Friday, April 15, 2016

"Negative Timing"

Speaking as I recently was about Steven Spielberg – who I met once after writing a couple of episodes of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and he was very complimentary about the story I was able to “crack”, meaning figure out how to make work, but this is not at all about that so I will move on after the dash –

The Spielberg recollection brought to mind a movie of his that I did not really enjoy. 


I don’t know.  Maybe I just can’t take a compliment.  Anyway, in 1986…


In 1948,

“You just jumped back thirty-eight years.”

Stay with me.  You know I always bring it back home.

“Okay.  But as the judges say on Law & Order, ‘I am keeping you on a tight leash.’”

I understand, Your Honor.  Now, in 1948, there was this wonderful movie that came out called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank (who also, I just discovered, wrote my favorite movie of all time, The Court Jester).

Mr. Blandings (starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) involved the mounting (hilarious) difficulties of restoring an old house the couple had fallen in love with and were determined to inhabit. 

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, taxing the couple’s patience, their relationship and their bank account.

In 1986, Steven Spielberg, a congenital “movie buff” who I am certain knew about Mr. Blandings, made – meaning in this case he co-executive-produced but if you’re Steven Spielberg, it’s “your movie” – a movie entitled The Money Pit (starring Tom Hanks and Shelly Long) that was a virtual “remake” of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, i.e., about the escalating travails involved in remodeling an old house. 

It was not, in my view, a particularly good movie.

Full Disclosure:  It should be appropriately noted that in 1981, Dr. M and I purchased a dilapidated 1910 “fixer-upper” and experienced paralleling miseries, so we viscerally identified with the situation in both movies.

“Had you, because of your personal experience, considered writing a similar movie yourself?”

Let’s not make this personal, okay?  I am just trying to make a point.

“Is that a ‘Yes’?”

I thought about it.  Anyway, there are numerous elements I could point to explaining why The Money Pit falls short of its similarly-themed predecessor, including misplaced “Special Effects” such as making the staircase’s rickety steps suddenly lock together like the slats of a Venetian blind, which would never happen in actual life but which the technology-loving Mr. Spielberg was unable resist. 

For me, however, there was a primary reason the original film charmed and its successor fell flat.  (Or as with the staircase, lost its footing and slid down to the bottom.)

That reason was this:    

It was 1986.  Not 1948.

My point being…

Different times.  Different perceptions.

About what?  About everything.

The relative cost of things, the distinction between the laboring working class and the “White Collar” middle class, the connubial “power balance”, and most importantly, the post-World War II optimism versus the post-Viet Nam-ear malaise. 

Over the passing decades, our ideas about many essential matters have significantly altered.  Those underlying changes turned an extremely funny 1948 movie about a likable young couple into a failed 1986 movie about pampered “Baby Boomer” Yuppies whom you did not connect with and did not care a hoot whether they prevailed.

Look back at the title of this post.  Never mind.  I’ll remind you.   It’s called “Negative Timing.”

What does that mean?

Well, you begin with the dictum that “Timing is everything.”  Now if you recall, I have considered in the past the bitter frustration associated with having something wonderful to offer but it’s not yet “the time.”  In that regard, the example of South Park’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker inevitably jumps to mind. 

Imagine if there were still only three networks.  Where would they possibly sell South Park?

The Answer:  Nowhere.

The Reason:  Bad timing.

Well that calculus works insistently both ways. 

The Problem With The Money Pit:  Bad timing in the other direction. 

(Could The Money Pit have been successfully updated?  Only if, notwithstanding the “Era Makeover”, the struggling couple continued to retain our rooting interest.)

Here’s another example.

Movie comedy director Mack Sennett made early twentieth century audiences’ sides split staging massive cinematic car crashes. 

Four automobiles collide in the middle of an intersection.  Fenders and doors fly off in all directions, the car’s engine drops heavily to the ground, hubcaps roll aimlessly down the street, smoke shoots out of… wherever the smoke shoots out of.  And the audience is in helpless hysterics.

Their reaction made understandable sense in that context.  Automobiles, still relatively new back then, were seen as dangerous and mysterious.  The “Rules of the Road” had not yet been fully internalized, making driving a precarious undertaking.  People laughed because it was funny, their laughter rising to hilarity because they were uncomfortable and afraid. 

Today, when I see a car crash in a movie comedy, the first thing I think of is,

“They’re going to need to get an estimate.” 

And a rental car.  Possibly a tow truck.  There’ll be the sharing of “vital information” with strangers.  Haggling with the insurance company.  Maybe even a police report.  Not to mention a block of arduous sessions at the chiropractor’s. 

None of which is remotely hilarious.

Conclusion:  Everything’s different because of the timing. 

Sometimes it’s too soon.

And sometimes it’s too late.


Jes said...

For such crappy writing, you did indeed hit that one home by its dreary ending, I didn't really think you were capable.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Yeah, the Blandings (I love that movie) represent a time when all over the country people living in tiny boxes (which Sid Caesar also parodied wonderfully) were moving to the suburbs, and dream houses seemed within reach to a lot of people. Their house, as built in the movie, would now cost $2-3 million probably. Plus, the movie made some nice sharp points about city people thinking they were all that, so people living in rural areas could enjoy the spectacle of them being one-upped by the "hicks" they encountered.

It was a lot harder to feel sorry for the couple in THE MONEY PIT, who were clearly going to end up with a huge house that most people have no shot at now.

But beyond that, the relationship between Shelly Long's and Tom Hanks's characters just was never as compelling as Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. I don't think that's *all* timing.


Louie said...

Agree with almost everything you wrote today. And Wendy, especially about Loy and Grant being more compelling. All I remember of The Money Pit is that it's more of a Pit than the title implies. Don't recall all that much about the Blandings, either, so I'll have to find a copy to watch.

Are you and several million of your neighbors still w/out Dodger TV? I'm reminded to ask as the LA-SF game was the freebie on MLB.TV tonight.