Dirtman and I saw two movies this weekend, both of which were released weeks before Christmas. But the only characters showing up within 60 miles of us then were animated, deranged or driving really fast and blowing up.
While The Queen and Babel are old news to most of you, our local theaters have only recently and grudgingly deigned to show them. None of the movies nominated for the Golden Globe, the Oscars or any of the other self-congratulating industry awards were available to us when they were released because local theater owners thought we’d prefer to have Happy Feet in all nine theaters held over for fifteen weeks – because you know there aren’t enough movies out there telling kids to “believe in themselves.”
So it was with certain smugness that we bought our tickets Friday night to see Helen Mirren’s painstakingly-crafted portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. We were two of five people in the audience. It was an interesting experience, particularly with the sound of Attila the Hun next door drowning out the subtle dialogue of a woman attempting to reconcile her public and private persona.
As we stood in line the next evening to buy tickets to see Babel, we heard a woman behind us advise another couple, “Don’t go see that Queen movie. You hardly see Princess Di. Just the queen and some butler guy talking and talking.” I wonder if she meant British Prime Minister Tony Blair by “some butler guy.”
Babel drew a larger audience, only I think it was because there was the promise of Brad Pitt sweating (I was prepared to hate it precisely for that reason). Instead I found it to be the kind of movie I like: worth discussing afterward. While it wasn’t among the best movies I’ve ever seen, it was still worth my time and money. And there was minimal Pitt infestation.
I could sense halfway through the movie that the crowd wasn’t in agreement with me, evidenced by the woman next to us obsessively checking her big-screen cell phone every 10 minutes, not to mention jumping up on a regular basis to buy more candy. Another woman on the way out fired questions at her husband who kept shrugging and saying, “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“That was depressing,” said one teenage girl. “We should have gone to see Happy Feet again.”
Yeah, I made that second sentence up. But it was implied.
Maybe I’m out of touch with what constitutes a good movie. I’ve been wrong before. I couldn’t wait for the Titanic to sink once they got all their pretty clothes wet. Give me A Night to Remember any day.
The one thing that separated those movies from the usual local offerings was that you had to, first of all, pay attention and, second, make the connections and conclusions yourself. These were elegantly edited films that didn’t waste your time with fussiness and clutter. They make you use your brain, but reward when you do.
We’ve gotten lazy in our viewing habits. We want to be told up front what we are seeing and why. We want information repeated so that when we leave to get our Milk Duds or check our messages we don’t lose the storyline. We want to know what we want to know, not what the filmmaker wants us to know and what he wants us to fill in ourselves or just leave alone.
No one is skipping into the sunshine by the time Babel’s puzzle pieces all fall into place, and the edges aren’t all smooth and tidy. Obviously, the issue of the validity of the British monarchy is never settled in The Queen, nor do you have some minor character explaining Queen Elizabeth II’s conflict in being a monarch, a mother and a grandmother. At no point does Elizabeth advise William and Harry to believe in themselves.
Meryl Streep wants us to confront our local theater owners about ignoring so many great movies. But I can’t help remembering there were only five people willing to sit through a weekend showing of The Queen. The Arts aside, theaters in the end need to make a profit.
So I can’t really blame my local theater owners for their reluctance to carry anything other than movies with the same, guaranteed plot formulas. They obviously know their audiences. At least the meatier films are being made.
But I wonder how long it is before the only movies being made are dumbed down for laziness. I wonder how long before that laziness dumbs us down.
I wonder if it hasn’t already started.