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DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME, PART II (1993)
Two years ago, Movieline published an extremely controversial article ("Don't Try This at Home") in which I proved that movies bore no resemblance to reality as we know it. Specifically, the article demonstrated, through a series of meticulous reenactments of famous scenes from motion pictures, that almost no scam, gambit, stratagem, scheme, trick, or ploy that worked in the movies could be reproduced in real life. Scrutinizing scenes as varied as the concealed latchkey incident in Dial M for Murder and the moment where Woody Allen orders a thousand grilled cheese sandwiches in Bananas, the article proved, without the shadow of a doubt, that pranks and ploys that work to perfection in the movies cannot be duplicated in real life. The conclusion of the study was that ordinary people should try to organize their lives around time-honored principles they have learned from their parents, the Bible, or valuable self-help books, but not try to run their lives by imitating the movies. This could only lead to heartbreak, sorrow, and even madness.
The response to the article was overwhelming; the magazine was literally deluged with mail from readers all over the planet. Numerous individuals expressed their gratitude that someone had actually gone out and proven—scientifically—that it was not possible to masquerade as a corporate raider and get a hooker to attend a formal dinner with a chief executive whose company you were planning to take over, and therefore the entire premise of PrettyWoman went right out the window. Others were relieved that someone had taken the time to prove that women cannot successfully fake orgasms in crowded restaurants the way Meg Ryan did in When Harry Met Sally ... because real men can spot fake orgasms a mile away. Still others were pleased to have in their possession irrefutable scientific evidence that a layman suffering from severe amnesia could not land a job as the director of a famous psychiatric institution (where he would occasionally be called upon to practice brain surgery) without at least coming in first for a face-to-face interview, thus proving that the maverick hiring techniques immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound are a complete joke that bear no relation to reality.
For the most part, Movieline readers were thrilled with the data presented in "Don't Try This at Home," and edified that someone would have the time, motivation, energy, and money to sally forth and put various cinematic assumptions to the test. Nevertheless, a small but vocal minority found the article to be juvenile, methodologically suspect, and even stupid. One reader wondered why I had not attempted to canoe down a river in rural Georgia to see if it was possible to negotiate this arduous trek without getting sodomized by dysfunctional mountain men. Another thought I should have attempted to recreate the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman leap several hundred feet into a roaring torrent of water without suffering any lesions, cuts, contusions, or even bumps. Perhaps the most memorable response came from a man doing five years in a Massachusetts prison, who wrote, "If only I had read your article before robbing that bank I would have known that crimes that work in the movies won't work in real life."
Speaking personally, I was enormously gratified at the extraordinary response to the article I had written at such vast personal risk to life and limb. But one question that perplexed me after the article was published was whether the powers that be in the movie industry would respond to my research in any way. Now that the public realized that movies were a huge joke that propagated a fatally skewed, hopelessly unrealistic image of ordinary life, would Hollywood producers take steps to improve their products, to make sure that films more accurately reflected life as we know it? Or would they simply dismiss my findings as the addled ramblings of a disgruntled asshole?
To answer this question, I decided to go back out into the streets and update my experiment. Once again, I would select a handful of memorable scenes from recognizable and/or important movies and attempt to determine whether the incidents depicted could be reproduced in real life. But this time, instead of choosing scenes from movies spanning the past forty years, I would limit myself almost exclusively to films that had been released in the past couple of years—films that most movie lovers would have either seen or read about somewhere along the line. The results appear below.
White Men Can't Jump. Ron Shelton's highly entertaining 1992 release starts with an extremely suspect scene in which a pasty-faced Caucasian played by Woody Harrelson sidles onto a blacks-only basketball court at Venice Beach, and succeeds in humiliating a talented black playground legend played by Wesley Snipes. From the moment I saw this film, I had my doubts about this premise. Neither Woody Harrelson nor the Billy Hoyle character he plays looks sufficiently fast, muscular, or talented to sidle onto a blacks-only basketball court and humiliate a playground legend. Neither do I. I too am a pasty-faced Caucasian short on speed, talent, muscles, and guts, and although I play basketball twice a week, I never play very well and I never play against playground legends. Thus, I seemed like the perfect candidate to step into Woody's shoes and find out how plausible the opening scene from White Men Can't Jump actually is.
I showed up about 7 o'clock on a torrid summer evening at a basketball court located at Sixth Avenue and Houston Street in lower Manhattan. I immediately approached the tallest, blackest, most athletic man on the court and said, "I've got sixty-two dollars that says you can't beat me." (Sixty-two dollars is the amount that Woody Harrelson won from Wesley Snipes in the movie.) The expression on the young man's face suggested that it had been quite some time since any pasty-faced white person with a baseball cap twisted backwards around his skull had used this unconventional approach. But he was more than game, happy to have an opportunity to win the $62. We agreed to play a one-on-one game to seven points, with airballs and steals going straight up, but anything off the backboard or rim going back to the charity stripe. He shot a long jumper to see who would take the ball out first; he missed and I inbounded. I pumped twice, getting him to leave his feet, and shot an airball directly into the fence behind the backboard. I checked up and handed him the ball; he hit a no-rim jumper from 18 feet, then a no-rim jumper from 15 feet; then he blew past me for two reverse layups: 4-0.
"Bend your knees and guard him," said a paunchy black man from the side, but I ignored him. I had last bent my knees when Gerald Ford was in office. The third time my opponent drove to the basket I partially blocked his shot, causing him to miss his layup—though not by much—and I hurried back to the foul line, from which I promptly launched another airball. He inbounded and blew past me for two more layups. Point game. Then he got too cocky. The last two times he'd scored, I'd noticed that he would first bang the ball off the backboard, catch it in the air, and then lay it home. So this time, as he tried to go past me at 220 mph, I drifted back, waited till he released the ball, and blocked it off the board. It flew over to the far side, where I grabbed it, retreated to the foul line, lined up an easy 15-footer, and drilled it home.
"Nobody beats me seven-zip," I sneered as I prepared to drive to the hoop. I missed a jumper, he rebounded and whipped past me for another easy reverse, winning the game 7-1. Incidentally, the entire contest could not have taken more than two minutes and ten seconds, 2:17 at the outside.
Purists may complain that my study was rigged because I am about fifteen years older than Woody Harrelson, and because the character he plays in the movie is supposed to have played college ball. Also Wesley Snipes is short. To these criticisms, I say: Bullshit. The average white person watching White Men Can't Jump is going to see a somewhat clumsy-looking white guy about 6 feet tall who is not especially fleet of foot putting a whipping on a fast, talented, muscular black man on his own court. The entire point of my article was to warn white men who look like Woody Harrelson not to go out and try to beat muscular black men on their own court unless they are prepared to lose $62.
All white men look like Woody Harrelson.
I should point out two things: that when I handed the victor a pile of fives, tens, and singles that I thought totaled $62, he counted them, found that I had overpaid and said, "Hey, man, you gave me fourteen dollars too much." This illustrated something I have always suspected about this wonderful sport: that basketball is an essentially chivalrous activity, with its own ironclad code of behavior, where nobody tries to cheat anybody else. The second thing I learned on the court was about talking trash. At no point during our mano a mano confrontation did I ever say anything like, "Your momma's so fat she fell over and broke a leg and gravy poured out" or "Your momma's so old she used to drive chariots to high school." If I'd said anything like that, I suspect my opponent would have really kicked my ass.
Body of Evidence. Hey, I like sadomasochism as much as the next person, but they should have cleared this flick with the Consumer Product Safety Commission before releasing it. As the four people who saw it during its theatrical run will recall, Willem Dafoe plays a well-meaning lawyer who's a bit slow on the uptake, and Madonna, in a piece of truly inspired casting, plays a kinky slut. (What will they think of next? Brad Pitt as a good-looking young guy? Melanie Griffith as a moron?) About halfway through the film, Madonna pinions Dafoe's arms behind his back, then lovingly drips scalding candle wax all over his chest, then douses the wax with champagne, and then licks it off. Dafoe reacts to her offbeat ministrations by whimpering mildly, perhaps wincing slightly as the wax is applied. But he doesn't do anything terrifically visceral or emotional, like, say, screaming bloody murder and begging her to stop.
Let me tell you a few things about candle wax. Candle wax burns like hell. Candle wax doesn't feel good when it's applied to any part of the human body. Candle wax hurts. I know, because I used to accidentally drop the stuff on my forearms and fingers when I was an altar boy, and because I spent about fifteen minutes this morning trying to reenact the candle wax session from Body of Evidence. My wife, who is constitutionally opposed to any sexual practices utilized in films by Madonna, Mickey Rourke, or Marlon Brando, begged off on the experiment, so I had to do the whole thing myself. First I dripped candle wax on my chest. Then, unlike Willem Dafoe, I screamed. I even tried to wait five seconds, just like Madonna does, before spilling the champagne onto the wax, but there was just no way. Candle wax, spilled onto the human chest, burns like hell. What's more, it dries quickly, so unless Madonna was using some special, upscale, slow-reacting, professional S&M wax she bought from one of her deviant entrepreneurial friends, I can't see any way she could get the champagne onto the wax without having it cake, making it difficult to lick or suck, even if you have an extraordinarily versatile tongue like Madonna's.
Let me tell you another thing. In Body of Evidence, Madonna drips candle wax onto Dafoe three separate times, and the third time, the viewer gets the idea that she's dripping it directly onto his cock. Dafoe winces. Winces—like he already has calluses on his cock or something. This is the one part of the experiment I deliberately chose not to reenact. I already knew how much the candle wax burned on my chest. I didn't need to try it on my favorite organ. This is where my experiment with Body of Evidence parts company with my experiences in White Men Can't Jump. If you are an ordinary white person and you try to go out on a black basketball player's home court and challenge him to a game, you're probably going to come away with a few bruises and a damaged ego. Try doing to yourself what Madonna does to Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence and you can just put that cock of yours in the deep freeze for the next six weeks. That's why I cannot emphasize too emphatically: Don't try this at home.
Howards End. You'll recall that this Merchant-Ivory extravaganza achieves its powerful denouement when the dorky, self-effacing Leonard Bast staggers into a massive bookcase and suffers a heart attack after the bookcase comes tumbling down upon him. The huge bookcase is novelist E. M. Forster's none-too-subtle symbol for the overly educated British upper class, a bunch of snooty toffs who literally crush the lower classes beneath them with what Bob Dylan once referred to as their "pointless and useless knowledge." (Actually, Dylan was probably not talking about the British upper class at the time.)
Well, the bookcase may be a great symbol for the insensitivity of the British aristocracy, but as an engine of destruction it fails miserably. Annoyed by the absurd finale to Howards End, I spent several weeks visiting friends' homes and running headlong into their bookcases, trying to see if the collapsing structures could possibly kill a full-grown man. No way, José. It is aerodynamically impossible for a bookcase loaded with heavy objects to collapse onto a human being, and even if the bookcase did collapse, the human being would have plenty of time to get out of the way of the literary cascade. Leonard Bast's contrived demise is an embarrassment to E. M. Forster, an embarrassment to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and an embarrassment to that Indian woman with the long name who writes all their screenplays. They should have used an axe, a truncheon, or even a deadly asp. Bookcases do not kill.
Sliver. Remember the scene where Sharon Stone goes to a restaurant in Manhattan and takes off her panties during lunch to impress her date? I went to three different lunches in midtown Manhattan with three different female friends, had three different nice conversations, ordered the angel hair pasta with arugula, then asked them to take off their panties. Two refused outright, and one said she'd do it, but only at her apartment. Now, what's the point of that, I ask? Generally speaking, I'd say the odds of getting a woman to take off her panties in a crowded New York restaurant are about the same as getting a woman to fake an orgasm in a crowded New York diner.
On the other hand, the request would probably be gladly met in Los Angeles.
Alive. Hey, what's the big deal about eating human flesh, anyway? You're stranded in the Andes, you haven't had anything to eat for four days, you're cold, you're hungry, and you're probably going to die. And you honestly expect me to believe that you're going to have qualms of conscience about eating human flesh, just because your friends back home might hold it against you? Hey, get real.
To illustrate how ridiculous this whole premise is, I decided to go on a strict fast and see how long it would take me to succumb to the lure of human flesh. I didn't even make it through Day II. After suffering through an entire day without so much as a breadstick, I got to about four o'clock in the afternoon and decided that I'd had it. Luckily, I'd been playing basketball that afternoon and had scraped my knee on the concrete, so I had a little bit of flesh hanging off my knee. Before it had a chance to scab up, I cut off a little morsel with my nail clipper and popped it straight into my mouth. It went down nice and smooth. That was sixteen days ago, and I still have no qualms of conscience about it. Morally, I think I'm home free. I did what I had to do, and I know that if I'm ever trapped in the Andes—or any other mountain range—and there's nothing to eat but human flesh, I'm noshing anthropoid.
Sophists will object that eating your own flesh is different from eating other people's flesh, and that it's different from eating the flesh of dead humans, Baloney. The day I nibbled that morsel off my knee I would have been more than happy to eat another person's flesh. The problem was, there wasn't any available. If there had been, I would have washed it right down with a sassy San Pellegrino. As for qualms of conscience about eating dead human flesh; hey, get serious. A person who eats his own flesh simply to make a point in a magazine article isn't going to draw the line at eating dead human flesh to save his own life just because society deems such dining tendencies culinarily and ethically unacceptable. He's going to strap on the feed bag and dig right in. Cannibalism is only bad if you think it's bad.
Contes des Quatre Saisons. After the first installment of "Don't Try This at Home" appeared in 1991, Movieline was flooded with letters from European readers complaining that none of the films we investigated were of Continental origin. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I rented the 1989 Eric Rohmer film Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime), which was released in video in this country in 1993, and took copious notes. As is true of all Eric Rohmer movies, it is not immediately clear to the viewer what this movie is about; it seems to have something to do with a woman who doesn't like her boyfriend's apartment but can't move back into her own because she's sublet it to her actress cousin, who is visiting from Bordeaux, so she has to spend a few days with a ditzy, twentyish pianist she met at a party where neither of them actually liked the host. In short, it is not the French Basic Instinct.
Rohmer has always been praised for the incisive realism of his films, for his ability to portray life as it really and truly is. There is a scene in the film where the main character, a schoolteacher, sits down at a table with the pianist, the pianist's father, and the pianist's father's sexy girlfriend, who is all of twenty-five, and begins to discuss the influence of Immanuel Kant's a posteriori arguments on the schoolchildren she teaches in a working-class district of Paris. Throughout this ten-minute scene, which cleverly weaves together the theories of Kant and Husserl with the vastly overlooked importance of maieutic dialogue, the conversation never flags, as both the pianist's dad and his hot little girlfriend are literally mesmerized by the subject, and jump right into the discussion with their own thoughts on syllogisms, maieutic dialogue, and the validity of a priori arguments.
To see if this will work in real life, I had dinner with three of my most pretentious friends, all of whom have spent time in France, all of whom, I have reason to believe, adore Eric Rohmer. While they scanned the menu, I broached the subject of Kant's a priori and a posteriori arguments, pointed out how much I had been influenced by Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and even threw in a few nice words about his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. I then sort of threw the floor open for a roundtable discussion.
They all looked at me like I was a complete asshole and went back to discussing how much they used to like the New Yorker before Tina Brown took over.
Indecent Proposal. It is no secret that Adrian Lyne's latest movie is flawed by an imbecilic premise: the fatuous notion that Woody Harrelson, having been offered $1 million to let his wife sleep with Robert Redford, would need more than eight nanoseconds to decide whether or not to let her do it. When I approached four of my friends about sleeping with their wives for $1 million, they responded:
1. $1 million was more than fair.
2. When could I do it?
3. Check or cash?
4. Did I need their American Banking Association routing number for direct deposit, or would the Insured Money Market Account number be sufficient?
I want to be perfectly honest here and admit that none of my friends' wives look like Demi Moore and thus none of them are worth $1 million for a single night. What's more, my friends know this. So eventually we got into a bit of dickering. One friend said that he wouldn't go any lower than $350,000 because that's how much he would need to buy a new house, which he reckoned was what he needed to salve his conscience for the awesome injustice he had done. But two other friends said in all seriousness that $10,000 would do the trick, and one told me, "Thirty-five hundred, and she's yours."
Here is another sampling of my friends' responses:
1. "Does she have to know about the money?"
2. "Can we do this off the books?"
3. "Will Movieline actually pay for this?"
4. "How do you report this kind of stuff on your 1040?"
5. "How much would your wife go for?"
The last question is the most pertinent of all, revealing how profoundly Adrian Lyne's depraved vision of marriage deviates from my own. For although my cash-strapped friends might be willing to whore out their wives for a few grand, this is anything but the case in my nest of conjugal bliss. My wife is not available for sex with lecherous strangers for $1 million, my wife is not available for sex with libidinous plutocrats for $2 million, my wife is not available for sex with a lascivious oligarch for all the gold in Fort Knox or for all the tea in China.
Me, on the other hand, you can have for fifty bucks, motel room included.
Scent of a Woman. Most of the movies that I investigated for this article proved to be hopelessly out of touch with reality, encouraging behavior that could lead to personal humiliation, catastrophic financial loss, or severe lesions on the penis. Scent of a Woman was the single exception, the single case in which an apparently idiotic action that takes place in the movie can actually be recreated in real life. The incident in question is the scene where the blind Al Pacino strolls directly into traffic on a busy New York street and somehow manages not to be run over. When I first saw this scene, I was appalled by its transparent falsity, by its refusal to depict New York the way it really is: a place where a blind man walking out into the street doesn't have a prayer in hell of getting to the other side, even if the light is green, even if he looks like Ray Charles.
Well, it just goes to show how wrong a person can be. Kitting myself out with sunglasses and a cane, and boldly strolling into traffic on a very busy, two-way street in Manhattan, I fully expected to be hurled fifty feet in the air by a rampaging, out-of-control taxi driven by somebody named Singh or Mahmud. Either that or leveled by an oncoming limousine carrying some burned-out rock star to a cable TV appearance far too late to stir the flickering embers in the dying hearth of his career.
Imagine my surprise when I repeatedly strode into traffic and was repeatedly given safe passage by the oncoming flotillas of vehicles. Not once, not twice, but three times I managed to walk back and forth across the street without being killed. Indeed, the only reason I did not continue the experiment until I was fatally injured was the two beat police officers standing on the corner eyeing me suspiciously. Imagine being arrested for impersonating Al Pacino. Well, that's still better than being arrested for impersonating Al Yankovic.
Conclusions: Despite the surprising finale to my study, which I believe should be written off as a fluke, the overwhelming evidence suggests that people who attempt to imitate the activities they see in motion pictures are doomed to humiliation, remorse, severe burns, and even death. Conversely, people seeking to kill themselves or others through the fatal intermediary of a large bookcase are merely wasting their time, and are well-advised to stick to AK-47s or hat pins jammed into the eardrum. Two years after the industry was exposed as an utter sham in "Don't Try This at Home," the same abuses continue. Hollywood continues to be a twisted dream factory, spoon-feeding the public a hopelessly skewed, transparently fake vision of reality. Movieline readers are thus cautioned, once again, to take everything they see in the movie house with a grain of salt, and to religiously avoid imitating the activities of actors and actresses appearing in movies produced or directed by anyone named Joel. Another thing: This is the last time I'm going to warn you. Candle wax burns.
|Don't Try This at Home, Part II (1993)||4|
|Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler||17|
|Lend Me Your Ears||41|
|A Complete Lack of Direction||57|
|For Members Only||68|
|The Remains of the Dazed||80|
|And Then There Were Nuns||113|
|It's All Greek to Me||125|
|The 4000 Blows||129|
|Spike Lee Does Not Bite||155|
|The Mirror Has Two Faces, One Worse than the Other||178|
|The Kidnappers Are All Right||182|
|You Can't Always Get What You Want||198|
|The Drilling Fields||226|
|A Foreign Affair||258|
|Don't Try This at Home, Part III (1999)||249|