Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Best Way To Get A Paid Vacation

Have you ever stopped and sat and really thought about how our society functions?

The odds are you haven't, for a couple of reasons. First off, nobody gets a chance to just sit and think anymore. Nobody sitting is thinking, for one thing, and nobody sits in our society anymore, period.

If, these days, you see someone sitting down, they're probably texting and mobile linking into their office email and sending you something called a "Blackberry Message" that is supposed to somehow be different from other text messages, the primary differences, so far as I can tell, being that with a Blackberry message you get the chance to see if someone has read your message, and then the chance to be snotty about it on the commercial.

But the reality is that you won't probably see someone sitting down, at all. We, as a society, no longer really sit down -- we're always up and doing something, or at least, we're supposed to be up and doing something, or, at the very least, we think we're up and doing something.

I'm not immune to that last part; I always think I'm more mobile than I really am. Once, I bet Sweetie that I walked around more than she did during the day. We settled that bet by getting pedometers and wearing them for a day. At the end of the day, I'd walked about 400 steps. Sweetie had walked four thousand.

We got the pedometers from McDonald's, so I guess that's some sort of irony... although irony has really been robbed of its meaning by overmisuse. Which itself is ironic, something I can say because by now, everything can be described as ironic. And everything can be described as random. Talk to young people sometime: They say random more than they say like, which is really something to consider.

But the chances are you won't consider that, either, because, as I began so long ago, nobody sits and considers things. We're all too busy Blackberry messenging and then we're too busy trying to explain to people how a Blackberry is something better than another phone with a keypad, and then we're too busy being mad at the other people for not recognizing the inherent superiority of a Blackberry, and then we forget where we parked our car.

The other reason why you probably haven't sat down and really thought about how our society functions is this: if you had, you wouldn't be spending all your time Blackberry messaging and Tweeting and Lolcatting. If you'd ever thought about how our society really works, you'd probably first have thought, like I did, something like "Huh. That's really, really messed up, now that I think about it."

Then, if you thought about it more, you'd probably start some sort of revolution. I know that, because I myself would have done just that, but I got distracted by the arrivals of the latest Lost DVDs from Netflix, so I've been working my way through Season 5 and haven't had time to start the revolution. But I'll get around to it, once I finish up Lost.

Lost itself is the catalyst, or one of them, for what I'm talking about and what I'm talking is this: We as a society are breaking our backs so that a privileged few people can make us watch their home movies and read their diaries.

It's true. We're paying good money -- money we earn by never ever leaving our jobs, helplessly talking on cell phones while we commute, bringing work home, having our laptops hooked up to virtual meetings, going over spreadsheets on an airplane, trying to figure out complex calculus equations in a notebook while we're on a freighter off the coast of an island that doesn't show up on any charts and may [SPOILER ALERT! AND ONE IN REVERSE! MAY CONTAIN SECRETS ABOUT "LOST" AND ALSO, YOU MIGHT, IF YOU READ THIS, BE TEMPTED TO TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT "LOST" BUT I DON'T WANT TO KNOW BECAUSE I ONLY HAVE A FEW EPISODES LEFT IN SEASON 5 TO WATCH AND I'D HAVE FINISHED THOSE BUT I NEARLY DIED A COUPLE TIMES RECENTLY AND HAVE BEEN RECUPERATING, SO JUST KEEP IT TO YOURSELF] be traveling in time...

... all while a privileged few record their home movies or write in their Unicorn-covered journals and release them so that we, the suckertariat, will spend some of our hard-earned money to find out what it's like to have a great life like that.

That's the conclusion I came to recently, as I recovered from the aforementioned almost-dyings and had some time to think about the nature of our society and the way we live life, and also, not coincidentally, had some time to lay awake nearly all night in the hospital and see more commercials for more movies than I could ever have hoped to see.

Many of the commercials, I noted, were for movies that didn't seem so much to be movies the way I think of them. See, I think of movies as having been developed from an idea that turns into an outline or script, after which a director and actors and other creative people get together to put that idea and script into a reality of sorts, with the end goal being to create a story, a diversion, something that will through those combined efforts transport us to another time or place, or tell an important bit of our past, or make allegorical connections to symbols that we slowly work through and learn a little about ourselves, our friends, or our world.

Or, at the least, I think of movies as something where, at some point, at least one character is going to be shown packing a large amount of ammunition into a bag in preparation for an assault on a bad guy's hideout, that being the newest trope in movies, and one that's so common that if I don't, in some movie, get a scene where at least one character takes a phenomenal amount of ammunition and puts it into a package and then loads up with all kinds of cool guns before looking in a meaningful way at another character, I feel robbed.)

(It even happened in Lost, so that series did not let me down.)

It turns out, though, that the people who make movies are not so much on the same page as I am, in the sense that scripts and ideas and art and story and creativity and meaning are all words on my page, while on their page is simply the phrase "Let's go someplace warm, get drunk, and film it, and they'll pay us to do that."

That is to say: More and more, Big Media is simply sending the top entertainers off on vacation, filming or otherwise recording what they do, and then selling that to us as entertainment. They've dispensed with scripts and humor and the like in favor of what can only be described as the next wave of reality -- reality not the way reality shows package it for us, but reality the way celebrities experience it: Living large around the world and making us pay for it. The Best Way To Get A Paid Vacation, it turns out, is to work in entertainment and have suckers like us pay our money to send you somewhere.

I first noticed this when Vince Vaughn released "Vince Vaughn In The South Pacific," which was cleverly (meaning, not so cleverly) and generically retitled "Couples Retreat." Watching the previews for that movie, I thought to myself: Man, it must be nice to get to go on location and be filmed telling old Henny Youngman jokes and get paid for it. That notion wasn't dispelled by Vaughn's not-entirely-coherent interviews about how he came up with the "idea" for the "movie." When he was interviewed by Latino Review, this exchange occurred:

Q: Was it your idea or Jon's [Favreau] to do a comedy on an island? Vaughn: It was my idea. Location, a nice location. I'm a slave to my craft. Have to go to Bora Bora. I think that it's just in your life, whatever priorities you're thinking about and I just thought that would be kind of fun, doing a movie,

Did you get that? The idea was "a nice location," followed by a theme of "whatever priorities you're thinking about."

Sounds like a pitch to me. Imagine that meeting:

Vaughn: "So I've got this idea for a movie. We go to a nice location, and then we film whatever it is you're thinking about."

Studio Exec: "Well, I was thinking about elephants, ever since that assistant said "Whatever you do, don't think about elephants." Damn her!"

Vaughn: "We'll work that in. Trust me. Elephants, and, say, Bora Bora."

Exec: "Here's your pile of money. Will you be needing hot costars?"

Vaughn: "You betcha."

Does anyone besides me remember George Costanza being asked why people would watch his show, and George answering "Because it's on TV" ? Does anyone but me doubt that was the driving philosophy behind Vaughn's making Couples Retreat?

It didn't end there, though -- not long after that, Adam Sandler apparently got jealous and got his buddies together to film thei own vacation-- Grown Ups -- which seemingly had as its driving creative force this idea: "We can't afford as nice a location, but I'll be damned if Vince Vaughn is going to be the only one cashing in on this trend." And with that, the Muse Of Lazy Comedies showered Sandler with scenes of him and his buddies...


The previews for the movies were almost literally just that: Sandler and his friends sitting in chairs. In cars. In pools. Sometimes people around them were moving, but they just sat while the movement went on around them. If it hadn't been that they were in a cabin, I'd have assumed that Grown Ups was simply a live action version of the King of the Hill intro.

After that, the idea that "movies" could simply be celebrity versions of Dancing Matt videos really took off. Can anyone tell me the plot of Knight and Day? I bet you can't -- because the promotional materials for the movie didn't bother telling you the plot. Instead, the interviews and ads focused on... you guessed it... the locations. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are here and they're here! And, hey, here, too! Vacation photos are simply a series of Here's me in front of this thing -- and now movies have become Here's Angelina Jolie in front of this thing.

It's not like this is a new trend; City Slickers is nearly 30 years old, if my memory is accurate (and I don't care if it's not, because the actual age of that movie isn't the point) and that's one of the earliest Let's take a trip movies that I can think of. But back then, not every movie was Wild On! With This Week's Hot Celebrity, the way it seems they all are now. For Iron Man 2, we had to have Iron Man go off to Monte Carlo. Why? It's not like Robert Downey, Jr., couldn't green screen a race car in front of New York scenery. But that wouldn't be a travelogue, and wouldn't have gotten the celebrities to Monte Carlo. In Sex & The City 2: The Golden Girls Go Arab, the girls went to ... some country, I forget, and on principal I've vowed never to google anything involving that movie. But they went somewhere, and why'd they do that? Not because it was important to the plot. Or the theme of the show, which, after all, was about sex... and the CITY.

And it's not only that "movies" are simply becoming more like film versions of What I Did On My Summer Vacation, By Taylor Lautner. It's that most recently, they've dispensed with plot altogether -- if my impressions of Eat, Pray, Love are correct. Now, granted, this is an impression that I've generated from the following sources:

1. A general idea of what the movie is about.
2. Julia Roberts' appearance on Late Night With David Letterman
3. An interview with the book's author in which every single answer she gave amounted to, more or less "I'm not just some kind of self-absorbed whiny woman who took a trip around the world on someone else's dime." (But she is.)

I'm pretty sure, though, that those sources have given me the correct impression of Eat, Pray, Love, which is that it simply follows Julia Roberts, whose character's name is, I think, "[Insert Your Name Here And Wish This Was You]" around the world as she visits fabulous locations after fabulous locations, and meets fascinating person after fascinating person, and drinks fabulous wine after fabulous wine.

In other words, it's that one episode of The Real Housewives Of Orange County where three of them went to Italy to drink instead of just sitting on their balcony, only with 100% more Javier Bardem.

That's the plot, and I'm using that word loosely. The actual plot of the movie is "Movie star goes places." They didn't even bother, a la Couples Retreat and the others, tacking on some sort of framing device like "We need to work on our relationships" or "Our coach died so we need to stare at a girl's butt." They just sent Julia Roberts off on a trip and filmed it.

What is going on here? Is this some sort of natural progression stemming from the paparazzi culture? Has the money involved in getting pictures of celebrities on vacation and selling them to tabloids and websites gotten so big that the celebrities have decided to cut out the middle man and sell their vacations themselves, the way they all do with their babies?

Maybe. There could be other explanations, but I'm not feeling very inquisitive right now; it's 7:02 a.m. and I've got to get ready for work. So let's go with that: It's because of the paparazzis, and it's because we've gotten lazy, too.

Most of our entertainment has slowly been working its way down the Spiral of Shame, going from very good to good to mediocre to bad to celebrity roast to why are you watching that to the only category below "Why are you watching that," which is "Any entertainment format in which Chelsea Handler appears." There are some exceptions -- Inception was good, and Toy Story 3 was very good, and neither had anything to do with Chelsea Handler -- but for the most part, entertainment is geting lazy and slumping back down into the muck.

While we know that's what's going on, it's not immediately apparent why, which is why I'm here: to tell you why, and why, in this case is "because of YOU!"

Sorry I had to ALLCAPS you, there, but you need a wakeup call, because you're letting them get away with it. The more we fall for this -- the more we let a "storyline" be "Let's Send Kate Gosselin places" and the more we watch television shows and movies and read books whose sole purpose is to describe a place someone went to and that's it, the more entertainment media will realize that they no longer have to deal with such expenses as "scripts" and "ideas" and "editors," that they can just package up about 30 travel brochures' worth of material and put a couple of blurbs on it and sell it to us and they'll do just that.

Why would they do anything else? Suppose you had the choice these people do -- to do work, or just to get paid for drinking Pina Coladas on a beach? Which would you choose?

My Boss: Briane, I've got some things I need you to do. I'm going to give you a choice. Here's a giant set of boxes full of old documents that you could read through, correlate, tab for evidence, and prepare for trial by making triplicate copies and drafting up appropriate cross-examinations for each witness.

Me: And the other option?

My Boss: Put on this speedo and go sit at the beach.

There would be a giant, me-shaped hole in the wall, right next to the one shaped like Wile E. Coyote, as I headed away from the boxes and to the beach. (I'd probably also wear the speedo, so stay clear of that area.)

Why would Vince Vaughn or Adam Sandler be any different? Why spend time writing a script, and then doing auditions and table reads and casting calls and setting up soundstages and costumes and the like, let alone dangling from wires or doing green-screen acting or all the other boring stuff actors sometimes complain about as though it were actually hard, when they could just pack up a duffle bag, grab a Flip Camera, and make the same money for improvising some jokes about how hard it was getting it up here with the girls watching?

No, they're not going to stop anytime soon, and I don't blame them, I blame you. Not me. I didn't see any of those movies and I won't even google that Sex and the City one, so I'm not the problem. And, honestly, you've got to stop it. Because all these movies are starting to crowd out the good movies and TV shows that I want to see. Already, it's getting harder to find shows I like on TV, what with "Law & Order: Let's Take a Field Trip To LA" and "Jason Lee Goes South" on the air, and if Eat Pray Love continues to be successful, as I fear it will, we're going to see a lot less Despicable Me and a lot more "Mangez prient l'amour," and more "Coma ruegan amor" and more "Φάτε προσεύχεται την αγάπη" in which, Elizabeth Banks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kourtney & Khloe go, respectively, to France, Spain, and Greece, and eat, respectively, croissants, tapas, and Gyros, and fall in love with ... well, you get the picture.

I just hope that we don't.

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