Friday, July 20, 2007


Superbad is getting advertised quite a bit around these parts. Giant billboards loom with the two dorky Jewish kids with stunned looks on their faces. Their mouths are agape and a look of fear passes over their eyes; a combination of "How did we get here?" and "They're coming to get us."

Shawn and I were talking, and the notion that normal people have taken over the world came up. I don't think this is entirely true, but it is applicable. There has been a wave of normalcy these past few years throughout television and film. Reality TV being the most prominent, the line of films rattles on: Napoleon Dynamite to Unfunny-as-Fuck-Jack-Black-Wrestling-Movie, Eagle vs Shark is on its way, Knocked Up is the most prominent thus far, Chuck and Larry. Shawn claims that American Pie is the one that has introduced this in the past few years. after that it became the usual: see every Will Ferrel comedy ever made. I'd maybe go back a little bit further to early Adam Sandler stuff. Before that there were the normal people comedies, Meatballs, Revenge of the Nerds, Porky's. Nerds was about outsiders marketed to the masses, and Porky's was really a forerunner to something like American Pie. I'm hesitant to include 40 year old Virgin in this, partly because it's so funny and partly because it's normalcy is pointed, amplified into the visuals of that hilarious poster.

In fact, let's compare.

The similarities are obvious. The first can't really be called high concept, but he's definitely a character. The craze in Carell's eyes, the gleam, the way he holds himself. It's a funny character. It reminds me of Steve Martin. Knocked Up, the two. Knocked up is just a dude. Just some guy. Total, clueless normalcy. He's a good guy at heart. That's his character.

I think (and I've heard this before, it's not an entirely original thought, I'm just trying to expand/explore it a little) that the problem with films today is that the characters aren't deserving of the big screen. They are normal, TV sized people, not the giant, looming personas that grace the big screen. Following the Harold Ramis line of comedies down a couple decades, the posters tell quite a tale. I'm justifying this comparison because Ramis had a cameo in Knocked Up, and they are obviously paying homage to him and his comedies of the seventies and eighties. He's not directly involved with Blues Brothers, but I'm giving you another unpretentious comedy, as to not unfairly compare these modern comedies with a drama or something of the sort. And, if we were to compare any of these to Ghostbusters, obviously they would be blown the hell out of the water.

The difference is apparent, yes? These guys are larger than life characters. The poster has so much going on. Even the cool silhouette glasses and hats...

This is not to say that normal people don't have any place on the big screen, but, you know, the cast of Twin Peaks works better on TV, even though Cooper and Laura Palmer translate well to Fire Walk With Me.

A good character can have that largeness to him (or smallness) without losing that reality of the personality. Think of every character in The Shining, or Charlie in Shoot the Piano Player, or even the two thugs in the same movie, who are hilariously normal, since their obsessions start creeping out of their dialogue.

I think that Jacques Tati really accentuates nicely the point I'm trying to make. His movies are filled with people: a very democratic approach to comedy. Everyone has their time on the screen though, and come and go as they might, their humor highlights their normality, and elevates them from average, anonymous, or archetypal, to keenly observed individuals who have a personality all their own. And, hot damn, it's nearly all conveyed silently. How cool is that.

That's the line that's been lost lately: the ability to elevate normalcy. It still happens, but rarely in the mainstream.


Grant! said...

This brings to mind an old "Chicken or the egg" conversation I had a while back. It involved the movie American Pie and the notion of normal. Now it may have been Clinton that made the Blowjob popular, but it was American Pie that made it normal. Maybe it was the age I was coming to and things useually occur like this, but one year sex was sex, and the next year a "but" was added to it. Oral sex became a part of the mainstream relationship process because of that movie. It was there before, but it was something that either hookers or experimenting couples, and gays, did. And, thanks to both Clinton and American Pie, it didn't count as sex.
My point is that that became the "norm". And its not the first time thi has happened nor the last. The wild west, Ancient rome, new york bohemia, every fucking era in history; we can not escape how film has molded reality, then we forgot it was a mold (I've heard this before...). In the end, we have a new era of movies like the 40 Year Old Virgin and Napolian Dynomite because there was a growing trend of the nerd being cool. Case and point, remember how terrible it was for anyone to wear glasses 10 years ago? With this growing trend, empathy is created between this audience and the movie, and suddenly it becomes normal. Boy, I remember in highschool when I pelted some kid with oranges and fed beef to a llama, or I can relate to a man with crippling agoraphobia because I can image that I myself will never have sex, and I can relate because he doesn't like to shave, just like me.
My point being, it's all the same bullshit. Non of these movies are any more realistic than any other movie made, aliens and nuns included. Even a movie like Matchpoint, or even A Mighty Heart, no matter how much they fake it, is not reality and is not normal. What these movies have to say is entirly truth, what these movies mean to us is entirly human, but as for the films and the characters in them, it's all the same bullshit. Give a flam thrower to an alien-hunting space ship captain and you have the same thing as a widowed wife seeking vegence to a pharmsutical company for testing of Africans. Characters are Characters, not human. We relate to them on a human level, and they can mean the world to us, but it's all synthetic.

After all that, I agree. I am always a fan of giant ravinous ants above a recently divorced couple. The larger, the better.

joe said...

jesus christ grant you comment even before i'm done with the entire post. i'm impressed.

joe said...

that's some pretty funny stuff. i totally follow you up until the last paragraph then it degrades into some weird space pirates thing about human non-humans. good stuff though.

Grant! said...

Basicaly what I'm trying to say is that while films have great characters, they are still just characters and the movie is never about them. Take a look at Life Aquatic, a movie that moves in and out of our spot-light quite freqently. Every character in that movie, no matter how well developed, was streamlined to tell a story, pose a question, or explore theme. The movie wasn't "about" Steve Zi-zu, or however the fuck you spell it, it was about obsession, love and loss, coming of middel age what's-important-in-life. And his character was created to portray those themes. So was Ned. So was everyone else in this movie. So is everyone else in every movie, even "Based on a true story" or documentry films. In the end, all characters are symbols, just like the other symbols in the movie. Imagine The Shinning filmed at a grungy motel. Imagin Alien filmed on the set of 2001. Imagin Shawshank filmed on the set of Papillon. Though they would be good, they would all be different. Thats because the characters are symbols, just like every other symbol in the movie, and the theme occurs when these symbols interact. Thats your movie. Hell, look at Baraka. You don't need characters to deal with human emotions and themes, because the symbolism has been replaced with other symbolism. Characters are great symbols because we can so easily identify with them (because they look and act like us!), but they are just symbols. Thats why it's O.K. to have architypes, thats why it works. Because they're symbols. And this doesn't make anything less human, becasue the theme is always human, the the movie embraces humanity, questions it, explores it. The Characters do not. Characters are tools, not people, and it's a damn good thing because there would be alot of watching them shit, sleep, and be generally bored off they're ass, and I'd feel pretty bad about sending them into a room full of zombies. Steve Zi-zu sitting in bed, watching T.V., and taking a shit and complaning that his ass burns for 2 hours isn't interesting because it tells us nothing, it explores nothing, it questions nothing.
So! As far as characters being "larger than life", all characters are, unless their extras, but fuck the extras. Knocked Up, Blue's Brothers, Shawshank, Blow-Up, Richard the 3rd, Life Aquatic, Breakfast Club (consider that last one my retort for this "normalcy" being a new trend); all the characters are symbols for a greater purpose, which makes them "larger than life". I mean, hell, Dude Where's My Car was as far out as Blue's Brothers, but which one was the better movie?

Food for thought.

joe said...

I'm not buying the last part of your argument, and I'm not really buying the first part either.

Characters are, of course, not people. This is true. But to say that A.they are just symbols and B. they are de facto larger than life is silly. I don't approach a character thinking of what he or she is going to symbolize, or become a vehicle for. These things, in my case, come after the person and their actions. It's like that book, the Simpson's Philosophy or whatever, when they compare Bart to the nietzsche Ubermensch, etc. Groening and co. aren't writing the monorail episode thinking how they can further the theme of ubermensch through bart's actions. These things come out of the person, the character. Ask anyone what that episode is about. You'll get zero people saying its ubermensch, or even economic subversion through transportation. Every description I guarantee you will be "Oh yah that's the episode where ___ happened" then they will repeat a joke from the episode. To say its the other way around ignores the base of the story, the comedic character and their actions. Its to ignore the person, which I find you do a lot...

And, while a character may by default be "larger than life" because he or she is written onto the big screen, that doesn't mean they are worth my time, or that they are doing anything but contributing to the already infinite mass of crap movies. to which they are to be left and ignored. and then become quite a bit smaller than life, since they can't even hold up compared to my life, which involves shitting and TV and ass burns. that's my point.

Grant! said...

All I am saying is that characters exist in a movie for a purpose, either to illistrate something about another character, about the world, about the theme...there about something. It's all about artistic purpose. Ture, the end theme and symbol are interpreted by the reader in the end, and some people can read all kinds of bullshit from it, but writing without purpose leaves a story that meanders, and is unfocused. Thinking of characters first is a time honored writing tradition, and it works, but you use the characters to find something to write about, whether or not you know it at first. And then you alter the characters to better fit your needs. And that's because they're tools. Maybe you don't do this, I'm just thinking from my own experience. I just think focusing too much on characters as people can lead to not knowing yourself, as a writer, what's going on in your own story. It worked for Grant Morrison, but he also practices kabala, so their is all kinds of crazy going on, but whatever works, right?

joe said...

i gotcha. that sounds much more articulated.