In a recent Facebook exchange, I asked my e-people, “Parent to parent: What’s your secret for getting out into a movie theater without the kids?”
My amigo Mark, a true wag and a father, asked, “What’s a movie theater?” Hoping to out-wag him, I replied: “A movie theater is a kind of gambling establishment where you bet the cost of babysitting and $12 tickets for a 1 in 10 chance of being entertained.”
And I realized: That’s not really a joke. I remembered how my wife and I paid $90 cash money to see that third Star Wars prequel, and that includes the realization that we needed to skip the planned dinner out to afford the rest of the evening. Suddenly there’s nothing funny about that FB exchange. Big-screen movies are a gamble that pays off with the stingy rarity of a dollar slot in Reno.
Which is why I have turned to a new theory of cineplex enjoyment I have developed myself: The Missouri Method of Entertainment.
As in Missouri, the Show Me State. Wikipedia tells me the “Show Me” nickname comes from a political speech that enshrined Missouri as the home of skeptics. But it’s not skepticism I seek to have sated when I go to a movie.
I want to be shown something. Something new. Something amazing. Something I haven’t conceived of before.
I want to watch a filmmaker swing for the fences. I want to read an author who’s thinking, “Bet you’ve never seen someone do this.” I want to be surrounded by storytellers who are taking a dare. I want a large percentage of the entertainment I consume to come from creators who are muttering, “Wait ’til they get a load of this.”
The Missouri Method is not an excuse for avant garde excess. I’m sure that before 1964, no one had seen an eight-hour movie about a sleeping man, yet Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” is disqualified from the ranks of Missourihood because who cares? Missourists know that cleverness counts. It’s a mental dare to the audience to keep up, or to bring their own imagination to the ping-pong table of ideas.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
This is the movie that defines the true tenets of the Missouri Method. This flick’s non-stop wowzering left my head spinning — and when I paused to reflect on all that hootenanny, I realized it wasn’t just typical Hollywood bombast. Clearly director Christopher Nolan thought long and hard about his universe and he sharpened many a knife to carve this precise tale.
Here’s the sure sign of the Missouriness of “Inception”: I giggled out loud. During the zero-G tussle in the hotel (oh, if you haven’t seen it, see it for that sequence alone), I began to breath funny and weep at the eyes because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and it all came out as a childish chortle in the darkened theater.
When a movie motivates its audience to think and debate its layers — or even to blueprint its intricacies with a helpful dream map — it has Shown Me Something.
Being John Malkovitch
“Inception” gets points for taking the modern thriller and injecting it with ingeniousness. “Malkovich” earns Missourihood by taking the modern romance and injecting it with Sheer Gonzo Batshit Insanity. The good kind.
This movie is solid fantasy, focusing as it does on a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building that lets you become John Malkovich for 15 minutes. But that nutso portal is just the maypole around which stars John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener dance a riveting romantic jig. The plot is the brainchild of famously off-kilter writer Charlie Kaufman, but it’s his dialogue that brings this movie together and makes it a joy to watch.
Take this, for example. Craig (Cusack) is desperate to make an impression on Maxine (Keener), the aloof office hottie. Once he’s experienced the magic of the portal, he gushes to Maxine in a state of raw euphoria:
Craig: There’s a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It’s a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes… and then after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out… into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Maxine: Sounds great. Who the fuck is John Malkovich?
Craig: Oh, he’s an actor. He’s one of the great American actors of the 20th century.
Maxine: Oh yeah? What’s he been in?
Craig: Lots of things. That jewel thief movie, for example. He’s very well respected.
When Craig ends this impassioned outpouring to Maxine, saying, “Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is? I don’t see how I could go on living my life the way I’ve lived it before!” here is Maxine’s pitch perfect response:
Truly Kaufman, you showed me something.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just another “wire fu” martial arts movie — and it is a damn good one — but there’s more at work in Zhang Yimou’s 2002 movie about an assassination attempt on the first emperor of China.
Any director could have made this a head-on train of bare-knuckle action barelling toward the audience, but under Zhang it becomes a poem. At the best of times in a wuxia film, violence and swordplay is balletic, but this takes it to a new level.
An assassin relates his recent kills during his audience with the emperor. Each segment of the assassin’s recollection is set in a distinct palette, and his embellishments to his story become the work of a bard, not a killer. An early high point is the scene above, where Nameless, the assassin, faces fellow killer Broken Sword in a battle that takes place entirely over water. This isn’t just wire acrobatics, it’s majestic film-making; even the drops of water become weapons in their beauteous battle.
This scene comes in the first half of the film, and for me, what follows builds upon this and rewards us for the journey. Zhang is a Missouri Hall of Famer for brushing away the viewer’s expectations and rebuilding what’s possible with a kung fu yarn.
The Hall is open for more members. Who do you nominate?