Seen in Pittsburgh: Ted/Beer-Pong Cinephilia
It’s been a long time since I was trapped in a dark room with groups of loud dirty-mouthed teenage boys. But I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself either. That’s part of the pleasure of Seth MacFarlane’s first feature film Ted, or at least the pleasure of sitting in a fully packed movie theater, on a Friday night, with an audience as excited to see the creator of “Family Guy” make a stuffed bear sing songs and smoke pot as any art house crowd anticipating a new 35 mm print of Godard’s Weekend. No, that’s wrong. These Bros were way, way more pumped.[i] So enthused that their pre-screening chatter of summer high-school gossip mash-uped with smart phone updates of the evening baseball scores, peppered with jeers at their classmates entering the theater and choosing seats was only further kindled when the lights went out and the first bright-green preview screen appeared with a room full of cheers and clapping. Then came the Dark Knight Rises trailer, which received boisterous “oh yeahs” for its locally-filmed Pittsburgh production and a single muffled sssh from one of the two middle-aged couples in the theater.
As someone who studies exhibition history and audiences, it’s hard not to find amused delight at teenagers yelling at the screen, talking back to jokes (that they’ve already seen and heard a thousand times over in their favorite syndicated TV show), and silenced by the strange interlude of the Beasts of The Southern Wild trailer sandwiched between the Dark Knight preview and the main feature. Yet, in all public gatherings where teenagers have the opportunity to preen, any chance for a joke is utilized, on this occasion it was the last line of the Beasts trailer where the young girl declares “I’m the Man!” which opened a torrent of scoffs and imitations. Some art house audiences obviously felt the same way about Beasts’ earnestness, but the openness of my fellow Friday night moviegoers signaled not simply an irreverence for the ‘art house’ picture, but primarily a readiness to laugh out loud, to mock, to sneer, to obliterate all culture, to get in full what they came to the movie for in the first place: A generally formulaic, stupid, gross-out, and mildly sentimental Bromance where they were the primary participants[ii].
Attack if you will both the flocks of pre-teens, teens, want-to-be-teen Adults and their nostalgic teen flick as well as the groups of women who went to Magic Mike last weekend, I’ll watch a Hollywood picture any day with an audience who actually sits up in their seats to hear every foul-mouthed retort from a bear’s muzzle or to see every sincere promise in Chatting Tatum’s eyes. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start a soapbox in a Studio System Executive voice about how ‘the people make the pictures!” The opening weekend Box Office for these two films speak for themselves with Ted making $54.4 million , and Magic Mike making $39 million[iii].
Frankly, I was just happy to see a comedy with a full audience, and it was only made better when I chuckled with the other adults at some of the older 1970s and 1980s references, too early for most of our 1990s-born seatmates. Unsurpsingly, the teens hooted loudly while I sat silent at much of the phallic and gastrointestinal humor (dick and fart jokes) and I was actually surprised at how silent the audience was during some of the more racist scenes. Just because MacFarlane can’t tell that Asian stereotypes weren’t funny back during the days of the Flash Gordon TV series, it doesn’t mean his audience is always equally as amused or ignorant to his contemporary attempts. If this is MacFarlane’s intent to attack/ the Orientalist caricatures in the original Flash Gordon, his parody only ends up perpetuating unnecessary juvenile humor. But, this kind of humor plays differently across audiences, and for all I know this crack got laughs in other groups while other audiences were equally as offended as I about MacFarlane’s more insidious attacks on women (which are too many to count; let’s just say it gets nowhere near passing the Bechdel test). But, let’s be honest, I knew going into Ted that I was going to be disgusted, offended, and a little uncomfortable about the cultural stereotypes it would uphold. But who am I kidding, hearing Nora Jones and a stuffed bear talk dirty to one another is funny, so is Joel McHale’s serious musings over his capitalist collection of cultural artifacts (in particular Lance Armstrong’s gilded testicle). It’s not so hard to imagine a truth to such humor.
I didn’t go to Ted to get upset. It’s nearly 100 degrees outside on the East Coast and I wanted (like all Summer movie audiences since air conditioning was introduced to movie theaters in 1917[iv]) to cool off and maybe watch Mark Wahlberg fight a stuffed animal and swear in a Boston accent. One gal’s Channing Tatum is another grad student’s middle-aged Marky Mark. And at the end of the day, the last time I heard a whole row of moviegoers clap at the end of a movie and shout “So Good!” “So Good!” was after Bresson’s Pickpocket. I’ll take that kind of cinephilia any day, even if the movie wasn’t made for me, and even if I can’t look at the tag on my childhood teddy bear the same way ever again.
[i] Universal seems to be banking on this degree of enthusiasm all the way to home DVD sales, promoting the in theater screening as a discount bonus to pre-ordering the DVD. If patrons pre-order the two-disc Ted set, they will receive a voucher covering $10 worth of their Fandango purchased ticket.
[ii] The social-media marketing for Ted includes a facebook/mobile “My Night with Ted” app were users can create digitally enhanced photos where they party with a beer-pong Ted, a crotch-grabbing Ted, an angry Ted, or a barfing Ted, amongst others.
[iv] Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures:A History of Movie Presentation in the United Staes. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1992. pg. 74.