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I was in 3rd grade when this film came out and my mom took me to see it in theaters.
It was PG-13, it was Adam Sandler, it seemed acceptable. A few others in my classroom saw it, too, and we were the lucky ones. The upper echelon of cool to third graders.
Since then, this movie became another family classic like Blazing Saddles–one that I’ve seen an innumerable amount of times, that I can quote with regularity, that’s a mainstay for sick days.
But it’s not until now that I begin to consider it critically.
Let’s put it out there, it’s in no way a high-art all time greatest film. But it’s fucking hilarious. And that’s all it needed to be for it to be rendered a success.
Comedy is a genre that can get by with its laughs. Horror gets by with its thrill. Action with its explosions. They are films built for for a purpose and a set reaction. If you can illicit the promised reaction–irregardless of whether or not it comments on some facet of life–then it has accomplished what it promised. The Slasher films or grossout comedies that both deliver on their promise and make some comment on life are the high echelon–Punch Drunk Love, Heat, Cache, etc.
Billy Madison isn’t one those films. But it’s goddamn good at doing what it came to do. Like an excellent carpenter who says he’s gonna build you the best fucking cabinet you’ve ever seen, this movie says it’s gonna deliver gut busting laughs. It does.
This is Adam Sandler at the top of his game in the first film of his late-90’s dominance as the box office king of comedy. He would develop better characters later (Robbie in the Wedding Singer) but this is him just developing his arrested-development character that he’s used throughout his film career.
There is a very interesting element to it, structure-wise. It’s built as a kid’s film. Like, there’s the requisite life lesson about believing in yourself, and clear cut lines vis a vis the characters. There’s the princess to rescue, the flawed hero, the single-dimensioned villain, the villain’s good-hearted assistant who got hired by the wrong team. There’s even a musical number.
The only real difference between this film and a marketed-as-a-kids movie is that the adult jokes that are subtle in something by Pixar or Dreamworks is overt in this film.
It’s interesting to consider, then, that as a child, you didn’t understand those jokes. And, seeing this film, kids don’t understand those jokes–and most everything else that Chris Farley says. They may be far more pronounced/cheeky, but they still remain lost on the child’s limited range of understanding.
When I was in third grade, the only thing that really stuck with me was the fact they said “fuck.” This was the first instance of ever hearing that in a PG-13 film, so it was exciting to experience an “R-Rated” element or whatever I would conceptualize it as as a third grader.
But, then again, any child will get it when Billy makes out with a picture of Veronica and tweaks her imaginary nipples. That didn’t go unnoticed by me, and as a result, I had to close my eyes.
This film, then, is simply a kids movie for adults. One that can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike without the stigma of “seeing a kids movie” even though that’s ostensibly what it is.
It started with There Will be Blood.
I had no idea, at that time (2007) who Paul Thomas Anderson was. I simply remembered that the trailer for this film came up a whole hell of a lot when I went to the movies that year. It was usually shown with No Country and the Assassination of Jesse James.
And I remember telling a friend that I wanted to see it and they seemed unsure as to whether it was good.
I saw it once close to its first weekend in limited release and again in wide release after I had moved to Humboldt County a few months later.
At that point, I was hooked. I needed to see his other movies. It was the same with the Coen Brothers after No Country came out. I spent most of the next year seeing the films of these three folks.
But the Coens will come later (see, eventually). We’re talking about PT Anderson who is, unabashedly, my favorite filmmaker.
The second film of his that I saw was Magnolia. This came about both by happenstance and pure boredom. I had been wanting to watch the film but thought I had no means to. I was new in town, living in dorms, and spent most of my time cooped up in my room writing a really shitty screenplay/watching baseball/hanging out with my roommate.
But then, from one of my suitemates, I found out that the library has a small collection of films you can either rent for free or watch in the library. And one of those films, it turned out was Magnolia.
But I wasn’t ready to spend three hours watching it even though I’m more than willing to spend three hours a night six months per year watching baseball games. Weird, I know.
The next thing domino to fall was that it was a Saturday (I think, let’s call it Saturday), and I was bored and I had time to kill. So I went to the library to pick up the copy. I figured I could go back to my room and watch it on my laptop even though that would incur a litany of questions from the roommate who loved to ask questions because my lifestyle choice was so fascinating since I didn’t listen to Janis Joplin and Cypress Hill and think that Smokin’ Aces was the best film ever (I’m making that last one up, but it fits, doesn’t it).
I get to the library and what do you know: the copy they have is on VHS. And it’s one of those double-tape packs so it’s extra daunting. That killed the idea of hiding in my room all afternoon, but the library itself has VCRs.
So I plop down in front of one of the 13 inch TVs, put on giant space-man/hipster headphones that are vinyl and make your ears sweat, and strapped in for 3 hours and 9 minutes of… something. I had no idea what to expect. Keep in mind I had only ever seen There Will be Blood and that is so very very different from his previous efforts.
I can remember, between tapes, going down for a cigarette and just thinking “I gotta finish this. I have no idea what is going on, but I fucking love it.”
Since that day, I’ve seen the movie eight more times as well as his other films: Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and Hard Eight.
There is something at work in his esthetic that I absolutely adore. The fast moving cameras, the dollying and panning and constant running of the camera only for it to stop and really accentuate a moment in time. It brings everything to a halt and your mind is forced deep into the moment at hand.
I love the long shots/composite long shots that he does in Boogie Nights–both at the beginning and at the party. Especially the beginning because, in the first ten to fifteen minutes of a film, you have to stuff every major character in and give them a slight introduction so the audience has something to grab onto.
That’s what that shot does. It pans down from the club sign–Reseda, giving geographic context–and into the club where we meet all the main characters that will have a roll in the story. The shot stops with Eddie Adams from Torrance, washing dishes. The camera stops, and stays with him, and we immediately gather that he is the center of the story.
He does something similar in Magnolia after the three vignettes at the beginning of the film that are brilliant and set up the context of chance and serendipity of the story. From there, he buzzes through every single character you’re going to be spending time with in the story, showing them at their story’s genesis–alone in an apartment, on top of the world of inspirational speeches, doing drugs, studying, panicking, starting their shift.
I love Magnolia because it’s really a portrait of a young filmmaker trying to stuff everything he knows into a single film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Infinite Jest: it’s long, and it’s a constant give and take relationship between creator and audience. Both are ensemble pieces that play out like Robert Altman hasn’t been taking his meds. (Infinite Jest is more affecting, mostly because it’s a book I spent 9 months reading–and when you spend that much time with one piece of media, it’s gonna fucking stay with you)
And on the companion disc to Magnolia is an hour and a half long making of documentary that is absolutely fascinating because it takes the movie from preproduction to premiere, it shows how he works with actors and with his crew–it’s an intimate portrait of how not to suck at being a director.
Hard Eight, his first film, was one that you can tell is a learning experience. It’s a prototype film that gives off glimmers of genius–especially in his ability to get good performances from his actors. The movie itself is best described as “okay:” it has some amazing moments, its story is solid, but it kind of drags ass. I’m curious to see what would happen if he remade it today.
The wildcard in his oeuvre is Punch Drunk Love, a 90-minute Adam Sandler comedy.
But it’s so much more than that and maybe my second or third favorite movie of his. He was actually able to prove to the world that Adam Sandler has a soul.
The whole movie is an off-kilter love story that uses all the conventions of the genre to their logical conclusion and amps everything about them up to 11. Barry is weird and depressed and suppressed by his seven sisters. His love interest is perhaps more curious to see where things go with him than actually interested in him at the beginning.
The camera movements and everything is there, as well as another Jon Brion score that kicks an amazing amount of ass. His use of atonal chords and noises adds to the weirdness and unsettling nature of the film.
I was trying to think if there was a thematic constant to all of his films, and I’m not sure. Hard Eight’s about Vegas and gambling and base-level being-John-C.-Reilly; Boogie Nights is about porno; Magnolia is about people of all different kinds; Punch Drunk Love is about love; and There Will be Blood is about an androgynous/asexual oilman.
If there’s one constant, though, it’s this: they are looks at the ebbs and flows of life. There are the highest highs and the lowest lows. What I like about his take on this idea, though, is that after such a mountainous high, it never gets to be as good; and after a rock bottom low, it never feels so bad. It’s best described as “movement and repose,” because instead of it being fucking perfect again, it’s just “okay,” and that’s fine to lay back on.
In Boogie Nights this was Dirk Diggler’s story: catastrophic rise to fast cars and easy women and awards. Then cocaine. Then decent into madness. Then a leveling out.
In Magnolia, every one is at a different point of this cycle, but it all levels out at the end. And it never feels like a completely happy ending with him.
Even in There Will be Blood when Plainview defeats his enemy, it never feels completely happy.
But my favorite remains Magnolia. It’s a three hour emotional ebb and flow with some amazing cinematography (notice in the bar, with William H. Macy, how the camera comes back to him and sits and then moves as his exhaled smoke moves. I like that little touch and I only noticed it on viewing #9).
He pays homage a lot to Scorsese and obscure cinema. He likes to use the same actors a lot. He’s married to Maya Rudolph and has two daughters. He was raised in the Valley. He’s trying to make another movie but hit road blocks even though everything was in place.
Music is something that can make or break a film for me.
And, I mean, it makes sense, right? Since the first days of cinema, there’s been a musical aspect.
From organists to scores to pop music. It’s been ubiquitous and a part of the experience.
Even if the performances are top notch, head-of-the-class, flawless ones, the music will kill it for me.
Take for example Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. You’ve got the best performance of Cameron Diaz’s life as well great ones from Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. They’re almost flawless. They’re very good.
But from the first battle scene on, the score completely pulls me out of the otherwise well-done period piece.
I mean, seriously, a battle scene set to trip-hop? Was Martin Scorsese sitting there, drinking coffee and listening to Portishead and then began to think, “Oh my God, I can see immigrants dying to this shit!”
Howard Shore just followed suit, I hope, because he otherwise has done some very good scores (Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Departed and Se7en)
And an example of a well-done score is last year’s There Will Be Blood.
It takes music from the period and twists and convulses it with aleatoric swells and discordant pieces. Because of the way it was composed, and how well it fits with the period of the film, it turns a movie with all the right aspects and turns it into one of my favorite films.
It’s just make or break for me.
If it’s overused it can tear an otherwise decent movie apart (see: Smart People) and if it’s just pisspoor, it can tear myself apart as to whether or not I enjoyed the film—though I do know that no movie with shitty music has given me the feeling that I’ve gained something from watching it.
But, then, what about movies with no music?
Silence is definitely an aural tool that is used far too sparsely in film these days.
With music, you’re given the mood of the scene on a platter. With silence, though, you have to ask yourself how this scene makes you feel. Without the deep swells of the orchestra, how’re you sometimes to know when to cry?
One movie that I can think of that used silence excellently was last year’s No Country for Old Men. In it, there is next to no music—it’s in the credits and, apparently, in a couple of scenes though I have yet to hear any in the film proper.
With that comes the film’s morally ambiguous center: the characters don’t know how to feel about this whole situation, so why should we give you clues as to how we the directors and producers think they feel?
The problem with silence is that it is unforgiving to the viewer. In a theater, you feel sucked into the image because of the silence of everything around you.
Take for example the movie Punch Drunk Love (I know, another P.T. Anderson film—he’s real goddam good at music and silence, though). In the beginning of it there is a whole scene where Adam Sandler is standing from his workplace’s doorway and staring at a harmonium that someone just dropped off for no reason.
There is silence. There is no movement from the camera or the characters.
And it completely sucks you into the mystery of why the fuck would someone dump a harmonium in front of his shop.
The difference is that silence gets into your mind first and then your emotions come out of your own thoughts while music gets into your emotions first and tells your mind what’s going on.
Don’t get me wrong, though. One is not better than the other. They work together in a great harmony when things are done right.
But when done wrong, both can totally destroy a film.
titular note: when I thought of the title I was thinking of the part of Alanis Morisette’s song “You Oughta Know” where she asks, “would she go down on you in a theater?” And then remembered that that song is about Dave Coulier (Joey on Full House). I almost puked.
So if you haven’t heard the story yet, Adam Sandler has made a movie that proves he has a soul.
See, in Punch Drunk Love he doesn’t play the infantile man-child suffering from Arrested Development. Instead, such social and mental handicaps are forced upon him by his suffocating sisters—of which he has seven.
However, one of them does introduce him to a woman played by Emily Watson who is attracted to his childish, medication-necessary, antics (one running joke is about him throwing a hammer through a glass door as a child). She, strangely, is completely drawn into this world because, as I’m willing to purport, she sees the great and caring guy underneath.
That element of the film—the element of “holy shit, a woman is actually falling in love with this guy?”—is played out in a manner that doesn’t allow it to fall prey to the formula of having a turning point scene that sticks out blatantly. In Billy Madison, it was when he sticks up for a kid who pissed his pants. In Big Daddy, it was having a child show up at his door.
The other element that makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s film well done is that it’s not a high concept film (like Billy Madison’s “dumb guy goes back to school” or Big Daddy’s aforementioned random child appearing). It’s a simple film. Boy meets girl type of film done in such a different way that it makes it feel different from any other romance story I’ve seen.
One thing that I noticed in this movie that is done very well is the use of silence. It, mixed with the cacophonous soundtrack, add to the emotion of the scene. Such boredom and such dread sometimes mix with these two elements.
And what definitely adds to the silence and soundtrack is the cinematography which utilizes excellent, long, tracking shots up towards and away from subjects and objects either innocuous or belligerent. The only time that the camera movement stops is when Sandler’s life stops and isn’t as chaotic as everything around it. P.T. Anderson does a good job of marrying the images and the sound to give the effect necessary to pull off this movie in such a way that it keeps it from being like every other Adam Sandler film.
There’s also a nice little sub-plot involving Philip Seymour Hoffman and one of his call-girls, but that whole thing is so ridiculous that I leave to your viewing to experience all that excitement.