October 13, 2009

Only in the Movies: Talking at Bars and Nightclubs

When you can't talk, about all you can do is look around...

My patience had been tested beyond a level of comfort by the end of the unfunny Couples Retreat, but it became a downright aggravating experience in the last 20 minutes. I'm not one for spoilers but I'm guessing no one is going to be shocked by the sappy ending of this disaster. Yes, the couples predictably live happily after, but not before a completely inane and anticlimactic set piece in a stereotypically hedonistic outdoor resort wetbar nightclub patio lounge whatever-you-want-to-call it.

The four couples journey (a forehead-slappingly stupid "Guitar Hero" competition interrupting them briefly along the way) from Eden West to Eden East, the "singles" side of the island where hot, young, multicultural models get together under the colored lights and dance in perfectly arranged choreography. It looks like a Budweiser commercial, even more so because people are actually drinking Budweiser - Bud Heavy, to be more specific. Why even one person would be drinking a blue collar American beer at a five star resort in Bora Bora is unexplained (it's more likely they would be drinking PBR in this hipster era anyway), but let's just assume Bud paid a king's ransom for the product placement and get on with our lives.

In any case that's not the detail that finally broke me, and incidentally neither is the horribly stereotyped African-American couple or the insipid, immature, idle screenplay. What got me was what was happening during that nightclub scene: the characters were talking. Not shouting, not leaning in, not yelling in each other's ears - quietly talking, and at that having the most honest and deeply emotional conversations any of them had had during many years of marriage. It was ridiculous.

In what kind of bar or nightclub are you able to carry on a conversation at a normal volume?

This has bothered me for years and the only reason it's coming up in the context of Couples Retreat is because it was one of the last sins that movie committed. But it's nothing new. We see a group of characters go out to a nightclub or a young couple meet a bar or restaurant. It's always a weekend night, yet they never have to elbow for space or search for an open table or stool, and they're generally served by a waitress or bartender within 30 seconds of arriving (watch for this in beer commercials as well). Then they start talking - using voices that would be appropriate for a library.

I'm past the point in my life when a nightclub or packed bar environment is what I look forward to on a Saturday night (actually I don't know if it was ever that appealing, but long story short I'm fine with that not being an option discussed on weekends anymore). These days I tend to judge a place by how well I can hear the music from a block away, and by that I mean if I can hear it at all I'm going to steer clear. My time with friends is short these days, so why suffer through brain-rattling noise and restlessly stand around, unable to actually talk to them? The fact of the matter is that if you're going to try, a decision must be made early on to sacrifice your voice for the next day. Okay vocal chords, let's do this...(deep breath)..."YEAH, SO, THE OTHER DAY I WAS -", yada yada yada.

But this doesn't happen in the movies, and instead major dialogue is placed in these nightclub scenes. Judd Apatow is a fan of this trick, for example, as both Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin feature his socially awkward characters heading out to cruise for women at local hotspots. The scenes are pretty funny ("Yeah, well, you know, it's $9 beer night."), but totally unbelievable. Michael Mann prefers these settings as well, recently having Jamie Foxx talking in loud nightclubs in both Collateral and Miami Vice.

One scene in Collateral is particularly suspect. Witness Foxx and Tom Cruise enter a packed-to-capacity nightclub blasting Paul Oakenfold's "Ready Steady Go". I am absolutely certain the volume would be greater than 100 decibels in this room, yet Cruise speaks to Foxx in a virtual whisper as they navigate through the crowd. Watch the first minute and then listen to Cruise at 1:23:

And of course there's also The Matrix. If my memory serves me correctly, Trinity approaches Neo and coos into his ear words that he has no problem hearing as an industrial techno mix blasts in the background. Maybe this doesn't count because it's The Matrix and nothing is actually real, but that would be the only explanation because the two of them carrying a conversation like this defies the natural laws of our world.

Wouldn't it have been amusingly realistic to have Jamie Foxx yell, "What was that?!?", and lean in closer as a frustrated Tom Cruise had to repeat himself? And wouldn't it have been amusingly realistic if Neo just gave the old smile and nod? Or if Trinity had to engage him in intense eye contact while mouthing out each word? Just once I'd like to see a director show it like it really is.

Do you disagree? Are there other examples and/or gaping holes in my theory? Let's go to the bar down the street and discuss...

Also seen "Only in the Movies":


  1. There is one film that handles the loud music very well: Valley Girl. Nic Cage is shouting to be heard and then the music stops; it becomes a great moment when the whole club can hear him say "When can I see you again?" to his new-found love. It's a great movie.

  2. What, Marilyn?! I can't hear you in here - why is the music always so loud at this place?!

    You may know that I have a checkered history with Nic Cage, but I've heard Valley Girl pop up a few times as a decent little flick. That sounds like a good scene, though I'm curious as to why the music spontaneously cut out.

    I hate when that happens in real life and I'm the last one talking loudly in a room that suddenly quiets.

  3. It was a live band. They ended their song. I have a review of the film if you're interested. It's definitely a wonderful film.

  4. I'll check it out, Marilyn. Maybe it was even at your place that I'm remembering the praise...yet I'm still curious - don't crowds inevitably break into loud cheering at the conclusion of songs? ;-P

  5. Searching my memory for a movie that captured a club environment correctly, Marilyn beat me to it. Martha Coolidge spent most of the late '70s/ early '80s at dive clubs and her movie shows it, even using the decibel level for a laugh.

    I love Michael Mann but like any visual stylist, he'll go with what looks sexy versus what would happen in reality. In his defense, he is making movies, not documentaries. Fantastic series, Daniel.

  6. So Marilyn wins for a great example, and I win because no one else could come up with one...!

    Thanks, Joe. No argument there with Mann's purpose, though we might disagree on how successfully he achieves it. I thought Public Enemies was well, not good in a lot of ways, kind of good in some ways, and great in only one way - the production design.

  7. First off, I can not believe you actually went to see Couples Retreat. Didn't you know going in that it would be vapid and nonsensical? You probably did but hoped this film would be the exception.

    Very sad to hear about the Guitar Hero tournament (more product placement. How much do you think Activision paid for that?) and the stereotypical black couple. Once again, what did you expect?

    The noise thing in clubs is something that I have noticed in film (Blade 2) and tv shows (Gossip Girl) but always thought it a liberty all the screenwriters took. A dumb one but a liberty.

  8. Ouch, man - thanks for rubbing it in, as if the pain of watching CR wasn't enough.

    I did know it would be ridiculous, but I hoped for a fun ridiculous, not an idiotic ridiculous. And as bad as the Guitar Hero commercial is, seeing a bottle of Budweiser every 20 minutes was even worse, as it had NOTHING to do with the "story".

    Haven't seen either Blade 2 or Gossip Girl, but am not surprised those screenwriters followed the trend. I'm not people shouldn't write scenes in nightclubs or bars - they should just make the characters talk more loudly in them. I just caught part of 21 on TV the other day and there it was, Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth quietly flirting in a packed college bar.

  9. Trainspotting actually did it correctly. The characters couldn't hear each other, neither could the audience, so there were subtitles for the club scene.

  10. Nice example! Wish there was a video clip available.

  11. I only go to clubs when I need to practice on my lip-reading. Other than that, I have no use for them and vice versa.

    Although, if you find yourself trying to hear someone in a place this annoyingly loud, just plug your ear with your finger. For some reason, you can hear the person next to you perfectly.

  12. You know I never took the occasion to use it as a practice for lip-reading - brilliant! And I'll try your person-next-to-you theory at the next opportunity. That would be great if it worked...

  13. I was at a concert with a friend of mine. She was trying to tell me something but the music was too loud. Then she put her finger up against my ear, closing it, and I could hear her really well.

  14. Film-book beat me to the Trainspotting example, but I guess that's what happens when I'm three weeks late. I have nothing else to add other than to say that I love this series, Daniel.

  15. Appreciate it, no matter when you come across it. It's a fun series but I need to to a better job recording things as I see them. It will be in the middle of a movie that the cliche will come to me, but half the time I've lost it again afterwards - until I see it the next time. I do have another one drafting, though.

  16. "but I need to to a better job recording things as I see them. It will be in the middle of a movie that the cliche will come to me, but half the time I've lost it again afterwards"

    This sounds exactly like me as it relates to reviews. Half the time, I'm writing a review (or at least a part of it, or even a single choice line) in my head either as I'm watching the movie or while making a pit stop in the bathroom immediately after.

    I pretty much never remember these nuggets, and it really pisses me off, like there's these vast missed opportunities for great thoughts that just vanish into the netherworld.

  17. It's true, though in another way I miss the days of watching a movie and NOT thinking about anything but watching the movie, instead of what I might write about it. I'm trying to do that more, actually - write fewer reviews and even then only write them for the movies that either really move me or that I'm obligated to write about for various reasons (screeners, festivals, etc.).

    But still, when I do feel the urge to write it about I'm definitely doing it in my head while I'm watching, as you describe.

    Back to the issue at hand - I saw Purple Rain again the other night and was struck by the ridiculous talking-in-nightclub scenes. Anybody who has been to First Ave. (the site of the movie, which is downtown here) knows that you cannot carry on a conversation without screaming. Yet throughout Purple Rain characters are casually chatting at a normal volume while standing within spitting distance of a blaring stage. Outrageous.


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