“Idiocracy” and other reflections on the demise of America

Written Wednesday morning, 11/9.

I’m not a drinker, so I’ve never known the misery of “the morning after”. Until now. As penitence, purge, and catharsis, I offer up this series of reflections. Think of it as “literary ipecac”. (I’m also considering taking up binge drinking.)

For a long time I resisted recommending the movie “Idiocracy” (tag line: “In the future, intelligence is extinct.”) because, while it’s smart and funny, it’s incredibly profane. Now, in the aftermath of one of the most shameful days in American history, I feel comfortable doing so. In fact, I consider it mandatory viewing, especially the opening setup. Not only is it hysterically funny, it has proven to be prophetic, almost frighteningly accurate.

For reasons I can’t figure out myself, I’ve never written about my father here. He died one year ago this month. He was a stereotypical member of “the greatest generation”. He lived to make sure his children had better lives than he did. He worked for the same company for decades. He fought on a PT boat in the South Pacific in World War II. (You remember WWII – the last war that wasn’t fought purely to generate profit for American industry.) I was incredibly proud of him. As much as I miss my father, I’m glad he isn’t around to see this day. He used to say, “I didn’t fight in a war just to see this country sold to billionaires.” I can’t imagine what it would do to him to see it handed over for free.

Time to dust off my “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” bumper sticker. It served me well when a previous sleaze-bag won an election. This pudgy-fingered, overgrown, adolescent sexual predator makes Nixon look like Mother Teresa. I’ve never been more proud to be a citizen of Massachusetts.

I’ve been ashamed of my country before. The war in Vietnam, Watergate, our silence in Rwanda, and the invasion of Iraq in my lifetime were embarrassing episodes. They remain taints on our history along with a lot of others that preceded me: slavery, Native American genocide, the internment of Japanese in WWII, the McCarthy hearings. This day can be counted among that infamous number because it could usher in new versions of any or all of those.

In addition to a lot of other negative lessons, this campaign and election have taught me that most American men, especially self-proclaimed “Christians”, hate women.

The term “bully pulpit” has taken on a whole new meaning.

My next vote: Lexapro or Zoloft.

“Make America Hate Again”

Before your president-elect did it, when was the last time you saw someone ridicule a disabled person? Right. Middle school. Most of us grew out of that phase. I have a lot of disabled friends. A lot. That image is burned into my mind forever.

We still haven’t learned that those who forget history (or, more commonly in this culture, were ignorant of it in the first place) are condemned to repeat it. Welcome to the Fourth Reich. Ask holocaust survivors. They’ve been there.

I have a few predictions:
1) The presidunce-elect will not serve out a full term.
2) His ignorance and arrogance will cause a major international tragedy.
3) Along with Nixon and McCarthy, he will be remembered as one of the darkest stains in American history.

To start, I’m going to place all stamps on envelopes upside down, an old protest trick from the Vietnam era. I know it’s just symbolic, but it makes me feel better. It takes on greater significance if there’s a flag on the stamp, as there often is. An American flag flown upside down is a sign of national distress.

There was a similar feeling among some people back in 1980 when the Reagan revolution helped Republicans sweep the presidency and both houses of Congress. That was different. People chose one philosophy and rejected another. It was an ideological victory. This was an idiot-illogical victory.

My previous post in my other blog, LITL, about the Christian community’s culpability in this fiasco is hereby re-emphasized.

Pray for mercy.

I’m going to build a wall around me. I’ll gladly pay for it.

New rating: BA

Previously, I wrote a post about new MPAA ratings that need to be introduced for the protection of the viewing public. There are plenty more where those came from. Today, I’d like to introduce one:

This one isn’t aimed at viewers but rather at the lazy and imagination-bankrupt producers of much of the dreck that passes for movie releases these days. (Thank goodness the “colorization” rage suffered a rapid demise.)

Fine. I get it. You want to produce sure money makers so you revive or piggyback on successful movies of the past. (We’ll ignore that fact that it doesn’t work.) It used to be that they at least had the decency to (1) wait a few decades to remake a movie and (2) stay away from classic films that have stood the test of time.

No more.

A popular movie stands a good chance of generating a reboot every ten years or so. (A remake of “Memento”, only 16 years old, is being developed.) And sequels? They flow like pee from a race horse. With much the same value. (There’s a sequel to “Mary Poppins” coming. Sacrilege.) No big deal. Crap is crap and we’ve come to expect it from Hollywood in large steaming heaps.

But “Ben Hur”?!?! Were they serious? It’s not enough that they put Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks. This is a movie that should never even have been considered for a remake or sequel. (If it had made money, the sequel would have been a lock.) Back in 1998, Gus Van Sant must have been psycho to remake Hitchcock’s classic. (From the “those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it” department: Michael Bay, of all people, wants to remake “The Birds”. Make it go away!!!)

The good news is that both of those films were box office disasters. And rightly so. Those two films, along with a lot more, should have been rated Back Away, Off Limits, Don’t Touch, Hands Off. Anything to keep producers’ grubby and greedy little mitts off the Good Stuff.

Here’s a short list of a few films that beg for the BA rating:

  • Casablanca
  • Gone with the Wind
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Singing in the Rain
  • City Lights

…along with probably every film in the AFI’s top 100. There should be serious penalties for violating this rating, above and beyond the deserved scorn and likely financial loss.

There’s plenty of stuff in the can that are legitimate candidates for remakes. Here are a few I would like to see:

  • It Happens Every Spring – Fun baseball story rife for new humor and technology.
  • I’d Rather Be Rich – Wonderful 1964 screwball romcom, hysterical but badly dated. It’s actually a remake of 1941’s “It Started with Eve”. Time for a new one.
  • On the Town – Great Broadway musical hacked by censors into an uneven movie. Remake from the original stage version.

Do you have any candidates for either list?

Just thinking…

[Bonus for me! I was about to start a new post when I saw this in my “drafts” folder. All written but never published! How great is that, cuz I should be writing the new book that keeps tugging on my imagination.]

I was just thinking…

Why would anyone choose to watch a TV show advertised as “addictive”? Isn’t that a Bad Thing? Would you buy a product with that label? I suppose some might. ((sigh))

Shouldn’t the ratings for “Wall-E” note that it has “Brief language”? And almost all Terrence Malick movies?

Speaking of movie ratings, I don’t mind the sex and violence, but I’m tired of watching movies with “thematic elements.” Enough already! Why do I have to put up with so many thematic elements?? Hollywood must be going crazy!

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up: I saw this crawl line streaming under an “entertainment news” program (real names long forgotten): “So-and-so and someone-or-other may or may not be dating.” Yeah, that should cover it.

Snorkel is a fun word.

Someone threw a new phone book in my driveway. Really? If I were so old I still used a phone book, I wouldn’t be able to reach down that far.

Didja ever notice that when someone says, “To make a long story short,” it’s already too late?

When speaking before a large group, almost everyone thinks they don’t need a mike. They do.

Overheard: “I usually always…”

A couple of cool bumper stickers I’ve seen recently:handbasketgardening

I know I’ve beaten up “Boyhood” enough, but didn’t the “7 Up” documentary series do the same thing earlier… and infinitely better?

Is it time to enforce affirmative action in Hollywood?

The latest commercials for Cadillac use the tag line “dare greatly.” Huh?!?! Is there a less daring choice for a vehicle??

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking ’bout.

New MPAA ratings suggestions

The MPAA ratings for movies are woefully inadequate. Yes, they tell you something about the “moral” content of a movie. For example, if your middle-schooler wants to see a movie of non-stop violence and mayhem, no problem. If he or she wants to see an important documentary about social ills that happens to include more than two F-bombs, that’s verboten. Makes perfect sense, huh?

But what about those of us who have no children to helicopter around but who care about other types of content? Have no fear! I’ll prime the pump with a few suggestions:

MPAA-BDThis is a movie populated by idiots doing idiotic things. It could be teenagers opening doors in buildings where serial killers are known to be. (This concept was lampooned most effectively in a hysterical Geico commercial.) Romantic comedies are also prone to this moronic behavior. If they just told the truth at the beginning, none of the misunderstandings would happen. And the movie would never have been made. That’s called “win-win.”

MPAA-HOWYou’ve seen them. Movies so bad, you wonder what now-unemployed producer gave this beast the green light? They have no positive qualities but someone shelled out several (sometimes hundreds) millions of dollars to get it made. You spend the entire movie asking yourself, “Who thought this was a good idea?” (q.v. “Mortdecai“)

MPAA-WTBy the end of one of these things, your scalp is bleeding because you spent the whole time scratching it. Instead of asking, “What did you think?” you ask, “What happened?” Let me say up front that I like some of these movies. Some I like a lot. This label could be applied to “2001”, as well as most films by Terrence Malick or Wes Anderson. After all, it’s good to have something to talk about after a movie other than the headache you got from the extreme volume and non-stop light show of special effects. Some so labeled, however, are simply self-indulgent nonsense. The poster child for this category is David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” More prominently and more recently I’d add the interminable “Interstellar.”

MPAA-LW2The worst kind of movie. This is the equivalent of the current NC-17. Except these should be labeled, “no one over or under the age of 17 will be admitted.” Some of the aforementioned movies could also carry this caveat, but the most renowned recent example is “Boyhood.

Do you have any labels you’d like to add?


 

[Congratulate me for not shamelessly promoting my new book.]

Obsoleting Reality

These are not good days for reality. They haven’t been for some time, but the old boy’s decline seems to be hastening. From all indications, people don’t have a lot of use for reality.

As an entity, reality has been, as we were wont to say in the software world, deprecated. That means it’s still out there somewhere, but you’re discouraged from using it. It’s just as well. It’s getting as hard to recognize as it is scarce.

The reality (there’s that word again) of the situation has been driven home for me most recently with the suddenly huge and profitable enterprise known as fantasy football. Fantasy sports have been around for a while, mostly played out among friends and co-workers. The lunatic fringe started getting involved. That was bad enough. Then it became Big Business, giving us all the gift of legalized gambling in all 50 states.

fantasylandThe fantasy versions of sports have surpassed their reality counterparts in importance to many people. At least it’s called “fantasy” because it isn’t “real”. (Would that TV showed the same discretion, q.v. below.) Unfortunately, some people take it to extremes and trade reality in for fantasy. They forget the actual sport – or worse, interfere with the actual sport! – in favor of the fantasy version. Read “Fantasyland” by Sam Walker for a glimpse at the insanity of it all in baseball.

Worse is when we slap the word “reality” on things that are anything but. It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I’m talking about so-called reality TV. And by reality I mean fantasy. How did that happen? In this case, reality refers to something that is surreal, absurd, contrived, and a slew of other qualities that are in reality (I mean it this time) descriptive of things such as fiction, fantasy, and general nonsense.

That situation isn’t all that distinct from the average based-on-fact movie today. Maybe in days of yore movies that were about people or things that actually existed were factual. There’s no such pretense these days. Movies simply aren’t telling true stories anymore. In order to squeeze into the save-the-cat mold or whatever other generic screenwriting template is in vogue, films are dramatized often to the point of camouflaging the truth beyond recognition. You see the disclaimers at the end of the ridiculously long credits:

Although this movie is based on actual events that may or may not have happened, none of the characters are real. The settings and dialogue have been fabricated for dramatic effect. Organizations depicted herein are not and have never been and most likely never will be real. The story has been twisted like a Möbius strip in order to maximize income for the producers. However, it is true that there once was a guy.

Movies use a variety of descriptions that, if analyzed correctly, reveal how far they’ve drifted from historical veracity. Here’s a sample:

  • a true story – This means what it says: It’s a true story. You will never see this claim.
  • based on a true story – There was indeed a story once. The movie is a fictional retelling of that story.
  • based on actual events – There were some events. One or two might have accidentally ended up in the movie.
  • inspired by actual events – Forget about it. Any connection to reality is purely coincidental and probably a mistake. You could say this about “E.T.” It could have been inspired by the actual event of a kid who ate Reese’s Pieces and faked being sick so he could stay home from school.

Reality. headstone

I miss it.

Beating a dead horse

As much as I hate to revisit and flog a deceased equine, my time is limited by other projects and general life stress. Thus I’m back to a favorite topic of an unfavorite movie: Boyhood.

My original lambasting of the aforementioned over-hyped project was written several months ago. Recently, however, while stuck in a holding position over personal issues, the topic came back to mind. My primary critique of the film, held in common with others in the blogosphere, is that it was not a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. Its only claim to greatness rests in its gimmick of filming the same performers in the same roles over many years. The only problem is…

…it’s been done! Many times!

…albeit in a different format with more entertaining results. I’m talking about television programs. Many have successfully spanned a decade or more: Ozzie and Harriet, Lassie, My Three Sons, Bonanza, Happy Days, The Cosby Show, Seventh Heaven, Two and a Half Men, and so many more of varying degrees of quality. In each case, the same cast aged before our eyes over the span of the series.

That’s right, “Boyhood” is merely the logical (but dull) extension of any long-running TV series, although the ones with children bear the closest resemblance. If you take the 10-year run of “Happy Days” and edit it into a single three hour marathon, what exactly is the difference? Yeah, the HD movie would be much more entertaining and Boyhood has nobody that comes close to The Fonz in originality. Other than that and a slew of undeserved Oscar nominations, it’s the same deal.

See what happens when I have too much time on my hands to think and too little to write?

Seriously, which of these guys would you rather watch grow up? Mr. emo Boyhood kid or Ricky Nelson? Ricky’s life was way more interesting.

Seriously, which of these guys would you rather watch grow up? Mr. emo Boyhood kid or Ricky Nelson? Ricky’s life was way more interesting.

Still Alice

stillaliceWriting two blogs eats up a lot of time, especially when trying to maintain the rigorous discipline of generating one post per week per blog. Now and then, when my schedule demands it, I cheat. This is one of those times.

I’m putting this post up on this blog two days late. Sorry. It’s also being published on my other blog two days early. While you could accuse me of double-dipping, using one post to take up two slots, it’s okay because the topic serves the distinct purposes of the respective target blogs.

There. I’ve rationalized my sloth.

Limping in the Light, deals with chronic illness, specifically MS. Scribbling in the Sand concentrates on my writing, including screenplays, which leads to an occasional movie review. What happens when those two worlds collide?

You get “Still Alice”.

Every now and then, a major movie is released that restores my faith in what film can do. This is one of those times. Here’s a movie about a realistic human being facing a realistic, if excruciating, fate: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve wanted to see this film for which Julianne Moore deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress, but for some reason I just got around to it last week. It was worth the wait.

Hollywood doesn’t get too excited about the chronically ill, the exception being mental illness, but only if said condition leads to exploitable sexual or violent behavior. We were fortunate to have two quality films about “disabling” illness recognized by the Academy for 2014, the other being “The Theory of Everything”.

“Still Alice” accurately and vividly portrays the maxim that individuals don’t get sick, families do. Alice’s condition is almost as destructive to her family as it is to her. Yet it somehow brings about healing as well. How people react to sickness is as revealing as how it affects its victim.

Not enough can be said about Ms. Moore’s performance. Subtle, powerful, gripping, disturbing, and true are all words that capture the essence of what she does on the screen. I felt her slow retreat into lostness almost viscerally. The “making of” featurette on the DVD was particularly enlightening as it dealt with how she prepared for her role.

In any other movie, two characteristics found in this film would have upset me. It contained the obligatory puke scene and it easily toed the depression line that was de rigueur for most 2014 productions. Both were acceptable, maybe even mandatory in this context. I lambasted 2014’s bummer crop in a previous post, even mentioning this movie as an example. This is a film that will indeed be depressing for most, but the courage of battle can be uplifting as well.

Don’t watch the movie for a lightweight escape. Watch it to be entertained in the best possible way. Watch it to learn more about this particular condition. Watch it to develop more compassion for people dealing with disabling illness. Watch it for a master class in acting. Watch it because it’s not “Mortdecai”. Watch it to make the statement that not every movie has to have aliens and/or explosions and/or serial killers.

Just watch it.

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”.