Pitch Perfect & Love StoryDecember 8, 2012
There’s nothing more gruesome in the cinema than films that are “just good fun”, and Pitch Perfect is a textbook example. Even as I write this I can imagine readers thinking I’m a terrible old curmudgeon for not responding positively to a movie that aims to be nothing more than light entertainment. “What could be so bad,” you may ask, “about a college musical, crammed with singing and dancing, romantic comedy and vomit jokes?”
Precisely the fact that it caters to the lowest common denominator. If everything in Pitch Perfect is a cliché this is not because the filmmakers couldn’t do any better. It’s because they thought it was the best way to reach a popular audience too brain-dead to handle anything that didn’t taste like bubble gum.
But perhaps I’m under-estimating this film. It may actually be a devastating satire on the decline of higher education in the United States. While musicals are ridiculous almost by definition, Pitch Perfect suggests the highest form of achievement at an American university is to join an a-capella group and compete for fame and fortune. Nobody in this film does anything resembling course work. Instead, they put heart and soul into their stage routines, which have usurped the prominence once allotted to college sporting prowess.
The new campus heroes are not the jocks, but the a-capella nerds. It is a vision of the world as one long episode of Amercan Idol.
This is a far cry from the college musicals of the past, where characters at least paid lip service to the idea that one goes to university to get an education. In Raoul Walsh’s College Swing of 1938, Gracie Allen struggled with her exams before she succumbed completely to the lure of the jitterbug. In She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), Virginia Mayo played a stripper who abandons her career for a tertiary education, inspired by a charismatic English teacher – Ronald Reagan.
It would be hard to make a case for the profundity of these films, but there was at least a tacit acknowledgement that education has some value. Not so in Pitch Perfect. The heroine, Beca, (Anna Kendrick), is attending Bardem College reluctantly, to please her father and secure his financial support. Her true ambition is to be a DJ in Los Angeles, which is presented as a noble goal, far superior to time-wasting studies.
When her father finds her in her room, skipping a philosophy lecture, we are supposed to sympathise with the poor girl. How could she be expected to listen to anything so boring? Her attitude is an accurate reflection of a generation of students who avoid subjects such as philosophy and classics, which are disappearing from universities. In their place are departments of Popular Culture, where one may write a dissertation on Madonna or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and soon, no doubt, Pitch Perfect.
Beca is persuaded to join the all-girl a-capella group, the Bardem Bellas, who have consistently been beaten in singing competitions by the college’s all-male champions, the Treblemakers. The Bellas’ main problem is group leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp), who is a control freak with an penchant for “traditional” pop songs, such as old Mariah Carey numbers. She also has a bad habit of projectile chundering when upset.
We know from the first minute that cool Beca will eventually whip the girls into shape to compete with the boys. At the same time, she overcomes her introverted nature and responds to the advances of fresh-faced Jessie (Skylar Astin), who has recently joined the Treblemakers. That’s the entire plot. The great revelation is that a-capella is a melting pot for every minority on campus. One may be fat, thin, black, yellow, gay, or even Australian, and be accepted into this joyous subculture. This is the Disney effect: no matter who or what we are, we can all be united in inanity.
Aussie actress, Rebel Wilson, plays Fat Amy, and tends to steal the show. It’s a bravura performance in a role that encourages her to be loud, brazen and vulgar. In Pitch Perfect, such traits count as qualities. All the lead characters would be candidates for homocide were they transplanted into Bobcat Goldthwait’s black satire, God Bless America.
To make the formula even more obvious, director Jason Moore inserts a homage to John Hughes’s 1985 teen classic, The Breakfast Club, with its memorable song by Simple Minds, Don’t You Forget About Me. This dates the director instantly: Moore was fifteen years old in 1985, and probably sang the song upon leaving high school.
Viewers can decide whether it is a deliberate irony or a glaring contradiction that Beca scorns Aubrey’s 80s pop tunes only to discover a 27-year-old teen anthem. This suggests it doesn’t make much difference whether a song is from the 80s, 90s or today, because in the context of this film they are equally vacuous – nothing more than aural wallpaper with a dance beat.
This is very different to the way pop music is used in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, where songs are invested with passionate significance. Perks is a coming-of-age story, not a musical, but it doesn’t patronise its audience or reduce every personality to a caricature. By contrast, Pitch Perfect is a movie devoid of character development – an empty shell filled with the echoes of old pop songs that fades from the mind as one leaves the cinema. It treats sex and drugs in tee-hee fashion, craving a PG rating and access to a target audience of pre-teens. How one wishes the rating system might be rejigged to shield young people from cynicism and shallowness rather than a fleeting glimpse of flesh.
There are many different ways of making a bad film, some of them quite ingenious. Pitch Perfect reeks of formula, but the self-conscious pursuit of eccentricity can reap its own rewards. In Love Story, Florian Habicht has shown extraordinary skill in creating one of this year’s most unbearable features.
The exposition must begin with Habicht himself, as he is director, cinematographer, and lead actor. Although he was born to Austrian-German parents, Habicht is now a New Zealander. This is excellent news for Austria which already has an international image problem due to the headline-grabbing exploits of various grade-A weirdos. The Austrians simply cannot afford to be associated with a film like Love Story.
New Zealand, on the other hand, has Peter Jackson, which is the only thing the rest of the world knows about Kiwi filmmaking. Perhaps this is why Habicht decided he had to go to New York to create his masterpiece. The fact that he went armed only with a videocam and the slenderest idea for a plot, was the beginning of the problem.
Once in New York Habicht made the incredible discovery that if you point a camera at people on the footpath they say a lot of banal and crazy things. This Eureka moment sustains the entire film, as Habicht continually goes out into the streets to ask strangers what should happen next in his evolving love story.
The tale begins with Habicht on the subway, spotting a statuesque girl holding a cake. He chases after her and will eventually convince her to be the love interest in his movie. Her name is Masha Yakovenko and she is Russian, although that’s no excuse for getting mixed up in this sordid enterprise.
Everything beyond that first meeting is a spin of the roulette wheel, determined by the oddballs on the streets, or Skype conversations with Habicht’s old dad, Frank, back in Aotearoa.
The father is almost the saving grace of this film, as he is even madder than his son. When Habicht says he has an idea for a scene in which Masha eats breakfast cereal out of the depression in his sunken chest, his father is overcome with admiration. “Super! Das ist ganz, ganz, Super!” he yells.
Although Habicht senior rightly argues this new variation on The Breakfast Club is an original moment in the history of cinema, he does not go far enough. I’d credit it as one of the great horror scenes. In fact I’d sooner sit through the complete works of Wes Craven than watch another sequence of a woman eating breakfast cereal from a man’s sunken chest.
Habicht is not exactly New Zealand’s answer to George Clooney. He is tall, lanky, bearded and balding, with a wardrobe that consists of a Panama hat, a pair of sunglasses, various T-shirts and pastel coloured jeans. On one level the movie is an extended joke about the idea of Habicht playing a romantic lead, but the monstrous self-indulgence involved suggests a secret core of vanity. Perhaps he thinks audiences will find him goofy and loveable?
I tested this theory on the girl who sat next to me at the screening. “Oh no,” she said, her eyes opening wide. “I thought he was really creepy!”
There are a few striking moments in this meandering tale, such as the final shots of a cake being pulled apart by sea-gulls, or the image of Masha curling up in a suitcase. Yet one would have to be an arthouse fanatic to find redemption in a couple of brief scenes after an hour-and-a-half of pain.
My final theory is that Habicht is a closet revolutionary who aims to subvert the bourgeoisie by setting up false expectations with the title, Love Story. Unsuspecting audiences will be shocked to find that Florian and Masha are as far from Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw as Wanganui is from New York.
Pitch Perfect,USA, rated PG,112 mins
Love Story,New Zealand, rated,91 Mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 8, 2012