When you are in the movie business (and have even acted in a movie, as Whitley and I have) it kind of spoils your movie going experience. You no longer enjoy films with the childlike wonder you used to bring to the theater with you. Instead, you see holes in the plot, deficiencies in the acting and even the set decoration, you notice the product placement, and all this gets in the way of having a good time.
The other day, when we left a movie theater after seeing a vaguely unsatisfying independent film, Whitley suddenly said, "There was no foley in that film" and I realized he was right. "Foley work" is the term for putting in sound effects during the editing process, so that when someone sets down a tea cup, for instance, the audience hears a "clink." The effect is subliminal, but when it’s missing, you notice something is wrong, although you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is.
Not everyone is aware of what is called "product placement." This happens with books too. Whenever I tell people that publishers PAY to have their books displayed in the window and on the tables in the front of the store, they’re always amazed, because they thought these were the books the store thought were GOOD. Sometimes, in the case of independent bookstores, that’s true but it’s not true in the chains.
There is product placement in films too. Whenever the camera zooms in on the brand of TV set people are watching in a bar or the part of the car that identifies the make, you can be sure someone paid for that. For the film "ET," because a child leaves a trail of candy for the alien to follow, there was a hot dispute between manufacturers over exactly which candy would be used (I forget who won, but they paid plenty for the privilege).
I often find myself critiquing the script. I went to a screening of a friend’s film a few months ago, and left saying to myself, "The screenwriter made a classic mistake?he killed off the only appealing character in the middle of the film." This type of thinking is good for our new profession but is NOT good for enjoying yourself at the movies, when the best thing to do when something happens on screen that doesn’t make sense is to shrug it off and mentally move on. If too much of that happens, you can always spend your time making out your grocery list in your head.
I remember once reading an article about how, after a test screening, the end of a film was reshot and recut to make the protagonist less villainous. Once I thought back over the action in the movie, I remembered all the tell-tale signs of the evil to come, such as a knife set down on a table, but I didn’t notice these details when I watched the final version of the film, with the new ending.
"Test screenings" aren’t used as much as they once were, since studios are beginning to realize that, instead of giving people what they say they want, these actually contributed to a drop in movie going, since they resulted in films that were too much like all the other movies out there. The films we remember and love are always the result of one person’s vision, rather than "group-think." The trouble is, studio executives generally feel they need to justify their high salaries by objecting to anything in the script that is slightly confusing or misleading, which gradually translates an interesting script into a bland film. "Two ex-lovers meet again after all those years?too much of a coincidence!" (I’m thinking of "Casablanca" here). Once you’ve "taken" a few meetings with studio execs., you can easily spot these intrusions in a film you’re watching.
The ultimate exercise in blandness is what are called "franchises," which is the industry term for "sequels." The reason you see so many of these is that they usually fulfill the studio dream: they make a huge profit (all their money back and more) in the FIRST weekend, because people are already familiar with the characters and figure that if they liked the first movie, they’ll like the next one.
A few years ago there was an uproar, mainly from parents and religious people, who said that studios weren’t giving people movies they want to see. This made me laugh, because the truth is, studios work very hard to give people EXACTLY the movies they want to see. If a movie doesn’t make a lot of money, there won’t be a sequel or another one with the same theme. If you don’t like the kinds of movies that come to your local theaters, don’t bother complaining, just don’t go?vote with your feet!
While I understand parents’ concern about movies with too much violence and sex, there’s a tinge of hypocrisy about some of these religious objections. They remind me of an article I read saying that the most popular TV show in Saudi Arabia is "Baywatch." "The Passion of the Christ" wasn’t a huge hit because so many people went to it, it was a hit because preachers exhorted their congregations to go see it again and again?but even they couldn’t bring that off a second time, with the muddle-headed Apocalypto. Religious people are like everyone else: They want to have a good time at the movies.
The other day, we drove by a theater that was showing a film that had gotten a great review in the local paper and it had just started, so we went in. We watched and watched…and watched…and nothing happened…until the lights suddenly went out! An usher came in and explained that the power had gone out in the building but the film would start again soon. There was a comedian in the audience (he sounded like a professional, but I didn’t recognize him) who said, "Wanna take bets on whether something HAPPENS in the second half of the film?" I heard a few murmurs from people next to him, then he said, "You read a REVIEW of this film, but you came anyway?!" Since I was one of the people in the audience who had read the review, that hit home. I sometimes wonder if many of these glowing movie reviews aren’t actually a sort of "handshake" deal , a version of "You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours."
I remember the last time we were watching a movie when the lights suddenly went out. It was "The Blair Witch Project," and we had reached the place in the film where the filmmakers were creeping around in the woods when we were suddenly plunged into darkness. Everyone in the theater screamed, and I thought it was done intentionally. I was thinking about how effective that was and wondering how they did it, when an usher came in and explained that, due to a lightning strike, the lights had gone out in the shopping mall.
We see some of the best films at film festivals. When we’re in LA, we like to go to the French Film Festival. In 2004, we saw an extraordinary film by Bertrand Tavernier called "Holy Lola," about a family that adopts an Asian baby, then feels obliged to return to her place of birth to learn about its culture. It was never released here in the US.
This year, we saw another extraordinary French film called "Cortex," about an ex-detective who is an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home and solves the mystery of why so many people are dying there. In order to sneak into an office and look at the files, he surreptitiously watches a nurse punch in a door code, then struggles mightily to remember it to use later. A dramatic moment comes when the audience also sees the code: it’s 4-3-2-1. As someone who’s had brain problems of my own, I thought this was especially poignant. This will probably never be released here either.
Whitley and I once went to the famous Cannes film festival in France. This was as delightful and cliched an event as you’d expect, with starlets posing for paparazzi in the café on the porch of the hotel where everyone hung out while wearing tight short short (SHORT) shorts. We went there because the director of "Communion" thought it would be good publicity (the film wasn’t shown there).
Before we left home, the publicist for the film called us up. I happened to answer the phone and he asked me my name. I replied, "You didn’t read the book, did you?"
But he had a snappy reply ready: "I’m waiting for the movie."
We are planning to see what may be a rather depressing film next (hopefully, the same comedian will be there).
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