Thursday, January 18, 2007

cinema vs. celebrity

We went to the movies the other night and the price for a regular ticket was $10! No attempt to paper over the fact that you're being totally screwed: $10 straight up. Unsurprisingly the enormous theatre was almost empty. Totally ridiculous -- and it's too bad because I really love seeing good movies on the big screen. Chicago had an awesome student-run film series and we would buy passes and go almost weekly to see second-run blockbusters, art films, foreign films, cult classics, you name it. Cut the price of a movie ticket in half and I for one would go to the movies more than twice as often.

What's more, there are definitely certain movies that you really do want to see on the big screen, and others that you might as well wait for on Netflix. This most recent shakedown reminded me that not only should a movie be pretty good to warrant ten bucks, it should also have a certain cinematic quality that's lost when seeing it on your 12" TV. I've talked before about how I have a soft spot in my heart for intrinsically cinematic movies -- films with that rush of moving image excitement you just can't get from the printed word or even a stage play. By this I don't specifically mean action movies with explosions, or even 'tasteful' costume design or 'lush' cinematography. It's more intangible than that: Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, even the original Star Wars ... stuff like that.

Can I also gripe for a minute about the ascendancy of the biopic? By this I mean a movie primarily about the life of a celebrity. Over the last few years Hollywood has provided us with impressive documentation of the lives of the famous and name-worthy. To mention a few (Oscar contenders all): Ray, Walk The Line (which is the exact same movie as Ray), Capote, the Aviator, Finding Neverland, Kinsey, the Motorcycle Diaries, the Hours, Frida, A Beautiful Mind, Ali, Iris, Before Night Falls, Pollock, Quills, the Hurricane, Malcolm X, Nixon, Gandhi to name just a few. This year brings us several more biopics (The Queen and The Last King of Scotland) that are at the top of everyone's Oscar lists. Apparently the highest accolades accrue to movie stars playing yet another famous person.

My gripe with these movies is not that they're bad: some are certainly tedious, but others I would rank among my faves. Rather, the problem is that they're a bit lazy. Your typical biopic often has (1) an eye-catching performance in the titular role, and (2) a lousy story. This is a simple consequence of the fact that the lives of famous people (even someone as nutty as Howard Hughes) are simply not interesting enough to warrant a full-length motion picture about their year-to-year existence.

The best of the bunch succeed in spite of the genre's limitations. Gandhi is really the story of the founding of modern India, Ray succeeds on the considerable strength of the music, and the Motorcycle Diaries is a story about personal awakening to injustice. But, even when watching your better biographies I often wonder whether these interesting themes could just as easily be the basis for telling a new story, rather than draping them across the mundane biographical outline of a real person's life.

For example, one of the most interesting movies I've seen recently was actually a fake biography: Velvet Goldmine (I've raved about the sweet soundtrack elsewhere). The movie takes the 70's glam-rock milieu of Roxy Music, Brian Eno and David Bowie and crafts a fictional story about a very Bowie-esque rock star. You gotta love any film the ties together Oscar Wilde, space aliens, talking Ken dolls and several tons of glitter make-up. Unlike the fictional John Slade, Bowie never faked his own death on stage, but it sorta seems like something he might have tried. And the stunt doubles as a great metaphor for glam-rock's death at the hands of 80s-pop, for Bowie's perpetual reinventions and for the end of a certain sexual idealism in our popular culture. VG isn't tied down by the tyrannies of fact and history, and that freedom seems to allow it to say something far more true and interesting.

To return to my earlier point, when you strip away the remakes of TV shows, biopics, adaptations of books, comics and extended SNL skits, is there anyone in Hollywood actually telling original stories in films? Or, put it another way, which movies need to be seen as films in order to truly capture their spirit. A few come to mind that you couldn't even begin to reproduce
as a book, a TV show, a stage play, a comic book, a newscast: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, City of God, Mulholland Drive, 2046, Pulp Fiction, animation from Pixar, Miyazaki or Aardman. These types of films won't win Best Picture, but might garner an Original Screenplay nomination. These types of films I would pay $10 to see again and again.

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