Category Archives: Manohla: A Romance

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

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The Days of Wine and Dargis

He was young and eager and full of verve. He was vervish. When he spoke, he gesticulated with a robust sincerity that could be mildly off-putting. She was older, though not by much, striking in a bohemian way, and wrote for The New York Times, official paper of Judea. Her name was Manohla, and he loved her with a passion hitherto reserved for Gene Hackman in The Conversation.

“One day,” he vowed, raising a fist to the heavens, “One day we will be together. But until then, we shall remain like the lovers of 84 Charing Cross Road, separated by a great distance, except where the Anne Bancroft character was aware of Anthony Hopkins’ existence, and in fact communicated with him regularly, you have no idea who I am. So, actually, it’s more like 84 Charing Cross Road meets Harvey, but instead of a giant Rabbit, it’s you. Wait, never mind…” With great solemnity, he lowered his fist. No one was watching.

The days were long and they seemed longer in wideshot. Without her, life was like a Visconti movie of the seventies, ambitious, but meandering, and often quietly sensual. She was his Tadzio and for hours or sometimes minutes at a time he wandered the beaches of Venice hearing only his own breath as the objective audio faded from the mix.

Over the course of several dissolves, his breathing grew louder. By now his gay seeming linen suit was stained, but he had stopped caring. Now it was mostly over the shoulders, handheld, and with a little glare. He smelled of hot sand and Malvasia delle Lipari.

“One day,” he vowed again, now reaching both fists heavenward à la Personal Best, “One day, you and I will walk the streets of Culver Città, hand in ink stained hand. I will buy you antipasto and hope you offer to split the bill. Of course, I will insist, but you will insist with greater strength and rip the bill out of my hands. You will pull hard because I will be pulling relatively hard in the other direction to give you the impression that I really want to pay, which of course I do, but honestly, you have the killer job and I’m at home writing a blog at 6:15 on a Saturday night.”

His feet were parched and his mouth was also parched. It was tough to say which was more parched. On the one hand, there were his feet; on the other, his mouth. But there was no way to know. That’s how evenly distributed the parching was.

Tutti saranno fini,” he whispered. “Tutti saranno fini…” and then he died.

This is What a Film Critic Does

Manohla on The Hurt Locker.

Obst, I Did It Again

Yes, you in the back. Did you have something to add?

Lynda Obst, a highly visible executive with twenty years producing experience and a hearty string of hits to her name, was quoted a week or so ago in The Washington Post apropos the curious case of Women and Film. Considering my recent outburst over Manhola Dargis, I thought it more than reasonable to underscore the wisdom of Obst’s remark, which gets at the same subject, but through a slightly different point of entry, and I think, hits closer to the real problem.

She says, “it’s easier for male executives to get jobs now, because they [Hollywood] want to develop male-oriented material. Girls don’t grow up reading comic books or playing video games, or with Transformer or G.I. Joe toys. So the material they’re looking for isn’t necessarily as familiar to female executives who read books, which is becoming practically a liability. That’s a real problem. That’s how it becomes systemic.”

That’s more like it! Kowtowing to the tyrannical cycle of supply and demand, Hollywood, like any factory system without imagination, thrives on repeating successful formulas. If a male director has proven himself in a particular genre, why shouldn’t he be able to prove himself again under similar circumstances? Unfortunately, over time, this can slap down an equation sign between genders and genres.

Obst’s point, a terrific one, implies that that equation sign has less to do with sexism than with commerce. If Marvel movies do the best at the box office, it makes sense – sad sense, but sense nonetheless – that studios would hire experts in the field of male-oriented material. Is it any surprise, then, that most of those experts are themselves men? It’s sorely unfair, yes, but Obst is right; the tail is most definitely wagging the dog.

What is to be done?

It’s up to us, the audience, to tell Hollywood what we want to see, and every ticket we purchase is a vote, an expression of that want. So, to the women, I say, if you want to see the end of the Reign of Marvel (and who doesn’t?), and by extension, a probable upsurge of women filmmakers, drag your heels the next time your guy friends or boyfriends suggest you all go see Metalman 6. And to the boys, who seem to be steering the course to doom, I say this: grow up, and fast. Cinema – and your girlfriends – will thank you for it.

You Know I Love You, Manohla, But…

By now, I’m sure people of all sexes have had a good, long look at yesterday’s Dargis.

To those who haven’t: Manohla Dargis, The New York Times’ great and worthy defender of great and worthy movies, and one of today’s cleverest and most erudite critics, has let crack her mighty whip on the back of, with all due respect, the wrong adversary.

Observe:
The usual line on Hollywood [she writes] is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. [Kathryn] Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).

What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.

While it is true that Hollywood could benefit from more women behind the camera, the dearth of female directors has less to do with women and men, as she attests, and more to do with grosses and opening weekends.

The reasons Michael Mann continued to get deals despite Ali’s $22 million deficit are less reductive, and, I’m happy to say, less mysterious (or insidious) than Dargis would have it. First of all, Mann, unlike Bigelow, had a recent history of hits at the time of Ali’s commercial disappointment. The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999) were all either reasonably or substantially successful at the box office, whereas Bigelow’s recent record, which included The Weight of Water (2000) and Strange Days (1995), would not have helped her much when the time came to get a movie made post K-19. What would she have argued in her defense? If the studios wanted a return in their investment, Michael Mann had – and continues to have – a much better case.

Also, it should be said that, his filmography aside, Michael Mann had Tom Cruise (in Collateral) and Jamie Foxx (in Miami Vice), and to an ambivalent executive unsure of the director’s immediate bankability, their names were surely a comfort. If, in the years following K-19, Kathryn Bigelow had managed to interest stars of Cruise and Foxx’s caliber in her projects, she would have unquestionably gotten the kind of studio attention Mann got in his. And with names like that attached, if one pig-headed executive turned her down, another would have snapped her right up.

Of course, it could be asserted that Bigelow didn’t get stars because of a longstanding stigma against women filmmakers. Maybe. But I don’t see Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep turning down Bigelow for that reason. Nor do I see executives denying a financially solid entity the opportunity return the investment once more.

The days of producers making calls based upon personal predilections – be they constructive or prejudicial, artistic or sexist – are, alas, over. The proof is in the pictures: studio executives don’t have jobs because they get to make the movies they want to make or because they can reject the movies (and/or the filmmakers) they want to reject; they have jobs because they know what pimply teenage boys want to see at 7:30 on a Friday night. How do they know? The receipts tell them so. And if Kathryn Bigelow had those receipts in her favor, she’d be getting all deals in the world.

So why couldn’t I let this one fly? Why couldn’t I – as my girlfriend advised me – not make this my first-ever blog entry, but wait until I had a few more posts under my belt before I dipped into such problematic waters? Because Dargis, I’m afraid, is fighting the right fight the wrong way. We don’t need more female directors in Hollywood, we need more female directors outside of Hollywood, where voice matters, and where, beyond the flattening forces of big-budget filmmaking, it actually stands a chance of being a) heard by the public and then b) inculcated into the Hollywood system.

That’s how Bigelow did it. As Dargis points out, she financed her latest film, The Hurt Locker, with French money, and now it’s a lead forerunner in the incumbent Oscar race. That’s why her next film, Triple Frontier, has been set up at Paramount. You see? Hollywood doesn’t play favorites. It’s just a gigolo trying to make its rent.