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Not to belabor today's bad movie theme but what kind of parallel universe are we living in where you're supposed to believe Guess Who is a sacrilege against the revered classic Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? If you can name a more turgid, preachy picture than the original Stanley Kramer joint, I'd be interested in hearing about it. Check out the film's climax, a scene in which Spencer Tracy pontificates for about four hours on the finer points of racial tolerance while all the other characters listen rapturously, for a lesson on how not to make a movie (a lesson in which Kramer was always a reliable prof). The movie didn't even blaze any new territory in casting Sidney Poitier as a gifted physician: That was done 17 years earlier, with 1950's No Way Out, in which Poitier plays a doctor who treats the racist hoodlum Richard Widmark. (And No Way Out at least had some melodramatic brio to go along with the message about universal brotherhood.)

But Guess Who also has the advantage of downsizing the original name of the movie, thus taking a stand against the lamentable trend of title inflation. Moviegoers like to get some bang for their buck, and bigger titles inevitable crowd out admirable works with more modest titles. Who's going to bother with The Ring when you can see The Lord of the Rings? Why would anybody settle for just one King of Comedy when you can see multiple Kings of Comedy, who in addition to being more numerous are also, apparently, The Originals? Is it any wonder that nobody's heard of Robert Altman's A Wedding lately, when for the same price you can get a wedding that's not only big and fat but also Greek? You'd be a fool to watch a movie that offers only the experience of watching John Malkovich when you have the option of actually Being John Malkovich. (In the exception that proves the rule, The Incredibles managed to outperform the 1971 Bruce Dern/Casey Kasem vehicle The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.)

The most ominous new title is the Farrelly brothers' looming remake of the 1997 paean to soccer hooliganism Fever Pitch. Not only will the movie be terrible because it stars Jimmy Fallon, who sucks out loud; they didn't even bother to change the title! The original title is a pun on the fact that soccer is played on a pitch. Now I realize the word "pitch" has a not-inconsiderable application to the game of baseball as well, but talk about your Anglicisms invading the USA. If Jimmy Fallon is not stopped, we'll all be watching NFL "footy" one of these days. (And rooting for the Pats to boot.)

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  1. I’ll just go watch a good movie about race relations: Brother From Another Planet.

  2. “That was done 17 years earlier, with 1950’s No Way Out, in which Poitier plays a doctor who treats the racist hoodlum Richard Widmark.”

    One of the best race-themed movies — Pressure Point (1962 or 63?). With, of all people, Bobby Darin, who I think got a well-deserved Golden Globe in one of the best performances EVER on screen by anyone, as a Nazi patient treated by a gifted Negro doctor…

    … played by Sidney Poitier.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000X61YQ/reasonmagazinea-20/

  3. I have to say, I’m a bit flabbergasted at the negative view of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is certainly preachy, but I’ve always considered it a very good film. But then I’ve always appreciated philosphy in film a little more than most folks. And to me, what the movie was about more than race relations was philosophy in action even when the results are not what we expect.

    My personal favorite moment is when, talking to his father, the doctor explains that he does not think of himself as a black man, but as a man. I think we have lost that idea in the years since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was made, and I wish we could get it back again.

  4. “If you can name a more turgid, preachy picture than the original Stanley Kramer joint, I’d be interested in hearing about it.”

    It has to be turgid too, huh? Now there’s a challange!

    I would suggest “The Postman”, which was certainly turgid, but it wasn’t preachy about anything in particular. (Not that Costner let that stop him from making it a preachy film.)

    …So I’ll move on to another likely candidate. How ’bout “The China Syndrome”? Not turgid enough? How ’bout Redford’s “Brubaker”?

    …No wait, move ’em all over. If I had to put my money on one turgid, preachy film to beat them all, it would have to be “Norma Rae”, hands down.

  5. While I’m in total agreement about the old film (which, to my recollection, consists of tedious dialogue in just about every possible pairing, followed by a climax with the additional flaw of reinforcing patriarchal ‘final say’ in a supposedly freethinking film), I think there is a valid (and general) objection to the new film: like so many other ‘remakes’ and ‘adaptations’, it seems to assume that to remake a work is to preserve the most superficial elements of the plot, with virtually no regard for either deeper theme or narrative structure. One doesn’t have to admire the original to think that allegedly adapting it for our times as a screwball comedy is in some sense obscene.

  6. I would suggest “The Postman”, which was certainly turgid, but it wasn’t preachy about anything in particular. (Not that Costner let that stop him from making it a preachy film.)

    I am previously on record as being apalled that the Post Office was depicted as someting to rally ’round as a symbol of what was best about the United States of America.

  7. Stevo Darkly,

    Too true! But at least it wasn’t the IRS or the EPA! 🙂

  8. Ken,

    How about “The Fountainhead”?

    “Our Town” is obnoxiously preachy too. I haven’t seen it as a film, but assume there must have been at least a couple.

  9. Frankly, I’d rather watch Spencer Tracy or Sidney Poitier in anything – regardless of turgidity – than that pansy Ashton Kutcher (sorry, I’m not buying that Demi Moore thing).

  10. If I had to put my money on one turgid, preachy film to beat them all, it would have to be “Norma Rae”, hands down.

    Ah, you hit my Norma Rae weak spot. You see, I differ from the Academy? in considering NR a Ron Liebman, not a Sally Field, vehicle. And for fans of the lantern-jawed scenery-chewer, it’s hard to find a richer feast of Liebmaneana than this picture. So, you’re right, it’s a horrible picture, but I have to admit I mainline Ron Liebman whenever it’s on.

  11. Worse movies make bad movies look better. Does no one recall how To Sir, With Love II made us all nostalgic for the Lulu of yesteryear?

    Hello? Anyone?

    Directed, of course, by Peter Bogdanovich, director of several turgid but not any preachy films, at least as far as I can recall at the moment.

    So I will go out on a limb and challenge Tim with _The Life with David Gale_, based only on everything I’ve ever read about the film, though I’ve never seen it.

    Incidentally, while there are certainly nice things to be said about _Pressure Point_, particularly Bobby Darin’s performance, I believe Matthew Hogan is forgetting the preachier aspects of the film which was, after all, produced by…

    Stanley Kramer.

    Anon

  12. On Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

    “The film is formulaic, dishonest and turgid. Kramer even has a benevolent Irish priest (Cecil Kellaway)–as Spoto suggests, ‘a refugee from Going My Way’–turn up to offer sage advice. Kramer defended Poitier’s impeccable character–he’s an internationally respected doctor: ‘We took special pains to make Poitier a very special character in this story, and to make both families, in fact, very special. Respectable, yes. And intelligent. And attractive. We did this so that if the young couple didn’t marry because of their parents’ disapproval, the only reason would be that he was black and she was white. They had everything else in their favor…’ Whatever else this may be, it is not a recipe for serious art. The possibility that making Poitier less than perfect, i.e., a real human being, might challenge an audience to examine its assumptions or prejudices at a deeper level never occurs to Kramer.”

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/feb2001/kram-f26.shtml

    So here we have a movie that can unite Libertarian with Trotskyite critics!

  13. Upon further reflection, I would say that the turgid, earnest tradition that produced movies like _Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner_ doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Sure, there are plenty of earnest, hokey movies, usually aimed at families and/or Christians, but I think the tradition of real mainstream consciousness-raising movies has gone out of style. I mean, who’s trying to make a _Gentleman’s Agreement_ in this day and age? As a feature film, I mean, not as a TV movie of the week on some cable network.

    Offhand, I can only think of John Sayles, at his worst. I mean seriously, did anyone even see _Silver City_?

    Anon

  14. I found “Motorcycle Diaries” to be backhandedly preachy. And unwatchable.

  15. While we’re on teh subject of Stanley Kramer, has anyone ever seen his anti-gun/pro-buffalo camp classic Bless the Beasts & Children starring a post-Lost in Space Bill Mumy?

    I’ve seen the trailer, and it looks like comedy gold. Gold, I tell ya!

    What do you mean it isn’t a comedy?

  16. Hey, anon, as recently as 1992 we had School Ties, starring uber-goy Brendan Fraser.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105327/

    Plot Outline: A jewish boy goes to an elite prep school in the 1950’s and hides his religion until a jealous bigot forces it out in the open.

    I don’t get HBO or Showtime, but I hear cable is full of the preachy. The L Word and Queer As Folk would seem to have agendas, even if they are more artful about it than old-style agitprop.

    Kevin

  17. Dalton Trumbo’s movie of his very good book, “Johnny Got His Gun,” was a preachy mess. Metallica actually improved on it by paring it down for their “One” video. There were only about five really powerful minutes in the film and it’s all in the vid.

    PS: Donald Sutherland gets my personal booby-prize for the Worst Portrayal Of Jesus In A Motion Picture (and competing against Ted Neely and Jeffrey Hunter, that’s no mean feat).

    PPS: While we’re on the subject on things Turgid(son) here’s a link to a guy who can only be described as the ultimate Stanley Kubrick fan:

    http://www.cbcradio3.com/issues/2005_02_11/main.cfm?IssueId=175&page=08

    And you thought “Eyes Wide Shut” was creepy…

  18. kevrob,

    I already mentioned TV movies in my post — though I think the type of turgid preachiness Tim is different from “having an agenda”. _The Wire_ has an agenda, but it is artfully produced and intelligently presented. It is not ham fisted and deadly earnest, filled with all sorts of speechifying. The shows you mention also don’t speechify so much, regardless of any agenda. Norman Lear has pretty much left the building, only to be recalled when Oprah makes a movie-of-the-week or when celebrities come together for a _The Laramie Project_ or maybe an _Angels in America_. I suppose one might be tempted to include _American Family_ or _Soul Food_, but I think these were just standard family dramas with non-white casts. I think the agenda of getting non-white actors characters with full names is a relatively benign.

    And I thought of _School Ties_, but it is the exception that proves the rule, since it represents an unusual foray into film by a mainsteam TV writer/producer, the great god of _Law & Order_ Dick Wolf. Please note how rapidly and completely he scurried back to his preferred medium.

    Anon

  19. I would think that the Billy Jack vehicles reach a sort of “spectrum limit” of preachiness, where the preachiness triggers so much unintended hilarity, the films turn out to be fun.

    Pressure Point didn’t seem preachy to me. GWCTD was awful, and will likely be just a shade better in this incarnation. How many Poitier movies were good? “Something of Value” had some merit. Maybe “To Sir…”? The “classic” with T. Curtis _ can’t get the name – was OK, but that was Curtis…not Poitier.

  20. Andrew: It’s The Defiant Ones.

  21. Way off topic, but Johnny Got His Gun would be a good parable about what is going on with the Terri Schiavo situation.

  22. That version of Wind in the Willows a few years ago featuring most of the Monty Python troupe was unbearably smug and shrill and preachy. Don’t know about turgid, but jesus did it set my teeth on edge. Once saw a Berkeley theater troupe perform a Red Chinese agitprop play. Pure Leonard Pinth-Garnell. So bad I couldn’t stop laughing.

  23. Moovies

  24. The L Word and Queer As Folk would seem to have agendas, even if they are more artful about it than old-style agitprop.

    Yeah, Queer as Folk can be a little preachy about stuff like gay marriage or AIDS, but it’s all buried in so much trashy sex and backstabbing that I can forgive it.

  25. Upon further reflection, I would say that the turgid, earnest tradition that produced movies like _Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner_ doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Sure, there are plenty of earnest, hokey movies, usually aimed at families and/or Christians, but I think the tradition of real mainstream consciousness-raising movies has gone out of style.

    I have argued that the message movie made a comeback in the late 1990s and early aughts. Traffic was incredibly preachy, and I defy anybody to sit through John Q and then say that the specter of Stanley Kramer has truly been exorcised from Tinseltown.

  26. Tim,

    I know I read that piece when it first came out…

    I think you are a little overbroad in defining certain movies as message movies — though I suppose I would only really be willing to mount a strong defense for Nicholas Ray. Without a doubt Kazan, Kramer, Lumet and Jewison are a grand quartet of American uplift moviemaking.

    Nonetheless, I think the modern day trend you were pointing to does not so much flow from the uplift tradition as much as it does from its cousin, the revenge fantasy. It is not the Sidney Lumet of _Twelve Angry Men_ but of _The Offence_ . _Network_ is not an uplift movie — it is an angry rant. Sure, the underlying moralizing is similar, but there’s a world of difference between suggesting that “we (as Americans) have to do better (for African Americans, Native Americans, Jews)” and “they (corporations, HMOs, TV executives) suck.” I grant that John Q is kind of a driven-to-the-edge Mr. Smith, though I also think he is a pussified-by-marriage-and-kids Buford Pusser. I think the fact that soft-hearted guys like Ed Zwick, Seven Soderbergh, and Steve Zaillian (remember _A Civil Action_) direct these movies sometimes obscures this fact.

    This kind of tension between uplift movie and revenge fantasy is, of course, epitomized by the Sam Jackson-Ben Afflect destroy-the-life-of-your-buddy pic, _Changing Lanes_. In line with this discussion, I guess I would call it a bad Stanely Kramer-Don Siegel collaboration with lots of blue filter.

    Anon

  27. Interesting, anon. I’ll take it under advisement.

  28. You want message movies, shrill smug pompous message movies utterly devoid of anything resembling real life? How about John Singleton’s “Higher Learning,” the No. 1 stinkaroo of the 90s, the locus classicus of stereotyped phony-radical campus politics? Preach it, Brother John, preach it!

  29. This discussion made me think of the excellent “Falling Down” — simultaneously goofy and tragic, with an underlying message of sanity — something of an anti-message picture with a message.

  30. _Fever Pitch_ is most definitely NOT about hooliganism, let alone a paen to it. The book mentions it as part of the narrative and it most certainly is not a feature of the original movie.

    Or did you guys just want to use the word as a suffix to “soccer” for the millionth time just for the hell of it? 🙂

  31. Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist, Timon. Fever Pitch sucks like everything Nick Hornby is involved in.

  32. Bollocks! The book is top dinkum.

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