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“In Soviet Russia, movies watch you.”
Movies cheerfully re-depict the tragedies of other people. They accurately portray loss of life, limb, heartbreak, hatred and racism — which, astonishingly, the average moviegoer watches, stone-faced and expressionless, or perhaps munches his popcorn slightly faster than before.
The function of popcorn at movies is to make the moviegoer enjoy the experience he has paid so much to undergo. Psychologists have reported that the average moviegoer is less annoyed, when surrounded by patrons who don't know to close their mouths when they chew, when he has a bag of his own popcorn as well, or better yet, a soda that he can slurp noisily through the straw after it's all gone. (This is the source of the expression that revenge is a dish best served with crushed ice.)
Making a movie
"Pitching" the movie
The very first step in the process of making a new movie is "pitching" it. This event is only slightly less exciting than WWE Wrestling, and features many of the same moves. It pits the creative artist, who has no concept of economics but only knows he has the right to have his work seen by a huge, admiring audience, with film-making moguls, who through back-biting and treachery are sitting on billions of dollars of cash with utterly no concept of how to make any more of it.
The artist has to convince the moguls that his concept will be a "box-office success," even though neither of them know how badly the stars will bicker, how silly the dialogue will come off, and how cheap the special effects will look. The movie moguls, for their part, try to convince the artist either to work for nothing in hopes of burnishing his reputation, or to work for a tiny percentage of the profits, after the studio deducts its expenses and the moguls' own salaries, bonuses, junkets, and masseuses.
The mogul needs to have the movie concept reduced to the simplicity that a child could grasp — certainly not because he is a moron, but because he thinks all his customers are. Thus, the artist's "pitch" must do something insultingly simple, like show that the movie project will seamlessly blend concepts of past movies that were successful. If blending is too skillful for the artist, it suffices to show that his project is a shameless rip-off of another movie that made tons of money. This is why cinemas have seven movies at the same time that show an ill-fated expedition to Mars. The only thing the artist must not "pitch" is that the movie will try to do the exact same thing as a previous movie, especially one with exactly the same name. This would be a sequel, and moguls would never approve it.
For example, the reader will recall that moguls "green-lighted" Star Trek for production after it was "pitched" to them as "Wagon Train to the stars." What the reader might not know is that this was the last in a series of less successful "pitches," which included that the show would:
- Be a perfect comedy vehicle for William Shatner and Dr. McCoy
- Be the first-ever "reality show" where blinking lights, jet-black backgrounds, and a single moonscape with papier-maché "rocks" would reduce costs
- Entertain as a B-grade actor pretends to be Russian spacemen pretending to speak English
- Enthrall viewers anxious to know whether a lead character can come to grips as a product of interbreeding between humans and a race with only seven chromosomes.
Once you have "pitched" the movie and gotten a mogul to approve spending millions of dollars on it, you must perform casting. Just like in fishing, casting a movie involves using bait and a hook to reel in dozens of movie stars who will act in the movie.
A typical movie might require a gangster with shifty eyes, a fat cop, a pretty girl, a nerd with Cokebottle glasses, and an emo. Any of these (except for the pretty girl) are available in droves at any tavern in the vicinity of Hollywood. But they are not in the movie guild and you cannot use them. For example, if your movie needs an emo, you cannot just go down to the street and sign the first emo who walks by to a contract. You must sign a child starlet and pay a registered make-up artist to treat the starlet with whitewash, then apply fake wounds and body piercings.
The actors assemble in a place called the set (see Volleyball), along with gaffers and best boys and pretty boys and dollies and fluffers and caterers. The director sits in a stupid little canvas chair. He knows the actors make orders of magnitude more money than he does, so this humble chair is just a little guilt-trip for them. The chair does have his name on the back, though, and there is hell to pay if anyone spells it wrong. The director watches them repeat their lines with their best attempt at passion. Then he yells Cut! and belittles them and tells them to do it all over again.
When the director and the actors praise each other in the movie's publicity, they forget about these stressful interludes. The reason for this is that they haven't happened yet; the publicity interview is conducted before shooting starts, at a time when all of them were still talking to one another.
These skilled performers together try to "fool the camera." They never get the impression that any of them is trying to fool one another, even after the day's shoot, at the bar, negotiating who will go home with whom and experience his second-best attempt at passion.
After everyone leaves the set, the film editors come in. There is no film any more, of course, just digital video. Still, the editors do their best to try to tell which version is the "take" and which are merely the puts. They weave together the "takes" into a seamless movie, in which the star's shirt is ripped, then repaired, then ripped again, then good as new, a minimum number of times. They can also assemble panoramas of Middle Earth in which the motorcars on the horizon are barely visible. The movie-going public never notices these subtle editing mistakes. That is simply why the world needs fan-zines and blogs to nitpick it to death.
The reader will be astonished to know that producing a good movie is not enough to make patrons flock to the cinema in droves. In fact, as is sadly true alongside most productive effort, the marketeers swoop in. They skillfully assemble a two-minute trailer. Indeed nothing like your own little home, this particular trailer is a tiny little movie of its own that uses scenes from the feature to flagrantly misrepresent it so that millions of people will want to view the whole thing. When watching a trailer, it is important to remember that you are watching the movie's best two minutes. You are not seeing the twenty-minute conversations in which the leading stars work through their relationship nor the tedious conversation that lays the groundwork for why one guy is trying to kill the other guy. And you are seeing only enough of the car chase not to realize that it will go on for twenty minutes of its own, without leaving a single block in Chicago.
The marketeers may conduct a "test showing." This will be the first reaction to the movie by people who didn't make the movie. It is like a beta-test, except that, if a beta-test bombs, you can recode, whereas if a test showing fails, you can't re-shoot, because all the actors have gone to different projects. The test showing tells the moguls how worried they should be. If they worry a lot, they either work harder on the trailer, or suddenly stop spending any money at all.
Finally, the movie is released worldwide. Patrons flood into the theater, and most claim to flood out. Nationally, 90% of people claim to have been so offended by a movie as to walk out in the first ten minutes, and 90% of them are lying. There is nothing as satisfying as inflicting a good guilt trip, but walking out of a movie is shouting, "I am burning a ten-dollar bill, and it's your fault!" when no one can hear you.
Parts of a movie
It will surprise the reader to learn that, even though the movie business is supremely creative, every single movie comes out with an identical structure:
- Problem statement
Like a gripping proof in algebra, the first thing a movie must do is present its claim: Some fundamental dilemma of human life that will be tidily solved in ninety minutes with maximum loss of life (but will be just ambiguous enough to allow for a possible sequel). This initial scene needs to convince the audience to remain for the entire movie. The alternative, again, is that despite having just laid down a sawbuck to get in, all the patrons will leave the theater in feigned outrage.
It is at the exact moment that the movie succeeds in gaining the interest of the patron that gigantic words appear on stage, identifying it as a movie and making sure we don't forget who made it.
- Dealing with the problem
Shortly after the movie makes the problem evident, it presents the characters who will solve the problem. Of course, the characters are chosen so as to create problems of their own, because the movie experience works by making the movie-goer think his own problems are comparatively trivial. Typically, these characters include a street-smart urban cop, paired with a bookish introvert from New Hampshire who has never before met a Negro. Both partners, however, are vital to solving the case. The white guy figures out the riddle and the black guy cons the villain's flunkies and purchases the coke.
- The journey
The characters voyage to the place where the real action will take place. Here is where the movie has to distinguish itself. Either the journey tries to portray realism; or the characters are Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and they spend the entire trip cracking wise and perhaps spontaneously singing and dancing.
At some point during the journey, the protagonists encounter the love interest, the female star who will become romantically intertwined with one or probably all of the protagonists. This enables the additional angles of jealousy and rivalry, produces a few photogenic brawls, and gives female moviegoers something to talk about afterwards.
- The love scene
It is again to perk up the female moviegoers that good action movies digress to a love scene. Happily, there is enough bare tit to keep the male moviegoers occupied, except in Atlas Shrugged adaptations, where everyone makes love fully clothed, and in Walt Disney movies, where spouses even sleep in adjacent twin beds safely separated by a wide corridor.
- The big action fighting scene
The protagonists meet the antagonists and, for the sake of realism, resolve their differences with either a fistfight or a shoot-out.
- The slow-motion part of the big action fighting scene
At the exact moment when the violent conflict becomes most real, the movie switches to one-tenth speed, so the moviegoer can see things like a bullet flying through air or the bad guy's teeth coming out of his mouth. You can hardly blame the director for thinking he is doing such a great job that the viewer will want to savor it for three whole minutes.
- The good guys get rewarded
The nice thing about movies is not that the good guys always win, though they do, but that they always get rewarded for being good guys afterward. This is simply a way in which realism has to give way to the needs of drama. So:
- The cops get promoted
- The two guys who just exposed their corrupt boss by illegally cornering the stock market get a permanent vacation on a beach in Florida.
- Captain Kirk, who has just crashed a diplomatic conference, correctly identifies the assassin and thwarts the nefarious plot, and all the aliens clap their hands, or
- Han Solo and Chewbacca are up on stage and the entire planet applauds.
- But wait....
The final scene in the movie runs, and we realize that the bad guy is dead, but he isn't really dead, or he is still wearing the high-tech wristwatch that is going to bring him back to life in ten minutes, or his identical twin has been watching the whole thing from Afghanistan and hatching a new plot. We will all get together for exactly the same experience in little more than a year's time.
So that no one has too much time to ponder the implications of that final scene, the screen again fills with lettering, because everyone is dying to know who the grips and best boys and fluffers were, the number of the rating certificate from the Anti-Smut Board, and the trademarks for Dolby and other high-tech gadgets the movie used. This is followed by a full minute of small print explaining why it was illegal for us to have captured the whole thing on our iPhones.
The future of movies
In the Modern Computer Era, people may stop going to movies and instead, for even less money, buy a DVD and have the same experience at home. The movie aficionado can then watch the movie in the comfort of his own home. Noisy eaters in adjacent seats will be replaced with the crying toddler, the flatulent spouse, arguments with the spouse over who is going to go see to the toddler, and more arguments about why the winner of the previous argument didn't freeze the movie while the loser was away doing the errand.