#0044 - HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH - Entertainment writers in search of a seasonal theme have recycled an old one this summer: The Family in Crisis. In Slate's "Culturebox" column, Moira Redmond provides a little primer on bad mothers in movies, prompted by Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I don't know how the film is doing in the States, but up where I live, it's been banished to two screens in the outer 'burbs and a multiplex in the bedroom community of Brampton, which says just as much about Callie Khourie's film's audience as it does about its box office, I think.
Redmond draws from a bunch of films of varying currency: About a Boy, Monster's Ball, Domestic Disturbance, Y Tu Mamá También, Unfaithful, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and even Attack of the Clones, which seems a stretch since, as it's been laboriously established, the father/son conflict reigns supreme in the Lucas universe. Perhaps she threw it in to give her theory some weight - after all, only one of the other films was considered a hit of any measurable proportion, and some were notable bombs. It seems to me that, in order for a pop-cultural theory to have any particular relevance, it should be built on notable indicators, not failed ones, but then again I never thought "Malcolm in the Middle" would make it to a second season.
Bad Moms, in Redmond's taxonomy, exhibit traits ranging from the obvious ("Mom is Mean or Uncaring") to questionable ("Mom is Too Sexy") to irrelevant ("Mom Is a Throwback"). The Mom Who Neglects Her Kid, as evidenced by Diane Lane in Unfaithful, is guilty primarily because:
"At first it is just unsupervised TV watching, but then she is late to pick him up from school, and nest thing you know she is giving him a McDonald's meal instead of home-cooked food. (Does Mickey D's actually pay for this sort of anti-product placement?"
If Redmond is to be believed, then every suburb and apartment building is packed with unsuitable mothers, and child protection services should be prepared to double their payroll. Sure it might be true, but it didn't take a dud of a thriller to alert us to the trend.
If anything, Redmond's piece is another pebble in the great edifice of blame that's been tossed backwards over the shoulders of Baby Boomers for almost forty years now, which might explain the success - an Oprah's Choice, remember - of the book upon which Khourie's film is based, but not the poor performance of the movie. Redmond might have accidentally hit on an explanation in the closing paragraph of her Salon piece, which reads like an afterthought in the wake of the attempt at a maternal J'Accuse that preceded it:
"Thirty years of bad feeling dissolve with some truth-telling and secret-revealing, a common enough conclusion in movies if not in real life. Perhaps that's the final fantasy for the women who are flocking (??? - ed.) to see it - all of them daughters, many of them mothers. No matter how bad intergenerational relations get, there is always hope! Or perhaps the reason for the movie's appeal is even simpler: We sit there and thing, 'Well, my relationship with my mother/daughter isn't as bad as that."
So plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, is that it? It's not much of a hook to hang a piece of cultural analysis on, but there it is. Uncharitably, it seems like a bit of wishful thinking for a generation of current mothers who are facing the prospect of a generation of daughters as resentful and blamesick as they once were with the women who've unaccountably become doting, laid-back grandmas. Time, and not the tissue-thin conceits of online writers, will tell.
Elsewhere - in the N.Y. Times no less - A.O. Scott has a piece on the state of fatherhood in the movies, which begins with the portentous pronouncement that "fatherhood is in a troubled state, indeed." Scott also casts his net wide (Gladiator, The Patriot and In The Bedroom are mentioned, but only in passing) but concentrates on the two "serious" films of the summer release schedule deemed suitable for multiple analyses in the summer pages of quality broadsheets: Road to Perdition and Minority Report.
Scott concentrates on the "lost son", by which "Michael Sullivan and John Anderton share a common, and perhaps archetypical, paternal anguish." He does a better job giving substance to his thesis, mostly by laying on brow-furrowing sentences on the order of: "This is a grim, ancient motif - Oedipal more in the Greek than the Freudian sense - and perhaps also something of a cliché." Scott writes from the raised pulpit, and casts a disapproving eye on films that allow "a civlized, rational audience (like, say, the members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences) to satisfy their bloodlust without guilt, to sample the visceral satisfactions of violence while pretending, at the same time, to be watching a critique of violence." This pulpit is probably what inspires him to end his piece with a bit of soberly hortatory phrasemaking that would please a modestly literate, tentatively conservative Methodist minister:
"An eye for an eye. A son for a son. And so we can escape from the pathos of real parenthood, a much messier state of being in which nothing is ever enough, and everything is always too much."
It's easy to dismiss Scott and Redmond's pieces, but not so easy to discount the thinking in the minds of the editors that commissioned and printed them, and the "family in crisis" theme that actually does float over our heads, and not only in movies. Just what nameless dread clutches at the hearts of parents who go to films like Road to Perdition and Minority Report - which really are about fatherhood, that much is plain - seeking and even finding release for their anxieties? The film critic in me would like to imagine that our little period in cinematic history will yield a small catalogue of films as flawed and fascinating as the family-based melodramas produced in garish Technicolor in the nervous Fifties and pre-Beatles early Sixties, films like Splendour in the Grass, Peyton Place, monstrously overwrought Douglas Sirk masterpieces like Written on the Wind. Glancing over the evidence at hand, I'm less than hopeful, alas. (posted 03:40pm EST | 07.27.02)
#0043 - WHERE DO THEY BEGIN? - K. Connie Kang, a staff writer for the LA Times, regularly prays for the souls of sinners in Hollywood, from the hookers and crack addicts on Figueroa to the gang bangers in South Central to the moguls and stars in Bel Air and Beverly Hills. "We do this in the belief that prayer can transform Hollywood's worldwide influence," Kang writes in a Times article.
The founder of the prayer group, John Robb of Pasadena, was inspired to start an international prayer organization after being asked, not for the first time: "Why do you (America) ship over your movies that are so full of violence and immorality?" The initiative, according to Robb, has been a success:
"...more PG movies, they suggest; greater receptivity to the Bible among Hollywood's homeless and prostitutes, say others...Robb says that in January, 175 people in the entertainment world rededicated their lives to Christ after hearing the Rev. Bruce Wilkinson, the author of The Prayer of Jabez, speak in Hollywood. Robb says a powerful industry figure gave up a $6-million deal involving distribution technology for pornography after his conversion to Christianity."
(posted 10:56pm EST | 07.24.02)
#0042 - TOTO, I DON'T THINK WE'RE IN THIRUVANANTHAPURAM ANYMORE - A considerable contingent of the stars of the Malayalam-language film industry, a southern province of Bollywood, so to speak, were detained by police upon arriving at LaGuardia airport from Chicago last week. Twenty-year old Samyuktha Verma, "the Julia Roberts of Malayalam-language films", was flying into New York for the first time with her father, Ravi, and a party including Biju Narayanan, a pop singer, and Jairaj Kattanellur, a comedian, when a "nervous passenger" on their plane was alarmed by the group's "suspicious actions" and alerted the flight crew.
"We were enjoying the flight and we were all very excited,"said Verma. "We were arguing over who would sit next to the window because New York is such a beautiful city, and it was our first time here. When the plane landed, the police came on and a woman pointed to us. Then they took the men away."
Imagine, if you will, our own Julia Roberts, travelling to Calcutta from New Delhi with her father, being pulled aside at the airport upon arriving and detained for fifteen hours. Imagine that she was travelling with Lance Bass and Jim Carrey, who are also detained and searched. Imagine that India was, as it is now, on the verge of a war. Imagine that the war began with a terrorist attack by a group of Brits, Scots, and fifteen Canadians who highjacked several Air India planes and flew them into the Taj Mahal. Yes I know it sounds far-fetched, but as an exercise in context I think it's useful.
It would be nice, of course, if Americans could tell the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim, but if we've been taught anything over the last nine months or so it's that the mean level of understanding of the world at large could stand to be brought up a notch or two. Miss Verma and her party were released, of course, to some inevitable amount of indignation from the Malayalam-speaking community in the U.S.
"At first I thought I would never want to come to America again, I was so scared," Miss Verma said. "But the police were very nice to us. They made sure we were comfortable and they treated us well. America is a good country, and I understand people here are afraid of people who look different."
(posted 10:30pm EST | 07.24.02)
#0041 - PARENTAL SUPERVISION - An e-mail arrived at the paper the other day, in response to my review of Stuart Little 2, of which I was just a little proud, no pun intended. I don't get a lot of mail, so I should cherish what I get, I suppose.
Sent: Monday, July 22, 2002 10:04 AM
Subject: Stuart Little 2: Useless Review
Was Mr. McGinnis expecting Gone With The Wind instead of Stuart Little 2. Of course, it is a simple movie with lots of silly pretext but what I found even more mindless was his review of the film. Instead of trying to impress us with all of the usual pompous film critic banter, he might have chosen to provide readers with some useful information. Like, will it appeal to kids. Afterall, that's who ultimately will make up the bulk of the audience who will see this moview and most of them will be accompanied by their parents. And the parents are the ones reading ths newspaper. As a parent I can tell you that I don't really care about the flaws in the plot. It's pretty much given that a movie about a talking mouse isn't exactly going to be a serious documentary. What I do care about is the amount of violence and what age group the film is likely to appeal to. Next time, try to be mindful of your readers as well as the point of the film you are reviewing.
(posted 08:20am EST | 07.24.02)
#0040 - SEX APPEAL - Salon's "Summer Sex" issue has a couple of interesting stories that touch - or a least rub against - something to do with movies. Most amusing of all is an expose of the "Metrosexual" male, a peculiarly contemporary version of the urban gent that I'm sure a lot of us have witnessed evolving from his protozoan state in the sexually equivocal 1980s. He's straight or gay, both or neither, but "that is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference." His rise from mere shirtlessness to cultural predominance was documented by Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts, and accessorized by Calvin Klein. He is now a large enough market demographic to inspire new magazines like Maxim and FHM, and to require the renovation of old ones like Esquire. He has reached an evolutionary plateau in the form of David Beckham
It's a tissue-thin bit of social theory, but it does a nice job of identifying the way that young men have had to define themselves in the face of more powerful social changes that have overcome young women and crystallized into caricature in something like "Sex & The City". Mark Simpson, the writer, comes up with a theory linking "metrosexuality" with films like Fight Club, American Psycho and Spider-Man. The first two are obvious enough, but it's with Spider-Man that Simpson gets really creative, describing a take on the film where Tobey Maguire is transformed into a "raving metrosexual" when a "gay spider" injects him with "steroids and ecstasy", which inspires him to don a "gimp suit" and run around "on all fours with his arse in the air". He even manages to explain the rather mystifying ending of the film:
"We're supposed to believe that Tobey is motivated by old-fashioned virtues of social concern and love for Kirsten but we don't believe it for a moment. Nor does, in the end, the movie: Kirsten finally offers herself but Tobey declines, realizing that she would come between him and his real love: his metrosexual alter ego in the Day-Glo gimp suit."
As film theories go, it's as good as Quentin Tarantino's "Top Gun is the gayest film ever made" rant.
Also in Salon is a profile of Joe Gallant, a former punk bassist/Deadhead/daytime Emmy-winning sound engineer who's living his dream of starting the porn studio that will bring a hardcore porn renaissance back to New York City. There's something compelling about people like Gallant, who seem to find everything they want from movies in the cheesy, grim porn reels shot in and for the Times Square peepshow market.
"With the old '70s stuff, you could almost see the dust on the lens. The girls didn't shave much. The guys certainly didn't shave much. It was a time of intensity and hard edge in the city, and that comes across in the films...In my films, I want you to see the same dirt on the lens. That's why we leave the butt-spooge in. I just like it - it's real. I like for chicks to spontaneously pee, fart, whatever. To me that makes it not sterile."
It's proof, if it were needed, that nostalgia can attach itself to any object, to any period of time or after-the-fact perception of a period. Gallant has tried to evoke that fondly-remembered edge by filming sex scenes in crackhouses and on the streets during the World Economic Forum protests last May. His films feature esoteric sexual practices like "butt-painting, ass-to-mouth play and a signature move known as the Gatorade enema." Where mainstream porn is the disinherited sibling of the movie industry that got its revenge by become far more profitable than its estranged family, Gallant is apparently managing the remarkable feat of losing money on porn, trapped by the irony that, in a touching way, he's doing it out of love. (posted 11:07pm EST | 07.22.02)
#0039 - LOOKING FOR LOVE - John Scalzi isn't very impressed with a nasty little piece - an anti-interview, in essence, with Harrison Ford - in the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago paper. The writer, Joel Reese, thought that Ford was needlessly rude in a round-robin interview with a bunch of local media, and responded with a bitter little first-person recap of the sorry half-hour. If anything, the piece is thick with the peevish resentment of someone who discovered that someone they've admired - for reasons unexamined and unexplained by Reese - wasn't as thrilled to see them as they were, a sourness familiar to unloved children and jilted lovers.
Scalzi thinks that Reese has not only pierced the thin crust of professionalism that prevents entertainment journalism from turning into a big, bipolar, co-dependant fan club, but he lacks the common sense to understand that, not only does Ford have the simple human right to be bored and unimpressed with being asked the same questions over and over, but that the reader could care less about the apparently hurt feelings of the writer:
"The smart reporter knows these things. The smart reporter doesn't take a celebrity's obvious boredom at being asked the same questions over and over again and turn it into a bitchy screed that ends up looking like the reporter didn't get the golly-gee fanboy experience he was obviously hoping for. The smart reporter goes out of his way to ask the question that hasn't already been asked sixty times, a question that makes the celebrity in question switch on his or her brain in order to answer."
I've certainly done my share of tedious, inessential interviews, and acted as a spectator to many more, once I abandoned entertainment writing for photography. I've been at fault when they've gone badly as many times as they've been doomed from the start by a disinterested subject. From the generous distance afforded by my decision to give up interviews for reviewing - call it the coward's way out, if you will, but I'm a happier man because of it - I can say that Ford's simmering boredom sounds perfectly justified, as the questions that Reese recounts sound like nothing more than hackwork.
There's something exceedingly strange about courting celebrity - any celebrity - from the essentially prostrate position of publicity provider. It's not helped at all by the vast majority of publicists - handmaidens, procurers and ring-bearers to the cult of marketed fame - who work from the assumption that you getting your quotes or photo isn't nearly as important as preserving their temporary but cherished relationship with the celebrity at hand. Any time spent tangled in this unhappy dynamic is dangerous to the mental health of everyone involved - journalists, publicists, and stars.
The safest thing a journalist can do is to get away, to find another way of making a living, before you wake up one day and discover that you regularly demean yourself by asking every movie star you meet what "their favorite performance is", a question that's not only pointless but lazy, a witless bit of fishing for quotes. Publicists don't have much of a choice - they're doomed to the life of the hated and resentful flack as long as they have the job, and some of them - the truly dangerous ones - couldn't imagine doing anything else. Stars are almost as trapped, but they have a choice - they can do the endless round-robins, struggling inhumanly to maintain a polite face, or they can say no, and insist that their obligation to a movie ends the moment they say their last line on the set or in the dubbing studio. The latter is almost impossible, as no producer or studio will work with an actor who won't do press, so it's inevitable that someone like Ford - who has the added incentive of being executive producer of K-19: The Widowmaker - will walk into a room full of third-tier local journalists with all the relish of a cat in estrus dropped into a bag of randy street toms. (posted 09:42pm EST | 07.22.02)