Friday, February 1, 2013

"Making Music With Words"

I just looked up the most recent box office grosses for Judd Apatow’s This Is 40.  The movie’s domestic profits are about fifty-five million dollars, which is pretty good, since the report said This Is 40 cost thirty-five million dollars to make.  This, however, does not include the marketing expenses for the movie, which can often equal the total cost of the production. 

A fifty-five million dollar box office – and counting; the movie is still playing in theaters – is nothing to sneeze at.  But with Apatow’s lengthy string of successes, there is also the question of expectations.  Apatow’s 2011 outing (as a producer) was Bridesmaids.  And its domestic gross was a hundred and sixty-nine million.  As Jon Lovitz said in A League of Their Own, “That would be more then, wouldn’t it?”   

Considerably more.

True, Bridesmaids is about a wedding and This Is 40’s about a bickering married couple, the two premises traditionally unequally popular with moviegoers.  The conventional wisdom is, “If we wanted to see a couple fight, we could have stayed home and saved the money.”  This has generally been the case, but not always.  A married couple bickered in The Thin Man movies.  Though they also solved murders, so I guess that’s not the same.  It does, however, show how far you have to stretch to find a successful “Squabble Picture.”

Though This Is 40 is hardly a breakout smash, it is doing better than the last movie Apatow wrote and directed, Funny People, which was about death, a subject even less appealing than squabbling couples, and arguably every other subject as well.  Generally speaking, “death” is death at the box office.

“Fourteen-fifty to be reminded that I’m going to die?  And the ‘small’ popcorn is five-seventy five?  And it’s dripping in butter, which also reminds me I’m going to die?  I’ve got to give this some serious thought – NO!”

Let us shed no tears for Mr. Apatow.  He is currently preparing an Anchorman sequel, so he’ll be back topping the cha-ching charts soon enough.  It is possible that this is actually Apatow’s game plan, following in the footsteps of many savvy moviemakers before him, like Barry “Rain Man (big box office) but also Avalon (not so much) Levinson – the strategy being, “I make one (highly profitable) movie for them (the studio), and one (personally satisfying) movie for me.”

A movie fails to take off at the box office, and its less than sure-fire commercial subject matter is blamed for it.  I, as is not unusual, have an alternate perspective. 

As I mentioned when I discussed This Is 40 earlier, an issue also related to its commercial possibilities is the manner in which the movie is put together and presented. 

Judd Apatow has been quoted as saying he does not want his movies to, in effect, feel like movies.  As a result, he deliberately arranges his story in an unstructured, non-linear manner, mirroring, to his thinking, the unplotted messiness of everyday life. 

In theory, I like that idea.  I am no fan of movies whose storylines are formulaically predictable.  (Though, as we shall see, this is the “Straw Man” bad version of the alternative.)

The problem is, there’s a tradeoff.  For its acknowledged benefits, the price of Apatow’s favored storytelling approach is the sacrifice of – for want of a more artful description – trajectorial momentum. 

A “naturalistically structured” movie seems to be going in every direction but forward.  When the events are delivered, call it – to be generous – idiosyncratically, the writer surrenders narrative flow, build and a cathartically satisfying resolution.  Such are the rewards of classical storytelling.  You do things the other way and the payoff is diminished.  If you feel any at all.

Does the audience know the difference?  I believe they do, though they may not verbalize their reaction beyond a vague, “I don’t know.  It just didn’t get to me.” 

Think about music, the type I and those who share my culture are accustomed to.  Sitar music from India?  To me, it sounds like the plucking of rubber bands.  That could just be because I’m not used to sitar music.  Though I am familiar with bagpipe music, and it still sounds like they’re performing an unspeakable operation on a cat.

Without going all Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concerts” on you – because I am not knowledgeable enough to do so – a well-made song (or its classical musical counterparts) hits the right notes at the right time.  The music gets us snapping our fingers and tapping our toes because it’s been calculated, consciously or unconsciously, to resonate with our innerest expectations.     

Ditto, I believe, with good storytelling.  The structure does not have to be visible; in fact, it’s better when it isn’t.  Skillful story construction – in contrast to hackwork – is like “Invisible Mending.”  It holds things beautifully together, but you never see the stitching.

Despite the box office disappointment, my guess is that Judd Apatow will continue structuring his stories with the same “true to life” loosy-goosiness, and simply steer clear of death issues and bickering married people.

In my humble opinion, however, the problem is not that Apatow’s telling the wrong stories.  It’s that he’s telling the stories…not the best way.
Bonus Feature:  The “First Annual Earl Pomerantz Award For Pretty Darn Good Storytelling” goes to...


Written by Christ Terrio.

Congratulations, Chris.  I will see you at the "After Party."

Leftovers at my house.  Any time you want.

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