20 April 2008

catch-up

I really didn't mean to take almost a month off from updating the journal that no one reads, but you know how life kind of gets in the way sometimes? Well, sometimes mummy movies get in the way, too.

Let's backtrack to yesterday, and see where we can go from there. The seven-month project, Mummies..., is completed, and has its "world premiere" last night in MATH 100 on campus. Turnout was significantly better than I'd expected, between friends and family, the friends and family of closer friends, co-workers, former instructors and, yes, a few people that no one else in the room knew. That means our advertising strategy (dressing up a few willing friends like mummies and making them wander the University of Colorado at Boulder with fliers) worked, at least a little bit.

It's an imperfect movie, but it has a lot of heart. It's trying really hard, particularly when you consider the fact that it was shot in three- and four-hour chunks after most, if not all, of us had struggled through long days at work beforehand, and when you factor in the sub-$1000 budget we were working with. It's probably almost exactly what we aspired to, and I think that everybody involved can feel pretty proud of what they accomplished. We made a movie with a coherent story, with characters, and with a really cheesy lightsaber-inspired effect.

As far as I can tell, it was received well. I've described it both as "Shaun of the Dead, only with frat boys instead of British people, mummies instead of zombies, and way less money" and as a weird spiritual descendant of Airplane, in that we do somewhat subscribe to the "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" school of comedy (except that what we chose to have available to us is kind of limited, and the wall we're throwing things at is kind of small - if you don't like your comedy with loads of cursing and bizarre "what the fuck was that" moments, you might not find Mummies... your cup of tea), and, near as I can tell, those comparisons are pretty apt. People responded; I heard plenty of laughs from our pushing-200-person audience (about double what I'd hoped for, frankly). I'd gladly put our 53-minute long feature up against any of the "[Genre] Movie" bullshit that's invaded American screen comedy in this decade; they'd win in the production category (though I contend we got far better value out of our $700ish budget than any of those movies got out of their millions), but I think we'd take the cake for everything else.

It's a chore to make a smart stupid movie, and I think where the piece lives or dies is in the characterization (admittedly, that's the case for almost every sort of movie, but comedy is more dependent on its characters than most anyone probably cares to admit - how many sketches have bombed because the character around which they were built just wasn't, well, anything? Jimmy Fallon's characters vs John Belushi's characters. I think I'll rest my case, and this digression, for now). They're where you can get the "stupid movie" description - let's face it, if the characters are morons, mostly, you're probably going to assume the movie's moronic - and it's not too difficult to write a stupid character stupidly (Napoleon Dynamite's going to be my example here), but to write one smartly, to write, say, a Barry-in-High-Fidelity, or most anything Steve Martin played back when he was funny, that's where the rub is. If the characters are dumb, but their dialogue is smartly written, and their situation something resembling clever (that might be where our movie falters - the International Mummy Symposium, held at the college library, is not the most awe-inspiring locale. What happens in it, though, and here I'm thinking of the accessing of the information contained within the books housed in the building, is at the least intriguing, to my mind); if the movie handles its stupid characters well (frequently by associating them with somewhat more intelligent characters), then it probably breaks into that echelon of smart stupid movie.

The movie's acceptance by its audience probably also relates back to the comedy theory floated to me by my friend Sam Tallent a few years ago, an idea I have grown so attached to that I've appropriated it and reference it whenever I can (though I attempt to credit him every time). We'd just finished our second Choose Your Own Adventure play production (something I contended at the time to be the best comedy writing I had done, or would ever do, despite the fact that almost the entire play's style is cribbed from Futurama - a conscious choice, but I don't feel like my writing's held up all that well over the years) - the show involved beaver guards (guards that were beavers, that is), a mutated assassin crawdad, and, as Matt described him, a gay Willy Wonka ripoff that fights bulls on the weekend. As per standard operating procedure with these plays, the second of our three shows had been packed to the brim, and the space had been ripe with the laughter of an engaged audience. But, again, one of our featured characters was a self-aware, physicalized disembodied narrator that frequently got in arguments with the characters he was speaking about, and the second act opened with a five-minute-long scene that was a blatant ripoff of Kevin Smith's Clerks, except that the receptionists were talking about Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, rather than Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I was struggling to understand why people responded to this bizarre hybrid child we'd unleashed on the world, and Sam, bless him, explained to me that he thought, above all, people responded to earnestness and sincerity. Our show (shows, really) had come from a special place in our hearts; they oozed, if nothing else, sincere. If for nothing else, people had taken to that and accepted the nonsensical world in which they'd found themselves.

I've sort of been riding on that thought for the last several years, and it amazes me each and every time that it bears itself out to be correct. I have this feeling that I'll be riding on it for the rest of the time that I'm producing work of any kind that I hope to subject an audience to, because I am most definitely not Herman Melville, nor am I Francois Truffaut, nor am I Aaron Sorkin, much though I might like to be that last fellow. "Profound" is not really something that's ever been attached to my work, and I kind of doubt it ever will, at this point. I don't particularly like the fact that my fate seems set that way, but I suppose accepting it would be the healthiest thing for me to do. I didn't set out to make low-budget, ridiculous movies, they just sort of found me.

I guess I wouldn't mind being Roger Corman, but why can't I be Joss Whedon instead (I'd make a play for being John Carpenter, but I think plenty of other people have that base covered far better than I ever could)?

More on things not related to the mummy movie later.

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