Saturday, June 29, 2013

Committed: "This Is the End" Goes All the Way

Spoiler alert: I discuss the conclusion of This Is the End.

Unless there are categories for "Most F-bombs" or "Biggest Demon Penis," This Is The End is unlikely to contend for any Academy Awards. Yet there is one thing the film, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, does better than many Hollywood films: it sticks to its premise 100 percent.

I already have noted my delight in apocalyptic films and in Hollywood's penchant for destroying itself in many of them.  In "At the Corner of Hollywood Boulevard & Death Drive," I discussed the attraction of films such as 2012 and Battle: Los Angeles.

I suggested there that Hollywood seems bent upon self-punishment for a variety of sins, and I noted that this has been a theme since the 1930s.  Myron Biring's 1933 novel, The Flutter of an Eyelid, ends with Los Angeles sliding into the Pacific Ocean after an earthquake -- and sweeping all of the characters to their deaths.  Nathaniel West's 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, concludes with a riot that sweeps away his main characters (who are not very likable).

The Day of the Locust resonates well with This Is the End because the novel's characters are involved in the shallow, soul-killing world of movie-making, and because it describes a large painting titled "The Burning of Los Angeles." In This Is the End, the actors play themselves as vain, stupid, pot-addled man-boys. And we see Los Angeles burning -- and falling down open pits into lakes of fire and being terrorized by demons.  As with the characters in The Day of the Locust and The Flutter of an Eyelid, the people in This Is the End seem to deserve their fates.

The notion of "deserving" is important since the film depicts the Rapture; this is Judgement Day.  The Hollywood B-listers in the film who fall into the open earth are literally being sucked into Hell. No one at James Franco's wild party gets taken into Heaven before the mayhem begins.

What I respected about the film was that it did not back off from its premise, despite its epic scale.

How many apocalyptic films imagine the end of civilization but also imagine some way to save it?  How many films, apocalyptic or not, set up the almost-certain death of central characters only to snatch them from doom however improbably?  How many films depict horrible events that, thankfully, turn out to have been a dream?

I believe Pauline Kael somewhere said something about the difficulty of making a satisfying conclusion to a film.  She said she had seen many good middles of movies but not that many good endings.  (If you can find it, could you let me know where to find it?  I have looked high and low for it.)  She said that the film creators were clever enough to create elaborate problems but not clever enough to make believable solutions.

This Is the End does not suffer from that problem.

The film does not end with our main characters awaking from a bong-induced dream.  Our characters do not somehow save the world, or even just Los Angeles. The world really ends. The gang of celebrities, including Rihanna, really do fall screaming into Hell.  Jonah Hill really has been possessed by a demon.  James Franco really has been eaten alive by a roving band of cannibals. Danny McBride, however, thrives in the new chaos, though he cannot survive long with a giant, anatomically correct demon stomping about. Ultimately, only three of our "heroes" -- Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, and Jay Baruchel -- make their way to Heaven, which, in this imagining, turns out to be a slacker paradise.  The film ends with a big dance number there.  As it should.

But down below, for Hollywood there is no redemption.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the F-bomb

James Gandolfini's death last week generated a lot of retrospectives on his role as Tony Soprano and the influence of HBO's The Sopranos on television and American popular culture.

If nothing else, that show was influential for making the f-bomb commonplace on the small screen.  In the 1980s and 1990s, American audiences were growing accustomed to that word on the big screen, but then came January 10, 1999, and the debut of The Sopranos.

That special word appeared in the first season of The Sopranos more than 400 times.  In the second season, more than 700 times.  There are several online homages to the F-bombs on the show, such as this.

Then came The Wire, a show more respected among TV critics than even The Sopranos.  It debuted in 2002, and it is famous for a scene in which two detectives examine a crime scene and the f-word is the only thing said between them -- numerous times with different inflections and meanings.

Then came Deadwood, which debuted in 2004. In its first season, the f-word was used more than 800 times. Season two: more than 1,000 times. Someone calculated the number of the f-bombs in the series' three seasons: 2,980.  That is 1.56 FPM.

In a 2010 report titled "Habitat for Profanity," the Parents Television Council claimed that between 2005 and 2010, prime time television experienced "a significant increase in both the number of instances of use of profanity and the harshness of the profanity used." Thanks, in part, to The Sopranos.

Most times, I believe, the f-bomb is used too cheaply.  It is used to give a character a veneer of coolness or distance or anger, but often times it is just that: a veneer, an artificial surface used to disguise the actual material underneath, to make particle board look like pine, for instance.  And the f-bomb can used by many writers as a simple way of generating tension or drama -- rather than creating real tension and drama through the personality of the characters or the quality of the dramatic situation.

Having said that, despite Deadwood winning the F Crown on HBO, I would say it was the best written show among the three I mentioned.   (I know that is not the consensus.)  For me, the f-word didn't stand out on that show; it seemed more of an ornament on the already convincing and compelling speech of its many well-imagined (though dark) characters.  An ornament enhances, whereas a veneer conceals.

Some people argue for cursing because they feel it adds a sense of realism to a story. But keep in mind that the stories are fake to begin with, and realism is only an illusion created by the writer/director.  Some might say that the three examples I have cited -- mobsters, police detectives and criminals, tortured souls in the Wild West -- would lend themselves quite easily to profuse profanity.  And they would.  But if that is done in the name of realism, why do those same shows flinch away from other realisms? Such as blood.  One of the characters in Deadwood likes to cut throats.  That is a rather messy way to kill someone, yet the victims leave hardly a puddle on the floor.  What is "real" on the screen is whatever I am convinced to believe is "real."

David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, even has addressed the artificial nature of the cursing in the series.  The curses used are not the curses of the late 1800s, he admits. But his characters would have sounded silly spouting the language considered foul in that era.  So to make the show seem "real," he had to resort to "fake" cursing.

The topic of potty mouths came to mind this week after I saw This Is The End -- apparently the world ends from the fallout of all the f-bombs dropped by a troop of stoner comedians. But before the movie started, I saw the trailer for The Heat, the buddy-cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  A surprising number and variety of f-bombs exploded in that two-minute trailer, and even I felt a little assaulted.  (I heard it so much in This Is The End that I tuned it out.)  I hadn't recalled hearing such cursing in a movie trailer. Perhaps the trailers were R-rated because I was in the theater to see an R-rated film, but I had the impression that previews were prepared for "all audiences."

Sometimes in class I use a short story by Kurt Vonnegut titled "The Big Space Fuck."  It was published in 1972 and is a dystopian imagining of the planet's future -- and in some regards it was rather prophetic: "This was a period of great permissiveness in matters of language, so even the President was saying shit and fuck and so on, without anybody's feeling threatened or taking offense.  It was perfectly OK."  (I cited the story also when I discussed the advent of another word in "The Big Bitch Theory.")

As I have said before, I am not a language prude.  I do not shy away from using the right word for the right purpose.  But I can't help but think the proliferation of cursing in our popular storytelling can be a sign of laziness -- and it disregards the fact that most Americans do not talk like a Quentin Tarantino character nor do they want to spend time with someone who does.

I can't help noting this: When was the last time someone complained about the LACK of cursing in a film or television program?  No one has finished watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or Sherlock and said, "You know, it would have been better if there had been more cursing."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

America at War: Who Pays and Who Plays?

In the wake of 9/11, America was saturated in flags and patriotism.  They came again after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But after each outpouring, it seemed, the flag-waving fever died down, and the nation went back to its usual priorities of Twitter, TMZ, and Target's weekly specials.

Of course, not all of the nation did -- the families of those serving in the Armed Forces remained acutely aware of the fighting overseas.  But the rest of the nation seemed to hardly notice at all, in large part because it was making no sacrifices -- outside of placing "Support Our Troops" magnets on the vehicles.

Despite the hagiography of The Greatest Generation, the soldiers and civilians who made success in World War II possible, the nation seemed unprepared for its own current role; the Greatest Generation may be our saints, but they are not our role models.

We laud the bravery of those soldiers, sailors, pilots, and nurses from the 1940s.  We praise the sacrifices of the civilians who lived through rationing of gasoline, rubber, and other consumer items needed to fuel the war effort.  Flash forward 60 years and witness the hysteria that followed any rapid increase in gas prices.  Witness tax cuts when the nation was at war.  Witness the total absence of daily sacrifice -- or even inconvenience -- by civilian America.

Witness the disconnect between the sacrifices asked of one group (soldiers) on behalf of another group (civilians) asked to make none.

Ben Fountain
That disconnect is a dominant theme of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a novel by Ben Fountain that was a finalist for the  National Book Award in 2012.  I have just finished reading it as I prepare to teach a course in the Fall that will compare the literature of America's war in Vietnam with the literature of its war in Iraq.
was a finalist for the

The novel takes place over the course of a few hours, when a squad of U.S. soldiers attend a Dallas Cowboys football game to be honored for their bravery.  They participate in a halftime performance by Destiny's Child (including Beyonce), and in the process they are overwhelmed by the bloated corporate enterprise of the NFL, Hollywood, and the music industry -- and by the simultaneous patriotism and cluelessness of the spectators and executives that surround them.  Fountain shows the soldiers as the symbols of American pride, as decorations for a hypersexual media circus, and as commodities to be bought and sold.  By the end of the novel, they are almost happy to be going back to Iraq, as they have been assaulted emotionally and physically by Hollywood's greed for their story, by stage managers who view them as props, by civilians who won't stop asking stupid questions, and by a gang of roadies from the halftime show.

And here is the passage that I want to emphasize, when Fountain powerfully captures Billy's awareness of the disconnect I note above.  As Billy escapes the corporate spectacle of Texas Stadium, he realizes the balance of power.  He realizes that the stark reality of war, the death and the pain, are overpowered by the spectacular unreality of America:

For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force.  His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he's lived what he's lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects.  To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?