Monday, February 05, 2007

glorious nation of america

1. site-specific moviegoing

Because AK and I like to stay on the cutting edge, we just saw Borat. (I’ll agree that it’s funny, and that that Sacha Baron Cohen kid is a smarty, but I’m not sure it was the big exposé of America that people have said it was—I just came away thinking, Yeah, America has some nice folks and some assholes.)

It was only playing at a second-run theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The good news is that tickets were only $7. But these days, seven dollars apparently gets you a seat in the world’s longest, skinniest theater, where, when you shift to try to dislodge the metal spring from your butt, the whole row of seats moves back a foot.

The ticket taker was a tall, lurching man with a birthmark covering much of his face. It was hard to understand him because the speaker in the plastic wall of the booth was broken. When we walked in, a smaller man scampered down the stairs to ask if we wanted him to open up the darkened snack booth. We didn’t.

The theater was also dark when we walked in. After we groped our way to our seats, I whispered to AK, “When the lights come on, I feel like we’ll see that the room is full of dead bodies.” Luckily it was just a few snoring homeless people.

Ultimately I enjoyed the stale smell of the theater and the crumbling tile and exposed wires in the bathroom—it was like we’d just seen Borat in Kazakhstan.

2. starring will smith as horatio alger

Later we saw The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie with a lot more faith in America. So much faith that, when Chris Gardner (Will Smith) tells his son he can do anything he wants in life, there’s an actual American flag waving behind him.

That makes the movie sound painfully heavy-handed, which it wasn’t. It was sincere and refreshing and riveting in a way you might not think watching a guy try to make $21 last a week would be. Most movies about money are about people trying to get rich—and while this movie ultimately was as well (Chris is trying to become a stockbroker while raising his five-year-old son), he spent most of the movie being poor. Not just pan-across-a-crappy-apartment-to-show-the-gist-of-it poor, but the kind of poor where you have to think about every dollar all the time. In forcing the viewer to do the same, the movie brings us $10.50 closer to knowing what it’s like to be really and truly broke.

But while I give Happyness an A+ for its depiction of real problems, I give it a D- for offering real solutions. Because of course (spoiler alert—but not really) he does become a stockbroker. He lives in a homeless shelter, sells medical equipment to pay off his debt and stays up till the wee hours of the morning studying for the exam that he will ace, surpassing his fellow interns, a bunch of preppy white boys who can work for free because everything else in their lives is also free.

The “haves” in Happyness are depicted as nice if slightly oblivious guys—the head exec thinks nothing of borrowing $5 for cab fare from Chris because he would never consider that he only has $7 to his name. And Chris, who learns the rules of all games quickly, knows that he can’t inconvenience his bosses with his poverty. I liked that the businessmen weren’t all evil Mr. Potters, but I was pissed that the movie, like Chris, didn’t challenge the system in which they worked.

Arguably, the movie makes it clear that only an extraordinary person could do what Chris does. This is a man who takes big risks and can solve a Rubik’s Cube in the duration of a cab ride. But because it does such a good job of making us empathize with him early on, we’re subconsciously deluded into thinking he’s us, and that we too could go from rags to riches, and therefore shouldn’t begrudge rich folks their riches.

Should I be giving moviegoers more credit? Maybe—but this non-extraordinary moviegoer found herself (despite all her socialist-ish thoughts) waking up this morning inspired and determined to do no less than 25 productive things today. Chris Gardner did it—why can’t I?


Biff Spiffy said...

Great reviews! Suddenly I want to see the theater too. Weird.

Haven't seen either, I was kinda afraid of Happyness but I'm thinking it'll be worth it now.

Bonnie Turner said...

Being a teacher, I was bothered by the fact that happyness was spelled wrong, but I ended up really liking it & felt guilty going home to my nicely furnished apartment.

Cheryl said...

Spiffy: I hope you make it to the Vine Theater--it's a nice remnant of old scuzzy Hollywood amidst much shiny newness.

Bonnie: Don't feel guilty--I'm sure most of the people who worked on that movie went home to their nicely furnished mansions.