Wednesday, July 26, 2006

When Messenger Becomes Message in Summer Movies

In the past few weeks, I've screened (and enjoyed) three very different summer films: An Inconvenient Truth, Lady in the Water and Clerks II. You couldn't select three more diverse films, right? One's a documentary about the environment; one's a fairy tale brought to vivid cinematic color, and the last is the strangely affecting tale of two slackers countenancing their mid-thirties. On the surface, these movies don't seem to have anything in common.

And yet - oddly - they do.

Audiences who so vehemently hate the people who make these films and aren't willing to even go see them share a common, defining trait. It's a kind of tunnelvision or blindness, really. In all three cases, these folks have mistaken the messenger for the message. They've become physiologically unable to separate the film's creative voice - whether it be Al Gore, M. Night Shyamalan or Kevin Smith - from the qualities of filmmaking inherent in the enterprise itself. The cult of personality is strong in this country, and we see no greater evidence of that than in the telling, hostile responses to these films.

Fox News, Joel Siegel...j'accuse!

Let's begin with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which is a primer on the science behind global warming. Roughly 50% of the populace (red states?) apparently dislikes Al Gore and therefore believes that anything he says on any topic is going to be lies or propaganda. In the mind's eye of these folks, the movie is going to be about sour grapes over the 2000 election, or the deification of Al Gore. It's a fallacious argument that goes something like this: If I know "X" about a person, then that disqualifies Argument "Y" if the same person says it. Even if X and Y have nothing to do with each other.

Still, this documentary is - for the most part - pretty darn bi-partisan (did you know John McCain is fighting the good fight over global warming too?) For my taste, there is only one section in An Inconvenient Truth that boasts "too much" Al Gore in it. And that's the section that rehashes the events of election night 2000. Really, the outcome of that horrid election - love it or hate it - doesn't relate to the topic at hand; global climate change. The other two Al Gore "personal" stories in the film, one regarding the death of his sister from lung cancer and the other an accident that nearly took the life of his son, actually relate intimately to the film's core subject matter - and that's how people think, and how people can change...two very important matters if this crisis is to be taken seriously.

But the fact of the matter is that in this case, Al Gore happens to have hard science on his side (and the film makes this fact plain.) There are precisely ZERO science journals out there that can claim (or that do claim...) his science is wrong. But guess how many media stories question the existence of global warming? Fifty-three percent of all stories on the topic. Yep, there is precisely 0% argument amongst scientists on the topic...and only the wolves in the "liberal" (yeah, right...) media drum it up as a "debatable" thing. But what do you expect, these are the same people who claimed Al Gore said he invented the Internet (which he never said).

Still, the bottom line is that - take it or leave it - An Inconvenient Truth is a splendid documentary, one that conveys an enormous amount of fascinating information and makes a difficult scientific topic digestible. Many critics have said you don't need to like Al Gore to enjoy the movie, and I think that's a fair insight. But how many people who might enjoy (or learn something...) from An Inconvenient Truth won't even go see the movie because of preconceived notions about Gore? Because they've confused the messenger with the message?

The Lady in the Water is the second recent example of this fallacy. The rap against M. Night Shyamalan is that all of his movies are about "twists." Remember The Sixth Sense? Unbreakable? Signs? The Village? Consequently, many movie reviewers now approach all of his work in the same way: with their backs up. They go into his movies looking to pinpoint and assess the twist at all costs. If they figure out the twist before the end, the movie is a failure because the twist is "obvious." If the surprise ending isn't guessed, the movie is also dubbed a failure because the twist "came out of left field." Yes, my friends, this is one director who faces an absolutely no-win situation. He's damned no matter what he does.

Also, there's a vocal group of movie goers who have somehow discerned that in the director's rush to "fool" the audience with those surprise twists, he is actually asserting a level of arrogance; that he somehow believes he's "better" than the average movie goer, since he can fool the plebes. I'm sensitive to this argument. I admire and respect many people who make it. However, unless one can point to specific moments in his films - moments in the text of his work - that support the argument that he's an intellect who's condescending and patronizing, it doesn't hold water. I'm open to evidence (extant in the body of the work), but frankly, I don't see it.

Now arrives Lady in the Water, and the reviews all state pretty much the same thing: too much exposition and hey, wha' happened? Where's the twist? The very critics who've complained over banal twists, twists that don't work and the director's arrogance with his twistie things are now in a kerfuffle over the fact that his latest work doesn't include a twist. Again, a preconceived notion about the messenger (not the actual film) has colored mainstream perceptions of it.

I would argue that none of Shyamalan's film's feature twists at all. Instead, he vets his stories from a certain perspective and then - usually in the third act - holds up a mirror to those stories, and audiences understand them in a new way. That isn't a twist. That's a revelation. And that's clever filmmaking too. Imagine if we reduced Rod Serling to the same stereotype: All he ever did was write twists! Why, he must have thought he was smarter than us, huh? Bastard!

Finally, there's Kevin Smith. By now, you either love him or hate him -- and you no doubt have your reasons. Count me on the "love" side. I still believe he's the only director working in Hollywood today who understands Generation X; and how to talk about the generation in a way that's funny and meaningful. He utilizes sarcasm (the tool of our generation...) and cussing (ditto) to get his points across, but he's like a Gen X Woody Allen because he's consumed with matters of sex, love, and relationships. I adore the guy and his work.

But there are those folks out there - the same kind who can't believe anything Al Gore says (cuz he's a democrat!) and the ones who pigeonhole Shyamalan as Mr. Twist - who will never like anything Kevin Smith does. Why? Hell Hath No Fury like a Fan Boy overlooked. Because all these geeks out there live under the deluded impression that Smith somehow didn't earn his career. They look at Kevin Smith and see a comic-book-reading, Star Wars-loving fan boy and think....oh, I could have done what he did. That should be me making those movies! Of course, Kevin Smith is the one who maxxed out his credit cards; he's the one who actually did the work...and who made critical hits including Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma. Yet there will always be that vocal group of sour-grapes Talk Backers who gaze upon him and believe they are better than he. That they should be plucked out of message board obscurity to write the next superhero comic; or direct the next indie picture.

So they see Kevin Smith's movies, and - again - they confuse the messenger with the message. Oh, it's another Kevin Smith Clerks movie...must suck. Right? Well, Clerks II has a lot going on it (including the funniest Silence of the Lambs riff yet put to film...) but it's actually some kind of self-referential masterpiece. You see, Kevin Smith has made a movie about thirty-something angst; about the place where his characters Randal and Dante dwell. The thing is: that's where Smith dwells too. In the film, Dante is about to leave behind his life in search of someone else's perfect life; over the belief that it's time to be an adult and grow up. Think of what happened with Kevin Smith and Jersey Girl...a mainstream romantic comedy that blunted so much of his wonderful edge. He listened to the input of others around him, those well-meaning Iagos telling him he needed a different cinematographer; that the needed to make a certain kind of movie to be taken seriously. And now - like Dante and Randal - Smith comes home to Clerks 2 and makes the movie he wants to make. There's a lot to love here...and poor Joel Siegel missed it (he walked out of the screening over the donkey sex scene).

You know, I disagree vehemently with the politics of Chuck Heston, Arnold Schwarzenneger and Bruce Willis. And yet I love their movies through and through. I won't rule out their cinematic work simply because I find some aspect of their personalities discomforting or against "my values." If I did, I'd have missed Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, and Sin City, to name just three treasures. Vince Gallo is a conservative Republican, and I love Brown Bunny. I just think it's sad that people have already made up their minds about Al Gore, M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith and joined the ranks of the haters. And still, I'm not innocent of this foible myself...I bypassed Mission Impossible III because of my personal distaste for Tom Cruise. I intend to rectify that situation ASAP.

An Inconvenient Truth, Lady in the Water and Clerks II are amongst the top entertainments in the summer of The Da Vinci Code, and it would really suck to not see them because of pre-conceived notions about the people behind them. After all, art is supposed to challenge and foster debate. When we categorically say "no" to Gore or Smith or Lady in the Water, without giving any a fair hearing, what we're really saying is that our minds have been closed and locked to art.

No one lives here anymore. We won't even tolerate the idea that Al Gore, Kevin Smith or M. Night has the capacity to surprise us. I thought Underworld was the death knell of movies (for reasons too numerous to mention here...), but maybe it's this new form of movie goer rigidity that's the authentic danger to cinematic art. The belief that to go so a movie - a brand name product - we must approve of all aspects of the makers beforehand. It is better not to learn, not to see, than to experience something we might disapprove of, I guess...


  1. I wouldn't have been able to make that connection between those three flicks .. I have seen "Clerks II" and "An Inconveninent Truth" and thoroughly enjoyed them both ... Joel Siegel should be fired for such an infantile tantrum that was only designed to draw attention to his own fledgling career

  2. 1) Excellent observation to hang a post on;

    2) Please, PLEASE tell me why Underworld was the death knell of movies, and not, say, some other generic, sucky thing like The Mod Squad?

  3. Underworld: Evolution was the death knell of movies.

  4. All right, John Voorhees -

    Underworld was the death knell of movies because it was shot and edited by a troll who apparently had never heard of these things called "movies" before.

    And by that, I simply mean that there is no sense of classicism about the film; no sense of spatial relationships; that one person has a particular location in space and time related in any direct way to anyone else. The shots have no empirical connection to one another than proximity (meaning that one frame follows another).

    The frame is a sacred place, where our eyes determine things like cause and effect, geography, motion, etc.

    All that is missing in Underworld...and it was still a hit. Which is why - drum roll please - it is the death knell of movies.

    As an experiment, watch a movie that critics claimed was bad (John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars) right after Underworld, and look at how utterly brilliant the action scenes are in that film by comparison. Carpenter understands how to use the frame to its fullest advantage; and it's clear how images relate to one another.

    I didn't see Underworld Evolution, but I believe it was the second death knell of movies. I totally do.