Montage Song Selection 101: The Good, Bad and Truly Bizarre

Warning: Reading this column may result in earworms – i.e. songs that get stuck in your head and play repeatedly, despite all attempts to forget them. You have been duly warned.

Irony is a concept that people often confuse with simple bad luck, which can also look a lot like what irony actually is. I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” which uses the Herman’s Hermits’ cover “I’m Into Something Good” (actually by Earl Jean). Because the movie is about a young girl whose mother conducts séances, somehow gets possessed, and wreaks havoc on all who know her, it was safe to assume the choice was (genuinely) ironic. Most songs in movies, however, play it straight; if your character is in drag, haul out Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” or if your characters have just won the Big Game, put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” But sometimes song selections are made with real flair, making the viewer admire how neatly its message dovetails with the movie’s.

So here are five songs used in a particular movie scene which get it right.

1. Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” – The boombox scene (and the earlier car sex scene) in “Say Anything.”

Why it works: Obviously, it’s hard not to be moved by John Cusack’s willingness to bare his heart and let Ione Skye know how much he loves her. Even a girl who broke up with him by giving him a pen has to reconsider her decision.

2. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” – The ending of “Stand By Me.”

Why it works: The narrator (Richard Dreyfus) is narrating how he never had friends quite like the ones he had at age twelve, even though he soon became distant from two once school began, and later on, as an adult, his closest childhood friend was killed in an accident. The contrast between the young main character (Wil Wheaton) returning triumphantly from a trip with his four friends and what is going to happen to him is heartbreaking.

3. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” – The montage of Cameron Diaz dating Matt Dillon in “There’s Something About Mary.”

Why it works: Matt Dillon’s character is pretty awful, but for whatever inexplicable reasons, Cameron Diaz likes him. I believe the song was written years before the movie, but the lyrics fit like a glove.

4. Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” – Montage in “Office Space” in which Ron Livingston, among other things, comes intentionally late to work, removes a door knob that has been giving him electric shocks, and pulls down his workspace partition so that he can see out the window.

Why it works: Throughout the film, there are clear indications that the two white main characters are racist in some ways. Witness the opening scene where the white guy, who has been bopping along to a rap song in his car, dives for the door lock when he enters a “bad” neighborhood. While the film is (mostly) sympathetic to the plight of three main characters, who risk being downsized from their job, it still has parts where they are the subjects of mockery, even gentle. The scene in which Ron decides he doesn’t care what his boss thinks and proceeds to break every rule he can is a combination of both.

5. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Montage in “Dead Poets Society.”

Why it works: It’s based on a poem by Schiller called “Ode to Joy,” and it plays during the scene where the young main characters experience the joy of learning/spreading their wings under the guidance of their teacher (Robin Williams).

And here are some that left me scratching my head.

1. Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” – The rape scene in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Why it’s odd: I first heard “Orinoco Flow,” when it was used in a Sesame Street segment montage. Though it’s a New Agey song, definitely not pop or rock, it got occasional air time on the radio during the eighties. It’s a song about – well, the Orinoco Flow; nowhere is there any allusion to rape. Perhaps whoever chose it was being clever in some way I did not get, a possibility I am willing to entertain.

2. Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” – One of several bullying flashbacks in “Never Been Kissed.”

Why it’s odd: The song is about masturbation, as you can tell from allusions such as “going blind.” It’s pretty straightforward. (But at least, they didn’t go with the even more explicit DiVinyls “I Touch Myself.”)

3. Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – One of the several bar scenes in “The Brothers Grimsby.”

Why it’s odd: It isn’t if you just take it as a bunch of enthusiastic football (soccer to Americans) fans partying in a pub in Great Britain. However, the part where Sacha Baron Cohen sticks a lit firecracker where the sun doesn’t shine and runs around leaves the viewer with an image that is hard to forget, even though the song is straightforward and upbeat.

4. The Belle Stars’ “Iko Iko” – Opening scene of “Rain Man,” in which it’s established that Tom Cruise’s character is a rather sleazy sports car dealer.

Why it’s odd: According to Wikipedia, the song is about Native Americans. Not guys who still have unresolved father issues and believe their brother who they haven’t seen since childhood, was actually an imaginary friend.

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Birds, Butterflies and Wallpaper: Movie Symbolism

So you want to put some symbolism into your movie? The good news is, it’s easy. You can be as obvious or as obtuse as you like when scattering symbols throughout your film. Here are just a few to get you started.

Animals, Domestic: This includes house pets, as well as horses, though horses are versatile and can also fit in the “wild” category. Nothing brain-straining here: dogs often represent loyalty; cats, quite the opposite.

Animals, Wild: Includes horses and other four-footed ones like deer and coyote. Symbolizes freedom the protagonist longs for, or perhaps the protagonist’s unfettered spirit.

Birds: If a character cares for a wild bird, it usually means the same as a wild animal. Though birds more directly symbolize ambition.

Butterflies: If you are a movie character, and a butterfly (or a flock of them) appears, you aren’t going to make it to the credits. Ditto if you’re near a flower slowly losing its petals. (Examples: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Patch Adams.”)

Cars: Mobility, freedom, recklessness, adventure.

Darkness: Obscurity, secrecy, evil, death.

Deserted places: Clarity, spirituality, promise of adventure to come.

Domestic chores: Connectivity, caring, friendship. Especially if performed to a montage.

Escalators: Progress, ambition, smooth path to one’s goals.

Ethnic groups: Even with political correctness, this occurs. Example: Native Americans are used to symbolize spirituality, especially when juxtapositioned next to a Caucasian movie star.

Feathers (see Birds)

Fire: Destruction, danger, vitality.

Flowers: Birth, death, marriage, divorce, lust, sex, forgiveness.

Highways: The paths taken (and not taken) in our lives.

Houses: Community, unity, shelter from the storm.

Islands: Isolation, new beginnings.

Prisons: Metaphorical blindness or immobility of some kind by the protagonist.

Skyline: Endless promise; or signifies bad weather/fortune ahead.

Sports: Metaphor for how the protagonist is living his/her life.

Swimming Pools: Meanings can vary. Characters who wind up at the bottom of a pool, even alive, may symbolize inertia, or metaphorical drowning in the rest of the their life.

Trains: See Cars. Often appear at the very beginning of movies with lots of smoke billowing out. Easy way to cue the viewer that they are going on an adventure.

Trash: If shot blowing in the wind, represents hidden beauty and grace in what others find unattractive.

Trees: Birth, youth, aging, death.

Wallpaper: Symbolizes the state of the protagonist’s mind. Also shows that the protagonist will heal, if he/she is willing to peel away layers of the psyche. May also symbolize mental illness, an unraveling of the protagonist’s stability.

Weather: Good weather and bad weather also help the viewer cue in to what kind of events are going to unfold. Typically, bad stuff happens when it’s pouring or snowing out, unless the director is being ironic. Most movies set in suburbia open with a nice sunny day, usually at a time of year when all the leaves are green, the birds are chirping, etc.

Wilderness: See Deserted places and Islands.

Today’s Topic: Spinach Cinema

I was going to review “Suffragette” today, but since it’s not a new release and the plot is straightforward: Carey Mulligan plays a young oppressed Englishwoman who joins the suffragette movement at great personal and professional cost, I decided not to. Also, it would have been cheating because I skipped the last third of the movie. I’m sure the real life stories were exciting and drama-filled, but this one was not, plus a lot of scenes appeared to be filmed in almost complete darkness. So certain aspects of the oppression had to be left to the viewer’s imagination.

I rationalized this decision by the fact that I had just seen a Ken Burns’ documentary on the (American) suffragettes and I figured that even though parts of that were slow, I sat through the whole thing and learned something to boot. It struck me that “Suffragette” (the movie) was an example of spinach cinema, defined by Word Spy, as movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting. The performances of the actresses themselves are excellent, but the only way I would have been excited to see it if it was during school, and it gave me an excuse to do nothing for an hour.

People go see movies for a variety of reasons, some noble, some not so much. People see movies because they are too nice to say no to their companions. People see movies just to kill time or to sit someplace with air conditioning. Or because “everyone” is seeing the film.

Then there are movies that you wind up seeing for the wrong reason because either you’re mistaken about the content or the trailers made the movie look like something else entirely. The movie “Osama,” which is used on Word Spy as an example of spinach cinema, may have had other viewers who, like me, was under the mistaken impression that it was about bin Laden. It’s actually about an Iranian girl whose family becomes impoverished and whose mother sends her out dressed as a boy to find work, and who winds up having to get married to a creepy elderly man and become part of his harem. It’s as grim as if it were about the original Osama, but that’s the point.

With spinach cinema, you may not be entertained, but at least you emerge blinking into the light afterwards and realize that you learned something.

Spinach cinema is usually on a politically correct topic. Also it is depressing. Characters typically go mad, suffer horrible atrocities of the spirit, murder, commit suicide or are sexually assaulted. If you yourself are prone to mood dips of the clinical kind, you might wind up staggering the number of such films you see.

I did this when “Schindler’s List” came out, choosing a day when things were going kind of blah (weather and otherwise), so I figured my mood wouldn’t have too far to plunge. This turned out to be a wise decision.

A popular time for spinach cinema is the fall, as Oscar season approaches. This is when it is assumed that the discriminating moviegoer has had enough of the big budget summertime offerings (junk food) and is ready for Something Serious. This is often when movies about racism, slavery, the Holocaust and World War II get released. Spinach cinema may be synonymous with Oscar bait, though not always.

A good movie changes the viewer in some way. And change may not be pleasant or comfortable, but in the end, it is worth it.

Did you enjoy yourself? Or at least, did you learn something today?

That is the question.

Dear Hollywood: Why So Many Liberties With “Real life” stories?

Dear Hollywood:

So I finally got a chance to see “Trumbo,” which came out last year and did not appear at a single theater in my state, or at least my part of it. Because the woes of Hollywood screenwriters in the fifties did not strike me as a topic worth sitting for two hours plus in a theater, I was not particularly crushed by this. However, when Oscar time rolled around, and Bryan Cranston received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in the lead role, I decided to track it down when I got the chance. Sure enough, the story of a man who stood up to a political witch hunt, was jailed for his actions, and wound up triumphing with multiple screenwriting Oscars afterwards is fascinating. And if at times I was aware that Bryan Cranston was Giving a Performance, it was definitely an Oscar-nomination worthy one.

Then I did some online research. By this time, I already know that what actually makes it to the big screen is almost always loosely, loosely “based on a true story.” But I was still annoyed to find out that the following had been done.

Omitting key details: In one scene, Trumbo confronts actor John Wayne and makes it sound like he, unlike John, was actually Making Selfless Sacrifices during the war, which in reality he was not. But it doesn’t prevent the character from disparaging Mr. Wayne for not serving his country.

Inventing fictional characters: “Arlen,” (Louis C.K.) Trumbo’s friend and fellow rebel is a fictional character. Other than being there for Trumbo to bounce ideas off of, his main function in the film is to serve as an anti-smoking warning – at least by today’s standards, as he passes away from lung cancer. Serious question: If there were nine other Hollywood rebels to portray, why bother with a composite character?

Demonizing the “bad guys”: The conservative actors and politicians who oppose communism (and communists) are given everything but cartoon mustaches to twirl.

Outright misrepresenting the truth (to put it politely): Example: Actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) did testify before Congress, but he did not tattle on the Hollywood Ten.

Jeez, the poor man at least had the courage not to name names, and his reward is to be portrayed by Hollywood as a big old snitch, which as anyone knows who has attended elementary school, is about the worst insult you can throw at someone.

Take another Oscar-bait movie, “Dallas Buyers Club,” that came out a few years ago, and which I saw because I couldn’t resist seeing how “Wooderson” (Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused”) plays real-life based Ron Woodruff, a guy who’s supposed to be a tragic hero.

In a short span of time, Matthew’s character loses everything that matters to him, after he’s diagnosed with AIDs. His friends ostracize him! He loses his job! He doesn’t appear to have any family to turn to! He even gets evicted from his home! His life has become a Lifetime Movie.

Only trouble was that in real life that wasn’t exactly what happened.

Mr. Woodruff had a family. He may have felt alienated at times, but he had at least some form of support. And far from being the ultra macho angry straight guy against the world, he was actually bisexual – and open about it at the time.

Not quite the story I saw in the theater.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have gone through a crisis, provided love and support to a family member, only to find yourself deleted from the narrative years later in order to win awards on the big screen. I don’t think it’s a dilemma I’ll ever have myself, but still.

Or take another biopic “The King’s Speech,” and the scene where King George (Colin Firth) describes childhood trauma to his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), including being abused for several years by his nanny.

It’s very moving. I’m pretty sure my eyes were damp by the time it concluded.

Only thing is, it was his older brother who received most of the abuse.

It’s not that I believe everything I see on screen without reservation, it’s that I used to expect that the basic narratives based on real life would be represented, more or less intact. That if a character stood up for something, he would not be portrayed on screen as endorsing the opposite opinion. Yes, things can be fudged, but I guess I assumed that overall, the script would try to be faithful to the real life facts.

As for inventing fictional characters, well, I guess there are times when that works. Or dropping several of the children of the main character for brevity’s sake. But other omissions are harder to forgive.

I imagine myself in the Tom Cruise role in “A Few Good Men,” in which he confronts Jack Nicholson, who plays a colonel who possibly caused a young Marine’s death.

JN (Dripping with contempt) “You want answers?”

TC “I want the truth.”

JN (Soaked through with contempt) “You can’t handle the truth!”

But, Hollywood, I think it’s you who can’t handle it. I think audiences are a lot more perceptive than you give them credit for. I think you should know that some viewers really do settle into their seats wanting multi-dimensional characters (both good and bad), dealing with complex moral dilemmas.

So why not humor me and give it a try?

2015-16 Winter Movie Lessons

1. If your plumber boyfriend leaves a job with sewage dripping in order to arrive on a date on time, it’s a sign that he’s crazy about you. (Brooklyn)

2. If you’re invited to your Italian American boyfriend’s home for dinner, you should definitely practice eating pasta without embarrassing yourself. (Brooklyn)

3. If you visit your mother and neglect to tell her that you’ve gotten married and spend your time hanging around another nice eligible bachelor, she won’t be thrilled when you finally confess your big secret under threat of being blackmailed by your spiteful ex-boss. (Brooklyn)

4. Even crusaders for the truth don’t always recognize a big story when it first comes to their notice. (Spotlight)

5. Giving an editor a copy of the Catechism in order to make him an ally will likely backfire. (Spotlight)

6. Evil may literally be next door. (Spotlight)

7. The human head can only be injured so many times before long-term damage sets in. (Concussion)

8. If your roommate is a dedicated neurologist, he may bring his work home with him – including brains in jar. (Concussion)

9. You do not want to make an enemy of the National Football League. (Concussion)

10. Sometimes no one really wants to hear “the truth.” (Concussion and Spotlight)

11. Your aging parents may actually want you to find a life of your own and spend less time worrying about them. (Sisters)

12. A house party for middle-age people needs major illegal drugs in order for everyone to loosen up. (Sisters)

13. Childhood mementos should be tided away if you plan on getting lucky in your former bedroom. (Sisters)

14. If you’re not making any kind of impression in your sadomasochistic maneuvers, it might be because your victim’s recently gotten butt implants. (Fifty Shades of Black)

15. Your boyfriend may be more wiling to tell you how he got into BDSM before he admits he’s a Republican. (Fifty Shades of Black)

16. Even aiming for the easiest seeming parody target can produce its share of misses. (Fifty Shades of Black)

17. If you are going through a gender identity crisis, and you have the world’s most understanding wife, you will find you still need to seek out another confidant. (The Danish Girl)

18. Posing as a woman to help your wife’s artistic career take off can be the key to realizing you were really meant to be female. (The Danish Girl)

19. Scarfs can be as effective as feathers (“Forrest Gump” anyone?) as major symbolism. (The Danish Girl)

20. Communists in the movie business are generally genial guys who will share their pearls of wisdom over tea after kidnapping you. (Hail, Caesar!)

21. If your date orders pasta without sauce, he may be wiling to demonstrate lasso tricks with it to entertain you. Particularly, if he’s only on the date in order to change his image. (Hail, Caesar!)

22. Sometimes when you’re not looking, some problems solve themselves. (Hail, Caesar!)

23. It’s not a good idea to fly an airplane, no matter how cool, right before your Olympic track trials. (Race)

24. If you’re a college athlete who needs to send money home regularly, get a job as a page. You won’t have to do a thing. (Race)

25. Nazi officials may refuse to shake your hand after you win a gold medal, but they will give you a nice plant as a consolation prize. (Race)

Movie Sequel Making 101

Before making a movie sequel, what’s the first question I should ask?

Who is your target audience? How old were they when the prequels came out? What was the economy like back then (if there’s a noticeable difference)? Also consider whose money they will be spending. In other words, be aware that your target audience may have had a burning reason to see the first movie that is now obsolete.

Back in the day, movies had the option of going straight to video, which meant in order to rent them, you needed access to a car and/or someone with a driver’s license. You could stumble across them at the video store or by channel surfing, but otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be aware that they even existed. You could buy them, but again, before online shopping, this was trickier. Also, in such cases as say, “The Neverending Story,” and “The Karate Kid,” the target audience tended to mature faster than the sequels could be released, as did the young cast members. Even Macaulay Culkin couldn’t escape the python of puberty, and so the third installment of “Home Alone” featured a preteen.

Now, of course, enjoying a recent movie from the comfort of your own home is easier than ever, so there is much less incentive for people to bundle up, get into the car and actually go out and see a movie in the theater. However, if you are making what can be termed a Hot to Trot sequel, and the franchise/series is insanely popular at the moment, you probably don’t have to worry. Ask yourself: Will my target audience skip school/call in sick at work in order to see this? If the answer is yes, you’re golden.

My sequel is part of a series based on a set of popular books, but there’s only three! I’m going to need to come up with an entirely new movie idea soon.

Don’t you hate when authors refuse to take into consideration the difficulties of making money from a potential franchise? Consider asking the author (if he or she is still alive) to write more sequels. Or split the last book into two movies. Also consider suggesting they write a prequel, but this may have its own set of problems.

I want to ask Actor X to be in my sequel, but he just won an Oscar, and all the critics have anointed him the Next Big Thing. He’ll probably laugh in my face.

Don’t be so sure! Oscar winners have a record of following up their prestige piece with something more popular with a less discriminating audience. If you’re having trouble mustering up your courage, think of these two words. “Boat Trip.”

How about adding some celebrity cameos to my sequel?

Good idea but in moderation. Celebrities tend to have a short shelf life. Also, there’s the risk that they will get involved in a scandal, which may not be good publicity for your movie. You may have to cut the cameo or add some kind of follow-up joke. Whether you decide to err on the side of taste depends on the ego of the celebrity, unless they are heading for jail.

How about adding an icon from a former generation to my sequel cast? Maybe so-and-so, if they are still alive?

OK, but keep in mind that if your target audience is younger (or much younger), they a) won’t recognize the icon, b) may do so for the wrong reasons (“Hey, that’s the guy in the cereal commercial!”) and likely c) won’t care one way or the other. If the icon is recognizable by their parents or grandparents, that may be good for a chuckle, but the odds are low, they’ll venture out to the theater for someone who’s only in a few scenes.

Do remember that this individual will likely be singled out by critics if the movie bombs as an object of pity. Critics will say things like, “The only person I felt sorry for was So-and-So having to appear in this mess.” They will be able to walk away unscathed, considered a victim of temporary poor judgment, whereas you yourself might not be so lucky.

Speaking of generation gaps, what about the Nostalgia Factor?

Well, say your sequel is based on a TV show that was popular 20 or more years ago. You’ll have to gamble on the possibility that parents will just make their kids wait until they can stream it. Or that the kids will properly understand the magic of the original, which, let’s face it, kids tend not to. Keep in mind, unless you can get the younger crowd to beg and throw tantrums in order to go see the movie when it’s released, the Nostalgia Factor will only carry you so far.

Any other words of wisdom?

Yes. Keep in mind that the one factor you can’t control is history. If you put in a plot about world domination, plane hijacking, bombs, etc. you can’t guarantee that Something Similar in Real Life won’t coincide with your opening weekend. You will look as if you have incredibly poor taste if this happens, whereas it’s really only a unfortunate coincidence.

What about a kidnapping plot? Would that work?

That’s a safer bet. Of course, someone famous could get kidnapped around opening weekend, but it’s not likely. In the case of a truly tragic coincidence (tragic for your box office figures, that is), it may be better to delay the movie. Sometimes life really does take precedence over art.

Good luck!

Why Do Today’s Trailers Give Away the Whole Thing?

Dear Hollywood:

I remember the year 1992, in which a movie that was probably not made with visions of Oscars dancing in the filmmakers’ heads, managed to steal the spotlight from other more likely contenders. It was “The Crying Game,” and the big deal was that it had a twist. (And it was not that the character woke up and the whole movie turned out to be a dream.) In fact, one of the taglines was “The movie everyone is talking about… But no one is giving away its secrets.” (Thank you, Internet Movie Database.) Indeed, everyone I knew who saw it before me did not want to give away the twist, not that I really begged very hard. People in the know guarded the twist like it was a birthday present. Even Boy George did not give away the twist in his eponymous pop song that was featured in the movie.

Obviously, the trailer was carefully designed so as to keep the secret, well, secret. And, though comedians were parodying the twist on late night TV, it was still possible to avoid finding it out before actually having a chance to go see the movie. (In fact, I no longer remember the plot, but I sure do recall that twist.)

Nowadays, I fear, that this would not be possible. More accurately, I don’t think anyone would bother to try in the first place.  Maybe this could only happen in the pre-Internet age. But indeed when it comes to movie trailers, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. It’s becoming impossible to see any trailer and not come away knowing the exact plot, twists and all.

It’s getting so that putting spoilers on movie reviews is kind of silly because if the reader has seen the trailer already but not the movie, they may well have already seen the movie. This is unscientific, but many trailers give me the sense that I am sitting through the whole movie.  They probably aren’t even that long, but they sure feel like that to me.  An exception is “Snowden,” the Oliver Stone film, which does not even feature the actor playing Snowden himself, but that’s uncommon. But a few other trailers I’ve seen recently might as well be titled: “The Upcoming Movie: The Cinematic Cliff Notes Version.”

One example is “Eddie the Eagle,” starring Taron Egerton, based on the real-life British man who overcame a physical handicap and naysayers to compete in the Olympic ski jumping event. Another is “Miracles From Heaven,” based on the book and real-life story of a mysteriously ill little girl who climbed a tree, fell out of it and was cured just like that after meeting God. Now you could argue that anyone who wanted to could find out what happened before seeing the movie, but that’s been true for most of cinematic history (it might, however, taken a little longer). But there still exist people who prefer to have an element of surprise, of mystery when they go see a movie.

So please, please consider when designing a trailer, to leave some of the major plot points out. Even if the movie is based on a best-selling book. Especially, if it’s a fictional story. Maybe this is cynical, but lately, I come away from trailers wondering what the point is of seeing the movie? Sure, it looks heart-warming or suspenseful, etc., but it’s like squeezing all the toothpaste from the tube when just a little would do the job. Sometimes, as cliché as it, less is indeed more.