Drunk Monkeys has accomplished a lot over the course of 2014. We survived another year, which is an accomplishment unto itself, but we’ve also grown as a literary site. We published poems, prose, and non-fiction that brought to us a wide range of voices and styles. I’m really proud of that.
I’m also pleased that Drunk Monkeys was able to add considerably to its film department. What used to be a part of the site that consisted of myself and Taras David Butrej has now swelled to include something like six people. The benefits to Matthew Guerruckey finding people who were interested in contributing essays and reviews was almost immediate. We’re covering more movies, and we have a variety of tastes to help us consistently accomplish that.
And we can do other things, as well. It is with that thought in mind that Drunk Monkeys is pleased to introduce the very first FACT or FICTION column. It would be a shame to not take advantage of how much the film department writers love to argue about movies, and the various ways in which each of us differ in opinion from the others. The FACT or FICTION column, which will be a semi-regular feature, will emphasize those facts.
No one gets to see how the others will answer, until the column is actually assembled. No one gets a rebuttal. Everyone has to explain their FACT or FICTION answer in two paragraphs or less. We’re definitely working with statements and questions that leave us with no choice but to agree to disagree. This isn’t a debate. It’s a range of opinions, with each staff member only getting one opportunity to express that opinion.
I’m very grateful to Taras, Matthew, Lawrence VonHaelstrom, and Ryan Roach for contributing answers. I’m also grateful that all of us have strong opinions that clash more often than not. We agree on some of the points covered in this column, but we definitely don’t agree on everything.
One thing I came to realize while editing this: It’s probably good that we’re not all in the same room for this.
FACT or FICTION: Ghostbusters is one of the best comedies of the 80’s
Gabriel Ricard: FACT. When I consider the list of comedies from the 1980s that I love, I’m hard-pressed to think of one that has endured as a comedy for so much of my life. I have been watchingGhostbusters for nearly thirty years. It’s still funny to me. I don’t think that’s nostalgia talking. The fact that kids are still watching and responding to this movie so strongly is a pretty good case against Ghostbusters enduring because aging children like me won’t let it die.
And a lot of the people who loved that movie in 1984 are writing, acting in, producing, and directing comedy. The influence of Ghostbusters is surprisingly profound. But that influence doesn’t come across like a vague echo of film history. It’s not something that influences people without their realizing it. Ghostbusters continues to be meaningful to the people who saw it in 1984. And it still has this fantastic capacity to be meaningful with people who see it in 2014.
Ryan Roach: FICTION. I literally haven’t seen it since the 80’s, so right there is kind of a bit of an indictment. Ones that I have returned to many times are Airplane, Midnight Run, Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Planes Trains and Automobiles, A Christmas Story, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the list goes on and on. All those movies are funnier than Ghostbusters, which was, let’s face it, a well-made kid’s movie. If you want to say that Bill Murray is our funniest actor, I might pay attention. And even though he was on SNL and in Stripes and Caddyshack before this, you can probably argue that Ghostbusters is what launched his career into the stratosphere and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: It is a fact that in the summer of 1984, my older sister worked at a movie theater. I was able to see many free movies and Ghostbusters was one of them. Ghostbusters was a movie that I felt was made exactly for me and my ten year old interests. It was funny, it had mythology, and lazers. What else could I want? So I watched it. A lot. But for whatever reason, it didn’t last. I can’t tell you why. Distraction, maybe. Later that summer there was The Karate Kid, the 1984 Olympics, (And my brother’s stolen stack of McDonalds Olympics game cards and lots of free Big Macs,) and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. That October, two friends of mine wanted us to dress as Ghostbusters for Halloween. I and my budding contrarian sense felt that Ghostbusters mania was played out. I didn’t join them. I don’t remember what I dressed as. (Perfect Tommy?) But whatever it was, I did not get nearly the attention and acclaim that Nathan and Trip did. I indeed felt left out. But I also knew it was my own fault.
So Ghostbusters is a movie that meant a lot to me the summer of 1984. But it hasn’t meant much to me since. I never saw the sequel. (1989 is a long way from 1984 in the eyes of a high school sophomore.) I don’t think I’ve watched the movie in its entirety since 1984. I understand now that some people (or at least certain corners of the internet and Reddit) claim this is a classic—the greatest comedy of the 80s! I don’t see it that way. Sure, the 80s overall was not the best decade for movies. But, is Ghostbusters really better than Raising Arizona? Better than This is Spinal Tap, Repo Man, Airplane, Lost in America, Three Amigos, The Purple Rose of Cairo, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka? (Just to make a random list of funny movies.) It’s a FICTION that any sort of claim like “Best of the 80s” can even be defended. Ghostbusters is just a good movie.
Matthew Guerruckey: FICTION. There’s a lot to admire in Ghostbusters, and one of the greatest casts of all time, but as a movie, it’s really all over the place. Ramis and Ackroyd are aiming for equal parts comedy and action, with a bit of the supernatural thrown in, but all those differing tones end up fighting each other, and the film itself becomes really uneven—sometimes just plain boring.
I understand that much of what people love about this movie is Bill Murray, but I was never as big a fan of his “smug asshole” period as I have been of his “downtrodden middle-aged loser” period. In Murray’s best work, he’s able to modulate between those two extremes: the loser who becomes a winner in Stripes, the winner who becomes a loser in Groundhog Day, the loser who thinks he’s a winner in Kingpin. In Ghostbusters, he’s just kind of a dick—to everybody. And he’s the same sort of dick at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end.
The reality of Ghostbusters is far overshadowed by the cult of Ghostbusters. The movie has some great lines and moments, but as a whole it’s filled with dead patches and boring characters. But if you dare speak a word against it, you’re labeled history’s greatest monster, as poor Genevieve Koski of The AV Club was when she wrote a column about watching it for the first time and not getting it. Significantly, Koski’s first viewing of Ghostbusters was as an adult, while most of the people screaming at her had fond memories of the movies from childhood. I think that connection is part of what has kept Ghostbusters so beloved, but it’s also kept fans from being objective about it.
Taras David Butrej: FICTION. While Ghostbusters definitely filled a void that nobody knew existed, there were far too many comedies in that decade that deserve more accolades. Airplane!,Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Spaceballs, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Beetlejuice, This is Spinal Tap, Big, Coming to America and The Princess Bride all also came out in the 80’s. While I will always acknowledge Ghostbusters as an amazing comedy, there’s no way you can tell me it’s better than ALL of those other films.
FACT or FICTION: It is possible for an actor, actress, or even a filmmaker to tarnish their legacy through works that are not as well-regarded as their established classics.
GR: Absolute FICTION, absolute bullshit. I’m consistently amazed at the people who claim that actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are phoning it in, just don’t care anymore, and all kinds of absolute nonsense. Either these people have just gotten bored with these individuals, or they’re missing out on the fantastic things they are doing as veterans of their craft.
If I can use Pacino as an example again, his work in You Don’t Know Jack is a great case in point. One of the most complex personalities to come across the American landscape in recent history, Kevorkian is captured beautifully by a restrained, multifaceted performance by Pacino. Not a ton of people saw that movie, but most of the people I know who have seen it respond to his performance as though they can’t believe he’s still that good. He is. A lot of actors, actresses, and filmmakers are to the very end. Some lose interest, but a lot don’t. If you’re not a fan anymore, that’s cool, but don’t dismiss how brilliant some of these people still are, just because that’s really the case.
RR: FACT. I was in the theatre and the trailer for a horror movie came on. It was called The Devil. It was about five people trapped in an elevator and while the cops on the outside tried to get them free, the people trapped soon came to realize that one of the five of them was not a person at all, but rather the actual, literal devil. The trailer was cleverly edited and I knew this was a “must see”. And then, these words filled the screen: From the mind of M Night Shyamalan. I groaned. I sighed. I did not see the movie. And I was not alone. It became an internet meme for awhile; you can still see YouTube clips of people filming the reactions all around the country to people groaning audibly with disappointment once they read the same words I did. This is a man who made The Sixth Sense,which is on AFI’s top 100 movies list. This guy.
Francis Ford Coppolla made three of the best movies of all time; Godfather I and II and Apocalypse Now. Quick, what’s the last movie he’s made? No, it wasn’t Jack. Jack was the last one you saw, and hated. You have no idea what’s the last one he made. Nicolas Cage has been in Leaving Las Vegas andAdaptation, but are you rushing out to see the next Cage movie? Now, I do think that when someone like Cage dies, we’ll dutifully focus on the good movies and try hard to ignore the bad. But we’ll all know what we’re secretly thinking. When the bad dwarfs the good, the legacy is tarnished.
LVH: FACT and FICTION. I’ve never been one to pay too much attention to actors. I’ve never had a favorite actor. I’ve never deliberately seen a movie solely because of an actor. (Or at least any non-martial arts movie.) But as far as an actor’s legacy goes… Wait, is this a Nicholas Cage question? So, is his performance in Raising Arizona any less because Left Behind now exists? Well, no. I don’t think that’s a fact.
But I do think some artists make their faults more apparent by continuing to work. When Clerks was new, Kevin Smith was hailed for his “slacker” aesthetic. Every film of his since then has betrayed the fact that he actually has no aesthetic. What we thought was a deliberate lo-fi approach to filmmaking turned out just to be lazy and clumsy. Wes Anderson, after Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, andThe Royal Tenenbaums, appeared to be a filmmaker of great variety, wit, and awareness. As his career continued we discovered that what we were actually seeing were the first steps in his disappearing up his own precious asshole.
So, it is a fact that a singular, good performance or work won’t be tarnished by later misfires, but it is also a fact that later work can put earlier things in a different light.
MG: This is a FACT, and Exhibit A is Johnny Depp. When Depp made his first Pirates of the Caribbeanmovie, he could have made a legitimate claim to be the best actor of his generation, a reputation built mostly through smaller-scale features that played against, or openly mocked, his heartthrob status. And he was great in Pirates—Captain Jack Sparrow, famously based on Keith Richards, was a dangerous, original burst of life in an otherwise dopey blockbuster.
But Captain Jack kicked off a time in Depp’s career where he tried to out-weird everybody else he was working with, and “who is Depp basing this character on?” became a more important question than “Is this move any fucking good?” Sure, Depp does a great Carol Channing in Burton’s Willy Wonka, but he’s not really acting. There’s no life in his portrayal of Wonka, just artifice. That movie began a string of dreadful collaborations with Tim Burton where Depp’s odd surface masked a hollow core.
But even when Depp has stepped away from the cartoonish in recent years he’s been boring, as he was in Finding Neverland and The Tourist. Those high-concept performances, then, begin to feel like an actor hiding behind a character, rather than inhabiting it, and that casts a shadow that stretches all the way back to his breakout performance in Edward Scissorhands.
TDB: FACT. Look at Nicolas Cage. While Reddit will still claim he’s the ‘onetruegod’, his recent films have done an excellent job of retroactively ruining his career. The last Cage film I actively enjoyed for the right reasons was Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans. While he can still act, his seeming preference to get a decent payday has definitely hurt his overall career.
More obvious is Adam Sandler. I loved Punch Drunk Love and Funny People. Billy Madison still makes me laugh. But name a movie he’s done since Funny People that doesn’t make you want to punch a filmmaker. He’s even admitted he doesn’t care about the movie. He just loves how much Hollywood will pay him to take a vacation with his friends. It’s almost to the point that no matter what he does, he will never ‘unfuck’ his career.
FACT or FICTION: As a whole, films are less creative in their technical aspects and storytelling techniques, than they were forty years ago.
GR: FICTION, but this is such a tricky question to answer. It’s also very easy to feel that creativity is dead in film. It’s not. It’s just very difficult to see sometimes. There are cases to be made for certain eras or decades producing more fantastic work than at any other time in film history. While I certainly understand the logic behind those cases, and keeping in mind that I have my own favorite decade for film (the 70s), I don’t think film has gotten less creative in technical aspects or storytelling techniques.
Film is as vital and creative as ever. It’s a matter of paying attention to how the story is told, rather than what story is being told. And technology makes some studios and some filmmakers lazy, but it’s clearly inspiring others to redefine the concept of the cinematic spectacle, in such a way as to emphasize the idea that yeah, larger-than-life movies can have a soul, too.
RR: Hmm. Well. It seems like two separate questions to me. First, technical aspects. Back then, there were still discoveries being made with regard to filmmaking, camera angles, cinematography, etc. How can there possibly still be any discoveries left now? The invention of CGI has made any challenges in filmmaking moot. We can make anything, get any shot at any angle for any length of time. Certainly, that necessarily leads to less creativity in technical aspects. But what does it gain us? Well, movies like Jurassic Park wouldn’t exist without it. Or if it did, it would still be laughably shitty Claymation, which doesn’t work for a modern audience at all. It can, of course also get over-used and there’s something thrilling about seeing a modern filmmaker using old-fashioned techniques. We know instinctively that they worked harder for it, and it feels real. So we lose a little but gain a little too. I call it a wash.
As for storytelling, on the one hand, movies of the 60’s and 70’s were revolutionary, because they dealt with themes and stories that had never been told before on this wide a scale. It was a direct repudiation to the odious Hayes Code, which prevented filmmakers from telling honest stories. It was thrilling to see Pacino play the protagonist, the hero even, in movies like Dog Day Afternoon andThe Godfather even though he was a criminal. Sure, he got his comeuppance in Dog, but we’re still meant to sympathize with him. This is probably the grandfather of movies and even television today, with great anti-heroes as the leads. Also, modern movies have the advantage to be able to piggyback on the ideas of those older movies and tell stories that no one would’ve thought of back then. That’s where the “meta” concept comes from. Commenting on entertainment as an art form. That’s a pretty new and creative thing. We wouldn’t have Scream without first having Freddy and Jason. And Cabin in the Woods comes from Scream. The brilliant movie Whiplash which came out this year could not have existed without the world first seeing Dead Poet’s Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus. So, I think that’s where today’s movies have an advantage over yesterday’s movies. But do they take advantage of that enough, and subvert the clichés and easy tropes enough? No, I don’t think they do. I think the movies of the 70’s and 60’s did a better job and more thorough of subverting their earlier films than we do know. So, I’m gonna say FACT.
LVH: NEITHER. I’m going to sidestep this statement. Surely, people are still experimenting with film. Just in the past few months, we had Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, compressing ten years of footage into three hours, and Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby series with three entirely different cuts of the same story. It is a fact that people are still trying new things. But I also think that on the whole, 21st century films have not been as interesting as those of the last century.
But the real reason for the facile cinema of the day isn’t that directors are less experimental, it’s that their sphere of influence is a lot smaller. Today’s young filmmaker knows only film. He or she is not looking outward to novels, or the stage, or the visual arts, or music. Or to life and experience. Or, if she is, she’s looking no further than genre fiction, video games, and comic books. (All of which receive their cues from movies.) On the web page for Werner Herzog’s Rogue film school, Herzog declares his seminar “not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have traveled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock picking.
In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims.” That’s what I’m talking about. Now, I’m not saying that a good filmmaker needs to be Werner Herzog, but a young filmmaker should pay attention to more things than film. From the other arts, she should be learning how visual artists use space and time, how live theater engages an audience’s imagination to fill in blanks beyond the set, how classical music creates momentum through time without narrative. But she’s not. Instead she’s watching Ghostbusters. And arguing about it on Reddit.
MG: The 1970’s was an incredible, inventive time for film, all thanks to the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system. Film studios had to make a choice—close forever or go small, and those that chose to go small hired people straight out of film school. Those people happened to be named Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg.
The films of that period rejuvenated the studios that survived, but they retained the memory of those collapses, and became more paranoid about their money, especially after the financial collapse of 2008. Studios became scared to take chances on anything besides big action spectacles tied to existing franchises in other media. Suddenly, name recognition was far more important than novelty, and the resulting films feel very much the same.
In fact, they very often are exactly the same movies, as studios, seeking a formula for success (or, really, terrified of failure), have become attached to screenwriting formulas such as Blake Snyder’sSave the Cat. As much fun as the Marvel Studios blockbusters have been, you can count every story beat almost to the minute, which strips the films of their spontaneity.
The problem is also a matter of distribution. Even if a film as immediate and real as Dog Day Afternoon came out today, where would you watch it? In a small run theater? On Demand, on iTunes? As smaller films get pushed to the margins, they become less a part of the cultural conversation. The films of the 70’s were able to become iconic because everybody was aware of them. Without that crucial social aspect, it will take much longer for consensus of the great, weird indie films of today to build. We’re living in an odd era, in which we may not understand which films of our day are classics for another twenty years.
So, while there are still plenty of hungry filmmakers out there ready to shock and illuminate, the system itself no longer has the nerve to take a chance on them. Sadly, that makes this FACT.
TDB: FICTION. It’s just that there are a lot more films getting wide release these days, and they’re catering to a wider audience. There are still many amazing movies being made but they are often overshadowed or receive very small theater releases. Hell, look at Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. He filmed the movie over a period of eleven years!
It’s harder to compare technical aspects because our technology has developed so much over the last few decades. However, I would say that Avatar, despite all its flaws, is still one of the most gorgeous films ever made because of the 3D camera and the amazing skills of cinematographer Mauro Fiore.
Top image © Columbia Pictures.