Old words, bad words

Before I started this blog to concentrate on my writing, I was already writing another blog. It’s called “Limping in the Light” and it’s still limping along out there. Today it focuses on its primary role: dealing with chronic illness while trying to live a life of faith, plus whatever rant comes to mind that week. Until I started this newer blog, however, everything, including the kinds of literary and film stuff you find here, was dumped into that one catch-all.

One such post has come home to haunt me recently. This post on the power of words, especially negative words, would fit nicely into “Scribbling in the Sand”. If I’d read it myself a few weeks ago, I might not have later blurted out what I thought was a clever wisecrack, but was actually a cruel invective cleverly disguised in joke’s clothing.

For a while after I uttered it, I wondered if maybe it was more hurtful than I intended and how the recipient might have taken it. The incident soon faded from my fading memory.

I thought no more about it until a subsequent role reversal. This time someone else made a simple joke at my expense, the kind of quip we often hear and too often make. We babble our little bon mot, not realizing it’s received as a mal mot, containing a slim stiletto of truth that cuts to the heart.

It certainly did in my case. For the next week I was undone. Unbeknownst to the speaker, he’d hit on a simmering volcano in my life and it erupted with a vengeance.

The upside of my injury was that it reminded me of my previous verbal blunder. In trying to make amends, I learned that my idiotic witticism stepped on a personal land mine. Now there’s some serious relational repairs to be undertaken.

wordbombs2That’s a lot of collateral damage for a couple of silly statements meant to entertain or, more likely, meant to flaunt our extraordinary wit. We’d like it if those who deal in weapons of mass destruction would show some discretion in their use. (They don’t, but that’s another sad tale.)

As dealers in words, we writers should be careful how we wield our particular brand of explosive.

Rating comedy

In my previous post, I asked the rhetorical question:

Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

LaughterSince it’s clear the answer is a resounding no, I’m going to help the cause. Why curse the darkness when there are candles and matches aplenty at hand? Herewith, my method for gauging comedic value. Although I’m speaking of movies here, there’s no reason my system couldn’t be used for any comic medium, including, but not limited to, plays, audio recordings, stand-up comedy routines, and political advertising.

So how do we judge comedy? Let me introduce Rick’s First Law of Amusement Appraisal, to wit, “If people laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t, it ain’t.” It really is that simple. It’s a wonder Einstein didn’t stumble on this.

So now that we have the theoretical groundwork laid, how do we go about implementing a measurement technology? If you know your movies, you’ll realize that a similar process has already been developed and deployed, but for a different emotional response. Think “Monsters, Inc.” but with laughter instead of screams. That’s right, we have Pixar create a device for measuring response to humor rather than fear. Hey, they’ve already figured out how to make consistently good and popular films. This should be a breeze… if Disney doesn’t screw it up.

In fact, I’ll give them a head start by quantifying a selection of laughter responses. I can imagine assigning to each a point score.

  • Hah! A simple laugh is good, worth a point.
  • A snort is the next level of laughter. A good snort, depending on volume and duration, could net two or three points. A bonus would be allotted if mucus were involved.
  • Salivary discharge is also worthy of an increased score.
  • Like any other laugh that involves bodily fluids, peeing one’s pants is a major coup in the humor department. Point allotment could be affected, however, by age and gender of the subject.
  • “I laughed till I cried” isn’t just an expression, it’s an apt description of a truly impressive fit of hilarity. Score up to a dozen bonus points in this case.
  • In some instances of uncontrollable merriment, it’s not unusual for the subject’s ability to breath to be suspended temporarily. This is rare enough to warrant a huge award of points. A problem arises when this condition lasts too long, resulting in…
  • Death. Laughing unto death is the ultimate funny. However, surely even Hollywood producers can see the down side of this result: No repeat ticket sales, the bread and butter of the blockbuster. Therefore, if this level is reached, all points are lost and the movie must be rewritten, preferably by the writer of “Mortdecai” to ensure the humor is completely wrung out of the script.

There are probably more variations to consider. Dick van Dyke (as the character Bert) delineates a fine variety as he sings, “I Love to Laugh” in “Mary Poppins”.

There. I’ve given the PTB (Powers That Be) a ripping head start. A little due diligence on their part will spare us any future debacles of the “Mortdecai” variety.

You’re welcome.

Note to subscribers to this blog: I apologize for an errant post I generated last week as the result of not carefully reading instructions about how to create a WordPress home page. The good news is that the page was eventually created, although it still has a ways to go before I can call it complete. Feel free to check out the current revision here. I hope it’s worth the hassle of the superfluous notification.

Worst movie ever?

mortdecaiThere’s no way of judging what is truly the worst movie ever. We should immediately dispense with those that have no pretensions. “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, “Octaman”, “Reefer Madness”, as well as any title followed by a number should be automatically eliminated from consideration for this contemptible compendium.

That leaves us with such classics as “Gigli”, “Ishtar”, “Heaven’s Gate”, “Battlefield Earth”, and their ilk, movies that someone, somewhere must have believed had redeeming qualities. They were wrong. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of such beasts.

It’s time to add one more to the list: “Mortdecai”. It baffles me how a movie with such quality contributors could be so wretched. It’s a comedy without a single laugh, just a series of lame gags unrelated to the supposedly sacrosanct “spine of the story”, most repeated ad nauseum, just in case you missed them the first six times.

From what I’ve read, the blame for this fiasco should be laid at the feet of Johnny Depp, whose career has gone from brilliant actor to something marginally more impressive than sideshow freak. His returns at the box office have taken a similar tailspin. Deservedly so.

The next night, I watched a dime-a-dozen made-for-TV romcom that was infinitely more enjoyable. Unlike Mortdecai, this one actually had a few laughs in it. With probably 1/100th the budget. Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

Funny thing about this is that it’s relatively easy to determine whether a comedy works or not. Show it to an audience and listen. Is anyone laughing? If not, the movie stinks. (Sadly, there’s no similar litmus test available for dramas, save the rare tear-jerker during which you can count sniffles. That measure is skewed during cold season, however.)

I cannot imagine an audience watching (more accurately, “enduring”) this drivel and laughing. Perhaps the test screeners mistook groans of pain for guffaws of pleasure. I can think of no other explanation.

Lesson learned: It is possible to see a movie for free and still pay too much.

Consider yourself warned.

Now a message from our sponsors

I really hate television commercials.

That’s just one of the reasons I don’t watch much TV. Unfortunately, every now and then I’ll be watching a movie and one of those beasts will interrupt my viewing. Here are a few for which I hold particular disdain:

The Dunkin Donuts commercial where a guy announces he got a promotion. He and his friends decide the appropriate way to “celebrate” this achievement is to get a sandwich from DD. Really? That’s the best they can come up with?? I’m thinking either this wasn’t much of a promotion (“Hey, guys! After five years in my bathroom cleaning job, I’m finally getting a brush!”) or they aren’t really his friends.

Another is for some kind of automobile cleaning product. The tagline says it all:

“Restore your car, restore your pride.”

Wow. Maybe that’s the guy with the bathroom cleaning job.

It was a year or so ago but, in one BMW commercial, a purchaser of a used BMW declares the day of his purchase to be the “best day of my life.” His wife and child stand by in amazement. So do I. What odds do you give that marriage? That kid? There’s a reason the old joke comparing BMW’s and porcupines is so funny.

I learn a lot from watching commercials, though. For instance, if a classic movie shot appears in a commercial, it has officially left the realm of tired cliche and entered the Vapid Zone. It should never be touched again. Example: Some superhero or wannabe falls into a three point crouch, usually shattering the ground beneath. It was cool in “The Matrix”, still mildly fun in “Iron Man”, but commercials have been using it for a while now. Yet movies still lean on that hack. Retire the insipidity.

Here’s another lesson I learned: Remember Veruca Salt in the “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie? The diminutive actress who portrayed her performed one of the great musical numbers in film history: “I Want It Now”. In case it wasn’t obvious enough from the Oompa Loompa’s song (“Who is to blame when a child is a brat?”), she was a bad girl. She was selfish. The lesson was to not be like her.

So when did “I Want It Now” become a good thing? No less than two commercials – for beer and a cell service, there could be many more; I don’t get a very wide sampling – use the chant as exemplary. Yes, American marketing tells us, we should all strive to be little Verucas, sulking and screaming and throwing tantrums if we don’t get what we want NOW.

Encouraging lesson: My era’s music still rules the airwaves. As much as I hate to have my musical heroes sell out, it’s great to hear their tunes in surprising places, such as commercials for Lay’s (Bread), Stop & Shop (Three Dog Night), video games (The Turtles), as well as many others. Either those groups are timeless or all these commercials are made by geezers like me. I’m guessing the former.

Finally, it occurs to me that advertisers are consistently telling us that their customers, both current and prospective, are jerks with warped priorities, q.v. aforementioned Beemer drivel. Think about it next time you’re viewing advertising. It’s always wise to watch commercials with a discerning mind. One good practice is to think critically and ask yourself: “Do I wanna be lumped in with those creeps?”

I vote “no”.