The Toto Problem
Or, The One Thing That Ruins a Movie
I’m about to spoil The Ring for you.
I’m not very into horror movies. I love horror comedy, like What We Do in the Shadows and Shaun of the Dead, and I usually enjoy campy horror, like Evil Dead. But straight-up horror I usually can’t do. I don’t like jump scares or other people screaming, and I can find it physically uncomfortable to watch people getting hurt or killed. Horror usually just makes me feel anxious, and often just sad. (Those poor people getting stabbed! They had hopes and dreams and families!) Still, I think I know enough to know which are the “good” horror movies and shows, the ones highly regarded by critics and audiences. I’ve seen Get Out, It Follows, Alien, Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Witch, and every episode of The Twilight Zone. But it surprises me to know that a lot of people consider The Ring right up there, too.
I watched The Ring a few years after it came out. I remember enjoying it right up until the end. At that point, something happened that I just found so stupid, I couldn’t like it anymore. That one thing ruined the whole movie for me.
The ghost crawled out of a TV.
That was just beyond me. As soon as Samara crawled out of the actor-that-looks-like-but-isn’t-David Arquette’s screen, I started to laugh. I think I had expected some kind of twist, where it wasn’t the tape or TV that were haunted at all, that the ghost was attacking people some other way, or that it wasn’t a ghost at all. TVs are TVs. They are electronic, with a hard screen. A ghost cannot climb out of one — and certainly not dripping wet. Water and electronics? Are you serious?
I’ve held this opinion for twenty years. Never once did I ask myself why it was that I could believe a ghost could climb out of a well, or maybe even use a phone, but not crawl out of a TV. Then last week Anna watched a YouTube video where someone said it was their favorite horror movie, and I had to think about it. Why did that ruin the movie for me?
Anna had an easy answer: “TVs aren’t mysterious.” At least, they aren’t to us. Our father was an electronics engineer at a TV station. (This is also why I, despite being afraid of nearly everything in modern life, am not afraid of airplanes: my dad also used to be a pilot.) My siblings and I grew up with circuit boards and old sets scattered around the house. I always knew a VCR couldn’t do anything more evil than accidentally chew up our VHS of Lady and the Tramp. Wells, on the other hand, are mysterious, you never know how far down they go. People and animals die in wells! Most people in Western society have or have owned a television, while probably far fewer have wells. TVs are hard technology, and we know all about how they work.
I do still think The Ring is a well-crafted horror movie, and Ringu, the movie it’s based on, is probably even better. But sometimes there’s just one thing you can’t get past in a movie, and it ruins it for you. We could call it “The Toto Problem”: Sure, at the end Dorothy’s back home safe, and the tornado has passed, but what’s going to happen to Toto? Almira Gulch is still going to have him killed! He’s still condemned.
“Does that ever happen to you?” I asked Anna. “One little thing ruins a movie for you?”
“Yeah, it does,” she said. “Like, I thought the background music to Insidious was hilarious. People were telling me it was ‘the scariest movie ever,’ but the music just made me laugh.”
I already knew it happens to Anna, because last year, I made her watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she was literally the only person I know who didn’t like it. The thing is, though, my sister is a painter. She’s been doing portraits since she was a child. Every time I came home from boarding school or college, there would be some new work of art of hers hanging on the wall — a Van Gogh replication, an Egon Schiele-inspired drawing. Now she’s at one of the best art schools in the country. Painters don’t see a lot of depictions of their profession in contemporary film, and when they do, it’s usually romanticized in a very stupid and dangerous way. Artists can get a little defensive about all the inaccuracies — it’s not all syphilis and opium. All the while we watched Portrait, I could hear her muttering, “Who does it like that?” and “she’s just making it more complicated for herself” and the occasional “OK, that’s actually pretty accurate.”
Then I heard her gasp. “Did she just put the turpentine down next to a candle?” Anna said, incredulous. “It’s flammable as hell! She’s going to set the whole place on fire!” I watched her watching the screen after that, expecting the worst to happen, that this would be how the titular woman caught on fire. Then her expression changed to disappointment. Maybe this was a red herring? No, it was probably just Hollywood cluelessness. I turned back to the screen. The next time I looked at Anna, she was scrolling through her phone. The movie had lost her.
“Is this just an us thing?” Anna said. “I feel like it can’t be.” Sometimes I do wonder if this is something you see more in people who have OCD. Not because we’re persnickety, but because we’re obsessive. We see something wrong or off, then we hyperfocus on that, and miss the rest of the movie. OCD varies a lot from person to person, though: Anna and I both have it, and our symptoms are completely different. Some of my friends on the autistic spectrum say “If you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum,” and I think OCD is much the same way. I agree with Anna, this can’t just be a non-neurotypical trait. My very neurotypical friend Max is notorious for disliking a movie for getting one thing wrong, whether it’s a movie that seems to be well-regarded (“Looper didn’t make sense! Why would they send him back to kill himself?”) or kind of fun and forgettable (“Fuck Warm Bodies! That movie lied to me!”).
I don’t want to be a nitpicker. I do know I can be a bit of a film snob. (Anna often makes fun of me for this, but in my opinion, she’s a bit of a music snob, so it evens out.) I went to NYU, where my peers called Martin Scorsese “Uncle Marty” and rode the elevators with Spike Lee, and I dated a film major for three years. You can’t escape that environment without a little bit of pretension. But I don’t like nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. It’s an attitude I think we see too much of on the internet — think of how annoying it was every time Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how physics meant Spider-Man actually couldn’t swing like that, or think of those godawful “Everything Wrong With” videos. Nobody wants to be that guy. (Well, maybe some people do: apparently their background is in marketing and they make a lot of money off it.) The best-known film critics, the Eberts and the Kaels and all their successors, do it because, above all, they love film.
I know a lot of people are sticklers for wardrobe errors in period pieces, particularly when it comes to mixing up eras. I watched a video last year where a designer talked about how frustrating it was for her to watch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, because the clothes were anachronistic. While I don’t know that much about clothes, I did know enough to know that the wardrobe in Little Women wasn’t entirely period-accurate — but I never cared. It didn’t matter to me, because I didn’t see Gerwig’s adaptation as an attempt at literal interpretation. It was an abstraction. This is my theater degree comes in, I think: Realism is something audiences value in film, but it’s never been much of an issue in theater. We know it’s an abstraction. In the late 19th and early 20th century, “Realism” in theater was a movement, but it’s been derided ever since. One of my favorite playwrights, John Guare, hates “kitchen-sink realism” so much that he titled a collection of his plays The War Against the Kitchen Sink.
I guess realism had a bit of a revival at the end of the last century, too. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a lot of big-budget films and plays that really paid attention to detail, trying hard to get it right, to impress their audiences with how realistic everything was. Think of the helicopter in Miss Saigon, the chandelier in Phantom, the levels of detail in Titanic and Jurassic Park or in pretty much any James Cameron or Spielberg movie. But not everyone is James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Cameron Mackintosh. Big musicals in the past fifteen years tend to be more stripped-down affairs, and even when they’re over the top (i. e., directed by Alex Timbers), they tend to be reimagined and staged in creative, but not literal ways. As for film, I’d like to think that the popularization of independent film in the past twenty years or so has made us a little less demanding of realism. Independent filmmakers often just don’t have enough money for realism.
Every theater student knows there’s a difference between being realistic and being real. That’s where the word verisimilitude comes in: it technically means “truth,” but it’s more about consistency within the world the film or theatermakers have created. (It’s also a pain in the ass to spell on a theater history quiz.) That’s not to say that my theater degree has made me more forgiving: I’ve become much more of a snob about the way people in movies walk. Anyone with any professional actor training can immediately tell when an actor in a period movie doesn’t have any classical training, because they are walking the same way they walk down a red carpet. People walked and moved differently five hundred years ago. People walked and moved differently fifty years ago. People still walk and move differently depending on their region and class and body type, today. If an actress in a period film swings her arms and touches her dress a little too much, or an actor lets his nose touch the knuckles of a hand he’s kissing, I roll my eyes. It’s usually not enough to ruin the movie for me, but it does give me pause.
When I think about movies where one thing ruined it forever, there is one that stands out more than any other, and fittingly, it’s a movie about theater. I hate Shakespeare in Love, and it’s all because of Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair.
In Shakespeare in Love, Joseph Fiennes is a bored, horny Will Shakespeare, in need of a muse. Gwyneth Paltrow is Viola, a woman about to be married off to Colin Firth (surely a fate worse than death) and sent to a colony (that didn’t actually exist at the time) in Virginia. She’s also a big fan of Shakespeare’s writing. Now, this is very important: here’s what she looks like.
Look at all that long, thick, curly blonde hair!
Anyway, she decides to audition for his theater. But this is the 16th Century, you say! Women weren’t allowed to be in the theater in those days! Well, except in Italy, in Commedia dell’arte. And in France, in the ballet de cours. And in Japan, where women sex workers were creating the art of Kabuki. Yes, but this is England, and that’s the only theater that counts! So she disguises herself as a man named “Thomas Kent,” and because straight cis writers and directors don’t understand that there’s a lot more to performing a different gender than just changing one’s hair (see also: Allison Williams as Peter Pan), she passes as a man for a long time. She’s even cast as Romeo in Shakespeare’s new play!
Here’s what she looks like as Thomas Kent.
Look at that short, short hair. And look at that completely exposed nape of the neck! She must have cut all her hair off and dyed it brown, right? Except every time we see her as Viola, she still has long, blonde hair. Huh. I guess the blonde hair must be a wig, right?
Anyway, she and Shakespeare have a pretty standard artist-muse relationship from then on, which basically means that they have a lot of sex and speak in iambic pentameter while they’re having sex, and he then uses those lines in his play Romeo and Juliet. That play, as we all know, isn’t about the quixotic and impulsive nature of youth, and how prejudice and resentment can tear people apart, but solely about true love between a full-grown man and woman. Eventually Viola is discovered to be a woman and has to marry Colin Firth, but before that, there’s a little switcheroo and she gets to play Juliet.
But it’s the discovery scene that ruined the movie for me. Gwyneth is at the theater dressed as Thomas Kent, and a boy who works at the theater and has been spying on them puts a rat in her ruff. She screams and tries to get it off, we see shocked reactions from the other members of the company, and suddenly all that long, curly blonde hair comes tumbling out. She had been hiding it under a wig the whole time!
It’s true that the first time I watched this, I was a teenager studying theater, and there’s no one more insufferable than a teenage theater student. But that scene made no sense to me, and it still doesn’t. Did she use a bald cap and a wig? You can’t hide that much hair under a bald cap without looking like a Conehead. My hair is above past my chin, and the other day I put on a swim cap designed for long hair, and it was so tight I could feel my blood pressure rise. (Not the worst thing, in my case, what with my POTS and all, but still.) Besides, I’m pretty sure bald caps didn’t even exist back then: rubber was unknown to England, and far more men went bald due to syphilis, so bald actors played bald characters. OK, so then it must have just been a short wig! But when she wears her hair up, which she would need to do for us to see the nape of her neck, it still extends several inches above her head.
Any wig put over all that hair would make her look like the Martian Girl from Mars Attacks.
It’s just not possible. And that’s when the movie lost me for good.
A lot of people liked this movie, it was well-reviewed and made a lot of money, and it won far too many awards (although we know now a lot of that was Weinstein meddling). When I talk with people who also dislike this movie, they usually say they don’t like it because they don’t like the narrative of a woman being reduced to a muse, or because they didn’t like the way Shakespeare was portrayed. I can understand being annoyed by that: just like painting, writing and theater aren’t always portrayed accurately in film. It does feel a little like a writer’s self-insert fanfic: “You know who else was a bored, horny writer like me? Shakespeare!”
But I don’t know anyone who dislikes it for the same reason I do. I was willing to believe that the very feminine Gwyneth Paltrow, who doesn’t even bother to lower her speaking voice more than a quarter of an octave when dressing as Thomas Kent, could pass for a cis man. I was willing to believe that Shakespeare, already an accomplished playwright by this time, needed a muse. I was even willing to believe that he lived a life much like a horny writer in the ‘90s. I was not willing to believe that you can hide a Marge Simpson amount of hair under that short a wig.
Of course, The Toto Problem is worse in movies we don’t actually like. Did I already dislike this movie? Well, it’s pretty obvious from what I wrote above that I don’t think much of the plot of Shakespeare in Love. It holds together like a gluten free cracker. I also don’t think it’s a love story. These characters like the same things, and have good sexual chemistry, and while that’s enough to base a short relationship on when you’re maybe eighteen, it’s not quite love. Lust is easier to depict creatively than love, though, and often more entertaining. Shakespeare himself knew this: there’s a reason all his plays that don’t start with ghosts and witches start with sex, or at the very least, dirty jokes. Lust has its place.
I think I did enjoy parts of this movie. It is still well-acted and funny, with a deliberate, irreverent anachronism. Maybe a few too many meta-jokes about Hollywood, but that might have seemed fresh and funny in 1998. Geoffrey Rush and Imelda Staunton have some great scenes, Dame Judi Dench finally got her Oscar. I laughed when Joseph Fiennes tried to defend himself with a stage saber, and when Ben Affleck — at his best playing conceited buffoons, as in Dazed in Confused — was bewildered that his character dies. If I want to be generous, I could say it’s also possible Shakespeare and Viola’s relationship being short-lived, shallow, and mostly sexual was intentional, as that is also what most people think of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.
There are still a lot of movies with huge plot holes that I still like. Maybe Max was right about Looper, but I still really liked it, and I remember enjoying Warm Bodies for what it was, too. Like any film snob, I have a lot of issues with Love, Actually, but there are still parts of it I really like, and I’ll still watch it if a roommate or a friend’s mom puts it on. (It’s always a roommate or a friend’s mom.)
We don’t know what happens to Toto, but The Wizard of Oz is still great. Maybe I shouldn’t call this “The Toto Problem.” Maybe I should call it “Flipping the Wig.” Yes, it’s a dumb pun, but do you know who else loved dumb puns? Shakespeare.
Stuff I Did Recently: First of all, I was on Entertainment Tonight talking about the 25th anniversary of Matilda! Then Australia’s Today Show had me on to talk about Matilda, as well!
As a major Gilmore Girls fan, it was a thrill to do I’m All In with Scott Patterson (Luke Danes!), to talk about which characters I relate to most, why I don’t care for Max Medina, and what made me finally come around on Jess. I also had a lot of fun talking about karaoke and why disco rocks on The Greatest Song Ever Sung (Poorly).
Finally, I can’t believe I got to play a small part in the great Karina Longworth’s new project, Love is a Crime. I’ve been wanting to do a part on You Must Remember This for years now, and I’m in great company here!
Fake BBC Show of the Week: We Don’t Have Rabies Here! (It’s true, they don’t.)