Thursday, June 21, 2012


                                                                 Howdy, Buckaroos

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Monrovia, California

Another reason I watched Final Destination 5 twice was to study it for continuity.  I make this statement knowing it might seem pretentious, but one of my pet peeves with movies is how they so often fall down in terms of their consistency with respect to the small but noticeable things, like how much has been drunk from a cup or smoked from a cigarette from one scene to the next.  When a movie, especially one I assume is an expensive and well-organized production, gets those things wrong it drives me nuts.  I often wonder whether there’s even such thing as a “continuity editor,” or if maybe some other functionary has that job.  I’ve been told that at least there used to be people like that.  But sometimes I think the millions have all been spent on explosives and the salaries of the principal actors.  

In the case of Final Destination 5 I was pleasantly surprised.  The continuity I was inspecting in this movie was that of what you might call near-term historical accuracy, since at the end it was revealed that the movie, for reasons that are clear to someone who watched the first four in the series, had taken place in May of 2000. I don’t suppose there’s a whole lot of difference between now and then in terms of how we live our lives.  Hair is about the same, suits styles are about the same, but a few things, like vehicles and cell phones, have changed.  Sure enough, on my second look at the movie, I saw that the characters had been using “old fashioned” Y2K-era flip phones rather than modern smart iPhones, something that hadn’t even registered in my technologically antiquated mind the first time through.  And the cars were from the right time, too.  But I also saw a couple of inconsistencies I had missed before.  One was the styles of eyeglasses of the characters who wore them; they were from now, not then, and I only realized that because I’d been to purchase a new pair of glasses the afternoon before.  As it happened, glasses turned out to be an important aspect of the movie for one unfortunate young woman.  Another lack of continuity was with beard growth.  In one scene one of the characters had about two days’ more beard than he’d had a few minutes before.  Those were pretty minor considering the comparatively low budget this movie must have had.  I have this idea that such things are far less forgivable when hundreds of millions of dollars are involved.  But in fact, it may be that low-budget movies are better in terms of consistency because the scenes are more likely to be shot in sequence and without lots of extra takes.

Lack of continuity of the type I’m referring to is nothing new.  For as long as I can remember I’ve noticed the little inconsistencies in movies, and I’ll bet most of you have, too.  Lauren Bacall lights a cigarette as she argues with Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn, say, and they cut to Kirk’s face, filled with that mixture of puzzlement and incipient instability that only Kirk could convey.  When they cut back to Lauren two seconds later, eyes heavy-lidded and smoldering like her cigarette, the damn thing is already half smoked.  Then they go to Kirk again, and when they come back to Lauren the cigarette has just been lit again.  I always find myself thinking “Wasn’t anybody in charge of making sure this kind of thing didn’t happen?  Do they really think so little of the audience that they assume we won’t notice?” How sloppy should we allow these gaffes to be?  I’ve seen some big ones in some big movies.  Watch the climactic scene from A Few Good Men, after Jack Nicholson has seethed his signature line, “You can’t handle the truth!” and is being arrested and carried off for having ordered the code red.  He’s struggling with the military police.  One second his tie is askew, and a second later it’s tight and trig against his throat, and a second later it’s loose and crooked again.  Or maybe the other way around.  A splicing of two different takes, obviously, but who was in charge?  No one, evidently. 

With old movies I palliate my irritation somewhat with the knowledge that they were churning them out in the studios at the rate of dozens per year, and maybe they just didn’t have time for the little niceties, and that after all, I’ve watched them all on TV for free.  But then I think two things.  One is that they’re still churning out dozens of movies a year—far too many.  The other is that, really, aren’t the little niceties—the details of dress and how much is in the glass and how much of the cigarette has been smoked and whether the tie is tight against the neck or loosened—just as important to the movies as anything else?  We make the guy wear the same suit, and the woman the same dress from one minute to the next, so why not polish up the rest of the details?   

It’s in the cutting of the film—from one camera angle to another and back again—that the movies seem to lose their continuity.  It’s as if there’s a war going on between those who string together the little snippets of a scene—the shots back and forth between two people who are talking, for instance—and those who are shooting the movie, using multiple takes to get a scene “just right.”  Here I suspect that the idea of the director as auteur rears its ugly head.  One more take.  Just one more take.  Okay, just one more, as if there were some perfection to be obtained.  I’m oversimplifying the situation, no doubt.  But here’s the basic truth—to this day, big money notwithstanding, movies fail in little matters of continuity at a regular rate, and it’s the rare one that doesn’t.

The beard growth thing, for example, is something that’s been irritating me for quite a while.  At some point in the not-too-distant past it became fashionable for men to shave less often than they did for most of the mid-20th century.  Fine, no problem.  Several decades back, the choices were beard or no beard, pretty much.  If you were unshaven for a few days or weeks then you were in the process of growing a beard.  Then, I think in the 1980s, the pretty boys of the entertainment industry—people like Don Johnson in Miami Vice and the singer George Michael, for instance—started letting their beards go for a few days at a time, and that became a la mode.  Later all actors who had a sufficient amount of facial hair began to do the same, and you’d see the darker ones, like, say, Russell Crowe and John Travolta, in various stages of beardedness throughout the movie.  In the 30s and 40s, they didn’t worry about that because all men were pretty much clean shaven all the time, or expected to be.  If the part called for a beard they’d glue something to the guy’s face.  If a character was unshaven back then, it was because he’d been on a bender or was in battle, or perhaps had been washed up on a desert island.  Or because he was Gabby Hayes. 

A hundred years ago, before the invention of the safety razor, men didn’t shave every day unless they were bankers or lawyers.  In days of yore, you went to the barber to be shaved, and few could afford to do that every day.  Today, even though razor technology is at its all-time peak, people once again don’t shave every day.  Lawyers go into court, detectives work on cases, doctors operate on patients, spies spy on people, all with a few days of hair on their face.  First it was the movies that told us this was so, then it became reality. 

The upshot of it is that someone like Russell Crowe has a week’s beard growth in one scene, then in the next, ostensibly later that day, it’s three days’ worth.  And over the course of a month, in movie time, never once is he clean shaven, as if his beard had the ability to grow for a few days and stop.  If you saw the guy struggling through several weeks of movie action you’d expect him to have shaved once in a while, wouldn’t you?  Nobody has a permanent four-day beard.  From that lack of verisimilitude further problems emanate.  Russell is having a drink with someone, his manly barbitude at the length of, say, two millimeters.  Then an hour later he shows up at the scene of the crime with a millimeter less beard.  What has happened?  The obvious and most reasonable solution to this problem would be to have all actors either have a full beard or shave every day unless there was a really good reason not to.  What laws of reality would that violate?  Something approaching continuity would be achieved, and film editors wouldn’t have a thing to worry about (not that they seem to worry anyway).  The alternative would be for someone who gave a damn to be the continuity editor.  I’d be happy do this for a fraction of what they probably pay the people who make the explosions happen.  In fact, I’d do it as a volunteer.  It sounds like fun. 

The big problem, I’m sure, is money, and by that I don’t mean the comparative pittance they might be willing to pay a continuity editor.  It’s the salaries of the leading actors.  Imagine someone calling a guy who’s getting ten million plus a percentage of the gross and telling him, “Al, we need you to come in and reshoot scene 10 on Thursday morning.  But don’t shave after Monday.”  It could certainly be done, with much less technological precision than what is put into creating car crashes and exploding buildings and dangling people off of cliffs.  But it doesn’t seem to be done, probably because Al’s contract would call for an extra ten thousand a day over and above for him to get off his ass and reshoot the scene.  Still, I wonder why the marquee actors don’t insist more on the continuity themselves.  After all, it’s their mugs the public is paying to look at.

It’s odd that such a thing as continuity of this type should matter, but it does.  We willingly suspend our disbelief when it comes to science fiction, or fantasy, or ridiculous plot devices in murder mysteries, or silly serendipitous romantic meetings atop the Empire State Building.  Those departures from reality come easily.  But we (at least some of us) can’t stand it when the guy in the midst of all this absurdity isn’t wearing his shirt the same way from one scene to another.  For someone to change his name, or for the locale to suddenly shift to another city, would be both wrong and inexcusable, even in a silly and contrived story.  Let whatever absurdity might be happening go on, and that’s fine, as long as it happens in a way our minds can process and get accustomed to without being bothered by beards and liquor glasses and half-smoked cigarettes.  What’s going on here?  The idea of Darth Vader we can accept; but once he exists, his helmet has to have the same number of breathing holes throughout the movie.  Apparently, Long Ago in a Galaxy Far Away the little details had to have been consistent, even if the idea of the far-away galaxy is utterly silly.  But there it is.

We demand continuity in the midst of absurdity, what might be termed “consistent absurdity,” in the movies and in fiction in much the way we accept it in other areas of our lives.  Politics, for example.  Almost any idea, once it is hatched and developed, will catch on with the public, and from then on certain consistencies are expected.  As dopey and unbelievable as they might be, a group of Republican candidates who face one another in a series of orderly debates aren’t nearly as odd-seeming as would be a single candidate who refused to take part in the process, or one who insisted on always telling the truth as he saw it and when he didn’t know the answer to a question simply said so.  Imagine a candidate who didn’t promise to transform the country—to create uncreatable jobs, to protect unprotectable foreign governments, to right unrightable wrongs?  Envision a candidate who shows up at a debate dressed as Bozo and declares, “Everyone here, including me, is a clown, but I’m the only one willing to admit it.”  People would shake their heads.  It would get one day’s coverage on the AOL home page. “Watch:  Strange man disrupts debate before being hauled off by police.”  But put a half dozen guys in identical dark blue pinstriped suits and red neckties behind podiums and ask them to promise, within the context of an intractably corrupt and greedy economic system, help for the sick, hope for the poor, and economic security for the majority, and no one blinks in amazement.  Instead, they say “Yes!”

The central theme of the Final Destination pictures is that in death, as in politics, continuity and predictability are the most important things.  If you mess with Death’s orderly plan, however arbitrary and cruel it might seem—if you attempt to thwart Death—it will come at you with a wrath that would put even the shrieking Fox News pundits to shame.  The politician who proposes to tell the truth about things—in particular about the unfixability of the country within its present economic system—comes to a sad state, just like the kids in the movies who temporarily cheat death.  Maybe he doesn’t get sliced and diced by flying pieces of metal from an exploding barbecue grill, but he most certainly enters into oblivion, the Final Destination.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Black Death

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Monrovia, California

Some time back I mentioned the Final Destination movies.  I’ve just finished watching the most recent of them, Final Destination 5.  Twice, in fact, so I could see some of the most absurdly gruesome splatter scenes again.  This series follows a predictable formula that goes like this: at the beginning of each movie one of the principal characters has a premonition of a disaster in which a number of people die in spectacular ways.  In the first one it was a plane crashing on takeoff; the second featured a ridiculously complicated multi-vehicle freeway accident; in the third a roller coaster malfunctioned; and in the fourth the disaster took place at a stock car race where several cars went flying off the track and into the stands, which collapsed, but not before tires and miscellaneous car parts decapitated, crushed, and impaled people.  In Final Destination 5 we have the collapse of a suspension bridge due to high winds (similar to the real event that happened at the Tacoma Narrows in Washington back in 1940) while a busload of young business types are on their way to a management retreat.

After having the premonition in each movie, the prescient person “wakes up” just in time to warn others of what lies in their very near future if they don’t leave the airplane, or highway, or roller coaster, or auto race, or bridge.  Of course no one believes that person, who nevertheless bolts from the danger spot.  A few of his or her friends leave, too, just to see what’s wrong with their seemingly crazy companion.  Then in short order the real disaster happens and dozens of people die, leaving only this handful of lucky survivors--the one who had the vision and the ones who went along out of curiosity or concern.  They watch in awe and horror as people get burned, sliced in half, have their heads crushed like cantaloupes, and so on.  Then they retreat, usually to the police station, to regroup and ponder their good fortune while grieving for those who didn’t make it.  The cops scratch their collective heads, try to figure out if they can arrest anybody, and ultimately let the survivors go. 

But here’s the thing.  Death has been cheated, and Death is not happy.  Why, I don’t know, since eventually Death gets everybody, right?  Death in these movies seems to be rather peevish and lacking in the patience that ought to come quite naturally after so many eons of grimly and steadily reaping its harvest.  What’s a few decades more or less where existential certainty is concerned?  Anyway, Death is angry, we’re told, and it continues to stalk the survivors throughout the movie, taking them out one by one in a series of bizarre and imaginative misfortunes that more often than not require simultaneous failures of multiple mechanical and electrical systems and ask the viewer to forget that the circuit breaker and ground fault interrupter were ever invented.  In several of the movies, death’s insistence on gathering the succession of superficially lucky youngsters to its fold is explained by a mysterious black person.  In the latest movie (and maybe in one or more of the others, I forget) he’s the local coroner, a person who apparently is quite well acquainted with Death in a professional capacity.

I mention the fact that the coroner is black because in this movie and in the rest of the series there are few other black people, but they tend to have a closer connection with Death, or at least a better understanding of the reason things are happening, than the white members of the cast, who tend to take solace from the horror of their situation in trips to each other's houses, where they philosophically drink and talk and ultimately decide to live for today.  Cinematically speaking, in general, it seems, when it comes to helping clueless people to understand the deepest of realities, it’s necessary for a person of color to do the explaining.  The use of an African American character as the link between the world of insouciant white good fortune and the dark void of the unknown is part of a long tradition in the movies, which have consistently employed those of duskier hue to unite us with the most primitive and basic elements of human existence—fear, lust, privation, and death.  One black person, skillfully utilized, can do the duty of all of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, including the pale rider.  Call it the economy of tokenism.

In the 1930s, when cinema made no attempt at subtlety (as if it does now), the black seer was often the comical minstrel-show Negro whose big eyes glowed white and whose nappy hair stood on end as he saw a ghost, while the more suave Caucasians laughed at him and saw nothing.  Black folks, it was understood, had a greater tendency to believe in the supernatural, in part perhaps because of their more "primitive" roots, and in part because there weren't a whole hell of a lot of earthly delights available to them, comparatively speaking.  Sometimes the person with the enhanced vision of the inherent ignorance of the wealthy and carefree was somebody’s wet nurse, with a bandanna tied over her hair, shaking her heavy head at the foolishness of the white folks and saying, “mmm, mmm, mmm” in a resigned singsong voice.  Half-comic relief and half Greek chorus, the darkies would generally tend to be right about the fact that something was wrong.  Later, as we began to strive for cinematic and social "realism," we played on another image, that of the sexual threat inherent in the black presence--sweaty muscular men and women grinding the night away on the sawdust floors of juke joints, drinking to excess, smoking dope, and gyrating in primitive ways that no decent, respectable W.A.S.P. would countenance.  In any event, the black folk were always a degree or two closer to the basic truth of things, even if they appeared to be merely shucking and jiving and clowning.  They knew, down in their jungle souls, what was important, and it wasn’t martinis and starched collars and briefcases, believe you me. 

Lest we think that the age of Buckwheat and Mammy and Mandingo is gone, however, we should take a look at the more recent past, and for that matter, the present.  There is, and has been for some time, a stock character in American drama known as the Magic Negro.  He or she is often a servant (what else?) or sometimes a sidekick or petty criminal, who seems to appear out of nowhere to help the white protagonist out of a jam with a combination of common sense and street smarts, and if all else fails, by laying down his life for the hero. If nothing else, this created jobs for black actors, sad as they might be.  At the TV level, think of Jack Benny’s manservant Rochester, of Starsky and Hutch’s underworld pal Huggy Bear, or Maude's maid Florida.  In the movies there are too many to list, but you’ll easily recall them.  I’ll let serious students and critics of the genre like Spike Lee expound on this phenomenon and will only mention it here.  Then again, often the black person in a movie is the first to die, or be killed by the alien, or get sucked out of the airplane.  Why?  First, because he’s expendable and frequently has no mate, due to the still-heavily-enforced cinematic anti-miscegenation rule which dictates, in contravention of reality, that a black man cannot have a white woman, only a black or Hispanic woman, unless of course that black man is a criminal.  (Here I should mention that this rule is not necessarily imposed without the complicity of both races; I once saw a woman on a documentary dedicated to Denzel Washington—an actor who scrupulously adheres to the black-to-black, or at least black-to-brown, rule in his movies—rather pettishly claim him, as an African American, as “ours,” which was particularly odd because the woman who was making the claim was only about one-sixteenth less white than my own mother.)  Another reason black people die first is that generally the protagonists are all white, and the nonwhites are just there for variety.  I will say, in defense of Final Destination 5, that one of the main young upwardly-mobile survivor characters is black, and although he doesn’t have a love interest like some of the whites do, he does manage to survive almost until the end of the movie.  That's progress.  You might say “big deal,” but in a sense it is just that.

And let’s not forget the miscellaneous voodoo priestess, or the spirit mediums (Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost); or the other persons with the supernatural powers (Scatman Crothers in The Shining and the black guy who could see ghosts just like the little kid could in Stir of Echoes).  Where there is something going on beyond the pale, so to speak, you can count on a black person being there to personify it or at least explain it.  It’s scary Mother Africa calling us all back to our pre-civilized roots.

But in Final Destination 5 the black man is the messenger of Death itself, and he is still there at the end after the kids have all perished horribly, reminding us of our scant mortality.  Also, and this can’t be underestimated, the black character is there to remind us of our Great National Sin, the institution of slavery, for which we all must pay and pay, both now and in the afterlife.  The very subject I’m discussing here would have little meaning outside that sub-context.  Put a black man in a Dutch or Swedish movie and people would just say, "Hmm, an African.  Izhn't dat veerd?"  But our black guy, our messenger of death, was there when this country made its original bargain with the Devil, to exist half slave and half free, and he’s here now to help us pay the Faustian price.  He'll be there shaking his head grimly and loading bodies into the back of his van when we’ve all been sliced in half by flying lawnmower blades, beheaded by shards of glass, immolated by carelessly stored chemicals, impaled by malfunctioning airbags and broken pieces of PVC pipe, and fried to a crisp in tanning booths gone haywire.

Call him the Black Death.