Ask The A.V. Club: January 18, 2008

Ask The A.V. Club: January 18, 2008

Liberty, Equality, Pornography

This is a bifurcated question:

Back in '86, one of the major networks ran a prime-time special commemorating the centennial of the Statue Of Liberty. All I remember (I was 9 at the time) is that it starred Richard Dreyfuss, and during one key scene, he got into a heated argument with either a Muppet or a cartoon character. I guess the Mupp-toon said something flippant or disparaging about the Constitution, and an ired-up Dreyfuss, waving a copy of the slighted document, yelled "What're you talking about, Kermit [or whoever]? This is important! This is SEXY!"

I remember my 9-year-old self being confused at this use of the word "sexy" to refer to a centuries-old document. I asked my dad what it meant, and I remember him scowlingly delivering this verbal KO: "Hmmmph. I don't know. That guy [Richard Dreyfuss] has been in pornography."

So:

1) Was it a Muppet or a cartoon character?

2) Has Dreyfuss been in actual sex films?

Thanks. Love you guys.

Ptiv

Nathan Rabin loves you too:

The A.V. Club isn't familiar with the clip in question, Ptiv, and we haven't been able to dig up anything about it, so we couldn't tackle the first question for sure. But as to the second…

Richard Dreyfuss never appeared in a proper porn film, but he did star in 1974's Inserts, an X-rated obscurity about a bitter, impotent director (Dreyfuss) who reigned as Hollywood's preeminent boy wonder during the old-timey days of silent cinema, but has been reduced to churning out cheap stag films to buy hooch.

When his lead actress accidentally overdoses on heroin, Dreyfuss recruits the bohemian girlfriend (Jessica Harper) of gruff producer Bob Hoskins to fill in for the dead girl. A dark, bitterly comic battle of wills ensues as Harper brings out the humanity behind Dreyfuss' jaded, poisonously cynical façade and Dreyfuss tries to teach his new leading lady some bitter lessons about the cruelty and meaninglessness of life.

Though it isn't adapted from a play, the film feels uncannily like something that would play Off Broadway. The action, such as it is, is limited to a single set (Dreyfuss' crumbling home), a power shift occurs at regular intervals, the acting is lusty, vivid, and hyper-theatrical, and the whole fandango is infused with the kind of semi-explicit sex scenes, proudly guttural sex talk, and voluminous profanity (the C word is employed liberally) that seldom popped up even in adventurous '70s Hollywood.

Inserts is a profoundly flawed film; a running bit about a young Hollywood whippersnapper named Clark Gable desperately searching for Dreyfuss to offer him work groans with leaden historical irony, and the dialogue sometime comes across as overwritten and mannered. But it's a weirdly compelling curio all the same, and it more than lives up to the tagline billing it as "A degenerate film with integrity!" Dreyfuss is predictably strong in the juicy role of a suicidal lush too smart for his own good, while Hoskins is all boorish bluster in one of his first big American screen roles.

Inserts isn't a porn film per se, but it does feel naughty and transgressive in a Last Tango In Paris/Henry & June sort of way. Even by the permissive standards of '70s cinema, this is pretty out-there stuff. It's not porn, but it is a dirty movie, albeit one with pretensions. (And integrity!) Here's the really creepy part: about a month after I Netflixed this baby, my dad casually mentioned that he'd seen Inserts and thought it was pretty good. That was pretty much creepier than anything in the film itself. Maybe you should be glad your dad was contemptuous rather than eerily appreciative.

TV Eye

Ever since I was a little kid, I've noticed that each of the "Big 4" TV networks has a different picture quality. NBC stands out the most, with more vivid and bright colors. ABC is not quite as bright and vivid, and CBS has always seemed slightly washed-out, at least compared to NBC and ABC. I would say Fox is closer to CBS in terms of its brightness. I read somewhere that NBC is known for bright colors in its production values (Friends being a prime example), but this seems to be more than that. Do the networks have different pictures based on where they're at in the broadcast spectrum?

Ashley Bach

It seems visually obvious that the different genres on television have their own aesthetic—a different technical aesthetic, I mean. Soap operas have that weird, over-lit surrealism, newscasts are like a high-end camcorder, sitcoms and commercials look rather polished, etc. Why is this? Is it just because of the different media they're recording onto? And if so, what do they record on? On a semi-related note, how were shows recorded before the advent of cassette? Were all the episodes of, say, I Love Lucy actually shot on film?

Kyle Oddson

Noel Murray has seen what you have seen:

Ashley, I noticed the same thing when I was growing up. And so did Chuck Klosterman, who wrote a thoughtful essay about the phenomenon for Esquire this month.

Klosterman's theory is that in the '70s and '80s, networks contracted with the same producers over and over, so the style of those companies tended to define the "look" of the network. And since then, our own brains have been filling in the gaps, imagining a look that's not really there. As an example, he cites Friday Night Lights, which he saw first on DVD, not knowing what network it aired on. He assumed it was CBS, and was surprised to learn it's NBC. But for me, who's known all along that FNL is an NBC show, I can't imagine it not on NBC. It just looks like NBC to me.

As to the second question, yes TV producers generally use certain kinds of lights and recording equipment depending on the genre, though that's been changing some in recent years, with the move toward single-camera sitcoms that don't necessarily have the bright-lit look of The Cosby Show. Also, outside of The Disney Channel, very few modern sitcoms are shot on videotape, a medium that became the standard for a time, thanks to Norman Lear. Lear wanted a "live theater" quality for his All In The Family and the shows that came afterward, so he pioneered the peering-through-a-window shot-on-tape style. Prior to Lear, most sitcoms were shot on film—or, in the earliest days, broadcast live and recorded on "kinescope" films shot straight off the TV screen—and even in the '70s, shows like The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show used the polished look of film to set themselves apart as something more sophisticated. Today, even the rare shows shot on video out the resulting filter through a filter that makes the image softer and more filmic. (To my bad eyes, though, shows like Hannah Montana have a subtle flicker that I find even more distracting than the broad acting of Miley Cyrus.)

Here's something unusual, though: Not everybody can tell the difference between shot-on-film and shot-on-videotape. Once, as an experiment in a class I was teaching, I flipped through channels on a TV and asked my students to tell me what was shot on film and what was either shot on tape or broadcast live. About half the people in the class didn't understand the question, and even after I explained the difference, they couldn't really see it. (Good thing I didn't try to demonstrate how L.A. Law looks like NBC, while The Practice looks like ABC.)

From The Person Who Brought You The Previous Ask The A.V. Club Answer…

This is a question to the film geeks/buffs at yonder A.V. Club: Why am I being told who produced movies? Who makes decisions about what movie they're going to see based on the poster or trailer's boast "From the producers of Transformers" or "From the studio that brought you Grandma's Boy" or some other bullshit? Sure, I like Sam Raimi as a director. I enjoy his sense of humor and the way he balances action, but hearing the words "produced by Sam Raimi" doesn't make me want to see 30 Days Of Night any more or less than it would had I not known that he had anything to do with it. Sure, seeing names like Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, or (shudder) Adam Sandler under the "producers" list let me know what style of movie I'm in for, but it's rarely a style I couldn't glean off of the commercial anyway. Does it matter who produced a movie?

Raymond Hill

Associate A.V. Club producer Noel Murray answers:

It used to matter a lot more than it does now: back in the studio era, producers like David O. Selznick and Michael Todd put a personal stamp on their movies as distinctive as any director's. (The creative tug-of-war between Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca and Spellbound is the stuff of Hollywood legend.) These days, there are fewer producers whose personality looms so large, though names like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver still represent a certain crass blockbuster aesthetic. I interviewed Gale Anne Hurd recently while she was traveling between the sets of the upcoming movies The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher: War Zone, and I got the sense that while she isn't making the primary artistic decisions on those movies, she's still the boss, and providing resources to her crew that are informed by her action-geek sensibility.

By and large, though, when a marketing team used words like "from the producers of," they're just trying to emphasize what kind of movie they're selling. When they drop names like "Sam Raimi," they're just trading on the association—using his name as a brand. Because even though Wes Anderson didn't write or direct The Squid And The Whale, his capacity as a producer served as an endorsement of Noah Baumbach's work, which might've swayed some prospective filmgoers. Mentioning the producer just gives the audience more information, really. If you don't need that kind of cue, just ignore it.

Consider This The Hint Of The Century

My question is regarding a mini-discovery I stumbled upon in a Middleburg, VA thrift store. I was perusing the VHS tapes and found not one, but two "For Your Consideration" videotapes, for Jurassic Park III and Planet Of The Apes. The packages were fairly plain, with just the title on the front and a list of what categories the movies were hoping to be nominated for on the back. (Surprisingly, neither stuck to the obvious ones for effects, sound, etc. but also had things in the acting and overall movie categories, like Best Director: Joe Johnston.) I'm assuming by some freak thrift occurrence that these were Academy Award screeners that had ended up in a Middleburg, VA thrift store, of all places, and was wondering, considering that it was Planet Of The Apes and Jurassic Park III we're talking about, do most movies send in FYC tapes (ahem-DVDs)? And also, seeing as I'm a broke college student… what do you reckon the eBay value of those two tapes are?

Anne

Tasha Robinson is not sniping your eBay auctions:

Sorry, but it's really unlikely that you're sitting on a potential eBay gold mine. The fact that both those films have been out for years and are readily and cheaply available on DVD and VHS—and without the words "For Your Consideration" or "Property Of Universal Pictures" marching across the screen at regular intervals—drives down the intrinsic value of your screeners quite a bit. It never pays to underestimate eBay addicts' willingness to overpay for an item if they think it's unique, but awards screeners just aren't that rare or collectable, and a quick scan of eBay shows a bunch of recent "For Your Consideration" DVDs and CDs going entirely without bids, and non-FYC copies of your films in particular going for under a dollar. There's a crap-shoot chance that you might get a buck or so for them, and dun your buyer for some ridiculous amount of money for shipping, but that's probably about it.

So why aren't trash bins and video stores flooded with unwanted copies of Academy screeners for The Animal and Little Nicky? Well, for one thing, the Academy is pretty small compared to the size of the overall population, with around 6,000 voting members at the moment. For another thing, no, most movies don't submit FYC copies of their films. I've never been an Academy member, so I couldn't give you a ballpark figure on the number of screeners they receive every year, but as a member of the Chicago Film Critics' Association in good standing, I've been getting For Your Consideration screeners for several years now, and critics, at least, mostly get films that, well, someone really hopes will win awards.

In our case, that comes down to roughly a couple dozen films a year. Most of them are obvious awards-contenders—prestige films like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, issue films like No End In Sight and Redacted, scrappy, critically beloved films like The King Of Kong and Juno—in short, fare that studios want critics to take special notice of, because critics are more likely to champion difficult, depressing, or obscure but interesting fare than the general populace is. Whereas no number of free copies of Norbit or Good Luck Chuck is really going to have an impact on critics or the Academy.

So why those two films? My guess is that they are Academy screeners, put out largely because the studios were hoping those films would win special-effects, sound, or editing awards, à la the first Jurassic Park. (Instead, Planet Of The Apes won three Razzies.) But hey, if you're already paying to send Academy members copies of your film for technical purposes, why wouldn't you shoot for the moon and suggest that they nominate your actors, writers, and directors as well? In fact, sending out a screener without the usual nomination suggestions on the back might be seen as sending a negative, defeatist message: "This movie kinda sucked, so we know there's no way in hell anyone will win anything but a technical award for it… but hey, the sound editing is pretty awesome!" Better to keep up appearances by suggesting that whoever's watching the film should nominate everyone for everything. Hell, judging by the overly optimistic "For Your Consideration" ads that run in the trades every year, often in support of films without a chance in hell of a nomination, maybe some of the people sending out those screeners really do briefly believe their own hype, and really do think Planet Of The Apes is a potentially Academy-sweeping tour de force. Blinkered, enthusiastic boosterism is what marketing is all about.

Next week: The Scooby-Doo door-chase gag, plus a dangerous game that isn't The Most Dangerous Game. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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