Between 1979 and 1989, I was a film critic for two college papers, three small-market publications and – for six or so editions – a contributor to the “Mick Martin & Marsha Porter Video Movie Guide.” (Some time in the late ‘90s, before the publication’s name changed to the uninspiring “DVD & Video Guide,” the editors removed my reviews and credit from the publication — so don’t bother trying to find my words of wisdom anywhere but on this blog, unless you dig reading from a microfiche projector.)
Does this make my opinion on cinema and film trends any better than yours? Of course not. Still, I would like to think that my countless hours of viewing, reviewing, and researching films over a quarter of a century counts for something. (I also spent five of those twenty-five years working in an independent “art house.”) So, when I see a couple of trends developing over the last twenty years that frustrates me, I feel like I must speak out. (Anyway, this is my blog so I’ll write what I want!) Since no one wants to hear me talk about how TCM is the best movie house in the world, I guess I will use this space to lay out a couple of things I think are disturbing with Hollywood. Mind you, there are more than just two disturbing trends in film today and, of course, my biggest problem is not with today’s films, but with today’s TV-fed audiences. Still, I think I am in the majority when it comes to this problem, so I will not spend any time on how much I hate those who mix socializing with movie viewing or those who just cannot turn off their mobile devices while inside the theatres.
A couple of months ago I saw the film, 300. Based on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, 300 had a lot of violence and gore, not to mention a steamy sex scene. I would have thought that anyone – whether a historian, an action-movie maven, or just someone who came in off the street for a box of popcorn and something to watch will chowing it down – could not help seeing the sex scene as some sort of apparition, or even a director’s joke – it has absolutely no place in the film.
When I saw the infamous scene, it stuck out as if the projectionist had mistakenly switched a 300 reel with a soft porn reel – I almost turned around and looked at the projectionist’s booth the way I would if a hair was in the gate or if the film broke. Of course, neither of these were the case – there was Lena Headey as Spartan Queen Gorgo sweating and moaning like an adult film star, grinding away on our valiant King. What was far more aggravating is how the scene was met with such indifference, as if filmgoers expected to see some T&A for their $9.50.
It is frustrating to hear fellow film enthusiasts argue that there was nothing wrong with that scene in this film, as well as in other films that sport gratuitous sex. My like-minded friend, Gus, complained to me how his friend, Brad, had acted as if Gus was crazy when he protested the scene’s inclusion in the film. About eight years ago, I had the very same argument with Brad about the sex scene in He Got Game. Brad had told me it was the best film Spike Lee had done (up to that time). I agreed, except for the scene where all the college girls have sex with the prep. I suggested to Brad that the graphic sex could have been left out and, by implication, the point of the scene would be maintained. Brad’s reaction was as if I was proposing to rip the heart out of the movie.
Of course, I would not spend all this time on poor ole Brad if I thought he was the only person who judges movies with his libido – it is an epidemic. I have had countless arguments with many people about the cynicism of Hollywood and how it, above all industries, knows the power of sex and exploits it at the cost of content. Brad just looked at me dumbfounded others go to great, and ultimately embarrassing, lengths to try to justify sex on the screen. Here a fellow Netflix member goes to great lengths to explain the art behind Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello getting down multiple times in A History of Violence:
“These scenes honestly, effectively reflected the emotions permeating the characters at the time. The first, a playful (dress up) game that turns into an intense expression of their raw love. These scenes honestly, effectively reflected the emotions permeating the characters at the time.”
I wonder if the filmmakers would have the two characters express such “intense expression of their raw love” if instead of Viggo and Maria the two main characters were portrayed by John C. Reilly and Whoopi Goldberg; I wonder if my fellow Netflix member and others would still defend the sex scenes.
Since I am a Christian some of my non-believing friends write off my opinions as puritanical dogma, but they fail to take note that I am watching these movies in the first place. Many Christians no longer watch movies with ratings beyond PG and do not watch cable television. At times I think I, too, should give up and join my fellow Believers who avoid cinema and television the way they avoid drugs, alcohol, gambling, and popular music. However, I love the art form even if so many of these “artists” have traded content for an appeal to the common denominator.
Sex is a powerful tool in cinema and, if used through implication, helps plot development. As an example, the “sex scene” in The Bourne Identity transforms the two characters, Jason (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potentee), from strangers working together for their own self-preservation into lovers, and everything that happens after that scene changes the entire meaning of the action that follows. What is fascinating about this “sex scene,” vis-à-vis the current trend of sex in American film, is that virtually nothing happens: two people kiss, they begin to disrobe, and the scene cuts to the morning after – we don’t see Potentee’s breasts or ass or the two making love, we don’t even see them supposedly naked under the covers in the morning. Did we have to see the sex? The director proves to adult viewers that there is no reason for it, and I never heard Brad or anyone else complain about it. The day that films get lower ratings or are not recommended by friends and family because none of the characters have sexual intercourse, will be the day I officially hang up my popcorn cup!
Shorter Takes, Whip Pans, and camera behavior for ADHD viewers
The sequel to The Bourne Identity illustrates another disturbing trend in Hollywood. Unlike Identity, The Bourne Supremacy employs whip pans to emphasize action (as if all the car chases didn’t sufficiently scream, “This is an action film!”). I developed a headache watching it in the theatre. When it came to cable television a year or so later, I watched it, remembering what a cool story it is, but forgetting all those annoying whip pans and spastic hand-held camera moves ala NYPD Blue. While it is true that I am picking on this film only because it is a convenient segue into this other bothersome trend, my headaches don’t lie. The worst thing about this technique is that it is a cheap way to emphasize action – I used to do this stupid effect on the family Super-8 camera to punctuate action; I had an excuse, I was a teenager who fancied himself the family biographer. What is director Paul Greengrass’ excuse? Unfortunately, Greengrass has directed the soon-to-be-released third part in the Robert Ludlum trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. I will definitely see the flick, but I’ll medicate myself first, just in case.
Shorter takes is another depressing trend that seems more like an inevitability than a fad or a trend (i.e., whip pan and other hand-held camera techniques). Thus, this is more depressing than some sophomoric director’s contrivance and it seems indicative of the times. This becomes obvious when comparing a recent film with just about any film from the 1970s and earlier.
I did not realize just how much I was conditioned to “need” shorter takes in a film until I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger. . It took a while to get used to the pacing and the long takes, but ultimately I grew to appreciate what seemed to be a more “natural” presentation than the frenzied camera work that is seen in so many films today. In researching the short/long take issue, I found an entry in the indispensable Wikipedia.org on the Long Take. The entry provides many movie and television productions with notably long takes. Admittedly, there are still filmmakers out there who employ longer takes – in Manhattan Woody Allen employs a static camera and has his subjects move across the POV adding a edgy feeling to the scene. Today, we would most likely see the hand-held camera panning back and forth. Sometimes I think these films should be viewed with a dose of Dramamine. The long take is not dead yet, but it is becoming more of a gimmick or a badge of honor, rather than a standard throughout the industry.
Okay, you can stop reading. I’m finished ragging about how rotten things have become in American cinema. Anyway, North by Northwest is up next on TCM and I just have to see the movie’s sex scene. You know, when Carey Grant and Eva Marie Saint kiss just as their train goes into a tunnel…sexy stuff!