So, Motia (Mo-TEE-ya) says that I should blog more, and I should. Lately, though, she’s been very specific, suggesting blog subjects and the like. The nerve of some people. Telling me what to do. Directing my behavior. Punching me in the arm. Expecting me to get drunk at the company Christmas party.
I think she might be a prophet.
Anyway, we had a discussion the other day regarding certain moments when you realize that nothing will ever be the same. Events or moments in one’s life or in society, the arts, that forever change the medium. Rock ‘n’ Roll music is one of those. For example, in 1957 Elvis finished the year with the number one single on the pop charts with “All Shook Up.” The number two song overall? Pat Boone with “Love Letters in the Sand.” Yes, Pat Boone. By 1958, Pat dropped to #24 overall, and in 1959 he didn’t have a song in the top-100. Obviously, this was a more gradual change, but the point was made: rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.
But let’s narrow our focus a bit. How about we look only at three different things that happened within the last thirty years or so. And we’ll keep it to one medium: cinema. There have been all sorts of innovators in film, and you could go back to Citizen Kane and Casablanca and discuss how groundbreaking those films were (and let’s be honest, I probably will one day) but I’ve narrowed it down to three events/watershed moments. We’ll start with perhaps the most obvious.
The original TRON was the first major Hollywood film to utilize the ground-breaking technology of “Computer Generated Imagery.” However, not only were the effects crude and clunky, but they only accounted for a small portion of the overall special effects.
The rest were old-school makeup, prosthetics, matte paintings, and colorizing/color replacing most of the footage. That same year, moviegoers had the piss scared out of them by John Carpenter’s The Thing. Carpenter’s film relied almost entirely on Bob Bottin’s stop-motion and puppetry (with a slight assist from the legendary Stan Winston) to create horrific and terrifying creature effects. However, within a couple of years after TRON’s theatrical release came 1984’s The Last Starfighter. In just two years (or less, since the movie was in production well before its release date) the ability of CG artists had leapt light-years ahead, rendering 3-D Gunstars that, while terribly crude by today’s standards, were still pretty cool.
And in less than ten years’ time, we had Doctor Grant marveling at a herd of brachiosaurs. (Even though the famous velociraptor kitchen scene was done mostly by guys in dinosaur costumes.) Now we enjoy everything from Shrek to the Transformers series and everything Marvel Studios has produced. Think back to the “crawling spider-head monster” from The Thing. If filmed today, it would be completely rendered in CG. Would a CG version be better? Creepier? More realistic? Possibly. In the right hands, maybe. But the fact is that no studio would do it old-school today. Old-school SFX are still out there, but there isn’t a studio head in the business that would risk a shot like that without doing it CG.
The argument could be made that 2000’s M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable was the first “realistic” super hero movie. But it wasn’t until Christopher Nolan helmed Batman Begins in 2005 that things got, well…serious. We’ve all grown jaded by the words “gritty reboot” but that’s exactly what Batman Begins was. After Joel Shumacher pretty much undid all the good work begun by Tim Burton’s time with the Caped Crusader in the late-80’s, ol’ Bats needed a new start. And when you spend the first part of the film showing millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne studying with ninjas in order to become a lethal assassin, people sort of forget about nipples on the Batsuit.
The phenomenon took off. Maybe it was perfect timing. In a post- 9/11 world, maybe glib one-liners and a vibrant color palette didn’t belong anymore. And yet, people still needed heroes. Enter The Dark Knight. Through three brilliant films, Nolan made us re-think exactly what we wanted from a comic-book movie. The ripples were felt as far away as M.I.6, as the following year a new, lean, hard, and violent-as-hell 007 debuted in a (all together now!) gritty reboot of the James Bond franchise. Casino Royale was also a dizzying success, and now even fluff movies like Guardians of the Galaxy contain enough gravitas (um, Peter Quill’s mom dying of cancer to start the goddam movie?) to make them feel “real.” Real enough, anyway.
Okay, this is actually the thing that got Motia and I talking about this concept of game-changers. I’d mentioned re-watching the original Dumb and Dumber recently, and here’s the thing: it’s really not that funny. Sure, it has its moments, and everyone can recite a handful of lines. But it just falls flat. What happened to cause such a diminishing return? Judd Apatow.
Apatow had been working for a while, writing, directing, producing, and often re-writing scripts for other people. Not many people watched Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired on FOX, probably about as many people as enjoyed The Ben Stiller Show (another example of Apatow’s handiwork.) But in 2004, Apatow produced a little film called Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Then he wrote and directed The 40 Year Old Virgin. And then Knocked Up and Talladega Nights. He produced films like Superbad and Pineapple Express, Step Brothers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Bridesmaids.
In fairness, ol’ Judd had some turkeys in there, too. Year One, for example. And he co-wrote Don’t Mess With the Zohan. But when you look at the scope of comedic films he’s had a hand in over the last two decades, it’s hard to argue that he’s the King of Comedy in Hollywood. There’s a reason for that. Remember how we just discussed the gritty nature of superhero movies since Batman Begins? Comedy works the same way. Judd’s movies generally (not always) have an element of reality in the midst of all the ludicrous shenanigans. I mean, you can watch his films and know those characters. Yes, there are absurd people like Brick Tamland, but there are also kids drawing dicks and foul-mouthed best-friends. Jilted lovers and chronic pot-smokers (pun intended, if redundant.) You know those people. The plots for 40 Year Old Virgin and Bridesmaids could absolutely happen in real life. And as much as it was panned, I even found the Anchorman sequel to be a biting satire of modern cable news media. That’s reality, folks.
The plot of Me, Myself, and Irene could not ever happen. Ever.
Speaking of which, I’m not saying the films of the Farrely Brothers or Adam Sandler or Mike Myers aren’t good, or even funny. Kingpin has some of the best sight gags ever, and even though it doesn’t hold up very well, Austin Powers was a fun little movie (and the sequels weren’t terrible, really.) It’s just that after Judd Apatow, when I watch those other flicks I feel like an adult listening to 8th-graders tell jokes. 8th-graders can be hilarious, but most of their humor is sort of one-note: farts, gays, lady parts, etc. And all of those subjects can also be hilarious in the right context. But if that’s all you’re going to give me, I grow tired of it all very quickly. Thanks, Judd Apatow. You’ve ruined me for stupid comedies.