how did this get made?: best. test audience. ever.

The basic ingredients of How Did This Get Made?, a fortnightly podcast on the Earwolf network, are not promising if you’re looking for a nuanced film critique. For each regular episode, three actor-comedians are joined by a guest to ridicule a single bad movie. Ostensibly, the show has no higher purpose than to talk about how awful that film is, which just sounds like a recipe for cheap shots and little-to-no actual insight into what makes a film terrible.

But How Did This Get Made? is probably my single favorite movie podcast. On top of being very funny, HDTGM makes very specific and valid criticisms, and it ends up doing a much better job than many amateur (or even professional) critics in analyzing what has gone wrong. In short, Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas are possibly the best test audience of all time.

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the opaque camera in boudu saved from drowning

I’ve seen three films by Jean Renoir at this point, and I’d rather not say it, but to tell the truth I don’t get why he’s revered among directors.

The first two that I saw were the ones he’s best known for, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, and I didn’t dislike them so much as I didn’t understand why I needed to watch them. I’ll use a painfully vague term on the condition that I promise I won’t get in the habit: Both movies seemed a bit unfocused to me.

And so it is with this most recent film of his that I’ve just seen, Boudu Saved From Drowning, from 1932. Boudu is homeless and living in Paris. After losing his dog, he wanders a bit, seeming not particularly to have any emotion about the loss. And then, wandering across a bridge, he walks to the railing and jumps off into the water. With a telescope, a Monsieur Lestingois sees this and rushes from his nearby bookstore to jump in the river and save Boudu. After a kind of CPR that looks suspiciously like forcing the victim to do calisthenics, Lestingois succeeds in reviving the tramp, and now the bourgeois bookseller feels compelled to look after him. Boudu effectively becomes an unwilling member of the household, joining the aging Lestingois, his wife, and their maid — who is also the older man’s mistress.

The rest of this movie might have consisted of a story running like this: Boudu would gradually master the etiquette and values of his benefactors, with some outrageous missteps along the way. But Boudu in fact has no interest in fulfilling others’ expectations of him, or even the story’s expectations. More to the point, his immutability isn’t about a principled stand of any sort; Boudu isn’t resentful of other people’s demands so much as he’s only marginally aware of them. He can’t even remember Lestingois’s name after the man buys him a suit. It’s not clear what Boudu wants or even why he tried to kill himself. His only sustained interest is in women’s immediate attention and sexual favor.

Lestingois, for his part, doesn’t change either. From what I see, the movie has little purpose except to amuse, which, to be fair, it does pretty well. Michel Simon, playing Boudu, has an alluring mien about him, and the odd way his teeth jut out and his cheeks bunch up when he smiles are fascinating. But, you know, funny teeth don’t make a significant film, so it’s slightly uncomfortable reading as Christopher Faulkner tries in vain to wrench some meaning out of the raw material of the actual movie in his essay for the Criterion Collection.

For one, he takes this part of Paris, at least in the mind of the French, to be “the center of culture, of learning, of civilization,” while Boudu “explodes those values as hypocritical, bankrupt, ineffectual.” “Explode” is really too strong a verb, since at worst Renoir (operating through Boudu) only casually points up some of the vanity of the bourgeoisie. (Why do they own a piano? To play? No, to show that they are respectable people.) Or, maybe a bit more biting, there’s the point where one man awkwardly grabs Lestingois’s hand to shake it and congratulate him for his valiant effort to save the poor man’s life even as Lestingois is still making that effort and the life is in the balance.

Those are Boudu’s hands barely legible at the bottom of the image; Lestingois is still in the middle of working them as though he would like Boudu to come out of this not only alive but also with sterling pecs. (The scene comes a little after minute 23 in the video above.)

Faulkner goes on to postulate that “Boudu’s energy is ultimately a threat, even a social threat, that eventually will have to be banished from the narrative.” This is a primo example of why writers avoid the passive voice: The passive construction “to be banished” doesn’t tell you who did the banishing. In fact, Boudu ends up banishing himself at the end of the film by wandering off once separated from the Lestingois troop, as though he had already forgotten them once they were out of sight. Exactly who is banishing whom in this scenario?

I watched Boudu because it’s mentioned in Gilberto Perez’s great book, The Material Ghost. His analysis of Boudu is a good example of how Perez reads aesthetics extremely finely; unlike Faulkner, his theory of meaning actually works with what we saw in the film. As Perez puts it, referring to the inscrutability of Boudu’s emotions and intent: “Boudu remains opaque throughout the film, opaque in our eyes as in the eyes of the bourgeoisie” (p. 74). The theory is distinctly plausible, and the best part is how Perez specifically links Renoir’s shots to this idea:

As this tramp is not to be contained by the conventions of bourgeois society, so this film is not to be contained by the conventions of bourgeois comedy. Renoir’s camera prepares for Boudu’s escape from the bourgeoisie by continually drawing attention to the world beyond the frame, vividly bringing into the play the world beyond the plot. (p. 155)

This last observation is particularly sharp, and it helped me think about a puzzling sequence that begins around 1:15 in the video above. We see Boudu (in bowler hat) on a boat, floating in a river, headed with his bride and Lestingois to a wedding on shore nearby. We cut to the wedding party, and as the music strikes up, we cut to a shot that begins right at the edge of the shore, facing the violin player back on firm ground.

The camera pulls back out over the water, where we imagine Boudu is. Is this perhaps his POV?

No. The camera pulls past Boudu and his wedding boat, meaning this view belongs to no one at all. It is extraneous and even out of place — a big cinematic effect that seems unmotivated by anything else and only tangentially related to what we care about, which just confirms what Perez is saying about the camera pointing to the world outside of the story we’re being told. It’s kind of messy in a deliberate way. Or at least I hope it’s deliberate.

I’m not sure how I feel about all of this: I agree that Renoir evokes “the world beyond the plot,” but I’m not sure if it has anything to do with Boudu being opaque. Boudu would probably be opaque no matter how he was filmed or what you showed of him; some people never express their emotions through words or even actions. Maybe the limitations on how well we understand Boudu are not so meaningful; maybe the man is simply inscrutable, as lost in his own head as we are in this movie.

game of thrones succumbs to the omar principle (a principle i have just made up)

I’m not a big TV person. I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men and was not compelled to continue; I watched the first three episodes of The Sopranos and was not compelled to continue. I have liked but am now bored with Dexter. You see my point.

Then there’s Game of Thrones, coming back for its third season on HBO on March 31. The first two seasons closely followed (I’m assured by my friends) the first two of the five books by George R.R. Martin, so after binge-watching the first two seasons last year, I was up to speed enough to plow through the third, fourth and fifth books.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and I don’t watch a lot of HBO shows or cable in general, so I’ve been thinking about what makes GoT so particularly addictive for me. Besides for being fantasy, Game of Thrones is like a lot of other cable dramas, insofar as it doesn’t punish their characters for being immoral or amoral. Put another way, people get away with murder, rape, and all sorts of lesser evils, and fairly noxious characters occupy central roles and might even be seen as sympathetic.

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some blathering re: silver linings playbook, wherein i validate the swoopy cam of david o. russell

It’s hard to pinpoint why David O. Russell’s movies are so good. He tends to do projects that could be described in generic terms, but then he does a version that seems to transcendent the genre. The Fighter is a great sports movie, Three Kings is a war movie that makes the whole war movie thing seem fresh, and Flirting with Disaster might be my single favorite rom-com.

So I recently checked out Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, even though the previews made it look like a somewhat rote drama. Though the story was middling, the acting justified the attention (though maybe not the Oscar noms). Bradley Cooper doesn’t overplay the whole bipolar thing, and in one scene Jennifer Lawrence convincingly stares down Robert De Niro (also great), which is nothing to sneeze at.

But the aspect worth the most analysis hasn’t really gotten much notice at all, as far as I can see.

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maybe there’s a good reason to rip on django unchained, or maybe not, i can’t tell

You know, just because I love Quentin Tarantino doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear criticisms of him. I do; I genuinely enjoy hearing what people think about movies and why they don’t like them. That said, the sophist in me wants you to make the best argument possible, even if it’s against a piece of art I happen to like.

photo by Steve Rhodes under cc

To begin with, if you’re going to criticize Quentin Tarantino for using the n-word too much, you should probably wait until he’s doing a movie that isn’t about slavery, since QT has already nicely answered your concerns about Django Unchained:

Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.

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