Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

An Essay on Cultural Awareness; also, Naked Pictures of Your Mom

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 7, 2005

I’m going to try to keep this one short. Sometimes, even for a guy like me, writing about movies just seems trivial in comparison to what’s going on in the world. Obviously, this is one of those times. There’s a bit of stuff I could have written about in the past week or so, but I honestly just didn’t feel like it. For once I actually had the time, just not the motivation. Of course, just being in the dog days of late August – early September provides enough excuses to slack off, but the current state of things here in America hasn’t added to my enthusiasm. And Nero fiddles away while Rome burns.

I’m also approaching my next birthday in less than a week, as if I wasn’t depressed enough already. But enough about that. This is why people see therapists, so someone has to listen to their bitching and whining. You don’t need my issues unloaded on you, and that’s certainly not the purpose of this column.

These are the kind of times, however, where I find people need their entertainment more than ever. We’ve all heard this before – in “times of crisis”, people need a good laugh, a little light entertainment, a little genuine fun. Not that people don’t indulge in such things all the time anyway. But I’m the last person to begrudge anyone their mindless fun – the highlight of my week was discovering a semi-nude photo of Kristen Bell from Jane magazine on the Net (and can I just say…wow). I know, I need professional help. But we all have our little glitches, don’t we? I just happen to have a good one.

For me, I find that during bad times a little Monty Python always does the trick in lifting my spirits. Call me a geek, but those guys were fucking funny. I love pretty much everything they did together, but this past weekend I watched The Meaning of Life on DVD (make sure you get the 2-disc set) and I really, honestly think it’s an unheralded masterpiece (if you skip past Gilliam’s overblown, self-indulgent short film, that is) despite what John Cleese thinks. They started out their career doing sketches, so it’s only fitting that they ended it with a sketch movie, isn’t it? Come on, tell me that “Every Sperm is Sacred” isn’t the best joke on the Catholic Church ever. Anyway, I think what I really respond to is their twisted takes on the general absurdity of life and society in general. Why do we do the stupid things we do, and say the stupid things we say? Why do we put up with all the idiotic crap we go through in our lives? Isn’t it all just a big cosmic joke in the end? There’s a perverse comfort in knowing that someone, somewhere sees through all the bullshit and isn’t afraid to say so, and I wish we had comedies that brave now (and no, Team America doesn’t count, because great satire is about challenging the status quo, not supporting it).

On the other hand, I’m constantly amazed by the general cultural myopia among people I know. How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t know why I like it, I just do”? I started really thinking about this after the series finale of Six Feet Under, in which the very unlikely character of Ted made a derisive comment along the lines of, “hipness is generally an adolescent concern”. The implication being that “grown-ups” shouldn’t pay any attention to what’s going on in the world around them.

What Ted fails to understand is that “hip” is a relative term which depends solely on who you are surrounded by, and who’s using the term. Ted is one of those people who just “goes along” with whatever’s popular at the time. He’s the kind of guy who listens only to Top 40 radio, doesn’t see any movies that don’t debut at #1 at the boxoffice, and probably watches reality shows and actually thinks they’re entertaining. He is fiercely proud of his lack of “hipness”, despite the fact that, in certain crowds, he would actually be considered hip. But let’s leave that aside for now.

It occurs to me that Ted’s tastes (or lack thereof) are not at all “adult”, as he apparently thinks they are, but are instead very adolescent-minded. Adolescents, after all, generally like to follow the crowd, and “go along” with whatever’s popular. If all of his friends jumped off a bridge, Ted would jump off a bridge too. People like Ted don’t think for themselves when it comes to popular culture; they let trends and fads dictate their tastes and never develop any personal preferences of their own.

Adults, however, generally develop their own tastes and preferences as they get older and find a sense of their own identity. At least that’s the way it works with smart adults – I know plenty of supposed “grown-ups” who are still stuck in that Ted-like state of adolescent fad-worshipping. But generally speaking, an adult would be more likely to seek out foreign films, listen to alternative radio, read novels that aren’t on the bestseller lists, or watch a TV show that isn’t at the top of the Nielsens, than your average teenager would. An adult is more likely to read reviews to find out about new things. They’re more likely to give something a chance, and make up their own minds about whether or not they like it, rather than take their cues from what their peers are doing. I’m sure there are teenagers who do these things too, but I’d say they are the exception to the rule.

However, I don’t think that people do this to be considered “hip”, though perhaps some do. I think they do it because they want the good stuff. They want to see the best films, watch the best shows, and hear the best music. At least that’s my motivation – I like things that are new and interesting and, well, good. Of course I have my old favorites that I fall back on from time to time, but generally I like to mix it up. It always baffles me when people don’t seem to want to experience the best that the entertainment industry has to offer, preferring instead to settle for the relentlessly mediocre (or worse). Why not try something out if it looks or sounds interesting? If you don’t like it, at least you gave it a shot. What do you have to lose?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I have an inherent disdain for anything that’s popular. I like a lot of movies, shows and bands that are considered popular, and I like a lot of things that aren’t considered popular. Some of the things I like would be considered “hip” by so-called “hip people”, and other things I like would not be considered “hip” by those people. But I really don’t give a fuck. I’m an adult, and I can make my own decisions about what I like and don’t like. Many people consider rap music “hip”, and I can’t stand most of it. I don’t dismiss it as a cultural phenomenon – it’s just not for me. But I guess I wouldn’t be considered hip among those people. That’s fine with me. I don’t care. And I don’t like the music I like because it’s hip to like it – I like it because it sounds good to me, and I relate to it in some way. Isn’t that what matters? I’ve had people ask me things like, “how can you like The Ramones and Metallica?” as if I’m schizophrenic or something. It’s because I have a brain! They’re different bands playing different kinds of music, and I respond to them for different reasons. If someone has a problem with one or the other, well, that’s entirely their problem. Life is too short for that kind of bullshit.

I just think there’s something to be said for having taste. Your taste doesn’t have to be the same as mine, as long as you actually have some. People who claim to like everything don’t have taste – they have a lack of critical faculties. They have no filter separating them from obvious crap. Hey, if you like Britney Spears, or reality shows, or Rob Schneider movies, fine – but know why you like it, and be able to defend it. Don’t just say, “hey, a lot of people like that stuff”, because, believe it or not, millions of people can be wrong. Look at Milli Vanilli. They were hugely popular, and they were a complete fraud. Was that something worth defending on the basis of popularity alone? I think not. New Kids on the Block were huge 15 years ago, and their entire fan base has now grown up and disowned them. You don’t “outgrow” something if it’s good.

In the end, I think it’s the Teds of the world who are missing out. Hipness may be an adolescent concern, but quality is an adult concern. That’s even more true for busy adults who have less leisure time on their hands – why wouldn’t you want to spend that time experiencing the absolute best stuff that’s out there, rather than the worst? That’s the part that I’ll never understand. It’s not just the people who don’t know – it’s the people who do know, but aren’t willing to open themselves up to a new experience, something unfamiliar, different and exciting. People who wouldn’t watch a great film like City of God (one of the most essential pieces of cinema this decade, in my book) because it has subtitles. People who won’t listen to a song by a band they’ve never heard before. People who would rather watch Full House reruns until the end of time than take a chance on something new.

I don’t understand those people, and I probably never will. I want to have those new experiences and mind-blowing discoveries. I go to the video store to find things I can’t see at the local cineplex, not to get the big blockbusters from months ago. Yes, there’s a comfort in the familiar, but there’s also something thrilling about exploring new territory. To deny yourself that is, in my opinion, the least adult thing you could possibly do. Being a Ted would really suck. I don’t think that’s what growing up is really about, but if it is, then I hope to be filled with “adolescent concerns” for the rest of my life.

Well, so much for keeping it short. Anyway, here’s a quick roundup of the movies I’ve seen lately but haven’t reviewed, in the order I saw them:

Red Eye – Craven does the pseudo-Hitchcock thing, and winds up making his best movie in years? Who would have thought? Yes, the ending is a bit cheesy (imagine if the ad campaign hadn’t given it away though), and I kept wondering how the passengers around them failed to hear their conversations. But McAdams and Murphy totally sold the thing. I wasn’t that familiar with Rachel McAdams before this, but wow – not only is she gorgeous as all hell, but she can act like there’s no tomorrow. I’ll be paying attention to her in the future, that’s for sure. Is it odd to anyone that we’re suddenly inundated with airplane-based thrillers? Or is this just Hollywood’s way of dealing with post-9/11 anxieties? Discuss. Not a great movie, but a very effective one. ***

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – While it’s not a supreme mindfuck like Oldboy, the first chapter in director Park Chan-Wook’s “revenge trilogy” has a lot to recommend it. A story of a desperate kidnapping gone horribly wrong, this is bold and brutal stuff, and absolutely fascinating. Seek it out. You won’t be sorry. ***1/2

The Brothers Grimm – Terry Gilliam has made some great movies. This isn’t one of them. A sad, sorry mess on every possible level, the only possible reason to watch this is to see a brilliant director try to go mainstream and trip over himself. I wish I could lay all the blame on the Weinsteins, but I can’t see how this disaster would have worked even without their interference. It’s one of those movies where every single actor seems completely miscast, where every line of dialogue is painful to the ears and even the set design seems intended to cause severe eyestrain. It’s dour, ugly, vulgar, irritating, and worst of all, it’s boring. The real crime is how conventional the whole enterprise is deep down, from the stupid plot to the lame sibling-rivalry theme (who cares?) to the weak attempts at humor that fall completely flat every time. I expect this kind of cheese from the likes of Stephen Sommers (and frankly, he does it better), but watching Gilliam attempt it so half-heartedly is like drinking a gallon of spoiled milk. He deserves better material, and so do we. I honestly could not wait for it to end. There’s no sign of Gilliam’s usual twisted wit, nor the one thing the movie desperately needed – his unbridled enthusiasm for magic. It just sucks. Better luck next time, Terry. *

The Great Raid – John Dahl took modern actors and digitized them into an old WWII rescue movie! At least, that’s what I would think if I didn’t know better. I’m apparently in the minority here, but I actually thought this was pretty good! It’s very old-fashioned in its sensibilities, but I found that refreshing. It looks and feels like a movie from the time period, and it achieves a kind of fascinating verisimilitude that took me by surprise. The actors are surprisingly well cast, it’s a true story that’s worth telling and is done very well. It’s a war movie with noble intentions and not a trace of cynicism (when’s the last time you saw that?). What’s not to like? It may not be particularly politically correct in its depiction of the Japanese soldiers (not at all, in fact), but sometimes people have to own up to having been bad guys. Can’t there be any villains in movies anymore? I’d be interested in seeing a film about this subject from the Japanese perspective, but until then, this will do nicely, thank you. This is the kind of movie my Dad would really like, and it worked for me, too. Not a classic, but much better than it’s been given credit for. ***

The Transporter 2 – is Luc Besson becoming the new Joel Silver? No one else seems to be churning out these slick action flicks anymore, and he’s doing it quite well. Jason Statham has the stoic badass thing down (why can’t he be the next Bond?), and while the plot is basically an excuse for some cool action scenes…I’m OK with that. Completely ridiculous and over-the-top, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. ***

The 40-Year-Old Virgin – I was skeptical, but this turned out to be the best comedy I’ve seen so far this year. There’s a real heart to it, it’s not just a bunch of raunchy sex jokes (although there are plenty of those). I like that it’s not about laughing at the guy who isn’t getting any, but actually feeling for him and rooting for him to finally get some. Steve Carell is a much better actor than I would’ve thought, and he makes Andy a real person, not a walking joke. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of funny stuff here, because there definitely is (it may be the most quotable movie I’ve seen this year), but the movie works because Carell and company allow you to give a damn. I never thought I would say that Catherine Keener actually brightened up a movie, but damn if she doesn’t do just that. The three guys are very funny, but they all seem real in their own warped ways, which just makes them funnier (wow, remember when Paul Rudd was a serious actor? That seems like a lifetime ago). And it’s not every movie that can make drunk driving, indiscriminate promiscuity and infidelity amusing. I do think it kinda cops out towards the end, with the whole “true love conquers all” deal (horseshit), but otherwise this is a real winner. And Elizabeth Banks…damn. ***1/2

That about covers it for now. I’ve got a couple of screeners for upcoming indie movies I want to get to, so I will be back soon. Don’t give up on me just yet.

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