Bright Lights Film Journal

Un-Movies: When is a movie not a movie?

All movies have the potential to become a non-movie, particularly when the movie showcases a cause, a disease, a celebrity, an actor’s virtuosity, a play or musical. The movie becomes an exhibition and stops moving, the cinematic version of a blood clot. An aesthetic stroke or heart attack results. The movie rigidifies into a carcass I shall call an Un-Movie.

Un-Movies are everywhere and often cleverly disguised to pass for movies, even enormously popular movies. They are not necessarily unenjoyable, as the exhibition or showcase might favor a popular cause or entertainer or both. I happened to view several of them recently, but one in particular I found difficult to let go.

Ladder 49 (2004) has two actors — Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta — who have been in many movies, many successful movies, some of the better movies in the last twenty years. They have a pedigree. One expects from them . . . a movie. However, previews of Ladder 49 suggested that the film existed to glorify firefighting in the post 9/11 world.

I overcame my initial doubts about its entertainment value — I refrained from seeing it at a theater — and rented it.

The premise or inspiration for an $80 million movie has little or nothing to do with plot, drama, and mystery when the producers believe that people will be drawn in by, say, a new generation of heroes. Bring on the adulation for the firefighters. As if — and here a fissure in the premise exposes itself — no one ever appreciated what firefighters do. In a world focused on Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton, I can understand how firefighters feel underappreciated and think that the public’s values are screwed up. Yet it may be symptomatic of the last twenty or thirty years that deserving public employees, like policemen, the military, and firefighters, get caught up in the publicity wars and fight for attention. Publicity, public relations, and spin take on lives of their own and propel tales of heroism and honor into myths, such that the public will believe police, soldiers, and firemen are all very nice people deserving kudos.

Ladder 49 exists not as a movie but as a public relations exercise. Yet I grudgingly admit that it has a few qualities to recommend it. For instance, by the film’s end, I am nearly shedding a tear over the death of one of the firefighting stars. And during the movie, I feel great satisfaction over the heroism of saving lives. Otherwise, scenes lead nowhere. A goose is put in Joaquin’s locker. He’s freaked. The firemen get a kick out of it. The audience is supposed to get a kick out of it. All we need is canned laughter. Then Robert Patrick and Joaquin start sniping at one another. This is a “one guy does not accept the other guy” subplot. Manufactured conflict. A woman is involved. Conflict is overcome when they help out one another under the stress of fighting a fire. The fire burns up all conflicts.

When Ladder 49 tries to become a movie — when the drama is supposed to kick in — too much PR inhalation has already suffocated the script.

What other dramatic oxides leak into the script?

Rookie initiation. Meeting the future wife. The wedding scene. The death of the buddy. The wife making a goddamn issue about the guy’s job. (I love this last one. She marries a fireman and begrudges him his job. As if we have never seen that before.) The obligatory facial mutilation. And the either/or climax.

Like good PR, the movie puts lots of people in its scenes: a wedding, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the funeral scene. For the last thirty years, moral crusaders have decried the inclusion of sex scenes for the sake of titillating audiences. What about these masses of characters put together for no dramatic intent?

The one instance when I became interested was during a rendition of the Ohio Players’ classic, “Fire.” Yes, it seemed so obvious putting that particular song into a movie about firemen. I was embarrassed for the players in the movie who had to sing it at the wedding. All that bullshit camaraderie feels unreal, even though it may be the most real thing about the firemen in this movie. But the makers of Ladder 49 counted on many “Fire” episodes for the viewer. A movie strung end to end with them, so that you come out of it rocking and feeling good.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the other firefighting movie, Backdraft (1991). Despite being directed by Ron Howard, it had considerably fewer moments of pyrotechnic and dramatic exhibitions for their own sake. Indeed, the movie contained a credible mystery to make the standard heroics and the sibling rivalry (William Baldwin v. Kurt Russell) palatable. Not to mention an incredible cameo performance by Donald Sutherland as a career arsonist. His appearance alone immunized the movie from becoming a Ladder 49. One thing the two movies have in common: both grossed $77 million in the U.S. Adjusted for inflation, Backdraft‘s take is higher. But one cannot help inferring that a definite number of people were going to come out and see a movie with many fires and explosions. Many of these people, perhaps, prefer non-movies.

I could go on. Enough said that John Travolta’s dancing is also on exhibition. Had he done it on a ladder, I could have almost forgiven him. The only thing missing was Uma Thurman, who recently repeated her Pulp Fiction (1994) tryst with Travolta inBe Cool (2005).

Indeed, just mentioning Get Shorty 2 reminds me how many non-movie moments filled that film’s two hours. One stultifying element is the “show-stopping’ numbers by Linda Moon (Christina Milian), Chili Palmer’s protege. When Linda Moon performs, or even when (surprise!) Travolta dances, the movie becomes an exhibition and grinds to a halt. To further the toxicity, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith shows up and kibitzes with Chili. The use of real-life characters in movies may be the un-moviest of un-movie moves. The filmmakers hope that audiences will love Tyler’s presence more than I.

Part of Be Cool‘s premise is to goof on itself being a sequel and, thus, coming very very close to admitting that we are indulging in a non-movie experience.

Ocean’s 12 (2004) anticipates this tired self-consciousness by doing a similar thing: first by concocting a near impossible plot to follow, and then turning the movie inside out by having Julia Roberts’ character (Tess) play at being Julia Roberts. Bruce Willis as “himself” then gets dragged into this subplot. A few critics dismissed Ocean’s 12 as being contemptuous of the public and simply too clever for itself.

Why not admit that the film was being exactly what it was. With this self-consciously fatalistic device, director Stephen Soderbergh admits that he is not making a “movie.”

That it so blatantly labeled itself a particular Hollywood exercise of making money without trying, Ocean’s 12 had nearly — I emphasize nearly — transcended itself. Too many inside jokes wearied much of the audience, which either did not get or did not care about them. Besides, the original Ocean’s 11 (1960), with the Rat Pack, had a perfect blend of celebrity-drama mix. Those guys knew they weren’t making a movie but convinced the pre-1960s audiences that they were seeing one.

Other recent examples of a non-movie and a near non-movie are Beyond the Sea (2004) and Kinsey (2004), two biopics, one of the rock and roll singer and the other about the author of the infamous sex report on sexual behavior in 1947. My relative enjoyment of both films had one minor, if troubling, aspect that I could not shake. Neither man deserved a goddamn movie!

Many movies should never have been made, like Exorcist: The Beginning (the Renny Harlin version, 2004), but their inadequacies have nothing to do with their being a non-movie. The Kinsey Reportand Bobby Darin’s life do not offer enough material to become larger than life. Yes, I am aware of the relative notion of what one thinks is important or worth the public’s time. I give all filmmakers the benefit of the doubt.

However, Kevin Spacey never proves to me that Bobby Darin was worth my time and interest. This project seems more concerned about Spacey becoming Bobby Darin, which may be the subject for a movie in twenty years.

By comparison, Paul Schrader took a Hollywood nullity like Bob Crane, whose sordid death made a great tabloid story, and in Auto-Focus (2002) created a very disturbing vision of All-American narcissism and obsession. Spacey’s adoration of Darin is the equivalent to making the Bob Crane story and strictly appealing to the tabloid mentality. Beyond the Sea was nothing more than an exhibition of Spacey’s talent.

Kinsey, on the other hand, simply did not convince me that the world needed The Kinsey Report. I understood Kinsey’s own need to study sexuality in America but waited in vain for the film to deal problematically with the Report. Kinsey’s public relations team could not have done a better job illustrating the longstanding importance of Kinsey’s work, especially at the end, when the final interview subject (Lynn Redgrave) gives a testimonial to the way her life was made “better” through sexual frankness. I am not questioning her veracity, or the importance it had for her, but it seems tacked on, similar to two other un-movie moments: Nelson Mandela in the front of a classroom at the end of Malcolm X (1992) and the visit to Schindler’s grave by the actors and those they had represented in Schindler’s List (1992).

Another problem with Kinsey was the casting of Liam Neeson, who is unquestionably more handsome and charismatic than the real Kinsey. Look at Neeson and you can see how his Kinsey attracted followers and lovers. The real Kinsey you have to wonder about. Or he had an extraordinary charisma that the movie could never come close to showing.

This latter quibble pales compared to the film’s aforementioned exhibition of the importance of sexual awareness in a backward puritanical society. Yet a movie risks undoing itself for the sake of its message.

The message movie becomes an optimum candidate for non-movie status. And it is not always the film’s fault. It is possible that the audience will try to turn a movie into a non-movie by focusing primarily on what appears to be a message. Million Dollar Baby (2004) received intense scrutiny from various interest groups because of the boxer’s assisted suicide, essentially unmaking the movie into a polemic. Then, perhaps, the opposite happens. The issue and people become un-made and become a movie.

Note: Based on completely separate criteria, I have never accepted animated features as movies. Even the Academy Award powers have placed them in a separate category. Occasionally, a movie emerges from the animation, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?(1988), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the two Toy Storys (1995 and 1999).