Don’t Look Up

I don’t often write about movies. The last few times were out of concern and offense.

That’s not the case this time. Don’t Look Up is an honorable accomplishment, brilliant in aspiration if not execution.

Bob Lefsetz may have summarized it best:

“Don’t judge the movie as a movie. Judge it as a cultural exposé.”

It’s not a great movie. It is an important movie.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It is a twisted, masterful mirror making it a profound movie.

It’s leafy green vegetables dipped lightly in ranch dressing, not a snack without compromise, but still good for you.

Most of the movies we see released these days are either popcorn tentpoles with superheroes meant to fill actual theaters, or esoteric art pieces that win awards but stream largely in obscurity.

What happened to issue-based, mainstream entertainment movies like The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, or Midnight Express? The bottom line finance culture running the studios couldn’t possibly come to terms with those kinds of bets today. Throw in a platform of satire, dark humor, or caustic irony like Dr. Strangelove or Network and the chance those movies get backed today approaches nil.

Today we would call greenlighting medium to high budget films like those a bad business decision, and we would probably be right. Yet there was a time not long ago when many of us experienced these releases as popular culture events. Perhaps the most important thing these flicks accomplished was to inspire conversation.

We might like or dislike the stories. We might accept or reject the message hurled at our psyches. We might enjoy or be bored to tears by the characters. We could agree or disagree with the premise. It was the very act of talking about them that made them worthwhile as events even when art and science failed.

I miss those discussions and debates a lot. They made me think about things differently, They opened my mind to different points of view. They helped me get to know people better, both interacting with strangers and close colleagues.

It doesn’t happen much anymore. Show business has changed too dramatically. The distribution landscape is too fragile. The stakes are too high to take these kinds of chances and wildly big swings. The entire approach seems of a bygone era.

Don’t Look Up took me back to that bygone era.

It’s a gutsy picture. It steps up to the plate and takes some bold, big swings,

What’s my idea of a bold, big swing?

How about a world-ending comet headed for the earth as a metaphor for apocalyptic climate change? That’s hardly a whiff.

How about Ariana Grande satirizing herself as an indictment of vacuous celebrity influencers? That’s a power at-bat.

How about the collective sensory assault of TikTok diluting an otherwise complex idea down to its own reductionist dismissal of gravitas? That’s taking a crack at a tough pitch.

Most of all, how about giving away the punchline in the title? How do we make something go away if we don’t want to believe it? Just don’t acknowledge it.

It’s that simple, and pardon the spoiler but it’s coming in this sentence… If you don’t believe a fiery killer projectile is headed for our planet and about to wipe out all life as we know it, just don’t look at it.

If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

If you wish to deny the imminence of a crisis, all you have to do is deny the possibility that it is coming.

Journalists certainly don’t matter, they are subjective. Scientists might matter even less, they are products of their bias. What you find on the internet that supports your point of view is all that matters. Belief is not empirical. All belief sets are valid points of view.

To put all that in a mainstream movie, think somehow it will be funny over two hours, pay a bunch of expensive movie stars to show up, and think this makes good business sense—there’s something wacky in that logic.

I wish I had laughed more throughout the movie. I wish some of it had been more subtle. I wonder how it will age when people watch it three or four decades from now. I am skeptical it will have the same dire resonance that I am attempting to express here regardless of its flaws.

Then I think back to the unforgettable dialogue of Peter Finch as Howard Beale that has been ringing in my head since my youth: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I think about the decades of conversations I’ve had with people about those words and how much they’ve done to impact my interpretation of the weight of social issues still tearing at the fabric of modern living.

I think about how blessed we are that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky crafted those words and director Sidney Lumet got this movie to the screen for generations to ingest, discuss and debate.

I think about how long it’s been since I’ve had a satisfying conversation about an unequaled topic of global consequence triggered by a work of fiction.

The recent words ring solidly in mind: Don’t Look Up.

It’s anything but a perfect movie. It could be a lot more polished and funnier. Still, I think more people need to see it. And ingest it. And talk about it both with those who agree and disagree with its premise.

Thank you, Adam McKay. I think you’ve done something brave, needed, and important.

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Image: Pixabay

The Big Short: A Remarkable Winner

The Big Short

The Big Short won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s tremendously cool, and a well-earned honor for screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph. This film almost deserves a special Oscar for the studio executives who green-lit the production. Imagine the pitch:

“Okay, we’ve got a 300-page ultra-detailed nonfiction book that explains number for number what caused the Great Recession brought on by the real estate mortgage crisis that temporarily wiped out about half the value of equity in American homes and half the value of global stock trading in practically every segment of the market.

“Wait, wait, now it gets good! The protagoniststhe guys who winare quirky, real-life speculators who make an outrageous fortune betting against the economy of their own nation, and when they are proven right and the market collapses, they make an unconscionable amount of money when 99.5% of the population gets financially wiped out!

“Wait, waitand they’re heroes because they saw it coming and no one would listen to them when they tried to tell a few important people that the collapse was inevitable, but since none of the important people would listen to them, after the crash they all go on to be celebrities who receive honorary degrees and big consulting fees from anyone who can get them to answer their phones.

“No, no, waitand because this movie is an absolute downer and cannot possibly be construed as commercial in any mainstream way, let’s double down on the budget and get the biggest movie stars we can to play the quirky few who saw it coming and their equally surreal foils, I mean, really, really, really big names like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez. And I’m not saying get one of them or a few of themGET ALL OF THEM! Hell, if we’re going out in style, let’s go crazy nuts wild freaky insanethis can be a way bigger disaster than Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, The Lone Ranger, or John Carter. If it fails it’ll be a legendary bomb!”

And you know what? The darn thing worked. It worked on every level. Gutsy, imaginative, informative, authentic, honest, funny, creepy, haunting, accusatory, indictinga perfect motion picture for our time for the movie lovers who maybe have had enough Marvel superheroes for a while yet can’t quite push themselves to go to the theater and read translated subtitles.

The Big Short is a mainstream movie of immense intelligence, integrity, and craftsmanship. It’s the kind of movie like All The President’s Men and Silkwood that we just don’t see anymore. How about that? They put something thought-provoking with movie stars on the screen and we paid the price of admission! Maybe we were desperate for good dialogue, maybe we were desperate for an explanation of what happened, or maybe there still is a market for smart flicks that educate while they entertain without being preachy, polemic, or polarizing.

Credit the immense genius of Michael Lewis, forever one of my literary heroes, who wrote the brilliant book upon which the screenplay is based. Lewis has been knocking out spectacular investigative nonfiction in the style of narrative fiction since his debut almost three decades ago with Liar’s Poker. I don’t think Lewis is capable of writing a bad book. He’s that good! Maybe the studio execs rolled the dice because of the monster success of Lewis’s Moneyball and The Blind Side, two more incredibly unlikely adaptations for the screen that brought big ideas into the hearts and minds of popcorn lovers everywhere. We like to say all great drama begins on the page. Lewis proves it empirically, one platform removed, again and again and again.

Lewis teaches, Lewis engages, Lewis forces us to think while never threatening us, embarrassing us, or chastising us. He sees real-life people as characters whose stories are on par with fiction because of the layering in their motivations. We see arcs in the lives of people we come to know for their strengths, weaknesses, curiosities, and aspirations. We grow as they grow. We fail as they fail. We are redeemed as they are redeemed. That is great storytelling in any form of media. In The Big Short, we celebrate the art of illuminationseeing what we all should have seen but only a few of us actually did. Now in hindsight we see it together, and with any luck we bond together to prevent the evil from returning.

The very act of successfully adapting this literary work to a visual medium is worthy of celebrationbut wait, there’s more! We are also fond of saying “the eyes are the window to the soul.” When you watch The Big Short on the big screen for two or so hours, you see an unending array of eyes but almost no souls of any kind. That is very, very hard to do. We watch our speculators conniving in complex equations that will expose our undoing, and yet no matter how many times the camera grabs a close-up, all we see are lust, greed, ego, and hubris. How are actors capable of pulling off that detachment in shot after abstract shot, initially unedited, created out-of-order, and only theoretically connected by singular motivation to be correct? They are human, but beyond the bounds of humanity, except in knowing they haven’t done anything badthey’ve simply take the spoils of opportunism, milking something bad. That’s unique to film, seeing the eyes over and over again but not penetrating what isn’t there, until the ultimate redemption, when reality unlocks public pain in one full swing of the broadsword. Gasp.

Are we strong enough and knowledgable enough to take action from a cautionary tale? Lewis thinks we are. I think so too. I’m guessing a lot of moviegoers would agree, transformed as they were from the dark to the light, from confusion to enlightenment when the house lights came up and the real world welcomed their demand for reform.

Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo, studio executives. Encore! Please, encore!

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Paramount Pictures.