Sunday, November 19, 2006


After several manic movies, Will Ferrell decided to give acting a shot in "Stranger than Fiction"

Movies not only reflect our culture, they help create it. How many people have ever uttered phrases like: “I’m your worst nightmare” (Rambo); “You talking to me?” (Taxi Driver), “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars); “Damn glad to meet you!” (Animal House); “You had me at ‘hello’” (Jerry Maguire); “Make my Day” (Dirty Harry); and possibly the most famous of all, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Gone with the Wind).

We not only take over their phrases, but in some cases attempt to copy their style in our lives. Who we want to copy, who we identify with, tells us more about ourselves than we may want to know. Sometimes movie characters do the same thing. In Saturday Night Fever John Travolta’s character channeled Al Pacino’s character from Dog Day Afternoon. Certain lines from Woody Allen movies have resonated with me through the years: “I hit him in the elbow with my nose” (Woody in Play it Again, Sam after having his date taken from him by bikers) pretty much sums up the pathos of a nerd getting his lunch money lifted by bullies. Scenes from Animal House are not only cultural gems but produce real emotions on which we can draw for inspiration in our own tepid lives- like the last futile act of defiance when Delta House’s Deathmobile attacked the Faber College homecoming parade.

So that brings me to my weekend movie experience (and it truly was an experience)- Stranger than Fiction. How many of us go through our daily lives, viewing ourselves through the prism of other people’s opinions? Truth to tell, it is a rare iconoclast who is completely immune from external comment or criticism. Even George W. Bush, who famously said he’d continue to “stay the course” on his disastrous trip over the cliff of Iraq, even if only his wife Laura and his dog Barney stood by him, has bowed to the will of the American people on election day, firing Donald Rumsfeld and leaving open the possibility of an exit from Iraq without a victory.

But Stranger than Fiction brings a whole new concept to the table. What if the external voice wasn’t a vote, an op-ed column, or even simple gossip or comments of friends and co-workers? (You know, the kind of comment where they say “hey, you look great; have you lost weight?” Which you interpret as “boy, were you ever fat. Thank goodness you finally saw the light and dropped some of those ugly pounds.”). In this new Will Ferrell movie, Ferrell’s character, a stupefyingly boring IRS auditor named Harold Crick, wakes up one morning to discover that the voice over narrator isn’t just a movie trick- it’s actually a sound he can hear that takes over his life. Worse yet, he discovers that the narrator, an English mystery novelist (Emma Thompson), doesn’t just have the ability to observe Harold’s life, her writing actually changes it. She’s scripting his life, and not necessarily for the worse, as Harold discovers.

The movie works on a lot of levels- humor for sure, some of it laugh out loud, some very subtle. Dustin Hoffman is particularly good, toning down his Meet the Fokkers persona by about 100 decibels. But in another sense, it brings out the self-consciousness which is all too present among many of us, yet altogether missing in too many more who could use a good dose of connection to reality and other humans’ opinions every now and again- i.e., our clueless President (I never tire of giving ole’ George another “thumpin’” as he so eloquently phrased it in his morning after press conference) who woke up November 8th to discover that this White House could no longer “create our own reality” as a senior Bush aide (Karl Rove?) once famously put it:

“[An] aide to George W. Bush ... said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Ron Suskind, writing in New York Times Magazine two weeks before the 2004 Presidential election.


My comment to my date as we left the movie was that a lot of Will Ferrell fans who flocked to the feature to see Old School type antics were going to be sorely disappointed. Ferrell’s character is more like Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) from Being There than the manic pickup artist Ferrell played in Wedding Crashers. Little do they know what a treat they will have in store for them, to borrow a signature phrase from the movie. Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor, observes that he has given whole seminars on the third person omniscient, “Little did he know...” as he reels back Ferrell just after he has sent him off for psychiatric help.

Linda Hunt, who plays the psychiatrist from whom Ferrell had just come prior to his encounter with Hoffman, accurately observes that people who hear voices in their heads are schizophrenic. On the other hand, people who don’t hear the voices are characters in a movie or a novel, and Ferrell has unwittingly and unwillingly crossed the line between fact and fiction as he struggles to reconcile himself with the ending about to be written for him in Thompson’s novel (until her old fashioned typewriter key strikes paper, reality is on hold).

As we have all discovered, real life and reel life are very different. In reel life, everything is resolved (unless it’s Star Wars, the Emperor Strikes Back) when the lights go on and we pick up our coats to exit. In real life, as much as we may try to structure a happy ending, or even any ending at all, a satisfying conclusion usually evades us. The euphemism “closure” has been bandied about a lot in recent years. One of the funniest occurred on an episode of Friends when Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) called Ross’s (David Schwimmer) apartment to leave a voice mail telling him“obviously, I am over you. I am over you and that, my friend, is what they call closure.” When Ross got the message, his only response was to ask : “When were you ever ‘under me’?”

“Closure” has almost overtaken the do-it-all term“issues,” which was stunningly used by the moviegoer who was sitting just in front of us the other night (she worked for the same company as my date) when she casually remarked that her ex-husband had died because he had “issues.” Until that moment I had never heard that term used as a cause of death (was it on the death certificate, I wonder?). Typically the term “issues” only relates to problems with mental illness, drugs, alcohol, or other anti-social behavior, not mortal injuries.

But we rarely get closure in real life, hard as we might try. Lately, we don’t even get it on our favorite television shows, most of which used to be self contained and now have reverted to the 1930’s type serialized cliff hangers (24, Lost, Heroes, Prison Break), which never ended a story but always pulled the viewers back to find out how the hero will escape from certain death this time. Like many self conscious people, I not only write my own dialogue, but I listen to it, critique it, and on occasion attempt to revise it, which is why on certain special occasions (forging a new relationship or breaking off one) writing letters and e-mails is preferable to conversations where the delete key is unavailable. And with that, until next week, I will close with this: go see the movie. If nothing else, you will get closure.


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