February 2009

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Heckler

I watched a good movie the other night: Heckler, a documentary by Jamie Kennedy and Michael Addis. I haven’t seen Jamie Kennedy’s movies (Son of the Mask and Malibu’s Most Wanted) and I wasn’t a fan of his show (The Jamie Kennedy Experiment) because I don’t like the candid camera type of shows but this was an interesting movie.

In the film, Jamie Kennedy examines the phenomenon of the heckler who is sitting in the audience at a comedy club and feels compelled to shout out obnoxious comments. Kennedy then compares critics to hecklers and talks about how these days heckling/criticism comes from all directions. He interviews various famous and near-famous people to get their take on hecklers/critics and these opinions make the movie.

My favorite comment is from writer Fred Belford: “I one time read a review for Piglet’s Big Movie, like from Winnie the Pooh. The review was, ‘Juvenile.’ It’s like, ‘You would have to be five years old to enjoy this movie.’ Um, YEAH!”

George Lucas talks about how he’d rather be a creator than a critic. And I totally agree. Peter Guber talks about how most critics have never made a movie or written a script or done anything in the business so they don’t know the business. Bill Maher talks about how most comedians (and other creators) are sensitive people so they are bound to be hurt by criticism. But Maher also says you must be sensitive to create good art.

I have a lot of sympathy for comedians. They’ve got what may be the hardest job in the world: get up in front of a group of people, take control of the room, and make the room laugh for thirty minutes to an hour. And I know it’s not easy to make a movie. I know if I started making movies, the first couple would stink. Plus I saw all the seasons of Project Greenlight. If nothing else, that show shows how hard it is to make a movie. So many things can go wrong and to make a good movie, everything has to go right.

In Heckler, they complain mostly about the critics who simply say, “That movie sucked!” And the critics who get personal. Many of the commentators say they don’t mind critics who give constructive, knowledgeable criticism but add that this sort of criticism is rare these days. Even Roger Ebert gets it in the chin. They mock his one filmmaking effort, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Which I’ve seen. Not good. He was the screenwriter.)

The Heckler does provide some food for thought, but I’m not going to stop criticizing movies. Especially the second Star Wars trilogy, sorry George Lucas. I would rather be creating, and I am trying to be a creator, but in the meantime I like being a critic. Because being a critic, I think, will make me a better creator.

When you step into a movie theater chair as a willing participant, you suspend your disbelief. You want to believe. And you do believe, based on the world the movie creates. You accept certain events in a James Bond movie that you would not accept in a cop procedural. If it’s a world in which ordinary physics are relaxed, you accept that. If it’s a world with a matrix, you accept that. But if there are inconsistencies, if the movie violates its own rules, it’s hits you like a torpedo into the side of a ship. Your willingness to suspend your disbelief weakens. If these violations reach a critical mass, the movie begins to sink. If there are only one or two violations, you might just feel like the movie falls a little short of what it could have been.

I’ll give you two examples from two great movies, Patton and Schindler’s List. Each of these movies had just one scene that bothered me, one scene that hurt my belief in the film. In Patton, one of his close subordinates is killed in battle. Patton holds a small funeral procession with a donkey pulling a wagon carrying the casket. My thought on this was, WTF? Patton is in the middle of the North African campaign and he’s going to have this oddball funeral procession? In Schindler’s List, there is a pivotal scene where Oskar Schindler kisses a young Jewish woman at his birthday party in front of a Amon Goeth and a whole mob of Nazis. And not just Nazis, SS officers. Plus it was a creepy move and seemed out of character for Schindler. When I saw the scene, I thought, Huh? (Which is about the same reaction the woman he kissed had.) I’ve been reading a lot about Nazi Germany lately so this seemed extremely improbable given the views the Nazis had of the Jews. Both of these scenes were jarring. I couldn’t believe they were true scenes in these movies based on true stories. They took me out of the movie for a moment.

It turns out that both scenes were invented by the filmmakers. Patton’s subordinate did die, but Patton did not hold the oddball funeral procession for him. Oskar Schindler was put in jail for black market activities, not for kissing a Jewish girl. I consider these small blemishes on two otherwise great movies, but both of these choices irked me. These are amazing true stories. Why did they have to invent these scenes?

(This also brings up a similar issue, the true scene in a true story that nonetheless rings false. Not sure what to do about those. I don’t necessarily mind the false scene in a true story that doesn’t ring false. An example from Schindler’s List: in real life, the little girl in the red dress survived the war.)