Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How to rank the instruction manual movies

While finalizing my year-end rankings, one of the things I disliked most was entrenching How to Survive a Plague firmly in the second half of my list (#68 out of 119). I so disliked doing it that I'm glad I found another reason to write about the movie, to ease my conscience. (Not that I'm going to rescind the ranking, just that I'm getting the chance to explain it in the context of writing about the movie in a different way.)

The reason I feel "ashamed" about not liking How to Survive a Plague is that it's about AIDS, and most of the characters we meet are homosexual. I'm a liberal and political correctness is second nature to me, which means it's also second nature to upbraid myself if I've given a politically correct topic less than my full love. Of course, liking things just to be politically correct is not being true to yourself, nor to anybody else.

But I have enough liberal guilt that when a critically acclaimed documentary about AIDS gets only a lukewarm assessment from me, I do worry that people think "Vance hates gays!" or something like that. That's not the case, of course -- I'm sure I needn't even say it. Here are the actual reasons I didn't love How to Survive a Plague:

1) I don't generally love documentaries that consist primarily of talking heads and archival footage. This may be a successful format for a documentary when the subject is something I don't know anything about, but that's not the case here, because I'm actually quite up on the 1980s era of AIDS activism by virtue of reading Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On. (There, that eases my liberal guilt.)

2) I tend to prefer documentaries that don't take themselves so seriously. There was little choice with this particular subject matter, but Plague is dour and humorless from start to finish. The movie suffocates me with its Importance (with a capital I) at every turn.

3) I watched it on the second-to-last night of my ranking period, after already sitting through Les Miserables. I was probably just exhausted.

4) Given how deathly serious the topic literally is, isn't that kind of a whimsical title?

Here we get to what I actually want to talk about today: the film's title. And not because it's perhaps too whimsical for the movie. Actually, while adding this movie to my list, what struck me is that there are quite a few movies whose titles are structured as follows: How to Something a Something. Because of this How to structure, I am referring to them casually as "instruction manual movies."

And any time I can find a relatively finite number of movies in a certain category, it always occurs to me to rank them. It turns out, seven is just enough to be worth noting, while also still qualifying as "relatively finite."

So ... shall we?

1) How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (2000, Michael Kalisneko). My #1 instruction manual movie is also the most obscure title on the list. I can't remember how I first heard about, or how I came to rent it. Did I borrow it from the library? In any case, it's the story of a washed-up British playwright (Kenneth Branagh) living in Los Angeles, and it's more of a character study than a real narrative. The put-upon playwright deals with his wife's unrequited desire for a baby, a homeless person who is stalking him and a noisy neighborhood dog. For some reason, it just works, in part because Branagh is so funny and Kalisneko's dialogue is so sharp. And my wife agreed, so I know I'm not crazy.

2) How to Train Your Dragon (2010, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois). What would be many people's #1 is not mine because of what I consider to be a deficient script. Yes, the world that's created here is wonderful and the visuals are first-rate, but hero's journeys rarely feel as by-the-numbers as this one felt to me. Sorry, Dragon fans. But the world and visuals are cool enough to put it ahead of five others on the list.

3) How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989, Bruce Robinson). This might really be the instruction manual movie I like second-best, but my guilt over not liking Dreamworks' Dragons more has vaulted that movie ahead of it. (We liberals feel guilty about the strangest things, don't we?) Advertising is definitely the oddest one on the list, as this satire deals with a London advertising executive (Richard E. Grant) who grows a boil on his neck that starts turning into a second head -- a head that seems to have much more shrewd impulses about how he can prosper in his field. This movie is an oddball hoot, but also strangely mournful in its third act.

4) How to Make an American Quilt (1995, Joceyln Moorhouse). Although I suspect there is probably something middling about this patchwork of female empowerment stories, I remember having a soft spot for it at the time I saw it, probably three or four years after its theatrical release. Would I still like it today? I don't know, but movies we end up watching only once can sometimes benefit from being exposed to us only a single time. (I also had a soft spot for Winona Ryder at the time, which probably helps explain it.)

5) How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France). GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! Plague is an excellently researched and assembled movie, and the topic is certainly one worth talking about. But one thing that limits my affection for it is that it rather oddly fails to speak to our modern world, in part because drugs and education have been so effective about controlling the spread of AIDS in the United States. I'd probably be more interested to see a movie about AIDS in Africa, since that would have greater 21st century immediacy. I guess one of the movie's points is that we wouldn't have the luxury of taking AIDS for granted if it weren't for the activist spirit of some trailblazers back in the 1980s, but that's only something I take away from it in hindsight. And I have to admit that I tend not to be as impressed with activism if it is conducted merely out of self interest. The activists who interest me most are the ones who aren't directly benefiting from the successful pursuit of their cause.

6) How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008, Robert Weide). And there's a huge dropoff from #5 to #6. I don't think it was just because I read (and liked) former Vanity Fair writer Toby Young's autobiography, which was the basis for this movie, that I was so very disappointed by it. But the fact that the novel is pretty raw and uncompromising, and the movie totally chickens out into utter romantic comedy conventionality, certainly did have something to do with that. Don't bother with this one, even if you are a fan of Simon Pegg, and even if you want to watch a dripping Megan Fox emerge from a swimming pool.

7) How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (2003, Donald Petrie). I guess I really don't want to know very much about how to lose things, do I? Losing things is easy enough to do without an instruction manual. This is easily one of Matthew McConaughey's lamest star vehicles. It's neither funny nor observant, and it also wastes Kate Hudson.

Other prominent instruction manual movies that I have not seen: How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler), How to Deal (2003, Clare Kilner), How to Be (2008, Oliver Irving), How to Be a Player (1997, Lionel C. Martin), How to Eat Fried Worms (2006, Bob Dolman), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967, David Swift), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, Jean Negulesco).

Movie that would be #1 if I thought it counted: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick). See, once you change from "How to" to "How I," it changes from an instruction manual to a memoir.

At this point I would love the following instruction manual: How to Cleverly End a Blog Post About Instruction Manual Movies.

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