I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]
The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.
So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.
It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.
But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?
In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?
Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.
Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.
Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.
Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.
There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.
Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.
So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.
I saw it on New Year’s Eve and liked it a lot. But, I think it’s best taken as a series of brilliant set pieces. String them together and you have a fairly predictable narrative arc, and a thematic point ( [SPOILER] Greed is bad) that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But the set pieces are incredibly well done because Scorcese. And Leo Dicaprio is just great in it.
Some people are upset because the movie doesn’t condemn the behavior it depicts. Yikes. Scorcese is obviously showing us behavior he finds so extraordinarily bad that he was motivated to make a movie about it. To tack on some moralizing elements would only lessen the impact, because that would imply that we need to be told that the behavior depicted is bad.
Mike Ryan at HuffPo writes about this question and, citing Chuck Klosterman, compares Leo’s character to Archie Bunker. But there’s very little to understand about Archie. He’s a bigot and ignorant. Haha. Wolf of Wall Strett instead shows us a sub-culture that is twisted and extreme, but is coherent within its own little world. There’s something to understand there, which is why Leo is able to give an Oscar-worthy performance. In that it’s much like The Godfather or The Sopranos, not to mention Good Fellas. It is also more like American Psycho than like Wall Street. (And speaking of Oliver Stone, one of my very least favorite directors, if you want to be hit repeatedly with a gigantic Morality Hammer, watch Platoon, if you can get through it.)
Good Fellas is a better movie than Wolf (in my opinion, natch) because it is less predictable, the main character is more morally nuanced, there are more unforgettable characters, etc. But I thought Wolf was very good, very entertaining, and treated us like moral grownups.
SPOILERS: Not really. I have a thematic quibble that I’ll keep at the level of saying something like “Much Ado about Nothing is a great love story except for an implausible plot mechanism” or “I love the evening palette of Good Night Moon, but, wow, nothing happens.”
So, Gravity is really good and worth seeing on a large screen. (Terrific use of 3D, by the way.) The use of the camera to tell the story is amazing, on a par with Hugo or the Life of Pi (to name two recent films). There’s a scene near the beginning where the camera not only fluidly changes its position, but also changes our point of view: from omniscient view of the universe, to observing the world reflected in Sandra Bullock’s space suit visor, to coming inside the visor and seeing the earth, its reflection, the HUD and Bullock’s face, and then taking the point of view of Bullock herself. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, is amazing in his ability to convey situation, point of view, sensation, and narrative. Awesome!
..the plot is a bit predictable, the way (as my son pointed out) mountain-climbing movies can be. Worse, this space odyssey is wrapped around a sentimental journey that is entirely unnecessary to the film. In fact, I think it would have gone all the way to stunning if they had adhered to the old adage: In space, no one can hear your backstory.
Still, it’s easy for me to carp. It’s overall awesome. And how the heck did they shoot it? Gravity-free stunt doubles?
[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.
I watched Upstream Colors last night, the second movie by Shane Carruth, who gave us Primer in 2004, a time-travel movie that has spawned analyses that make Memento look like Babar’s Vacation.
Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.
The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.
I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.
There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.
The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.
[SPOILER ALERT: ]
This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.
I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.
And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.
By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.
I greatly enjoyed last weeks’s Berkman Center event about some of the ways the Web is affecting the movie industry, which included a screening of an indie movie that has been released only on the Web.
First here was a panel discussion with Rob Burnett [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain. Rob is the executive producer of “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the director and co-creator of the new indie movie We Made This Movie. Elaine is a Berkman Fellow and is orchestrating a crowdsourced, interactive documentary called Hollow. Jonathan Zittrain is extremely Jonathan Zittrainy, which is a wonderful thing. We talked about what the Net is doing to movies, and you couldn’t ask for two more insightful commentators than Rob and Elaine, led by the Best Moderator in the Business.
Then we watched Rob’s movie, which I loved. [Disclosure: I did a little free consulting about the Web release.] The movie is hard to describe, which is a good thing, but it’s funny, engaging, touching, and deeply clever. In fact, it transcends its cleverness, but of this I can say no more. It’s also got an incredibly talented ensemble cast that made me think of Diner. Go to the movie’s site to find out how to see it online. (Hint: It’s on iTunes.)
An indie movie launching in September is holding a contest to find four songs for four scenes that need musical backing.
The movie is We Made This Movie from Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (creators of the TV show Ed; Rob is the Late Night with David Letterman producer). Because of the theme of the movie, they had the trailer produced by a high school student.
(Disclosure: I am an informal (= unpaid) marketing advisor to the project. I am also a Rob Burnett fanboy.)
I have a theory that Elmore Leonard came up with the idea for DJIBOUTI from a combination of headlines (piracy off the coast of east Africa) and a interview in which movie actor Morgan Freeman complained that he gets lots of work, but never gets to have sex in his movies. He has played Nelson Mandela, the corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, not to mention God a couple of times- -all pretty much asexual. So my little scenario is that Leonard, who always has his eye on the movies, wrote the character of seventy-ish Xavier in DJIBOUTI for Freeman. Just a thought.