant, it isn't written very well).

No, my point is the received wisdom of the "lunchroom hierarchy" in general. I question its veracity, and I question its usefulness in a film.

Now, it's completely possible, hell, more than likely, that my position is formed by age and generation; I honestly don't know what it's really like to be in high school in 2004. I graduated in 1990, so comparatively, I'm an old fogey. Yet while I'm willing to admit that people tend to congregate in groups of similar interests, this hardened social position that is represented in contemporary movies is so alien to me that it may as well be Noh.

Admittedly, it doesn't help my position that I never ate in the lunchroom as a student; I lived across the street from my high school, so I and my friends would go there for an hour. So maybe I missed something. And it's completely possible to an outsider that my friends and I could be labeled as "nerds", and not having a broader perspective, maybe I was part of a hardened social position and just didn't know it. But I can't really accept that. Only one of my friends could've been labeled a genuine nerd; the rest of us seemed like a mixture of qualities, a little nerd, a little stoner, a little skater, a little bit of general outsiderness. But this mixture was so muddled that any general label was useless. I mean, what do you call a person who loves both Metallica and Kate Bush?

(Don't you fuckin' say "Goth".)

Maybe part of the problem is that, in my experience, the social aspect of high school wasn't during lunch or after school, but actually during the classes themselves, the whole reason anyone's there. I was part of the so-called GATE program (Gifted And Talented Education, yeesh), and I did assignments with rich kids and poor kids, football players and French citizens, popular cheerleaders and math geniuses (who just wanted to play golf for a living). Not all of my classes were GATE, and I saw the same kind of mix there as well.

[With one major exception: My school had a sizeable Hispanic population, and I don't remember a lot of Hispanic kids in my GATE classes. Take from that what you will.]

So when I see or read about these high school movies (or watch their trailers) with their rigid caste systems, with their easy labels, my mind rebels. It really feels like a lie perpetrated against teenagers, and I admit I worry about what an accumulation of these kinds of lies will mean in the long run. It could be suggested that this kind of device is analogous to, say, the action movie trope of the hero outrunning an explosion, that it's a genre thing. But that doesn't wash with me. However much fantasy they may inject into these films, they're still based on reality.

It would be one thing if it was just one or two movies, but it doesn't seem to be. And it would be another thing if our Film Critic Corp weren't asleep at the wheel, but this doesn't seem like something that's being addressed. From Stephanie Zacharek's Salon review of Mean Girls:

Their first act of kindness is to present her with a map of the lunchroom, so she'll know which tables have been staked out by which cliques, among them the Preps, the JV Jocks, the Asian Nerds, the Cool Asians and the Sexually Active Band Geeks (the last of whom are shown pawing, groping and sucking at one another with oblivious abandon).

Again, no questioning the reality of this; it's just accepted. The funny thing is, at the beginning of the review, Ms. Zacharek makes the stunningly genius observation that adults are an untapped audience for teen movies. Problem for me is, the crutch of the high school caste trope eliminates me from that potential audience.

It's even more frustrating when movies do come out that buck this trend, and little or no mention is made of that accomplishment. Right now, I'm thinking of, of all things, American Pie. Think what you want about it as a film; but think of how the four main characters are presented. Oz is a jock, but is allowed to move into a different role with little difficulty. Kevin is the ringleader-type, the "Zach" of the group, the kind of character we've seen in movies like Slackers and Van Wilder, but the movie continually undermines his authority. Jim is a klutzy loser-type, but I find that rather than being an object of pity or derision, he becomes the hero of the movie, the only one who really gets his hands dirty, so to speak. And then there's Finch, probably most easily classified as a nerd, but one with a predilection for all things retro and "adult". He's probably the most original character I've ever seen in a teen movie, and it's not surprising that he's neutered in the lame follow-up.

Yet, in another movie, these guys would sit at different tables in the lunchroom.

I guess what I'm finding is, after a thousand words or so, is that, despite whether this caste system, this view of high school, is correct or not is largely irrelevant. For the sake of a few jokes, for the sake of a lazy through-line, the ability to see and depict characters that are original, individual, and not stereotyped is shunted into the corner, possibly lost.

Why would we want that?

Posted by kza at 12:17 PM | Comments (4)

April 27, 2004

that was awesome

Remember when this blog was updated semi-regularly and was about watching movies? (see punchline above.)

[Who started that meme, anyway? Was it Vern? MD'A? Someone else?]

Anyway, I hope to get back on track as soon as this three-minute Project Greenlight video is put to bed. I understand that they want to see if we can scramble and get out shit together in a short amount of time, but really, four weeks (instead of two) would've been better. For me, at any rate. Especially since I want to pull off Gondry-esque tricks.

But anyway. The blog is going back to being updated on a semi-never basis for another week or so. Maybe when the video is done I'll post some stills, thereby disillusioning our millions of fans who think Martin and I look like Luke and Owen Wilson, and not the Trix rabbit and Benny Hill.

Posted by kza at 12:01 PM | Comments (4)

April 21, 2004

holy shit! (project greenlight update #11)

Can you believe this shit?


I sure as hell can't.

Two things stun me about this achievement. One, as my wife pointed out, this round was judged by a group of paid readers, so the fact that they selected our script indicates that they would pay to see this movie. Second, these same readers had the task of turning 1000 scripts into 100; that is, they had to reject 9 out of 10 scripts they read. They were looking for any reason to throw out a script...and they didn't find a reason to throw out ours. Un-fucking-believable.

So now, the next step is a three-minute video that introduces ourselves, and tests whether or not we can follow strict rules. As Martin said, this hoop has more to do with seeing who looks okay on camera and who they want to fuck with for the course of a movie production. Still, making the video should be fun. What's not fun is the 18 (!) page background check that we each have to fill out. Criminal record, who our high school friends were, toilet paper roll hanging over or under... They should make us CIA NOCs after this.

But as Martin also said, after the Top 1000, it's all gravy. We never, ever expected to get this far, especially on a two-week draft. What the hell can we do if we, as the SOS Band said, took our time and and did it right?

Actually, the answer to that is coming sooner than you realize...Mu-wah-ha-ha-ha!

(Which is partially to explain why I haven't posted anything in a long while. Maybe hopefully soon...)

Oh, and big ups to Grimm, the only script I'm familiar with that also made the cut. Good job!

Posted by kza at 11:21 AM | Comments (6)

April 06, 2004

project greenlight 3 (update #10)

Oh, in case it wasn't clear, Todd and Brendan didn't make the first cut of the Project Greenlight Director's Contest.

Which is just lame. Whassa matta with these judges?

Don't worry guys; we'll get our revenge.

Posted by kza at 01:08 PM

Moulin Rouge (2001, Baz Luhrmann) 6

Blast From The Past, part two. Hey Kent, remember when you said you could use stuff from your old website in case you didn't have anything new ready? The hell have you been doing these past two weeks?

I suspect I'll get my ass handed to me for this particular review. Like the Shrek entry, I stand by the sentiment, if not neccessarily the way it's expressed. Also, for some reason, I was really into using footnotes during this period (and I've never read any David Foster Wallace).

Fear of an Unironic Planet

I knew there was something wrong only a few minutes in. At first it was okay; the screen turned into a proscenium, complete with red curtains, and the music swelled as if coming from an orchestra pit. The credits started. Then, a little man appeared at the bottom, the conductor, and he proceeded to conduct in the most over-wrought way, drawing attention from anything that was on the screen. If I didn't already know what movie I was seeing, I would've missed the title.

The image of a conductor upstaging both the music and the performance he's supposed to be supporting is the perfect metaphor for Moulin Rouge, the worst movie I've seen in 2001. Director Baz Luhrmann is so concerned that you notice him, that he pushes aside everything else: the performances, the songs, the art direction, the story itself.

And he manages to do so with a single instrument: Jill Bilcock's editing. The movie begins with a flurry of movement, exposition, and editing, and it felt like an episode of The Monkees. Although hard to digest, it seemed like an appropriate way to get the story going. Unfortunately, the movie never lets go of this style and pacing, even when the story demands to be slowed down, as when Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) discover they love one another atop her funky, Indian-style apartment.

I don't think I've done justice to Bilcock's atrocious editing. Let me explain further: Hardly any shot lasts more than a second and a half. Furthermore, since any editing forces a viewer to re-establish the point of interest for a shot, Moulin Rouge forces the viewer to re-orient him- or herself every one and a half seconds. If the point of interest of each shot were kept consistent, this wouldn't be a big deal; unfortunately, the point of interest is wildly different each time, causing wear and tear on the eyeballs as they bounce around like that odd metal ball in Men In Black. And when you consider that the overall color of the shots will veer from light to dark in rapid succession, you have a recipe for a visual disaster. Honestly, there were times when I simply couldn't look at the screen.

If the physiological effects of the editing were deleterious, its artistic effects are just as bad. The unbearable lightness of Bilcock's editing results in every shot, every moment, every scene being rendered meaningless, and thus, the story uninvolving. If I can't see a character's reaction shot long enough for it to make an imprint, why should I care? If I can't figure out the physical space of this world, and where the characters are within it, why should I care? If the editing causes the actors' voices to become disembodied, unattached to anything physical, why should I care? If the editing tells me that no shot is more important than another shot, that all I'm supposed to pay attention to is the rapid succession of images, why should I care?

Ultimately, Moulin Rouge, a movie that is just as much about decadence as it is about love, is the most conservative movie of the year. How is that? Because nearly every artistic decision is made out of fear: The use of pre-established pop songs (sure, any soundtrack is good when you got Bernie Taupin, Kurt Cobain, and Sting, among others, working for you); the use of blurry, trailer-style slow-motion (you know the kind, used in previews of foreign films to make an otherwise unremarkable shot seem "important"); the inability of the movie to slow down and express real, human emotion, instead of a series of shots that simply propose it (or worse, put it in quotation marks). Two kinds of fear are demonstrated here. The most obvious kind is the fear of upsetting some imagined audience's expectations, resulting in songs we've all heard before, images we've all seen before, and a story we already know. But more importantly, it is the fear of sincerity that Moulin Rouge expresses most completely.

I had the fortune to view Annie Get Your Gun on DVD a few days prior to Moulin Rouge. While not the best musical in the world (another way of saying it isn't Singin' In The Rain), it was certainly enjoyable enough. After seeing Moulin Rouge, though, I found myself reflecting on Annie, particularly Betty Hutton's peformance of "Doin' What Comes Naturally". Her performance is over the top, even by theater standards; it is difficult, even painful, to watch, as Hutton mugs her way through the number [1]. Yet, I realized that the same quality that make it difficult-its sheer, intentional corniness-is also what makes it human. It isn't afraid to look stupid, it isn't afraid to turn some viewers off, it isn't afraid to be "uncool". It expresses its emotion sincerely, wildly, and without apology.

Moulin Rouge reveals itself as incapable of expressing sincerity, only irony. It can't be bothered to deal with messy emotions, only with surface images, images that are shown then taken away so quickly that they leave the audience nothing to hold onto. It doesn't care; it doesn't ask us to care. What does this movie care about? To put it another way, Why does this movie exist? I can't come up with a solid answer to this question-but thinking about it, I find myself continually drawn back to that distracting conductor.

[1] It should be noted that the corny nature of the performance is probably intended, in order for the 29 year-old Hutton to convince as a teenager, and to contrast the immature and raggedy Annie to the later, more mature and clean Annie.

Posted by kza at 11:54 AM