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Exhaustion in Escapism. Or, The Day Hollywood Broke Me

Dispirited by a bunch of “historical” Hollywood movies that rampantly fudge the facts, I set out to spend an entire day at the cinema wallowing in 100% escapism. This is the story of how my best laid plans went horribly wrong.

While the human race continues to ponder seemingly unanswerable questions — “where do we come from?” and “is Rob Schneider the devil incarnate?” come to mind — some subjects are simply not open for public debate. It has been well established that the earth is round, George Foreman’s grills have innovated the way fat can be drained from meat, every movie Harrison Ford has appeared in for the last 15 years has completely sucked, and Hollywood productions aren’t great on that whole historical accuracy thing. A spate of truth-stretchers I’ve recently watched has made that last point something of a sore spot.

I enjoyed John Hillcoat’s Lawless, inspired by real-life bootleggers the Bondurant Brothers, but was disappointed to learn the law enforcer who brought them down (played by Guy Pearce) was not actually a snarling city slicker with oily parted hair and no eyebrows.

Last week I tuned into Ridley Scott’s ripping swords ‘n’ sandals romp Gladiator (2000). After some post-movie reading I discovered the evil Emperor Commodus (played with nasal-blazing perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) was actually highly regarded, ruled for 13 years rather than a few months and didn’t get killed in a spectacular arena-set last hurrah. He was — depending on which account you believe — a victim of chickenpox, murdered while taking a bath or fatally depressed by a fortune teller’s prediction that he was one day going to be part of a Russell Crowe movie.

But the biggest blow was dealt by Argo, the much-hyped new film from Ben “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” Affleck.  The dramatic real-life story of a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who covertly brings home a bunch of Americans held hostage in Iran by getting them to pretend they are making a dodgy science fiction movie is certainly compelling, particularly the final act in which the team (spoiler alert) make their way to the airport and use their nous to navigate a climactic series of gruelling obstacles, each more intense than the last. The film ends with a collective wiping of the brow after the plane finally launches into the air while gun-toting Iranians chase it down the runway in a jeep.

Except none of it happened. The last third of the movie is 100% ballyhoo. Yes, the Americans went to the airport, but in the words of Mendez himself their plan went “smooth as silk”.

Lies. Damned lies. Relishing in balderdash may be a sine qua non of the cinematic arts, but something in the broth, I felt, had started to taste odious.

We all know movies “based” on history need to embellish facts to make things interesting, but where does one draw the line? Don’t filmmakers have some kind of responsibility to respect reality when representing things that actually happened?

These questions were getting a bit too much, and I felt my appreciation of cinema beginning to crumble under the weight of such rampant fact fudging. I want to see The Sessions, director Ben Lewin’s “autobiographical” film about a paralysed man (played by John “hello Academy” Hawkes) who is confined to an iron lung and enlists the help of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity. But I haven’t been able to muster the courage to see it. I’m too afraid it will end, Argo style, with some outrageous embellishment — a scene where Hawks leaps to his feet, walks down the aisle and closes the film by saying something like “true love makes life worth living after all.”

In a strange twist of fate, the one recent Hollywood production I did think was pretty realistic was the Scientology “inspired” film The Master. But when I suggested as much to the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson, he reacted not with a gracious “thank you” but in a manner that suggested he’d just caught me doing something unquestionably uncouth, like stealing meds from his grandmother or recommending Any Questions for Ben?

I decided my cinematic palette desperately needed to be cleansed and drastic measures were necessary. I would take a sabbatical from the movie industry’s big fat lies. I would, I declared to myself in what alcoholics call a “moment of clarity” (yeah, that line is stolen from Pulp Fiction) spend an entire day at the cinema watching a collection of the most fanciful looking overtly non-historical slabs of Hollywood hokum currently on offer. The plan was to come out of it a rejuvenated cinephile pepped up by a mighty dose of good ol’ fashioned escapism. I picked End of Watch, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, The Bachelorette and Nitro Circus 3D, all of which immediately struck me as the sort of features where crew members who mentioned words like “realistic” were blacklisted from production meetings.

I don’t know if you’ve ever fronted a movie box office at ten in the morning to purchase four tickets for four different films all screening on the same day, and all for yourself, but for this pundit it was a less than comfortable experience. The young woman behind the counter smiled at me sympathetically, as if I was Stephen Curry or an elderly citizen who needed to go to the toilet. In the awkward moments that followed I broke the silence by blabbering something about how my record was six films in the cinema in a single day.

“I couldn’t do four,” she said, unimpressed, and suddenly it felt like I was the Mel Gibson character in What Women Want (2000), only the thoughts I was hearing from inside her head weren’t so much “hubba hubba” as “this geek with glasses is never going to find a girlfriend and I’m sure as hell not volunteering for the job; the power of Christ compels you.”

I sauntered into End of Watch wondering what kind of person would go to the cinema to see a dumb-looking Jake Gyllenhaal movie at 10:30 in the morning on a sunny day and quickly discovered by the sea of empty seats there that the answer was “me”.

It was excruciating. This self-professed ‘found footage’ ”thriller” about two cops who drive around the treacherous streets and back alleys of LA laughing at their own jokes and storming into disgusting hovels takes the best parts of the TV show Cops, of which there are none, and plants them in a “gritty” production that requires the actors to recite lines such as “I am fate with a badge and a gun” and “So Mister Big Evil, why do they call you Mister Big Evil?” Jake Gyllenhaal quite convincingly plays an arrogant white guy who walks around like the world owes him a favour, preferably in the form of a line or two.

As a bunch of morbid encounters almost always involving illegal immigrants and angry blacks and hispanics transpires, the intentionally amateurish camera work follows the two insufferable officers with the kind of woozy handheld motion that could give David Stratton an aneurism. In one of several reminders that Gyllenhaal’s character is filming everything for the adult equivalent of a primary school project — chalk that down as a “suspension of disbelief” — Jake points to a small camera attached to his shirt and says, to nobody in particular, “This is a lens.” Thanks. I thought it was creme brulee.

With nary a minute to spare, I shuffled into The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 just in time for the opening credits. The film was intolerable. The vast majority of the running time consists of characters discussing a battle that never ends up happening, with Kristen Stewart quite convincingly portraying a soulless young woman with a bad attitude and a knack for sucking the life out of things. Now a freshly turned vampire, the film follows the final chapter in the airport novel book of love between Stewart’s dead eyes and her smug beau, played by Robert Pattinson.

Bella develops the special ability of “defence”, otherwise known as the coaches award of super powers. The series ends the way I guess it had to: with pasty-faced but otherwise good looking people running towards each other in the snow to the tune of opera singers bellowing gibberish. Bizarrely, the third act deploys the same quasi-meta narrative trick used in Oliver Stone’s Savages, another, though far superior, addition to the growing canon of films featuring numerous sequences in which people are beheaded and set on fire.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 concludes with a cheesy Hallmark-esque photo montage of cheesy Hallmark-esque moments from the previous films. It was at about that point I started to consider that the stars might not be aligning for my ground-breaking cinematic venture, that my quest for palette refreshment may be evolving into a souring experience, like sucking on a lemon or interviewing Nick Giannopoulos. But the day was only half complete and there was plenty of room left to improve.

I shuffled into The Bachelorette, in which Isla Fischer quite convincingly plays an air-headed hot chick who randomly makes out with guys and swallows an entire prescription of Zanax when one of them elects not to sleep with her. It was atrocious. Clearly created with a “gimme a piece of that” ethos of someone who has seen Bridesmaids (2011) or simply glanced at its box office figures, the film follows three insufferable bridesmaids (Fisher, Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan) jealous that their token fat chick friend (Rebel Wilson) has found an attractive hubby while they’re still whiling away hours and days grousing about how hard it is being a good looking white middle-class American who likes shopping and boys and stuff.

Writer/director Leslye Headland has an annoying knack for setting up a joke and making the audience wait an inordinate amount of time for the punchline, or introducing one without a punchline at all. It’s hard to know which is worse. As the characters zipped across town in the middle of the night drinking, smoking dope and trying to find somebody to repair a torn vomit-stained wedding dress, I couldn’t help but think that this was a vastly superior way to spend one’s time than watching a bad movie about characters who zip across town in the middle of the night drinking, smoking dope and trying to find somebody to repair a torn vomit-stained wedding dress.

Disappointed by the absence of mariachi singers at the wedding at the end, and failing to understand why such a thing would disappoint me, I sulked towards the cinema playing Nitro Circus 3D. I realised the “I couldn’t do four” woman at the counter seven hours previous had not provided me the 3D glasses necessary to appreciate the countless daredevil thrills and spills that lay ahead. When I went to the candy bar and asked the attendant for a pair he examined my ticket and responded that the movie was “not in 3D.” I thought this assertion may have been incorrect on account of “3D” appearing in the title of the movie but wasn’t in the mood for anything vaguely resembling an argument, so I walked back to the cinema convincing myself there was a possibility I was somehow in the wrong.

I wasn’t. So I missed the start of Nitro Circus 3D, in which a group of idiotic American risk-takers determined not to have a real job quite convincingly play a group of idiotic American risk-takers determined not to have a real job. It was terrible. This Jackass-esque gang of extreme sports knuckleheads somehow managed to find a following by partaking in such awe inspiring feats of creative genius as riding a tricycle through a flaming loop-de-loop and attempting to set the world record for the amount of rolls accumulated in a single car crash. A range of “experts” appear in interview footage including Johnny Knoxville, some punk skateboarder and Channing Tatum, for no reason other than he’s kind of famous and played the jock guy in 21 Jump Street.

The “movie” follows these “people” in the lead-up to their big stadium show in Vegas. Presumably they made it there, and presumably this is how Nitro Circus 3D ends, but I was not around to see it. I could stand this self-inflicted abuse no longer.

Perhaps I was simply unlucky with my selection of films. Perhaps I flew too close to the sun of Hollywood hokum and got burned by bullish cops and Hallmark vampires and bitchy bridesmaids and flying buses and other forms of “escapism”.

One thing is certain: I no longer care so much about films that fudge the facts. From now on, as far as I’m concerned, everything on my cinematic menu irrespective of words like “inspired by”, “based on” or “historical” is pure 100% fiction. Poppycock. Soft soap. Tripe. Hot hair. Hogwash. I just want to be entertained without feeling like a hole has been burned in my wallet or my afternoon.

This weekend I’m off to see The Sessions. If I watch a paraplegic who pays for sex with Helen Hunt, I won’t complain if he gets a happy ending.

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  • 1
    Bob Sanders
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Some good points, but why the desperate need to be funny? Same piece could have taken up half the space without the try-hard quips.

  • 2
    scot mcphee
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Commodus is most certainly lumped into the category of “bad emperors” along with Caligula, Nero, Domitian, etc. i.e. from the source traditions. Modern opinions and revisions will certainly vary; but modern classical historians are not usually concerned in any way with determining placement of emperors along a good/bad continuum.

  • 3
    Crispy
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s a tricky business fitting a life, or a bit of history, into a satisfying film structure. Life doesn’t unfold in three acts, sadly. Lordy, the projects I’ve got in my third drawer! Have you seen a ‘based on real events’ movie that you think didn’t tell porkies, Luke? Post ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’ I mean. I’m curious.

  • 4
    moonkid
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I found the rant-iness and the sarcasm highly amusing, myself, but I do have to agree with Crispy. Stories are a great way to engage people with ideas and emotions, and many would say they can express “higher truths”, but they are not a good way to get the facts straight (there’s this thing called the Narrative Fallacy). Documentaries are better for facts, but the most important thing is just to always by discerning and check this stuff for yourself. No-one should be taking what any part of the media throws at them on faith.

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