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Anger Management and Film Theory

Written for Film Theory at Portland State University. Surprisingly difficult to write critically on comedies. I had a fun time re-watching one of my favorite comedies and figuring out how to make it work for the purposes of this class. Fall 2014.

Do spectators attend cinematic screening because they are pursuing pleasure?

A scene unfolds five minutes into the film Anger Management that shows both self-reflexivity and spectatorship while also providing a humorous introduction to the world of this film and the challenges its central character, Dave Buznik (played by Adam Sandler), will face. Dave is sitting in the aisle seat next to an unnamed passenger seated near the window who laughs loudly at the in-flight film screen. As Dave attempts to sleep the passenger bumps him and tries to engage him with the movie. The passenger asks, “Do you like comedies?” to which Dave responds that he hasn’t been getting a lot of sleep. The passenger looks disappointed and resumes both his watching of the in-flight film and his hysterical laughter. A clip of the in-flight film shows a voluptuous woman in a sequin dress twirling her hair at a bar. The passenger turns to Dave, “Look at this actress here. What is your position on breast implants?” Dave looks annoyed and the surrounding flight passengers look offended. Dave caves, “I – I can just watch the movie with ya.” He asks the flight attendant for a headset and she proceeds to talk to another flight attendant instead. He attempts to get her attention again but is ignored. The passenger next to Dave shouts, “For cryin’ out loud, you’re missing important plot points!” urging Dave to try another time. The in-flight film shows three men sitting in a steam room. He attempts to get the flight attendant’s attention again and she shuts the cabin curtain though it barely blocks his view. A few moments later she comes down the aisle without headphones. Dave puts his hand on her inner-elbow and asks, “Could I maybe get that headset please?” She is immediately taken aback, “Do not raise your voice to me, sir.” Dave’s confusion shows as he has been nothing but quiet, even timid, “I wasn’t raising my voice.” She responds, “Just calm down.” The situation escalates as Dave remains calm and quiet with the appearance of an Air Marshall who also tells Dave to “Calm down.” Dave responds, “What is it with you people?” The Air Marshall, a large black man, takes offense, “I will not tolerate any racist behavior on the plane. This is a very difficult time for our country.” Dave is noticeably flustered but remains calm and continues to keep his voice low. He responds that he isn’t a racist as everyone on the plane cranes their necks to watch what is happening. Dave is told to “Calm down” one more time which results in him shouting, “I’m calm!!” followed by a taser to the abdomen. The scene ends with shocked passengers observing.

This scene is just barely over three minutes long, (05:08-08:11) and comprised primarily of medium-close-up and close-up shots. It is set on an airplane which means the location is cramped, the camera movement is restricted allowing access to primarily facial expressions and verbal responses rather than physical action, and the tone of Dave Buznik’s voice allows the audience to feel he is trapped in a situation he has no control over. He is doing his best to remain calm but constant irritators cause him to explode and be punished. The camera angles suggest a point-of-view at times of both passengers on the plane and Dave Buznik himself. There is a lot of cutting back and forth between members who are talking as well as reaction reactions shots from the non-talking party. The shots are frequently static although there were two tracking shots froma hand to a face to provide for mood – it was used when a character was becoming increasingly annoyed and offended. Dave and the passenger next to him were framed consistently together whether one is in the center or the other; the character not centered was squeezed in to provide more depth and reactions. The only figure that moves within the frame is the flight attendant as she walks up and down the aisle. The movement for the rest of the passengers is limited to heads, necks, and arms (which are kept at each individual’s sides for the majority of this scene).

It interests me that this scene essentially revolves around an in-flight film and one person’s desire to have another person watch the film with him, especially when the clips shown from the in-flight film seem so inane and irrelevant in the grand scheme of the actual film we are watching. Is this why people view films, because they are elbowed or the laughter draws them in? Or is it because individuals are encouraged by friends, family, and the industry itself to see a film? Is it because they have an interest in the actual plot, like the plot in Anger Management that follows a hard-working employee who doesn’t take what he wants and is tricked into Buddy Rydell’s immersive anger management program that allows him to take what he wants at the end of the film? Why do individuals watch a film they assume they will not find pleasure in? And to that extent, why does a person find pleasure in a film? Is it due to a psychological effect of feeling transported to another place and time that makes films enjoyable? These are all questions I will explore with relation to the film Anger Management and film theorists Christian Metz and Edgar Morin.

First let us examine why individuals even view films. Metz “distinguished two ‘machines’ operating within the cinematic institution: first, the cinema as industry, producing commodities whose sale as tickets provides a return on investment; second, the mental machine, which spectators have internalized and which adopts them for the consumption of films as pleasurable ‘good objects’” (Stam 167-168). Hollywood is a prime example of the cinema as industry releasing about one-hundred films a year that vary in quality and content but nonetheless are (generally) accompanied with “hot” celebrities, red carpet events, daily television interviews, trailers, sneak-peeks, and catchy posters. The film industry spends a large amount of their financing not only on the film itself but on the advertising in the hopes for a large return on their investment which means utilizing every source available to them including having multiple premiers in different locations around the United States (and the world). Another source that film companies use is paying individuals to watch a film before it is released and give their opinion that way they can be sure the film appeals to a large enough audience and is enjoyable or pleasurable enough that it is a film they would recommend to friends and/or family.

Anger Management stars Adam Sandler, who in the 1990s and early 2000s was popular and had a large fan-base, Marisa Tomei, who gained popularity in the same two decades as Adam Sandler, and Jack Nicholson, who needs no description but I will say he worked on comedies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The media attention these stars would have received around the time of the film would have provided interest. We are inundated with moments that remind us constantly of film stars and subsequently, their films. Tabloids constantly question whether a marriage is falling apart, someone is pregnant, someone is having an affair, someone is overweight, someone is underweight, etc. Why do we care whether Adam Sandler has dated his co-star or if Jack Nicholson ignores his fans? In the same way that viewing a film can be described as voyeuristic so can the way society pays attention to an outfit a celebrity wears or where they went on vacation. Is this all part of the film industry? If not officially, then it works wonders for advertising and marketing unofficially.

What about the content of the film itself? Anger Management is clearly a comedy and one many could relate to. Of course, who can relate to a program run by an Orson Welles look-a-like such as Buddy Rydell that first must drive an unknowing participant crazy before they can fix their issue/s? I would like to assume few-to-none. The relation comes from Dave and his supportive girlfriend who he is afraid to kiss in public because he had an embarrassing situation as a pre-teen. It comes from working in companies where a boss takes advantage of hard-working employees. It comes from the desire to rise to a challenge instead of accept the challenge as defeat. And it comes from feeling trapped in a situation, a career, or a relationship where the way out isn’t clear. The relation comes from seeing ourselves in Dave Buznik, the seemingly timid, soft-spoken, caring character who is ready to explode inside.

Of course in addition to this there is the genre of the film and the audiences that attend comedies. Not everyone can spend ninety minutes in a theater watching Jack Nicholson (as anger management therapist Buddy Rydell) throw eggs at the wall, pull an emergency car break on the Queensboro Bridge (NY) to sing “I Feel Pretty”, use an electric hair-follicle stimulator while brushing his teeth, give an impressively vulgar pick-up line that works, or pull a (squirt) gun on a monk in a monastery. That’s not the type of film that appeals to everyone. The film industry has had success with comedy films starring Adam Sandler plus a girl-next-door love interest and a slew of celebrity cameos such as Billy Madison (Davis, 1995), Happy Gilmore (Dugan, 1996), The Waterboy (Coraci, 1998) and Big Daddy (Dugan, 1999). This formula proved to be successful time and again which could explain why Hollywood had no qualms about producing yet another film of similar caliber, content, and humor (not to mention reusing a number of characters present in Sandler’s previous films). Anger Managementwas the 12th highest grossing film in 2003 when it was released which would suggest that marketing Saturday Night Live alum to the audience that made him famous was an excellent tactic – not to mention including a film icon such as Nicholson.

Second we will explore the complex mental machine: regression, spectator participation, kinesthesia, and pleasure-seeking. Edgar Morin states that the “spectator does not merely watch a film; he or she lives it with a neurotic intensity, as a form of socially approved regression” (Stam 159). When an adult temporarily behaves in a way that represents an earlier stage of development, typically adopting immature responses or attitudes, he or she has regressed. There may be no better moment to insert Adam Sandler’s name considering his comedy films revolve around some form of regressed adult. The audience has an opportunity to take a ninety-minute break from their reality to laugh at an actor playing an immature and occasionally child-like character. Flatulence never ceases to amuse some individuals which may be representative of regression, a specific sense of humor, or something else entirely but in Anger Management this comedic card is played as well. This film with its slapstick humor and overweight cats in sweaters is certainly welcome in an atmosphere ripe for regression.

Mingled with regression could be the dream-like state that can be induced when watching a film. Dreams offer an impression or illusion of reality that does not actually affect us when we wake up. When a spectator views a horror film, a tear-jerker, or a comedy the emotions one feels for the duration of the film typically leave the moment the lights come on in the theater. Sure, some still feel fear after a horror movie, but many spectators feel the urge to discuss the film: what they did and did not enjoy, what they found realistic or not, etc. Spectators are immediately brought back into their actual reality rather than the “impression of reality” felt during a film. In addition to regression could be the desire to “escape reality” that brings an individual in to see a film.

Tom Gunning explores Metz’s suggestion that movement within a film produces a strong impression of reality which in turn may encourage the feeling of participating with a film one is viewing (262-263). “While Metz admits other factors in film’s effect on spectators, he ascribes a particular affect to the perception of motion, ‘a general law of psychology that movement is always perceived as real – unlike many other visual structures, such as volume, which is often readily perceived as unreal’” (Gunning 263). The action we see a human perform on the screen, the trees blowing in the wind, the rain coming down in buckets, the hair on the neck of a dog standing up – these can be seen in a way that an audience can feel as though they are actually happening – they are being experienced in what feels like “real time” although it is merely the way we perceive the moving images. This could certainly be a factor for why not only a spectator attends a film but also why he or she may find pleasure in it. The world that Anger Management provides is nearly identical to the one in which we live – the difficulty to be “transported” or perceive the film as “real” is not as difficult as it would be for a film that is fantastical, futuristic, or science-fiction.

Perhaps part of the pleasure a spectator finds in a film is the ease of participation. Gunning also states that while cinema cannot physically move us as viewers even if we feel as though we are in another place the “visual motion, such as camera movement, doesn’t only affect us visually but does produce the physiological effect of kinesthesia” (263). Depending upon the camera angles and the way the scene is shot can have different effects on the viewers. The plane scene in Anger Management provides shots from the other flight passenger’s points-of-view. We feel as though we are on the plane watching the scene unfold. We find the passenger next to Dave annoying in his comments about the film, his unnecessarily loud guffaws in response to the in-flight film, and his inappropriate comment. In two shots we are framed between the flight attendant and the Air Marshall providing us with a small glimpse of Dave’s face which feels realistic because it would be expected that part of the view is obstructed in a location. The movement of the image involves us while watching a screen in a similar way as watching cars pass on the street involves us: we feel present in the images transforming before our eyes and can feel the sequence unfolding as “real”.

We still have not considered a question Stam presents, “Why do spectators go to the cinema if they are forced? What pleasure are they seeking? (168). What pleasure indeed? For some theorists pleasure arises from the act of looking, or as Freud called it, scopophilia. Christian Metz considered an aspect to cinematic pleasure directly related to gratification in watching something or someone that does not know it is being watched (Stam 169). I wonder if this could also be aimed towards knowing that a film cannot watch us back, that we are free to respond in a way that we feel comfortable with. I also wonder if it isn’t so much watching someone that does not know it is being watched but rather back to the act of looking – in a more innocent way. Humans by nature pay attention to their senses, we feel rewarded by that which looks beautiful, smells fresh, feels soft, and tastes sweet. This leads to the question of why a spectator would choose to spend time at a film he or she had already decided would not be pleasurable.

A number of film reviews for and critiques of Anger Management show a divide in the emotions and reactions, the pleasure and displeasure felt in response to the movie. A seemingly large majority of reviewers question the choice of Peter Segal as the director. They also question why Jack Nicholson would stoop to act in a comedy with Adam Sandler. Many of the reviewers felt the film was not humorous at all. The minority opinion coming from those that are non-professional critics considered the film comedic, light, and not a complete waste of their time while also admitting that the film is unoriginal. A surprising pattern appears in the film’s reviews: spectators prefacing their statements in favor of the film with an anti-Sandler statement. Some of the reviewers were baffled that they found the film enjoyable and validated these statements with the acting prowess of Nicholson carrying the film.

Another excellent question to consider by Stam: “Why does the cinema provoke passionate reactions? (161). The answer could lie in spectator regression and a more primitive mindset for the duration of a film. Children have strong emotional responses and overreactions to stimuli and it is possible that so does an audience that is temporarily regressing during a film. Then why, if regression is temporary and therefore so are the overreactions, do a number of spectators (and critics) feel the urge to contemplate, dissect, and elaborate on topics presented within a film as well as talent performances? More so, why does a comedy like Anger Management provoke passionate reactions outside of laughter? Comedies are meant to entertain, to bring joy, and occasionally they seem to provide a moral message. Can comedic films be taken as seriously in critiques as dramatic films? I wonder if this is something that rarely happens (outside of reviews) because it is difficult to be serious when considering a film filled with flatulence, fat cats, crude jokes, and a howling “anger ally”.

I would like to suggest that there are a wide variety of reasons for why a spectator may attend a film screening, rent a DVD, or spend three hours on Netflix as well as a multitude of reasons for why an individual takes pleasure in the cinema. Edgar Morin states that “going to a movie” is going to see a “large continuous unit that tells a story” (Metz 140). Whether that unit is thirty minutes or ninety minutes or whether the story is dramatic, tragic, or comedic does not necessarily matter as long as the “story is so powerful that that the image, which is said to be the major constituent of film, vanishes behind the plot it has woven” (qtd. in Metz, 140). Many factors such as regression and escaping reality are likely to be implicit. The individual spectator may not be aware while watching the film that they are being immersed into a film environment or atmosphere and plot that is unlike any they have currently experienced or will ever experience in real life. It is also possible that some spectators are aware that they are escaping reality when entering a film theater and need the hour and a half to free their consciousness. Other reasons for attending a film could be an interest in the storyline, an obsession with an actor or actress, and yes, the pleasure of watching those that do not know they are being watched. It is interesting to note that the characters in the film do not know they are being watched, however the actors and filmmakers are well aware that the film will be watched; yet another illusion that movies portray. It could also be the peer pressure of friends and family that drive individuals to a theater, it could be the nonstop advertisements and awareness that individuals have no choice but to be subject to that encourage them to go to the cinema.

What is it about a film like Anger Management that brings an audience out to the theater and also provides pleasure? Perhaps part of that is due to the numerous patriotic references post September 11th, 2001 and a love of America’s sport: baseball. It could be the empathy felt when a quiet and hard-working employee gets stepped over for each promotion for coworkers that do nothing. Maybe it is the recognition of very human insecurities and fears about current relationships, a life-long career, and the unknown future. Internal regression could be brought out during moments of crass humor like the passenger on the plane asking Dave’s opinion on breast implants. A sense of participation could be brought out during the horror and humor when Dave is tasered for not “staying calm”. Could it also be that in order to find pleasure in some films there is nothing required but to simply sit, watch, and listen? Anger Management provides an audience with ninety plus minutes of easy-to-grasp jokes, celebrity cameos for an added bonus, and the talent of Jack Nicholson combined with the clumsy bumbling “character” of Adam Sandler. Maybe the filmmakers meant to provide spectators with a film to dissect, interpret, praise, denigrate, or otherwise. And maybe, just maybe, the filmmakers did not intend to engage intellectually at all but merely to entertain: to provide a reprieve from our daily lives that could be filled with laughter and that’s it. Ultimately then, the conclusion I am presenting is that it is neither “film as industry” nor the “mental machine” that is the culprit for spectator attendance at the cinema. Nor is either one the reason for such strong responses to films or the (dis)pleasure inherently felt when viewing a film. It is both the industry and the individual that pique interest, appeal to emotions, and occasionally offend.

Works Cited

Anger Management. Dir. Peter Segal. Perf. Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. Revolution Studios, 2003. DVD.

Gunning, Tom. The Film Theory Reader: Debates and Arguments. Ed. Marc Furstenau. London: Routledge, 2010. 255-67. Print.

Metz, Christian. The Film Theory Reader: Debates and Arguments. Ed. Marc Furstenau. London: Routledge, 2010. 138-42. Print.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2000. 158-69. Print.