Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chocolate Covered Broccoli

or critically panned movies we love… by Amy Lane and Mary Calmes

Mary: So I was sick all Tuesday and flipping channels…flipping…I have NETFLIX now which is damn scary…nothing on…nothing…I needed to get up and get a movie. But what?  The Fugitive? JAWS? But I didn’t want to think, just sit. So in went Sahara and later on I started talking to Amy about nothing and then movies. I said; let’s do a blog post about some of our favorites, and since she is the easiest person on the planet to distract (anything shiny, really), she agreed.

Amy: When Mary and I were talking about which movies to put out in this post, I had a confession to make. It's embarrassing and horrible, and yet true. 
See, here we were, putting together a post of "guilty pleasure" movies, and oh, I jumped right on the bandwagon.  Sahara?  Hell yeah.  The Mummy-- I was so there!  13th Warrior, Twister, The Fifth Element...
Well... uhm... 
Okay.  So here's the thing.
I used to be the movie teacher. 

Yeah, I know, the movie teacher gets the bad rap-- you know, the teacher who showed movies all the time because she didn't know her subject matter? The one who catches hell in the staff rooms for not making the kids learn anything?

Well, no.  That wasn't me. (Except for catching hell in the staff room, but they were a sort of misogynistic bunch anyway.)  But I did show these movies for more than their pulp value.  I mean, for one thing?  Kids don't know how to watch movies anymore.  That whole idea of "If you shut up and listen the inner workings of the movie shall be revealed to you"?  Yeah, no.  They don't have it.  If you don't sit in their laps and then pause the movie every fifteen minutes to refocus them, they won't understand the movie.  It's that simple.  But for another?

Well, it all comes down to the basics of storytelling.  Good storytelling is good storytelling, and movies utilize a variety of media to create a really compelling story.  So three of these movies I used to help the kids analyze storytelling, because we could go on and apply these lessons to the things we've read.  Now someone out there is saying, "But why didn't you just read a story to get that done.  I tried.  We read a Ray Bradbury story.  I spent a week explaining the basics of science fiction and world building to kids and then a week explaining the story and then a week doing the basic assignment.  I could have gotten the same lesson across in one week, flat out, if I'd just shown The Fifth Element, and then a five-thousand word sci-fi short would not have become the bane of my fucking existence. In fact, when we did read that five-thousand word story in the anthology, it would have taken less time, because I would have a universal reference point with my kids, one we'd all experienced, and could point to as a class.

So anyway, each of these stories had a different strength that I drew on to help my classes.  In California, you have to align your curriculum with state standards--the fact is, I couldn't have gotten away with showing these movies if I wasn't able to point to the standard number and say, "LOOK! Look here at this assignment and what I'm using the movie for!" but it's been nearly four years, and if I actually remembered the standard number, I think it would be safe to say I haven't been doing enough in that time to displace the educational bureaucracy accrued in my noggin.  But the basic reasons still remain, so here we go.

Twister:  I used Twister with freshman to either teach the basics of Freytag’s Pyramid or refresh the class if they'd had it before. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Freytag’s pyramid, it's your basic action/fiction arc. You start off with a basic situation, you add a conflict, then complicate the conflict, then resolve part of the conflict and add another complication, and so on and so on and so on until the story comes to a peak of all of the unresolved conflicts, and then falls to a resolution and a denouement.  Freytag’s Pyramid is what I call the "heartbeat of fiction"-- it's the pulse and rhythm of a story that helps us predict what's going to happen, and, when we're writing, helps us know when to add some more action.  A predictive model is pretty important for kids to have when they're reading-- it helps them anticipate something crucial, so they don't think writers just throw shit into the ether and call it a story, and it helps them find meaning in what they're reading.

Anyway, so, Twister.  Has a perfectly shaped plot for Freytag’s pyramid.  Think about it! 
Basic situation: Man needs divorce papers signed.
Complication: Soon to be ex-wife is chasing tornadoes.
Complication:  Chasing tornadoes is fun
Complication:  New fiancĂ© is totally jealous of old ex-wife.  Wants to prove she's up to the challenge.
Complication:  OMG-- he's having more fun chasing the flying cows with ex-wife than he would be making sweet lurve to the woman with the vocation that is ONLY funny when caught in a tornado while chasing flying fucking cows.
Complication:  The ex-wife has a saintly aunt who can cook cows, flying, fucking, or otherwise. 
And SEE?  That shit only gets better! 
Seriously-- the plot builds perfectly, almost from tornado to tornado, until the finale, where they meet the tornado eye to eye!!  And save Aunt Meg and get rid of annoying fiancĂ©e and don't get clobbered by the flying fucking cows. If you were to graph that plot (as I had my kids do, minimum of five complications and five mini movie orgasms) it's symmetrically beautiful, and a stunning example of the storytelling formula that we literally feel vibrating in our bones whenever we read a story, go to a movie, watch a play, or turn on our television.  Instant predictive model, and a lesson the kids wouldn't forget.

Ah-ha! You say-- Okay.  I can see how Twister would work for that.  But so would Fifth Element.  Why don't you just use that?

Well, because The Fifth Element has alternative universe qualities that really make a better teaching model when kids start getting AU stories in their sophomore year. (At least in California, that's when some of their best anthology stories are science fiction or fantasy.)

And as writers and readers, we take that very much for granted.  Alternative universe?  Piece of cake.  The writer establishes with either direct narration or character behavior a set of rules and regulations that form the boundaries of the narrative frame that create the story. 

Yeah.  Tenth graders.  Not so much with the understanding.  If they haven't been exposed to it from the cradle, (*cough*  Mine and Mary's children.  *cough*) then they don't understand that there are rules to the madness.  See, otherwise kids assume that AU stuff is just people "making shit up" and that it's "easy"-- they don't understand that an author can be teaching a lesson or making a huge statement about what the world is really like if they don't understand where the rules come from about what the world could be like.  So, spending that week showing The Fifth Element and having the kids make a list of rules for the future world and explaining where those rules come from and the nature of using science fiction for satire is worth the movie time, because when they get to twelfth grade and Brave New World and 1984, all it takes is fifteen minutes talking about The Fifth Element and we can start talking about how politicians are fucking up the world. 

And speaking of twelfth grade...

Okay-- as an M/M writer, I can be frank.  I really get off on watching little tiny, dark and lovely Antonio Banderas standing next to all of those Nordic gods in The 13th Warrior, but the things I use this movie for...
Gods.  I need a bullet point chart or an hour of lecture or a chance to rant in a rubber room to cover it all.
Let's go with the bullet point chart. 

*  The story itself is Michael Crichton's attempt to integrate historical fiction and the story of Beowulf.  So kids who might have difficulty envisioning Beowulf can suddenly see a comparable time period and culture, and they've got a place to start from. 

*  Even though the events are only vaguely similar to those in Beowulf, the themes of emerging culture are the same.  Examples include:
--Evolving language and its importance to civilization
--The differences between a man and a monster are explored in very basic terms that, once again, involve language.
--A basic honor code is explored, that, once again, is dependent upon language and communication
--The very first heroic archetype-- the epic hero-- which is the basis for all of the other heroic archetypes to follow-- is established.  There are rules for the epic hero, and Beowulf (or Bylvi in the movie) fulfills every requirement. Comparing these qualities makes for some decent essays. (So, for that matter, does the original incarnation of Superman, but that is another story.) 
--The importance of the building is established as part of civilization.  For those of you saying, "Oh, hey, this is a no-brainer!" I'll leave you with this story.

Traditionally, we teach Beowulf in the early fall.  Which means that almost twelve years ago, I was a little late to work, and I led a very pale, anxious bunch of students into my classroom as we tried to take stock of what was going on three-thousand miles away.  Why the twin towers?  Why destroy them?  What was the point? 

"These are our mead halls, children.  When Beowulf was first written, that vaulted ceiling is all you have between yourself and the big black, between order and chaos, between being warm and safe and being a speck of matter, free-floating in the universe.  When we aim and strike at each other's civilizations, we do not strike at the peasantry-- we strike at the mead halls, to remind the peasantry that their job is to live in fear.  If we don't want to be peasants, we defend and rebuild our mead halls, and we refuse to live in fear." 

And thus Beowulf, and thus The 13th Warrior. 
(I just got a Tweet from a former student who thanked me for that moment.  I'm proud that it gave her some peace that day-- there was precious little to be had.)

So, well, shit. I think I just ruined everybody's guilty pleasures for everyone, didn't I?  I mean, it's like finding out that chocolate restores kidney function and helps you lose weight-- why did I eat that?  I wanted to do something crappy for myself!  Well, too bad.  Turns out that even the guiltiest movie pleasure has some nutritional value. 

Mary: Back to me and I can say that the “nutritional value” of movies for me, good or bad, great or small, has always been about what it gives me creatively. Even the worst movies, ever, have pieces in them that can inspire or teach or make you think of a plot point. You watch your favorite and are reminded of a feeling you wanted to express, or see the loose ends, or admire the writing.

I have my go-to movies when I need to veg (My Cousin Vinny, Bull Durham), I have movies that I watch when I want to cry (Steel Magnolias, Pride & Prejudice), and I have movies that can be on in the background when I’m doing stuff because I’ve seen them so many times. Two of them that fall into this category that I have also learned things from are The Mummy and Sahara.

The Mummy, the one with Brendan Frazier and Rachel Weisz, (not the Boris Karloff classic), is the ultimate guilty pleasure. I always watch it and smile even though it’s just ridiculous. But the thing is you forgive it because it’s so fun and it’s like an old Hollywood movie and you sit there and you’re transported away on an adventure. And the slow build of Rick’s feelings for Evy are pure romance. The looks, the changes in their voices when they speak to each other, how gentle he is when he touches her, and how she reaches for him without thought, I’m a sucker for that and I like to include those things in my own writing. The things one character misses at first and then suddenly sees.

Sahara is a whole other story. It’s a buddy movie at its heart and yes, Dirk gets the gorgeous lady doctor at the end, (and how pretty of a couple did Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz make?), but who he really keeps––who is most important––is his best buddy Al. At one point Al says, I’ll get the bomb, you get the girl, and Dirk just smiles and agrees. Two enormous tasks, both fraught with danger, but neither one doubt the other. The two of them have a funny, bantering, but utterly dependent relationship. Dirk can’t be himself, larger than life, saving the world, if Al isn’t there to hold up his end, to be his back-up. Those are my favorite kinds of stories, the buddies, together, that can either stay that way or move from friends to lovers. The potential for either is there. That’s what makes a good story for me.

So there you have it, all the reasons for why these movies. What are the movies you all enjoy? We would love to hear.


  1. I have a thing for those 60s Frankie-and-Annette beach movies. I realize there are probably about a million and one problems with them but I have love, anyway.

    Also pretty much any movie musical ever, but mostly the ones I would have watched with my grandmother as a kid -- Kiss Me, Kate; Pillow Talk; Gypsy...

  2. I'm surprised there are no M/M romance or gay themed movies in there. My favourite in this genre is Shelter closely followed by A beautiful thing. In other genres I love sad movies as I think the acting is often better, and let's face it life isn't filled with happiness and living in fabulous apartments even though we work in Starbucks. My life without me stands out as an example of the perfect sad movie with Million dollar baby a close second.

  3. marvelous post. i've seen and loved every one of those films but the 13th warrior—but it's in the queue.

  4. Gotta say that the book Sahara was better than the a smidge. Sorry Matthew, eye candy not quite enough. If you like Dirk & Al, you should definitely read the whole series. And the spinoff's have some great character interactions. I am the girl who hates movies based on books...they are rarely as good. And when they change the ending, well OMG! My go to of the only made from a book that I can embrace is Stephen King's The Stand! It has horror, redemption, tears, joy, and love. I always love Amy Lane's shenanigans, so cudos to Mary Calmes for dangling the bling.