Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Learning From Movies"

I like movies where you learn something.  Not preachy movies where, if you don’t recycle, the world’s going to be drowning in soda cans.  I know – or actually, I believe the people who know – that climate change is a serious concern.  But – and I know this is terrible – until a polar bear knocks on my door and asks if he can lean against my fridge, I will not, at least in a visceral sense – take climate change entirely seriously.  And a movie on the subject will only piss me off with its condescension. 

“Don’t you get it?!?”

“Stop yelling at me.”

I’m talking about a different kind of learning that you get from movies.  Little stuff. That, to me at least, is fascinating.

I remember very little about Beverly Hills Cop – other than the theme music, you know, bum-bum, bum-ba-dum bum bum – but what stayed with me to this day was a passing factoid delivered by the Eddie Murphy character, which was this:

When smuggling drugs, coffee grounds can be used to throw the drug-detecting police dogs off the scent.

Isn’t that interesting?  Normally, you have to watch PBS to learn something of that value.

This is hardly a practical concern.  I do not plan to smuggle drugs myself, so this not “Thank you for telling me; I shall now incorporate this piece of wisdom into my drug-smuggling procedure.” I just find it satisfying to go to some mindless action picture, and come out with information I previously did not know about, but now I do.

That doesn’t happen that much.  Even in school.  (The closest that came to happening was in “Geography” class, where I learned that it’s tomorrow in Australia.)

These movie insights are a fun bonus, like the prize in the Crack Jack box.  Most movies are simply contrivances – skillfully executed, or otherwise.  In this case, however, the screenwriter has gone the extra mile to include, often integrally into the storyline, a nifty sliver of generally unfamiliar knowledge. 

It’s refreshing.  Like an original plot twist.  Or a joke you’ve never heard before.  I am genuinely grateful that somebody knew something I didn’t, and included it in their script.

In My Cousin Vinny, the innocent defendants are exonerated by the Marisa Tomei character’s arcane knowledge concerning automobiles from the 60’s, and their tires.  There was something exhilarating about that, not just from a plot or character standpoint, but from the perspective of,

“Look at what she knows!” 

“And now, I know it too!”

I imagine everyone gets a kick of that.  And the more illuminating the information, it would seem to me, the bigger the kick.  It can get even better than tires.

There was an old, black-and-white murder mystery I once saw on TV.  A man had a radio show, and the murder took place while the show was on the air, giving the man an ironclad alibi – millions of listeners could attest to his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

The twist was that a new technology had arrived on the scene, allowing the broadcaster to pre-record his broadcast, making him then available to commit the murder, which, in fact, he had. 

Prerecording is hardly “Wow!” anymore.  But imagine the movie audience back then, oblivious to that possibility, until it was suddenly revealed to them.  They believed the broadcaster was off the hook.  And then, it turns out he could have done it, with the help of a recording technique that the audience, before seeing that movie, had never known existed.  

“Wow!  They can really do that?”

In this case, that “Wow!” would be well earned.  And murder mysteries would take a unique and entertaining step forward, in the sense of allowing an assailant to actually – well, not actually, but seemingly actually – be in two places at the same time!

Of course, at least in the case of my original example from Beverly Hills Cops, there is the possibility that coffee grounds do not throw drug-detecting police dogs off the scent, but that the screenwriter simply made that “fact” up, and had cynically injected it into their screenplay because, “Who the heck’s going to know?” 

Maybe three chuckling DEA officers sitting in the audience going, “Yeah, right.”  But for the rest of us it’s like, “Coffee grounds!  What do you know about that!

I would hate to believe that the Beverly Hills Cop guys were fooling me.  I mean, I just made this big to-do about coffee grounds.  Could it really be entirely made up?  Could a screenwriter, possibly themselves on drugs, have just pulled it out of their butt and called it macaroni?  

I mean, come on!  If they’re just throwin’ stuff out there, what else that I learned from movies is incorrect?  Is it possible Indians actually do attack at night? (Every western I ever saw told me they don’t.) 

Call me simple, but I choose to leave that particular can of worms hermetically sealed.  I would like to believe that what I see in movies is essentially on the up and up.  (Though I do recall hearing that the pivotal “Letters of Transit” in Casablanca is entirely bogus.) 

There are a lot of reasons I, for the most part, steered clear of the screenwriting arena.  One of them was that I had no cool, esoteric expertise, rivaling the coffee grounds or the 60’s tires.  I barely know what other people know, let alone something surprising. 

I know, and perhaps you do not, that you use dead wood for fires because it burns, and live wood for hotdog sticks because it doesn’t.  

Would you say that's enough to build a whole movie around?

Me neither.  That's why I worked in television.

Where you don’t have to know anything


PG said...

Indeed! I'm finding that television has the exact opposite reduces what I already know! For example, I once thought it was inappropriate to do a lot of the things the girls on 'Girls' do without blinking their eyes, but now I know that I don't know anything about that anymore.
To expand on your idea, the only thing I remember from any of my high school textbooks is the valuable piece of information nestled in our 20 pound Biology tome that Maurice "The Angel" Tillet had Acromegely.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

eendef uxpas said...

Fortunately, there is Google, which will lead us to all the answers in the world, some of which may be accurate.

Do coffee grounds really throw off drug dogs? That question filled in before I could finish typing it in Google...which lead to something called, etc...

"I've seen in various movies and in other rumors that coffee grounds can cover the scent of various drugs. I've usually seen it associated with cocaine but I'm more interested in marijuana. If it doesn't really work, anything you know of that does?"

Answer 1: "No, they slow them down a bit, but the scent of drugs is present under the scent of coffee, and can be detected easily by the phenomenal capacity of a dog's nose."

Answer 2: "No.

"However, pepper does. Dogs noses are so sensitive that pepper makes them unable to smell most anything else.

"However, if you're in an airport and the dog approaches your bag and starts sneezing uncontrollably, theyre gonna be suspicous, so I wouldn't reccomend (sic) using that."

Answer 3: "But wouldn't the Cops wonder why the
coffee grounds were there ???"

West Wing, if I recall correctly, was always good at revealing 'hidden' facts. Ya may never know if they're true, but they usually are entertaining.

By the by, live wood burns too. Hence, forest fires.