Monday, July 12, 2010

My Personal Quadrant

The "Four Quadrant Picture" is the movie business's current formula for success. If a project appeals to all four quadrants -- men over 25, men under 25, women over 25, women under 25 -- then, the logic goes, it's got blockbuster potential. Anything else is a risk. This is why we are getting movies like Marmaduke even though there's an unnamed quadrant clearly starving for movies like The Kids Are All Right.

Herding all of America into these four age/gender categories is of course the kind of folly that marketers have to parade as science when confronted with the diversity of our country. The truth is, people within the same quadrant have diverse tastes -- some watch reality TV, some watch sports, some watch HBO.  If everybody could agree on anything (besides Toy Story, that is) we wouldn't have these divisive elections, or people who hate the Yankees no matter how much they win.

When it comes to movies, I often disagree with my peers -- even if we're the same age, same gender, same ethnic background, same education. That's what makes life -- and art -- interesting. I was thinking about how idiosyncratic taste is because
of a few spirited arguments I've recently had with friends trying to defend my liking something.

I really loved A.M. Homes's dark suburban marital satire Music For Torching and recommended it to a friend living through some marital strife. I got a virulent text message asking me what the hell I liked about it, how awful the people were, etc etc. (Sorry!)

Then last night, I watched the movie A Single Man by Tom Ford, a stylish tale of grief which earned its star Colin Firth an Oscar nomination, but otherwise passed through the culture fairly uneventfully. I found it incredibly moving, for deeply personal reasons, which I'll get to in a moment. (Like The Kids Are All Right, it also features an unassailable performance by the stellar Julianne Moore.)

I had been dissuaded from seeing it back when it was in theaters by a friend I trust, who lambasted it as "a pretentious, overwrought, boring perfume ad" and said there was "no story." And last night when I touted it to another peer, a filmmaker who has experienced loss, he replied, "I walked out was just 'too gay' for me. I know that's shallow, but it was like shot after shot of men's eyebrows and waxed chests, and backs..."

These are both guys in my very narrow quadrant -- they are even fellow writers. Here's the thing: I can't argue with either of them, I know what they mean, but I got past the stylish fetishizing right away. For me, it was an indelible use of cinema -- including even variances in color saturation -- to convey the state of grieving. The story is of a gay college professor named Falconer in the early 60's whose longtime lover dies, and how the social conventions of the era muffle his heartache. He lives in a fog and is on a suicidal bent, revisiting his past and his present, until he has an encounter that endows him with one of those rare moments of clarity. 

I won't give away the ending, but I will say that at first I found it a complete cop-out, then I thought about it more. I realized that while I was watching it, I was empathizing with Falconer's grief and loss, because of how I sometimes have felt in the months and years since my parents died. 

But then as the end credits began, I was gobsmacked by the revelation that in fact, Falconer -- despite his specific plight as a gay man in 1962 -- was like my widowed father in 2009, who was in the fog of grief, going through the motions, then he had a last day (or week, really) that kind of dug him out of it. He saw his teenage granddaughter shine in a school play, he presented her and her sister with the memory book he'd self-published about his late wife, he confided to me that he'd started dating and "felt like a teenager" -- and then he died in his sleep. 

Of course I can't expect other people who haven't gone through what I have, or what he did, to get past all the beautiful trappings of Ford's movie, but I find it fascinating how important it is for them to feel like their point of view isn't wrong. As one of the characters in the movie says, "Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty." But also: one person's awful is another's beauty.

It's the kind of difference of opinion that relegates these kinds of movies to the art house, because this means they appeal to a "specialized" audience. But thank god they're getting made, because not everybody has a talking dog or a secret superhero identity. 


shoshana said...

I have had the dvd sitting in my closet since the British academy awards. I will watch the film and see for myself now that I have read your blog! Shoshana.

Jonathan Kesselman said...

Sadly, there is so little money out there to make thoughtful, moving, "art" films. What's even more disheartening is that the "Art Film" today seems to be anything that is original, well-made, thought provoking and/or moving. Currently, the best filmed entertainment is on cable television.

Jason said...

I really enjoyed the movie on a plane recently and have bought the novel to see how the adaptation was made.
As for all those who disliked the film's high-style visuals - would they make the same complaint if the movie had been made by (I only have old points of reference) Minnelli or Fellini or David Lean rather than a gay designer?
Yes, I'm gay, but generally hate the shallow high-gloss associated with gay sensibilities (yes, I know, I worked on 'La Cage') - but, if anything, the lead performance was pointedly lacking in camp....
I don't think I'm making a big point here though - beyond 'I liked it too, David!'

David Handelman said...

@Jonathan -- I agree. HBO's Temple Grandin movie was better than most theatrical movies I saw this year.

@Jason -- yes he was decidedly unqueeny. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Lately, my main source for movie reviews is someone who's related to me. He is personally offended when he is reeled in with a terrific trailer (once again proving that advertising is truly the art of our time) and then finds the film thin and formulaic; he sees through Hollywood contrivance as with a laser; he returns to Kurosawa again and again; and he has flawless judgment.

He is ten.

As always, they underestimate us. Kids, and the grownups that kids become.

Thanks for an always fascinating train of thought.

Maria Grasso said...

As you know, I LOVED "The Kids Are Alright", was also a fan of "A Single Man" and "Music for Torching" AND that still doesn't put us in the same quadrant!

Trying to minimize box office risk with marketing formulas results in the kind of middle of the road movies (which tend to have more action than character development) premiering in the theaters. My personal formula for a hit is a universal theme -- love, grief, dreams, family -- with a very specific point of view. Seemingly, why you had such a positive response to Tom Ford's flick.

David Handelman said...

@Melissa -- he sounds very savvy. And trailers usually do terrible disservice to movies, either giving them away entirely or completely obscuring their content. The trailer for the surprisingly powerful Tobey Maguire/Jake Gyllenhaal movie "Brothers" did both: made the movie look like a horrorshow AND gave away way too much plot. And the movie bombed.

@Maria -- Yes, and a specific point of view is impossible to achieve when utilizing a half-dozen screenwriters to rework something.

James Watt said...

Ah, Movies and marketing! I can imagine the guys at the Globe Theatre sitting around and trying to figure out why so many were so knocked out by Richard III and hardly anyone cared for Richard II --when the latter is not only better crafted, but bears at least a passing resemblance to the actual history of its protagonist! If only we COULD make generalizations that seriously apply to reality about "Males (or Females) older than (or younger than) 25! Or even about members of the same college class, or temple or congregation or career track. The only one I can think of that is even close to reality is that if you make a book or movie or play or ballet about any actual 'quadrant,' you can be pretty sure that it will be hated and mocked or both by that same group.

But movies are so delicately balanced on a high wire; how I respond often depends as much on how busy or preoccupied or tired or hungry I am as on how well --or terribly-- they are made. Take, for example, Kubrick. I love everything he ever made and find it difficult to decide whether Dr. Strangelove is better than Barry Lyndon or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I have friends and relations who can hardly bear to be near me when I start explaining why I think he's so great. This used to bug me, until I realized that the same thing was true for poetry. I have to take it on faith that Ezra Pound is a more important poet than e.e. cummings. I know perfectly sane and thoughtful people who think Wordsworth and Coleridge are better poets than Byron and Shelley. Hell, I even know people who can't abide Keats!! Bright people. People better educated and connected than me. And Blake --don't get me started on Blake! I take great comfort, though, in the knowledge that some people NEED David Lynch and are bored fifteen minutes into McCabe and Mrs. Miller, just like they adore Wordsworth's ten thousand daisies at a glance and can't abide Shelley's Mont Blanc. We need movies for these folks, too. And I'm happy with that because I know what I like and (like everyone else) I'm sure that I'm right!

David Handelman said...

Thank you professor! What I'd like to think is that we can all agree to disagree, instead of trying to get everyone to agree. But that is not a "valid business model."