The most exciting day of the week for me as a child was Wednesday. That was “dollar night” at the Riverside Drive-In of Norman, Oklahoma. My mom would make a grocery bag of popcorn (cooked in bacon drippings and seasoned with coarse salt, by the way) and my parents, my sister and I would ride out to the show in our ’52 Chevy. They let the whole carload in for a buck because the movies were not new releases. They were classics. Sitting in the back seat, I got to see some of the great movies of the mid 20th century: Hitchcock thrillers like Rear Window and Vertigo, comedies, noir films, family movies (I was pretty much in love with Hayley Mills after The Parent Trap and Pollyanna), sci-fi, horror (I had to beg my folks to let me see those great Hammer Frankenstein flicks) and of course westerns like Shane, High Noon and Red River (one of the most traumatic experiences of my young life came when Gary Cooper was almost lynched at the end of The Hanging Tree). I grew up loving movies and understanding the differences between film genres.
Because I’ve been aware of movie genres and subgenres for fifty years now, I feel as if I’m on pretty firm ground when I say that a new subgenre has emerged, one I’m wrestling with and frankly a little irritated by. We all know what “chick flicks” are (recent example: The Notebook) and we’re all familiar with “frat boy” movies that rely on disgusting adolescent topics for laughs (The Hangover for instance). Over the last few years a new subgenre has emerged that combines these two. I guess we could call them “chick-gross-out-movies” [these are not to be confused with “gross out” movies that have chicks in them, like Saw]. These are movies clearly intended to be viewed primarily by women, but they have a strong element of disgusting behavior or dialogue that disqualifies them from being true chick-flicks. They are really less chick-flick than romantic comedy, but the “not for mixed company” conversations and events disqualify them from that genre as well; plus there always seems to be a girl-and-guy-finally-get-it-right-at-the-end theme.
One of the prime examples of this was the 2007 movie Because I Said So, that begins with a middle-aged mother and two of her daughters having a cell phone conversation with a third daughter about the penis of the uncircumcised man with whom she is about to have sex. I’m sorry I described that, but you probably understand the dynamic I’m talking about now. The same sort of dynamic is at work in Something’s Got to Give (did we really need to see Jack Nicholson’s naked behind or Diane Keaton’s gratuitous frontally nudity?), Knocked Up and a number of other recent pictures. Recently I got talked into seeing The Backup Plan, that begins with Jennifer Lopez in the stirrups having in vitro fertilization and goes downhill from there.
I’m at a loss here. This is an honest question: who really, fully enjoys movies like this? We actually had a family discussion about this not long ago. My older son offered the opinion that the disgusting elements in these movies were put there to give guys a reason to sit through them with their girlfriends. Maybe so. After all, if you look at the list of producers, directors and writers of these movies, they are mostly men; plus they are all “Hollywood” shows and therefore essentially created by cookie cutters.
On the other hand, if you want to appeal to frat boys, you get fewer laughs with a baby-being-born-“I-shouldn’t-have-seen-that”-scene than a scene of someone getting drunk and throwing up. Can it be that the young women of the world are striking a blow for equality, asserting that females can be just as disgusting as males—and enjoy it? Of course, perhaps this is just a sign that a new plateau or threshold has been reached: maybe it has just become that much more difficult to be shocking and outrageous, and if the movie kind of sucks you need that to distract your viewers.
Another possibility is that I’m just old, irrelevant and out of touch. I have to be open to this possibility I suspect. Heaven knows, there are a lot of intimate human events, but I don’t play them for laughs, or use them to make my readers gag.
Going back to the Riverside Drive-In, one of the first things I learned from the master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock is that you don’t have to show skin to be incredibly sexy or show graphic wounds to convey violence (in Psycho you never see the knife actually strike its victims) or shock people to scare them (the suspense of waiting for something that might happen is much more compelling than having somebody leap out of the dark and make a loud noise). So I’m just going to keep being old-fashioned and strive for quality in my writing, and know that some filmmaker somewhere has the same values I have.