Posts Tagged Film

Why Can’t We Gain “Moral Value” from the Big City?

NY city skyline

No good can come of this?

Did You Hear About the Morgans? flopped across all three levels: commercially ($29 million domestic gross vs. a $58 million budget), critically (Metacritic: 27), and socially (Rotten Tomatoes: 13). Of the many things wrong with the film, it seems to be yet another work that espouses the evil, uncaring, cold, urban environment for the beauty, serene, and heartfelt warmth that can only be taken from the most rural of areas. City-folk can’t learn about real values in the hustle and bustle of that big, loud place with the skyscrapers and the traffic and the bums. No: you need to come out here, with the fresh air,  the lack of civilization, and little cell phone service, where you’re freed from that boisterous nonsense and given the chance to understand you, your life and your significant other.

“Bullshit,” you say. “Why can’t films take the opposite approach? Why can’t characters move to the city and learn something about life values, movies such as –”

Wait. Has there ever even been a movie that done this? Has there been a film or TV show or comic or SOME entertainment medium that allowed the wonder and richness and excitement of the city to spur a character from the negative, overworked, self-centered mindset to the communal, wholesome, respectful one? (Farm-living isn’t exactly a cakewalk.) Can we learn value from the urban landscape? Has there been anyone willing to try?

Off the top of my head, only two films seem to touch partially upon the idea: Manhattan and Lost in Translation. Manhattan I have yet to see, but Woody Allen’s opus to New York is just simply that: it idolizes that specific city. It ignores cities in general, nor does it advocate the kind of generic values that rural areas seem to just impart in spades (see Annie Hall, in which its anti-LA sentiments are pretty glaring). Lost in Translation is closer, but it is not the city of Tokyo and its active culture through which Bill Murray has his transformation. His human revelations are brought about via his time with Scarlett Johansson, and he doesn’t learn about “values” so much as himself. It’s a character study, a fairly good one, but Tokyo, the city, is still inherently a backdrop of excess, noted by the earlier scenes of his longing gazes at the huge towers and bright lights. He didn’t go to Tokyo and, by extension, learn wholesome, gosh-darn-it lessons.

Rural valley

The ONLY place that lessons can be be learned.

It’s easy to see why this trope-bordering-on-cliche is so prevalent in films today. From a technical and visual level, the city imparts a sense of lack of control, a frustrating milieu of frantic action that can’t adequately define or reflect the feeling of love, family, community, or friendship. What is the value of a kiss or a hug or a handshake, when horns and siren blare incessantly in background, across stone-cold swaths of grays? Any potential meaning there is rendered moot.

Surburbia used to be a breeding ground for such moral considerations, but since then, the 50s have been exposed as a hotbed of barely-hidden racism and sexism (see Mad Men), and dysfunction within the suburban family has been overly represented in films like Ed Wood, American Beauty, and The Weather Man. We could return to that locale to exercise clean and ethical living, but it would appear more like pastiche then genuine representation (see Blue Velvet).

This leaves rural America, with its wide open spaces and natural beauty, to be the venue in which such virtuous sensations arise. And while films have been produced that showcases the negative of expanse and freedom (Sling Blade, practically every horror movie ever), comedies, dramas, and even “dramedies” often pull their characters to these country scenarios to meditate on their state of mind, only to emerge a changed man or woman.

It would take a brave and visionary filmmaker to pool the right types of talents together to make a movie where the urban environment could be as rich and rewarding a place as a rural one. But it would be hard to do so. And expensive.

In retrospect, I can only think of two forms of entertainment that seem to suggest that the sprawling metropolis and the underlying streets have value, not only in the rich expanses of awe-inspiring architecture, but even in the meager conditions of street life, an area so often depicted with grim and filth, gangs and pimps, drugs and danger.

Oddly enough, they are children shows.

Sesame Street

Sesame Street’s main formula — mildly straightforward and simple stories mixed with cartoons, skits, and segues about letters and numbers — has an underlying richness within itself, with characters that do indeed live and care and are generally helpful to each other. These are attitudes that are so often depicted in close-knit rural towns, where everyone knows everyone, so it’s great to finally see it in an area that could be Brooklyn or South Central LA. In my experience, the city is a lot more receptive to newcomers than the rural areas. The city is a constant hotbed of people coming and going, where strangers are a daily occurrence. Rural areas, while not outright distrustful, seem so keen on conforming the newcomer to their way of life — which of course, is undeniably right — than generally accepting the strangers’ ways of doing things. Just watch how Sesame Street deals with new puppets or locals. The introduction of Linda Bove, who brought the issue of deafness and sign language to the show, hosts ten times the significance than any camera shot of a quiet brook among trees.

Hey Arnold!

Hey Arnold came, had a good run, and went; I personally think we missed a real opportunity by not adequately discussing the value of the urban youth this show quite accurately presented. While the main character, Arnold, was rather smaltzy for any child to be, the overall feel for the show was endearing. These were not the bratty, annoyingly precocious children that so often grace our Sleepless in Seattle’s and Jerry Maguire’s. These were real kids with real emotion issues, who struggled in schools named by number only, who played stickball and fooled around in the mud, who learned about themselves and their lot, not by escaping the urban landscape but by embracing it. When a character takes a city bus – public transportation! – and learns about the value of the people around her, that’s something real.

Neither of these shows contained a character from the country moving to the city and gaining a wholesome rebirth of the spirit (although I do think an episode of Hey Arnold did cover that). But what this does showcase is that places like New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Dallas, and, yes, even Detroit, can be rich with those moral instructions on life, love, and community that seem only regulated to areas that pits five miles of land between neighbors.

I don’t mean to harp on the rural communities, but films really need to start embracing the urban sprawl as containing those “values” that seem natural to rural or the occasional suburban world. Surely we can’t allow for PBS and Nickelodeon to be the only place that allow for such a viewpoint, one that uses the light-hearted, socially-interpreted media of puppetry and animation to appeal to kids, focusing on the values less as an artistic and narrative endeavor and more of a method to “educate” children. I would like the Jacksons, Roths, Tarantinos, Reitmans, and the many other directors, writers, and producers to look at the hustle and bustle of the asphalt jungle and, perhaps, find its own flow, its own community, its own wonder that can be passed along to audiences.


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My Writing Quest: Part 1 of a Billion

I will start providing more information concerning my developing writing career. The HORROR.

I recently began a much-stronger push to develop my writing. I guess you could call it my 2010 Resolution, although I resolved to do it pretty much last summer when I started this blog. I got a few fun gigs – I write this one, I write for Destructoid’s Community Blogs, and I’ve been pegged to write for a brand new video game site, Damnlag. (It’s still being coded, so it’s not quite ready yet.) I am also doing reviews for Wildsound Filmmaking, an atrociously designed website that, at the very least, allows me to watch some classic horror films (and pays). Some rock (The Fly), some do not (The Black Scorpion). I’m putting together a portfolio and even made some business cards.

Also, screenplays are in the works. I suppose I should tell you what I have: technically, I have three full-length features “done”. Two I had to do in college (and I probably won’t touch them ever again), and one I recently did for Coverage Ink (more on that in a second). I also have written two full-length fan-scripts based on some video game properties. Why? Two reasons: one, I wanted to test my abilities at adaptations, and even though they won’t sell, it still pushes my skillset as a writer. Two, I wanted to see if it was really that hard and complex to scribe a decent screenplay from a game. (Conclusion: It is, but it helps being a fan of the game as well as understanding the nuances of storytelling. Also, taking the time to think about it.) That’s 5 nearly-120 pages scripts. Huh.

In addition, I wrote six episodes of an animated sitcom. Now, animated shows aren’t usually written so much as the ideas are tossed around until they’re defined enough for storyboarding. But some sources seem to suggest that the teleplay for cartoons are becoming more and more necessary. Given that this show is more attuned to Futurama (I’m actually pitching it as Johnny Bravo meets Futurama), it’s more about character-humor than the other types, although I do use a number of physical, timing, word, and cutaway gags. I wanna commission some concept art soon.

(An aside: one of my biggest revelations was how much I adore the animated/video game-y stories, with huge, creative worlds, wacky characters, and practically limitless borders. Once I got away from ideas of people doing stuff that people do, it really improved my drive and makes writing what it should always be: fun. I’d love to be able to write something with the heart of a Pixar film, but if only make it to the level of a high-valued Dreamworks film, hell, I’d take it. THIS site really solidified my drive.)

As for Coverage Ink: in the summer, I entered a contest called the CSOpen, a three-week adventure where you had to write 5-page scenes based on premises that were provided for you. The trick was, each round had a shortened time-frame. I made it to the final round, but failed to put together a decent submission with the required 3 hours. Yet, my second submission was really good, and I ended up pushing it out into a full length. Coverage Ink, the sponsor of the CSOpen, offered coverage service at a discount, so I went ahead and submitted it, JUST to see where it and I stack against the competition. I have a bit of faith in how it turned out, but I have to expect a PASS just to maintain some realism. I’ll know the results this weekend. I’m nervous as hell.

We will see. I’ll be heading out to LA for a week, getting a taste of the town and perhaps a bit of networking? We’ll see what happens.


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1965 version of "It's on."

1965 version of "It's on."

A Charlie Brown Christmas – (1965)

Director: Bill Melendez
Starring: Peter Robbins, Tracy Stratford, Christopher Shea
Screenplay by: Charles Schulz

Time to end 2009 with a bit of controversy: I think Charles Schulz’ Peanuts is a better comic than Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent, iconic strips that defined sense of the human condition through the eyes of surprisingly cognizant children. Calvin, however, seemed more aggressive in dealing with the hardships and realities of the world, able to cope via his imaginary stuffed animal, made-up sports, and exaggerated snowmen. Peanuts had no such outlet. Life sucked, and the children dealt with it.

I think Watterson’s reputation is hinged partially on his isolation and his unwillingness to allow his characters to be marketed or “sold out”. Admirable, certainly, but I believe that if something stands the test of time, no amount of toys, dolls, TV programs, shot glasses, and pillowcases will in no way diminish the impact of the icon (see: the early Simpsons). Besides, it’s not exactly easy to market Peanuts. Other than Snoopy (and maybe Woodstock), you’re not really making dolls of the Peanuts cast. Items derived from the comic are manifested through representing idyllic scenes; calendars, snow globes and posters. You’re not giving a child a stuffed version of a bald, wishy-washy child. (They do make them, I doubt they sell too well.)

More pro-Peanuts later in the piece.

NOSTALGIC LENS: Somehow, Peanuts had always appealed to me, whether it was this special, You’re a Good Man, Snoopy Comes Home, or the weekly strips in my local newspaper. While I wasn’t too much into the educational/religious aspects, I did adore watching Chuck try so hard to just enjoy life, but to have crap happen at every turn. Surprisingly, he still is adamantly perseverant, and perhaps that what made him so appealing to me.

DOES IT HOLD UP: I always imagine the theme of Peanuts to be a rigid determination to stand up against the constant pressures of realities that falls upon even the most innocent members of society. Simply put: “Life fucking sucks, even for children – but fuck it.”

The comics exemplify this the most. The cartoons seem oddly askew to the newspaper strip, however; it’s like comparing Richard Pryor’s stand-up to his film roles. Sure, you can see the similarities, but the material is just an odd shade of the original content. The cartoons tend to be comic series designed in animated form, and for the movies and specials, they still maintain the four-panel style in delivery (bit, bit, bit, PUNCHLINE), but, somehow, have a innate beauty to them, a real sense of melancholy and splendor that pervades the awkward timing and continuity of the actual program.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first animated Peanuts show released, showcases all this; its positives (vaguely dark and esoteric humor, intriguing direction by Melendez, a beautiful score by Vince Guaraldi) and its negatives (terrible segues, incomprehensible elements to the story, weak voice work from children) combine to create a child-like sense of whimsy and innocent foray into the true meaning of Christmas.

Charlie Brown reminds me of a young Holden Caulfield. A lost soul trying to find the real meaning of the holiday among the falsities, “phonies,” and commercialization, Brown wakes up depressed for no reason as the kids around him seem more in-tuned into the Christmas spirit. He’s looking for the true meaning, but, why bother? He didn’t get any Christmas cards from anyone. His dog got a free pile of bones. He was chosen to direct the Christmas play, but he sucks at it. What is it all for, Brown wonders?

Linus, the show’s educational mouthpiece, tells us:

Even in 1965, this was ballsy. CBS executives were horrified, seeing such a blatant speech delivered in a Christmas special. Melendez tried to talk Schulz out of it, who apparently convinced him by saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” Melendez and executive producer Lee Mendelson were convinced this would be a flop. But, like a Christmas miracle, it was a hit, the speech becoming the most memorable part of the show. While today the ultra-religious element doesn’t hold up, what with the Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other holidays celebrated at this time, the feel of the spirit, espoused in that speech, seems to resonate more than the speech itself.

I think Charlie Brown’s story around the tree is much more resonate and significant to the special’s appeal. When told to get a tree for the play, instead of a fake, metal, colored pine, Charlie Browns grabs a dying real one, a clear reflection of himself and inner troubles concerning the holiday. Of course, he’s un-mercilessly ridiculed for it, but, due to Linus’s speech, he feels that at the very least, he could save it; i.e., save “real Christmas”.

The Peanuts children may embrace the season’s commercialism, but they also have the heart and mindset to understand the season’s abstract meanings of togetherness and spirit. Schulz’s point is that Christmas’s can be both about gifts, products, and advertising (this was originally sponsored by Coca-Cola, after all), and still maintain the importance and impact of the season’s meaning. You can have your cake and eat it too.

This is why I love Schulz. You can be a sellout and still purport beauty and meaning.

IN A NUTSHELL: A Charlie Brown Christmas is as endearing as I remember it. I adore how the show’s essence takes precedent over its flaws; it’s almost like an art film where its nonsensical elements are secondary to the feeling the special exudes. Also, on the DVD, the It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown special was on it. While it wasn’t nearly as rich as the 1965 show, it still was a lot of fun, with an excellently played gag with Sally and a screwed up line.

I will take the month of January off from the CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature, as I will be going on vacation and focusing on a few other writing projects. I will update with current status of how that goes. I will return to this in February, with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!