All-Time Downers

There are at least three ways to have a depressing time at the movies, and one is worth the grief.
You can sit through something shoddy, inept, sub-standard, and do everything you can to flush it out of your system when it’s over. You can also sit through a smooth, studio-funded, well-made enterprise that everyone’s loving and is making money hand over fist, but which you happen to despise with every fibre of your being. (For me, that would be….naaah, I’ve said it too many times before.)

But watching a quality downer can be edifying. (Naturally.) I’m speaking of a movie that’s totally comfortable with the idea of bumming you out, because it’s trying to be thoughtful, profound or in some way affecting. Which saves it from being a bummer.
I’m thinking about this because there’s a film opening fairly soon that belongs in the third category. I saw it a little while ago, and I’m not going to identify it except to say that it was made by good and talented people.

It’s a totally honorable effort, in short, although it doesn’t leave you with much besides a feeling of profound spiritual despair. Everything in this movie is down, down, down. Almost every character hates their life or their job or is overweight or dying…or it’s raining or the skies are overcast, or secondary characters are acting in a randomly cruel and hurtful way.
And yet it feels honest; it captures the way life actually feels at times. I’ve been there on occasion and I didn’t exactly welcome the memory, but I recognized it.
I don’t have any persuasive arguments for anyone with a bleak attitude, but I’ve always gotten a laugh from that Woody Allen/Annie Hall joke about a woman complaining about the terrible food at a restaurant and her friend saying, “I know…and such small portions!”

Life is hard, cruel, oppressive, boring…but it’s all we’ve got to hold onto and it’s better than being dead. The “honorable effort” could use a tiny bit more of this attitude.
Movies that relay or reflect basic truths will never be depressing, but those that tell lies of omission by way of fanciful bullshit always poison the air.
Sadness in good movies is not depressing — it’s just a way of re-experiencing honest hurt. Ordinary People is sad, but if you think it’s depressing as in “lemme outta here” there’s probably something wrong with you.
I’ll give you depressing: living a rich full life (children, compassion, wealth, adventure) and then dying at a ripe old age and coming back (i.e., reincarnated) as a chicken at a Colonel Sanders chicken ranch.
My beef is with movies that impart a distinct feeling of insanity by way of delirium or delusion, or a bizarre obsession. Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (turn on the current! smell that burning flesh! cuddle that cute mouse!) and The Majestic (rancid small-town “folksiness”) are two such films. Ditto Steven Spielberg’s Always .
Martin Scorsese’s Kundun isn’t exactly a downer. It’s worse than that — it’s paralyzing. And yet Scorsese made one of the greatest spiritual-high movies ever with The Last Temptation of Christ.

On the other hand, Marty sent thousands upon thousands of moviegoers into states of numbing depression when Sharon Stone bent over in order to give Joe Pesci a blowjob in Casino.
Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’ film about a lush who’s decides to drink himself to death and doesn’t quit until he succeeds, has never been and never will be depressing. (If you’re engaged to someone who thinks it is, tell him or her it’s over — you’ll be divorcing them eventually, so you might as well get it over with.)
And yet the watching of John Huston’s Under the Volcano, about a somewhat older guy (Albert Finney) doing more or less the same thing, is akin to accidentally overdosing on generic cold medication and having to tough it out until the effects wear off.
In her review of Peter Brooks’ King Lear (’71), a profoundly dreary black-and-white thing with Paul Scofield in the title role, Pauline Kael wrote, “I didn’t dislike this film — I hated it.” I was so intrigued by this review that I eventually saw Brooks’ film, and I knew Kael wasn’t talking about what Brooks had done as much as the way his film made her feel deep down.
The Godfather, Part II is a fairly gloomy film but it doesn’t lie. It says that the ties that used to bind families and community together in the old days (the `40s and `50s) have been unraveling for some time. As Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone says to his mother in the second act, “Things are changing.”
The Matrix Revolutions is a profoundly depressing film, especially when all those hundreds of thousands of sentinels start swarming into Zion like wasps. Absolutely relentless and thundering empty-drinking-glass bullshit.

Sitting through Ron Howard’s Backdraft is like injecting an experimental psychotic drug concocted by Dr. Noah Praetorious (the frizzy-haired scientist in The Bride of Frankenstein) straight into your veins.
Most of the movies directed by Sean Penn are pretty damn depressing, but even in this context, The Crossing Guard delivers an exceptionally bleak vibe.
Kevin Bacon’s Loverboy, a well-made drama about an obsessive woman who never lets go of her insanity and is finally destroyed by it, is like being locked in a room with this character, and feels like a Bedlam-type thing.
People who think animal-death movies like Old Yeller, Bambi and The Yearling are depressing are, in the words of Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, “rank sentimentalists.”
The idea that someone saw the spirit of Ernest Hemingway in Chris O’Donnell, and cast him in In Love and War…that’s really bad.
Send in your own all-time depressing films quickly, and I’ll put them up this afternoon. And let’s not have any mentions of gross tear-jerkers like Love Story, Dying Young, etc. Let’s keep things dignified.

Nope

Stunt professionals want the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to start handing out Oscars for Best Stunt Coordinator.
Good movie stunts will always deserve respect, but I’ve never seen a stunt in my life that, by my calculations, has lent thematic depth to the film or added to the emotional impact. Has anyone?
Stunts just aren’t in the same artisan realm as art direction, costume design, music composing or even main-title design. They’re skillful but never artful. They’re just, you know…stunts.
The people who perform them are obviously nervy professionals, but they didn’t go to Pratt or Julliard or NYU or AFI film schools to learn their craft, and I know this sounds snobby but what they bring to a film isn’t all that special or elevated.

Their work isn’t very original, for one thing. I can count on one hand the fist-fight scenes that have seemed exceptionally realistic. (That fight between Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards was an exception.) To my eyes, movie stunts never seem to involve average, off-balance, physically clumsy people. They’re almost always rotely performed.
And I’m getting really tired of car-chase scenes, even when they push the boundaries like the one staged in Moscow in The Bourne Supremacy. The cars in car-chase scenes always seem like they’re being driven by professional drivers — they always fishtail and spin out in a certain way, like the driver knows exactly what he/she is doing, etc.
Four stunt organizations have gotten together and written a letter to AMPAS, saying that “stunt performers are the only faction of the movie industry that must literally risk their lives for the sake of their art” and that “the talent and expertise that is required of a stunt coordinator to be both creative and safe is enormous and highly deserving of academy recognition.”
Safe, maybe, but forget creative. To me, movie stunts are the antithesis of that. Hollywood’s stunt professionals are good people, but they’re upper-level proles who are just a step or two removed from carpenters and electricians, and including them with the rest of the Oscar contenders would devalue things a bit.

Conservative Diss

“I predict that the upcoming Oscars will be the lowest rated in recent Oscar history. For the first time I will also not be watching.
“As a recent film school graduate who has loved and devoured film history since a child, I can say that I am truly bored with a great majority of the stories being told through the mainstream of the American/Western film industry. Hollywood has been in an overtly left-wing ideological paradigm for well over a generation now and certainly all of my lifetime.
“This is not a question of politics. It is a question of bad story telling. It makes films predictable.
“As someone born in the 70√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s, old-fashioned to me is not a rigid evangelical going to church on Sunday. Old-fashioned to me is wife-swapping, wicca and gay bath houses. Ideologically, for as long as I can remember, and with precious few exceptions priests, evangelicals, businessmen, corporations, conservative politicians, uptight white folk and (insert bad Hollywood stereotype here) are always the villains.

“I did not need Michael Medved to tell me the third-act twist in Million Dollar Baby. I had my suspicions as soon as I saw the religious imagery in the trailer released in November and read web-columns saying how shaken people were from the initial pre-screenings. The day it went into limited release in mid-December, I waited until about 3:30 pm (after the first early matinees), went onto some Eastwood fan chat rooms and had my thoughts confirmed.
“I have admired and championed Clint Eastwood since long before it became hip and fashionable in film circles to do so yet I found the last third of M$B very predictable. It would have been unpredictable had his character not euthanized Hillary. I don√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t for one minute believe that you thought there was a chance the film wouldn√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t end the way it did.
“I saw M$B and The Sea Inside when they were called Brian√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Song and Whose Life Is It Anyway?. Hearing Julia Roberts in Closer talk about the taste of cum was about as shocking to someone my age as hearing Julia Roberts talk about the taste of cum.
“‘Prestige’ films like Vera Drake, Kinsey, Frida, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Hours, The Dreamers, etc. do not titillate or offend…they bore. They don’t speak to people of a younger generation because we have had their ideology rammed down our throats from birth.
“These films are well-made but indulgent and poorly researched polemics made by people who still pine for an era that no longer exists — the ’60s. The counter culture that lived 30 or 35 years ago and refuses to die bores more in my generation than the media would have you believe. The new generation of film fans are not shocked by Deep Throat. We were weaned on Trey Parker and yawn in the face of it.
“As I said to an older, very left-wing reporter friend of the family after the election who could not understand why I would support GW, I√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve never been silenced or censored by an evangelical, but I do have first-hand experience of a raging, foaming at the mouth p.c. university student pointing his finger and saying I am a ‘poor quality human being’ because I ‘dared’ to make a short film with the phrase ‘chick√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ass’ in it.
“I know first-hand of a film professor who found himself as the subject of a tribunal because he dared — dared! — to show an excerpt of Blue Velvet during a class on voyeurism. The more ‘enlightened progressive’ types decided that he was implicitly endorsing rape.
“Hollywood now forsakes art for ideology and films that truly break new ground artistically (The Passion of the Christ, Fight Club, Hero) are derided or not rewarded because of their ideology.

“It says something about our times and the history of film that we are constantly told how shocking, daring and controversial left-leaning films are/were (Fahrenheit 9/11, Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Last Temptation of Christ), yet by any standard, the most controversial film since 1915√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Birth of a Nation was made by a conservative Catholic director who made an R-rated film about a man on a cross who died 2000 years ago.
“For a community that says it is so culturally curious about all walks of life, where are the stories depicting the plight of the millions slaughtered under Joseph Stalin?
“For every ten Hollywood love songs to Marxism/communism, where is the director who dares tell the story of those brave students who died in Tianamen Square?
“How about an Oscar-caliber film detailing the slaughter of the three million Polish Catholics killed in the Holocaust?
“For every story about how repressed America was sexually in the ’50s, how about a film detailing the pure intellectual repression caused by leftist speech codes on modern university campuses?
“Can you actually make a case that the creative team of Vera Drake is being nominated over films like Kill Bill Part 2 or Man on Fire because of quality, or is the message of the film what√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s being voted for?
“Can you make the case that in 50 years more film students will be talking about Sideways or The Aviator over The Passion of the Christ? That people such as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchock, Orson Wells, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Cary Grant and Stanley Kramer never won a legitimate Oscar does more to invalidate the Oscars than anything anyone can say.
“Most modern Hollywood/Western films don√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t dare me to think — they ask me not to. I suggest that if Hollywood artists want to become relevant again, perhaps they should quit calling everyone who disagrees with them ‘uncurious’ and become a little bit more curious themselves. If they don√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t, they will find more and more Bubbas like myself who care less and less.” — Nicole DuMoulin.

Oscar Expectations

“I’m from one of the dreaded red states — Houston, Texas, to be exact. I’ve seen and loved both Sideways and Million Dollar Baby — especially the former. I suppose I’m an exception to the rule, but you’re probably right that the majority of people who have seen it live up north. That’s too bad because they’re great films.
“I for one am happy with the change in the Oscars, and I’m glad that smaller films that haven’t made $100 million or over have gotten recognition. I just wish Paul Giamatti had been nominated.” — Richard Scandrett.
“Interesting insights on the Oscars and Oscar-nominated grosses in your 2/11 column. I’m a blue-state guy living in a red state (but a weird one with a Democratic Governor and Dem-dominated state assembly who voted overwhelmingly for Bush).

“I finally caught Sideways yesterday in a pretty crowded theatre in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and I was talking with some folks in line and in the theatre beforehand about the Best Picture nominees. I found some other reasons for both the declines in ratings and money among the ‘common man’ types (something that people in NC overwhelmingly believe they are).
“First of all, the biggest movie of the last three years, both in terms of money and Oscar nods was what? That’s right — the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Some people I talked to in the theatre said that since that experience, they haven’t seen any other ‘big’ movies that they were interested in. One guy even said he didn’t even want to give The Aviator a shot, not even on video.
“Similarly, there seems to be sort of a weird backlash against nominated ‘small’ films. People around me in line going to see other stuff said they were disappointed in Lost in Translation, The Hours…one lady even mentioned Gosford Park…other movies that were not blockbusters the last few years but were liked by critics and nominated for Oscars. They didn’t want to see Sideways or Finding Neverland.
“Also, some people just don’t like Clint Eastwood’s movies, and I’m one of them. I hated Unforgiven, tolerated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and will not watch Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby. Some others in the theatre agreed.
“Anyway, I came out of Sideways very satisfied. It was a great story and well-acted. Other people seemed to enjoy it, too, although I did experience one of the great horrors of being in a movie like that: the couple with the four or five kids clearly not old or smart enough to understand a movie like that who keep getting up to go to the bathroom and get candy every five minutes. At least the parents kept them from talking.” — Marc Allen

Wells to Allen: Those people you were speaking have taken the concept of “unsophisticated” to new lows. People should see what they want to see, but it sounds to me like they’re much more into shutting doors than opening them.
“Don’t you think that the biggest problem with Oscar’s popularity is the fact that there’s an awards show on television at least once a week? It’s ridiculous. There’s the Golden Globes, SAG, some British thing, Blockbuster, MTV, People’s Choice, blah, blah, blah. There’s a complete over-saturation, to the point where these award shows seem to be more about celebrity than they do about films. I used to love the Oscars when I was younger, I never missed a second, but now I’m just burned out on the whole celebrity scene, to the extent that I don’t really want to see any of it. Not even the Academy Awards.
“For me personally, the problem is that the winners of the past two Best Picture awards have really bummed me out. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King over Mystic River for Best Picture? Its wrong to give the Best Picture award for an overall achievement, instead of the year’s best film.
“But that’s not nearly as egregious as Chicago‘s Best Picture win two years ago. I dare someone to explain to me how Chicago, which I couldn’t even sit through, is a better movie than The Pianist. Total crap.
“Every year has its Oscar omissions, but the past two years the Best Picture award should have been named the Picture that Makes People Feel the Best award. If Finding Neverland were to win this year, I don’t think that I could watch another Oscar night. Ever.” — Jeff Horst.
Wells to Horst: Don’t worry about Neverland — it’s in there strictly to round out the pack.

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