Monday, December 31, 2007

The Vanity Pic

I used to be of the impression that, if you had a great talent, you should give it free reign. For example, I disagree with a lot of Steven Bochco's ideas: I think the networks should have concentrated on stability and stayed away from cheap shots like foul language, graphic violence, nudity and so on. (I have nothing against foul language, graphic violence or nudity, but there's no way they can compete with the virtually unrestricted cable channels.)

Even so, I would have given Bochco free reign to do what he wanted because he was that good.

In retrospect, I'm less sure of this position than I once was, to phrase it in a mealy-mouthed, "I was for it before I was against it" sort of way. And the thing that makes me less sure is the rise of the vanity pic.

A vanity pic is precisely what I suggest above: A situation where a previously successful talent is allowed to do whatever he or she wants.

Think the second two Matrix movies.

Or Peter Jackson's King Kong, a three-hour (or 3:20, if you want the extended cut) monster flick where you could run the original 1933 film in the time it takes for Kong to appear.

Or Grindhouse, which is, in fact, two vanity pics rolled into one, that even with the missing reels is about twice as long as it needs to be. And now each released separately with the extra reel added in because, yeah, we were all thinking, "We need another 12 minutes of dialogue, Quentin" or "We need another 12 minutes of confusing plot, Robert". (You can read my full review here.)

Atonement strikes me as a bit of a vanity pic. Yes, it's only two hours, but a good deal of that is, for example, these gorgeous shots of James McAvoy wandering through Dunkirk. (For those of you just tuning in, war is, apparently, hell.) This is a beautiful, beautiful movie with no mercy whatsoever for the poor filmgoer.

A description that has long stuck with me is John Gardner's of Mozart as "the great white shark of music". You know who the Great White Shark of movies is? Christopher Guest.

That's right. Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis. Spinal Tap. The Six-Fingered Man. The guy who makes all those mockumentaries.

When he makes one, he shoots dozens of hours of film. Dozens! When he's done editing, the movies come down to about 90 minutes, and great stuff is lying on the cutting room floor. Nothing is left in if it doesn't show the characters from a new and important angle or advance the plot.

And this bit of what should be common sense coming from a guy who directs comedies. At the end of which, you're never tired. You usually want more.

Leave 'em wanting more! Where have I heard that?

I'd love to see Guest take a hatchet to most of these recent big-budget fiascos. Then maybe I could sit through them without getting pissed off.


  1. Two words for you: Heaven's Gate.
    Imagine what Peckinpaugh would have done with that budget.

  2. You are absolutely right about the NYPD blue guy. Get the real deal like the Wire guys, and do it right. Or give us some family entertainment that the whole family can watch. When I am at family gatherings I will turn the TV to Bonanza and the young kids will come over and watch and enjoy it much more than the latest Law and Order: New Jersey CSI with sailors. The Rifleman with Chuck Conners is more entertaining than most of the dreck on the tube today. A half hour dude. A half hour.

  3. Peckinpah would've made six movies. Maybe ten.

    We introduced the boy to "Maverick"--watched all the James Garner episodes over a year. Clever writing (mostly), great black & white photography, and a lot of discipline to get stuff done in 53 minutes.

    Same with "Twilight Zone"--half hour formats in particular.

    And you don't have to worry that the subject is going to be necrophiliac furries.

    I no longer watch The Big Three at all. Very little Fox.

    Though, for me, the killer is the breathless news plugs, jumping in the middle of, say, "King of the Hill" with news about some mass murder or rape.

    Thanks, but I really didn't need to know that. And I really didn't want to have to explain to the kids: a) that those things happen in our town; b) that they don't happen nearly as much as the news likes to portray.

    I'm a ruthless commercial zapper.

  4. And Jack Kelly during the Garner years!

    Forgot about him, poor guy. He really was good in his own right.


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