Picture this: You’re away from L.A. for a few days, visiting friends and family in Florida; you’re about to walk into a restaurant to have dinner with your parents, when suddenly your phone rings. The caller ID says it’s Mark, the editor of a magazine you write for. But when you answer, Sam is on the line. Sam Jackson, that is.
“Scott! This is Samuel L. Jackson,” barks that unmistakable baritone.
“Now, you may know me from my roles in movies like Pulp Fiction, Star Wars and The Incredibles . . .”
Know you? You’re Sam Motherfucking Jackson. Everyone knows who you are!
“. . . but I’m here today to make sure you go see a movie that holds a special place in my heart. That’s right: I’m talking about Snakes on a Plane. I know that sounds crazy, but I don’t give a damn, because Snakes on a Plane just might be the best motion picture ever made!”
I have no trouble believing that.
“So, listen up: Forget about your regular job working in the media.”
Hey, how did you . . .
“Just hop in that tin can you call a car.”
Well, it does have over 100,000 miles on it, but . . .
“Go get your homeboy, Mark. And go see Snakes on a Plane — the one summer blockbuster that will take a nasty bite out of your butt.”
Dude, say no more. I am so there.
As you’ve probably already guessed, among the many glamorous perks that come with this job, access to Sam Jackson’s inner friendship circle isn’t one of them. I’ve never so much as met the man, and as intimate as our 50 or so seconds of phone time were, it wasn’t exactly a personal call. Rather, I was the victim of one of the more ingenious weapons in the arsenal of what was arguably the summer’s most ingeniously (albeit unsuccessfully) marketed movie. Log on to the official Snakes on a Plane Web site, choose some personal details from a series of menus, and, before you can say “Kool and the Gang,” your own customized Sam-o-gram will be making its way to the “homeboy” or “homegirl” of your choice. It’s partly because of such gimmicks that people in the industry expected so much of Snakes: It was the one movie out there that seemed to have it all figured out, to have broken across that perilous old-media/new-media divide, to have become a certifiable cult classic before anyone had seen so much as a frame of it. And here’s the kicker: Snakes on a Plane turned out to be one of the best studio movies of the summer — exuberantly crude and unpretentious and driven by a vaudevillian sense of giving you the most possible bang for your buck. No wonder many reviews of the film — none of which broke until midway through opening day as a result of New Line’s decision not to hold advance press screenings — spent as much or more time reviewing the enthusiastic audience response to the film, which, at the show I attended, included deafening anticipatory cheers starting with the first few flickers of the studio logo upon the darkened screen. As the L.A. Weekly’s own Chuck Wilson reported in an e-mail sent a few hours after attending an opening-night Snakes screening, “I haven’t seen an audience that excited in years.When it felt like time for another snake attack, they’d start hissing, ‘Ssssssssssssss.’ Afterward, they stood outside, laughing and grinning to beat the band. People will see it more than once, not just because it’s a kick-ass thrill ride but because they’ll be hoping to feel again that almost joyous sense of having had a shared experience, which is a bit of movie magic that not even the fanciest home theater system can duplicate. Think of these as the snakes who saved Hollywood.”
Well, by now you’ve likely heard that Snakes’ hiss turned out to be far worse than its bite. As the so-called “industry experts” performed their ritualistic Monday-morning quarterback routine on the movie’s opening-weekend number, the collective sigh of disappointment was practically audible. And by the time a curious little news item (later discounted as a hoax) surfaced, reporting of a multiplex in Phoenix where some merry prankster released a couple of diamondback rattlers into an audience full of Snakes viewers, I imagine that there were those at New Line slapping their palms to their foreheads and wondering, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
So, what went wrong? The theories quickly proliferated: Some said that the movie’s target audience of teenage and 20-something males simply stayed home downloading bootleg copies of Snakes from the Web. Others, like online columnist David Poland, reasoned that the “key demo” did turn out en masse, but that the film failed to appeal to a wider audience. (My mother, for one, still hasn’t heard of it.) Certainly, if you did find yourself among a Thursday-night late-show crowd somewhere in L.A., it was hard to imagine that Snakes would prove to be anything short of a phenomenon. But what I wonder about are the folks in Phoenix, and Topeka, and Nashville, and all those other places on the map where not everybody knows somebody in “the industry,” and where the billboards and bus benches advertise things other than movies: Were they as stoked to see Snakes as those of us who live inside the major-market mass-media bubble? In Greensboro, was the film perceived as the ne plus ultra of post-postmodern in-jokiness or just another low-budget horror flick? And in Fort Lauderdale, where the geriatric crowd-pleaser Boynton Beach Club (a movie my mother has heard of) turned into a massive local hit, did a movie called Snakes on a Plane exude the same innate appeal as, say, one called Yentas on a Yacht?