Monday, August 31, 2009

Ang Lee Could Change the Game

[ NOTE: In January, I began reposting items from, after I decided to discontinue that site and wipe it clean from the internet. The following post is the final entry in my series of reposts from the old site. The original date on this item was August 30, 2007. I'm sad to report, two years after I wrote this piece, that Ang Lee and his movie did not, in fact, change the game. Read on to learn what I was hoping for back then. ]

Ang Lee's new movie, Lust, Caution, will be released this September with the controversial NC-17 rating. This could be a very, very important turn of events. Ang Lee is known around the world as a serious filmmaker. He's a frequent nominee and winner of top movie awards. (You may recall a recent critical darling featuring gay cowboys.) Assuming that Lust, Caution will be yet another bit of Oscar bait, this movie could single-handedly change the perception of the NC-17 rating.


The MPAA -- the organization responsible for rating movies in the United States -- has always kept a trademarked copyright on all their rating distinctions - G, PG, PG-13 and R. But not X. They never registered X. So the porn industry appropriated it. Needless to say, in the public's eye, X = pornography; end of story.

The major movie exhibitors began rejecting all movies rated X, regardless of whether they were pornographic or simply adult-oriented (like that one X-rated Best Picture winner featuring a gay cowboy). They wanted to assure their patrons that they were respectable, kid-friendly institutions. "Never fear," they were implying. "Your children won't be seated next to shady perverts in trench coats here."

Money talks. If you can't get your movie exhibited, then you can't make money from it. And the studios happen to be in the business of making money. If they know with absolute certainty that they can't make money on a movie, then they're not going to make it. So every studio release since the early '70s has been toned down to ensure an R rating or lower. Leave the adult stuff to Europe.

In the 1990s, the MPAA came up with the NC-17 rating. This was intended to grant more freedom to the studios. The NC-17 rating -- this time, duly trademarked by the MPAA -- was a way to distinguish adult-themed material from simple porn. Porn could continue rating itself with X-es, while mature-content studio movies could receive the MPAA's stamp of approval with the NC-17.


One simple word: Showgirls. While one or two movies were released with the NC-17 rating previous, Showgirls was the first major wide-release movie to hit theaters with an NC-17.

And that, my friends, was the beginning and the end of the story. Since Showgirls is essentially soft porn -- though it claims to be satire -- the public had no choice but to associate the new NC-17 rating with the old X rating. Before it even had a chance, the fate of the NC-17 was sealed. Showgirls tanked, the studio lost money, NC-17 was equated with X, and movies with adult themes were once again left to the experts in Europe.


"Respectable" theater chains instituted "family friendly" policies of not screening NC-17 movies.

Magazines and newspapers instituted policies of not running ads for NC-17 movies.

Television networks refuse to run ads for NC-17 movies.

Most TV networks, including HBO, refuse to air NC-17 material.

Blockbuster Entertainment and other rental chains, as well as most of the largest retailers -- including America's god, Wal-Mart -- refuse to stock NC-17 movies.

In other words, if you're a studio and you make an NC-17 movie, it WILL NOT make any money. Guaranteed. The entire purpose of the NC-17 rating has been completely undermined.


If Lust, Caution is on par with Ang Lee's best movies, then exhibitors will not be able to reject it outright. It will get a lot of press, critics will throw all their weight into it, and awards recognition will make it impossible to ignore. People will want to see it, and theater chains will be compelled to provide it to them. They will make money. The studio will make money. The steel-reinforcement around the "no NC-17 policy" of theater chains will be broken. U.S. filmmakers will actually be able to make movies for grown ups, and the NC-17 rating will fulfill its original purpose.

The thing is, Ang Lee cannot be ignored. This is the same guy who got U.S. audiences to go see a foreign-language, subtitled film en masse, proving to the studios that such movies could make more than just a handful of art-house-crowd change. Lust, Caution seems poised to do the same thing for an entire ratings classification.


It's difficult to bring up a topic like this without discussing the de facto censorship policies of the MPAA. There's an entire movie about it, as well as countless articles and interviews throughout the decades.

In their defense, the MPAA has done a lot of good. First and foremost, let's all acknowledge that if the MPAA ratings board hadn't been created, the U.S. government would be in charge of regulating movies. Can we all agree that things would be immeasurably worse if those were the circumstances? Just ask David Cronenberg how he feels about government regulation for motion pictures. The MPAA saved us from all that.

Additionally, the NC-17 rating was well-intentioned. It wasn't the MPAA's fault that Showgirls was the herald of their new rating. The real enemies in this situation are the boneheads who thought Showgirls was a great idea.

Without having seen it yet, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Lust, Caution is probably closer to what the MPAA had in mind when it created the NC-17 rating. It promises to be a good, mature story, intended for an intelligent, adult audience. The graphic violence and sex are incidental to the plot, and not there just to titillate.


Although I am looking forward to seeing some boobies. Maturely and intelligently, of course.

[ Ang Lee's latest film, the R-rated Taking Woodstock, is in theaters now. ]

Additional Reading:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Web Videos on TV

From the moment the very first video clip went viral on the internet, television has been trying to find a way to capitalize on web videos. This has resulted in several sad, painful, failed clip shows that had nothing to offer except a compilation of videos that everybody had already seen.

Thankfully, a trio of new shows debuted earlier this year that have reversed the trend.

Of the three shows, this is the one I know the least about due to the fact that I don't receive the network it's on. (I can't imagine why DirecTV thinks G4 belongs in the highest-priced tier.) But I've caught an episode or two, and it seems fine enough to recommend. As the title suggests, it's a sister of E!'s popular "The Soup." Host Chris Hardwick fills the Joel McHale role of setting up clips, and then comedically tearing them down.

An animated series from the creators of "Drawn Together," "DJ and the Fro" follows two cubicle dwellers who shirk their job responsibilities in favor of watching and commenting on YouTube clips. The web clips are framed by stories that take place in the office during those rare moments when DJ and Fro step away from their computers. The comedy is crude and the scenarios are ridiculous, but it makes me laugh.

My favorite of the three, "Tosh.0" is in a similar vein of the "- Soup" programs: a host in front of a green screen introduces clips and then makes jokes about them. Comedian Daniel Tosh seems to have found a format that suits him well. In addition to general mockery of web clips, "Tosh.0" has themed segments which add variety to the proceedings. The weekly "video breakdown" takes clips that are so loaded with funny moments that they warrant beat-by-beat analysis. In the "web challenge," Tosh presents a theme or activity and encourages viewers to submit their own videos. But the show's signature idea is the "web redemption" segment, wherein they track down people from notoriously embarrassing viral videos (like the Afro Ninja), and give them an opportunity to publicly achieve the stunt they failed so hard at doing the first time around.

What makes all three of these shows successful is that they know they owe their audience original content. We don't tune in to see the web videos; we tune in to see what funny people are going to say about those videos. This was the mistake the TV networks made in the early days of bringing web videos to TV: they thought that merely bringing the clips to a different screen would be enough to attract viewers.

"Web Soup" airs on G4 Sundays at 10:30 PM. "Tosh.0" is on Comedy Central Thursdays at 10 PM (look for new episodes in October). And "DJ and the Fro" -- which burned off 12 original episodes in only three weeks -- can be found in reruns on MTV. I'm not sure if MTV is ordering any more episodes, but I hope they do.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What Did Carla Gallo Do to Judd Apatow?

By now, the whole Judd Apatow phenomenon has been thoroughly covered. Back in the day, he wrote jokes for some prominent standup comedians; he had a string of critically hailed but low-rated TV series in the '90s; then he finally made a name for himself with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and has since produced, written and directed several hit comedies per year. And he's taken a lot of people with him - a stable of talented writers and performers he accumulated during the difficult years.

And then there's Carla Gallo.

Gallo co-starred in Apatow's Fox series "Undeclared," which followed the experiences of a group of incoming college freshman. She played the unrequited love interest of the central character played by Jay Baruchel.

Baruchel has since shown up in memorable roles in several Apatow productions. Other people from "Undeclared" who have also filled out Apatow casts:

Loudon Wainwright III
Jenna Fischer
Jason Segal
Seth Rogen

Apatow even helped the latter two write and star in their own projects.

Looking at Apatow's previous series "Freaks and Geeks," you find even more performers he's been loyal to over the years: Samm Levine, David Krumholtz, Martin Starr, James Franco, and several more.

So, how has the lovely and talented Carla Gallo benefited from her association with Judd Apatow?

In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, she had the honor of playing a character who sucks Steve Carell's toes, and then gets kicked in the face by him. In Superbad, she played a character called Period Blood Girl (if you haven't seen the movie, you can imagine what that implies). In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she played Gag Me Girl - a character who was so annoyingly talkative during sex that the only solution was to put a gag in her mouth.

This downward spiral of short-screen-time/low-self-esteem characters has led inexorably to a role as a porn star on the Showtime series "Californication." Though not an Apatow production, I cite her character in "Californication" as the inevitable result of a career trajectory masterminded by Judd Apatow.

Judd, what did this poor girl do to you?! Kill your cat or something? Please, I'm begging you -- do her and the rest of us a favor and give her a decent role in your next movie. Perhaps one that has a name, and doesn't exist solely as the punchline to an embarrassing sex joke. She deserves better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The American Crowbar Case

As my junior year of college came to a close, it looked like I was going to be moving into a new house. I'd decided to stay in Pittsburgh during the summer to make up some college credits I'd lost while transferring schools a couple years back. I made arrangements to live with my best friend Paul. He'd been living in a one bedroom apartment off campus; but now, with a live-in girlfriend and a friend in need of summer lodging, Paul was looking for a bigger place to rent. Remarkably, he discovered that we could afford to rent an entire house.

The house was not particularly attractive, but we could hardly tell. We saw nothing but potential. It had a basement, two main floors, and a top-level attic. I think there were three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry room, kitchen, TV room, living room - a huge step up from the dorm rooms I was accustomed to.

After Paul signed the paperwork, we all decided to spend a Saturday cleaning the place up before we moved in. The previous tenants had left behind a lot of random debris - posters, containers, small furnishings. The house was in Oakland, home to two major universities, and had no doubt been roughed up by dozens of college students before us. We brought garbage bags and buckets, and got to work.

About halfway through the day, I opened the cabinet door of the TV stand left behind by those before us. I found a small stack of papers with crudely drawn cartoon characters. Looked like someone had been working on a comic. But upon closer inspection, I discovered that they were actually storyboards for a short film. The title was No Longer Gage.

I was naturally curious. As a lifelong movie lover -- not to mention a film student at the time --this was right up my alley. Furthermore, it was a window into the lives of the people who had lived in this place before us. So I took a break and read the storyboards. The drawings were rough, but got the point across; the captions were very detailed, making the story easy to follow without a script; and they had apparently been examined by a professor or trusted friend, as there were red-ink comments throughout.

The film was about Phineas Gage -- a man who, aside from having one of the awesomest names in human history, inadvertently contributed to humanity's understanding of the brain by launching a spike through his head. In 1848, he was part of a team building a railroad track in Vermont. One of his responsibilities was to pack explosives for blasting the roads. Unfortunately, a blast went off prematurely, sending a metal rod through his left cheek, the frontal lobe of his brain, and out the top of his head. Miraculously, he survived. But after the incident, friends and coworkers noted dramatic changes in his personality, commenting that the man was "no longer Gage."

Newer evidence suggests that stories of the changes in Gage's personality may have been greatly exaggerated. Regardless, there were changes. This lead to breakthrough research in neuroscience and psychology pertaining to the regionalization of the human brain -- different areas of the brain controlling different aspects of our personality, motor functions, hormone regulations, etc.

The storyboards covered all of this. In what would equate to no more than three minutes of screen time, the Phineas character was set up, the blasting accident occurred, and the changes in his personality were established. And that was it. It had no ending. In fact, it didn't really have a middle. It felt less like a short film than like a prologue to a much longer film.

The question, then, would be, "What else could possibly happen in this film?" The railroad accident occurred when Phineas Gage was only 25 years old. After the accident, nothing much of interest happened to him (much to his relief, I'm sure). He served an obligatory tour of duty as an attraction for P.T. Barnum for about a year. Otherwise, he did a little traveling here and there, picking up odd jobs to get by. He died at the age of 36 after a series of violent convulsion, no doubt stemming from his injury. How do you fill out a feature-length story about Phineas Gage?

That question may soon be answered. On August 4, Creative Screenwriting Magazine announced the latest winners in their AAA Screenplay Contest. (No, I did not enter this contest. Yes, I still care who the winners were.) The semi-finalist script was Phineas Gage by Dillon Euler.

The mind reels.

First of all, I'm left to wonder if this Dillon Euler might happen to be the person who was working on a Phineas Gage film project in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the decade. The storyboards were unsigned, and I never found any material in the house to identify the previous occupants by name. I suppose it's a bit of a long shot that this would be the same person. But on the other hand, why not? I know for a fact that this former Oakland resident had an interest in both film and Phineas Gage. The percentage of people who would pursue a project like this has to be quite small.

Second, just because this high-ranking script was titled Phineas Gage doesn't necessarily mean it's about Phineas Gage. Searching for Bobby Fischer is not about Bobby Fischer. Phineas Gage may not be the subject of this script's story, but may instead serve as some sort of metaphor for the fictional characters and events in the script. Having no access to the script itself, I have no way of finding out.

The sad thing about screenplay competitions is that the winning scripts rarely get made into movies. It's a shame, because I'd really like to see a movie about Phineas Gage. I'm sure I'm not alone. There's gotta be at least eight or nine other people out there who would want to see that.


In a stunning coincidence of timing for the screenwriter, a photograph of Phineas Gage himself -- the only known photograph of the man in existence -- was discovered and authenticated just last month, right around the same time the script was being judged for placement.


Back in Pittsburgh, our rose-colored perspective on the house was fading. Rusty nails seemed to be protruding from everywhere, one of which tore Paul's pants and stabbed his leg. The walls and carpets refused to get clean no matter how much work we put into them. When we finally got around to the basement, we discovered it to be coated with sickening mildew and mold. The owner clearly didn't concern himself with taking care of the property; why bother when there will always be groups of college-aged suckers willing to put up with it as long as it's cheap?

We broke our contract on that place, and went on to find a nice duplex in Squirrel Hill. I left the Phineas Gage storyboards right where I found them in the Oakland house. Who knows - maybe the originator of the material would realize he forgot them and go back to get them. Or maybe the next group of suckers would be as interested in reading them as I was. Or maybe it was the next tenant who read those storyboards and was inspired to write the top-placing screenplay.
But let's be honest -- the storyboards were probably just thrown out by someone without a thought. Fortunately the same fate did not befall the photograph of Gage. "One man's trash..." right?

Additional reading:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Mellencamp Principle of Pessimism

[ NOTE: This is a repost of an item originally posted on the now-defunct Its original date was July 13, 2007. ]

I recently read a web page (which I refuse to link to) by a semi-successful actor that essentially told all aspiring actors not to attempt an acting career. Don't move to L.A., don't move to New York. It will never happen for you. You will be miserable, you will never get famous or even recognized, it's completely hopeless, don't waste your time or energy.

This scenario qualifies under what I call The Mellencamp Principle of Pessimism.

The Mellencamp Principle refers, of course, to the successful singer-songwriter(-actor) John "Cougar" Mellencamp. In short, it's when someone has worked hard and triumphantly achieved his or her goals, then proceeds to spread the word about how achieving said goals is an impossibility for everybody else.

The bulk of Mellencamp's popular work is focused on Americana. Real Heartland stuff. The blue collar working man, driving a Ford truck, trying to carve out a decent life for his wife and kids. The inevitable conclusions to these songs are that things will always fall short of The Dream.

Now, I've seen enough episodes of "Behind the Music" to know that, even when people are at the peak of their success, they can still be tormented by personal demons. But even in your most depressive state, when you're John Mellencamp, don't you have to acknowledge that you've achieved a certain amount of something? Even if you're thinking to yourself, "I suck, I'm a fraud," objectively, you know that you're rich and famous, and you got that way by doing exactly what you wanted to do: writing and singing songs.

So why did some of his most popular songs always end up being about failure and despair?

"Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone."

"Just like everything else, those old crazy dreams just kinda came and went."

"I fight authority, authority always wins."

"My job is so small town, provides little opportunity ... Used to daydream in that small town; another boring romantic that's me."

Even the title of his greatest hits CD is "The Best That I Could Do." In other words, "I guess I did all these records, and I guess some people liked some of these songs. So here it is, if you consider any of this good." Whatever, dude. I'm supposed to believe life was never exciting for John Mellencamp? His crazy, boring, romantic daydreams never came true? And he just can't seem to win?

Poor guy.

Some might argue that a lot of these songs aren't necessarily a reflection of his own beliefs and experiences, but that he's singing in character. He's singing for us, the Common Man. Well, in that case, he's a condescending asshole. "I may be rich and famous and doing what I always wanted to be doing, but 'I feel your pain.'"

Look, I don't mean to be too hard on Mister Mellencamp. If I didn't enjoy his music in the first place, I wouldn't have been able to formulate the Mellencamp Principle. (I'm the proud owner of a copy of the "Maybe You Liked Some of These Songs, But I Don't Understand Why You Would" CD.)

All I'm saying is, people who have "made it" ought to occasionally have some words of encouragement for other people. I would understand if, on a case-by-case basis, John Mellencamp met some wannabe rockers and determined that they didn't have what it takes to make it. But if you're going to make a blanket statement, don't you kinda have to admit that if you did it, other people can too?