Mama Mia! What's Wrong?

This picture must be (c) to somebody. Don't know who though. Just don't go selling it.

There are some things I just don't get. Pedigree dog shows for instance, or those big fluffy dice in cars. The inimitable John Clark, speaking about synchronised swimming, (another thing I just don't get) said, "It's like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. You've got to admit it's an accomplishment, but you've got to ask "Why?'" Exactly. I went to see the film Mama Mia last night. It's another of those things I just don't get.

The movie starts with a series of little establishing shots. One is of a girl in a boat on a picturesque moonlit sea. She's holding the tiller, but she's not rowing. There's no sail and there's no motor, but the boat is making quite good headway as it pulls out from the shore. It sort of sets up what we are to expect. There are three histrionic girls. Three histrionic middle aged women. A diary. Three middle aged blokes who each, bafflingly, tries hard to claim paternity for a girl born out of a one night stand 20 years ago (even more baffling because the mother is one of the 3HMAW ). People lip synching and exhuberantly jiggling about to old Abba songs sung by people who became famous for things other than singing - and lots of evidence as to why they wouldn't have become famous if they'd tried the singing earlier. A Greek Orthodox chapel containing a Catholic priest and a water main or a spring or something which bursts out of the ground on the top of a hill. Lots of mugging and hamming. Lots of pretty scenery. Lots of lush colours and a whole compendium of cliched cinematography.

Now this isn't the first piece of entertainment where there is no plot to speak of, and where the characters are shallow one dimensional caricatures. Most operas would fit this description, but at least in opera you are compensated for the inanity of the storyline by being able to listen to Puccini or Mozart. Here you listen to old Abba covers. Abba songs are like advertising jingles: they have very catchy tunes but mind bogglingly drivelous words. The effect this gives to Mama Mia is that if has all the intellectual power and all the emotional depth of a television ad, except that in this case it lasts for 108 minutes. 108 very very long minutes.

Now, of course I realise that this is all my opinion. I know many people who have seen this movie and really enjoyed it. When Clemency and I told folk we were going to it we were universally assured: "you'll LOVE it!" I found myself afterward like some grumpy old curmudgeon; like Mr. Hurst in Pride and Prejudice muttering as he is coming out of the Ball where everyone else has had a good time, "Dem tedious waste of an evening." Perhaps it's a gender thing, except I went with two women, one of whom yawned and went out halfway through for coffee and the other who sat rolling her eyes and snorting in derision. So, all those of you who found this film toe tappingly engaging: tell me where I am wrong. Is it me? What am I missing?


Brian R said…
Finally someone who agrees with me. Everyone I know, loved it although some did criticise the singing of Pierce Brosnan. I did think Meryl Streep was amazing for her age.
Tillerman said…
Everything that you say about the films one dimensionality and shallowness and bubblegum quality is true. But these qualities are very good at entertaining people, taking them outside of themselves and making them smile and be happy for a while. In a way the film is an exemplar of one aspect of what Hollywood is all about - bubble gum entertainment.

The shallowness, twee ness and silliness of it all doesn't in my opinion undermine its value as being a worthwhile bit of flim flam entertainment, the fact that you didn't get your musical rocks off on this bit of flim flam simply proves the adage "one mans/woman’s wine is another mans/woman's poison" - but it doesn't alter the fact that this film and its music is high quality flim flam, - one dimensionality and shallowness taken to an exquisite degree.

There are two other aspects - one a mixture of gradations of quality are essential to provide touchstones for judging quality - how do we know some things are better if we don't have something to judge them against.
Secondly there is something C S Lewis wrote in one of his academicy books (I think it was "A Study In Words") where he urges caution in making negative judgements of the effect and benefits of types of reading (cheap thrillers, Mills and Boon) for certain sections of the reading public - i.e. they are engaging in their own way with similar truths at a certain level in ways that the great literature engages others.

In all aspects of human endeavour hierarchies of taste are established. Sometimes the arguments are more about defending a position in the hierarchy than about the endeavour itself.

One endeavour I love is sailing and I often see value judgements being made. The high tech carbon fibre titanium brigade pitted against the trade wind baggy wrinkle brigade - both puffing and blowing about the value and legitimacy of the other (we are the REAL sailors, our boats express the REAL meaning of what sailing is all about) - for myself I love them all - the 6 foot wine barrel that some dickhead wants to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the little yawl hunting her easting down on the way to Tahiti to the formula one high tech Americas cup yachts - they are all part of the rich tapestry that makes up this wonderful and gorgeous life on this unique planet.
VenDr said…
Well, it was slick, in the way a television advertisement is slick and I suppose that's what Hollywood is good at. I don't want to deny that many people enjoyed this but I am very curious about why people enjoyed it. I simply found it tedious. In my opinion it was one of the worst films I have ever seen. Entertainment Tonight's review says that the choreography was the worst ever seen in any film, ever. I don't know about choreography but it certainly looked cumbersome and chaotic to me. The singing was appalling with a couple of exceptions: Meryl Streep can shold a tune, and Colin Firth has a quite good tenor. The script seemed to be merely a vehicle to fit in as many Abba tunes as possible in the time given.

It was a great cast and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I can see that it might work very well on stage, where the only thing that matters is the songs.

There's a distinction to be made between entertainment and amusement. Amusement is shutting off people's higher mental faculties for a while - stopping them thinking - in order to provide a temporary escape from reality. Entertainment means to engage people, making them at home in a fictional world or an idea(in the way you entertain a guest in your home) in order to lead them somewhere. This was amusement. But I guess I wasn't much amused.
VenDr said…
The old yacht was pretty good. And I'm sure you enjoyed the dinghy with the phantom power source - fast AND environmentally friendly
Tillerman said…
I think entertainment and amusement are sometimes distinct, sometimes inextricably interwoven. I was amused by the whole thing, especially amused by thinking what a hoot it would have been to have been on the cast making the thing.

The idea that engaged and entertained me was the concept of how 'flim flam' and cleverly written melodies can be a vehicle for things like joy, happiness, smiling and foot tapping in the audience - it's a similiar concept in a way to how a childrens story such as "The Selfish Giant" can be a vehicle for different emotional effects.

The fact is you didn't particularly like this movie - its all a matter of taste in the end I guess.

Yes I did indeed enjoy the yacht. (Tai - Mo - Shan is her real name -she has a very rich history and was the reason I went to the film in the first place).
daniel said…
"shutting off people's higher mental faculties for a while - stopping them thinking - in order to provide a temporary escape from reality."

Regardless of what the word once meant, that sounds like a very good definition of modern entertainment. Most of modern media actually.
Anonymous said…
"Tell me where I am wrong. Is it me? What am I missing?"

You are not wrong, you just didn't like it.

Yes it is you, you just didn't like the movie, which may have something to do with your ability to suspend your judgements and have a bit of fun in this context, but thats ok we all have fun in our own way.

but:(all this naming in your post -what does it tell us about you? and what it tells us is only a matter of opinion) and you can be a grumpy old curmudgeon if you want to, it's up to you - even if you can't even spell it :-)

What are you missing? nothing, you didn't miss the movie, you just reacted in your own individual way.

Post Modernism is a bugger, people are just going to believe and like what they want to believe and like.
Janice said…
I think, like most things, that we respond to entertainment according to our moods, our 'head space' as it were. Tonight I was watching a film that had both Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich in it, one of those rootin' tootin' shoot 'em ups that the yanks love so much. My beloved spouse sat next to me, hating every minute of the movie, not because it had violent old Clint in it, but because he has heard of a movie called 'On being John Malkovich', and thinks that's the height of egotism and doesn't want to ever watch poor old John again in anything. Even though I razzed the very daylights out of him for being so fickle, he refused to go away, so ended up watching John in spite of himself! Go figure!

As for me, I was listening to a CD of Viktor Borge while waiting for a ferry last week, and I laughed and laughed, but when I played it again after I got back home, I didn't find it funny at all. All relative to mood, state of mind, level of fatigue, etc., etc., etc.

I usually get very perverse when people tell me I will 'love' something or someone, don't know why, and dislike whatever it is intensely, and if I went to see Mama Mia, I think I would probably react in the same way you have. I have not, fortunately, even been the tiniest bit tempted because I saw the trailers and thought they were right up there with the revival of Grease (ho hum).

I have to tell you, though, that I once refused to read books by Sharyn McCrumb because I thought that anyone who would make up a name like that couldn't be a good writer. Fortunately, I finally succumbed to one of her titles, 'If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him', and discovered that she's a brilliant writer, so I am glad to have been proven wrong in that instance. The odd thing is that neither one of my reasons made much sense.

One last thing - if you like Meryl Streep, she's great in Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keeler (sp), and other assorted stars.
VenDr said…
Yes, I'm aware of that dynamic Janice. In the 70's I saw on TV Alan Ayckbourn'splay cycle The Norman Conquests and was absolutely bowled over by its wit, cleverness and humour. In the 80s sometime it was repeated. I diaried it cancelled all engagements to be home and watch it and was crushingly disappointed - it was dated, stagy and unfunny. This year We were lent a DVD and watched it again, expecting it to be D,S&U but were pleasantly surprised to find it once again a clever and brilliantly paced trilogy stunningly acted by a top line British cast - our viewing in each instance was heavily influenced by expectations.

And yes Meryl Streep was brilliant in A Prairie Home Companion. She sang well in PHC as well as Mama Mia. I have been an admirer of hers for a very long time - back through Sophie's Choice and The French Lieutenant's Woman to Holocaust and The Deer Hunter.

Now someone said enjoying Mama Mia was a matter of suspending judgements, as though this film were naturally entertaining, but what stopped me appreciating its natural charms was some sort of imposed judgement - a sort of cultural censor I was unwilling to shelve for the evening. I think rather that the film had no entry points for me. There were no characters for me to identify with. The three main women were, Meryl Streep's personal charms notwithstanding, somewhat repugnant. There was no story line into which I could imaginatively enter. There wasn't much that was aesthetically pleasing apart from the scenery and there was always people bobbing about in front of that, spoiling the view. And I have never really liked the songs. So how could I find a way into the movie?

By contrast, it is by and large women who like this film. Middle aged women. This is one of the first romantic movies I've seen where the principals are decidedly menopausal.Meryl Streep at 59 - about the age of those who listened to Abba in their youth - doing high kicks and singing bouncy pop songs and ending up with Pierce Brosnan for her trouble... yes I could see why middle aged women would find it easy to identify with that.
Anonymous said…
Sometimes I think we need a rest from intellectual power and emotional depth.
Tillerman said…
I think you are right when you identify the fact that middle aged women would find it easy to identify with the film. Often the identifications of middle aged women have much to recommend them.

I definitely think the feminine qualities of the film is why I like it so much. Its a Jungian thing I guess. If the personality is to be well adjusted and harmoniously balanced, the feminine side of a man's personality and the masculine side of a woman's personality must be allowed to express themselves in consciousness and behaviour.
Janice said…
As a rule, the average middle aged woman turns into a grey ghost' unseen, unappreciated, overlooked, and scorned by most as having no value. And yet, in a place like the church, they work like trojans, and I can't think of a priest I have ever met being able to function without them. In fact, if all the middle-aged to elderly women in my church suddenly stopped coming, the church would collapse, and that's probably true everywhere. Your callous disregard for the middle-aged woman stuns me, Kelvin, as I thought you were a thinking, educated man, but this is clearly a subjuct about which you know nothing.

Sign me 'Turning 61 next week...
Anonymous said…
I think you are taking it too literally.. and you are also the wrong demographic. You could drive a drive a truck through the holes in the plot and the acting was wooden.. but at the end of a long cold wet winter, it was great to see a group of women , who actually looked their age, enjoying themselves in the Greek sun.
Janice said…
Well, I'll admit that my pit bull did get away from me for a minute, and ran down the back alley with my sense of humour in his mouth, but i will not concede that I took anything too literally. The whole middle age thing has been a thread throughout this particular blog, and I also disagree that I'm the wrong demographic, given that so many people are living to be 100 or more! I take it that you meant that I'm too old to be middle aged, right, but if I'm a little past that in your eyes, I have at least lived it and know what it's like! I think the problem that middle aged men have with their female contemporaries is that we're on to you, and we don't willing take any crap from you like a 20 year old might! So play nice!
VenDr said…
Hi Janice. "K" is not me and I suspect her (?) comments were directed at me not you. I am, incidentally in much the same demographic as you. I know the church would not function without women of our age and apologise if anything I've said has been disrespectful. "K" has, incidentally provided me with a Eureka moment. I'll write about it later.
VenDr said…
Over the weekend I began to regret starting all this off and seriously considered removing the original post and all its comments. K, you have been helpful in calling me to order. So let me recap:

Although, obviously, I didn't enjoy Mama Mia, I didn't mean to denigrate those people who did. But I was curious. I'm used to tedious and boring things - after all I'm an Anglican and tedious and boring is our stock in trade. But all around me in the theatre were people laughing at the jokes and bobbing their heads to the music. It was odd. Sort of like watching people eat broccoli with apparent relish. And it wasn't just that people enjoyed the film - they were ecstatic about it. I read on one review site, the testimony of a woman who has seen it 7 times. Many have told me they are buying the DVD as soon as it comes out. Tillerman's blog discussion ( - is filled with enthusiasm - well, apart from my comment that is. I seem to remember Tillerman exhibiting lapses of taste in the past: he enjoyed Funny Girl for example and never quite understood my devotion to Bob Dylan, but he was pretty excited by the movie, and so were most of his readers - some of them people of (heretofore)impeccable taste and high intelligence. Why? WHY? What had I not seen? It was that curiosity, and not a desire to rubbish the film, which drove me to post on here. I wanted someone to explain what made the film so compelling for them, not to rubbish their viewpoint but so that I could understand.

Now, K. You have asked the questions and made the observation I should have made in the first place. I did my doctoral dissertation on narrative. I was interested in WHY people listen to stories. Why does the same information presented in a story get remembered, but in propositions get forgotten? Why do some people like some stories but not others? Twenty years ago I arrived at what I thought was a pretty good model to answer these questions. I came up with a fairly sound analytical method, which, to my own shame, I quite forgot to employ in this instance.

I did a polarity analysis of the film as I lay awake at 3 this morning (my premiere, #1, usual thinking time)and it all came clear. K, you're a genius. Thank you.

As to what the heck a polarity analysis is, I'll think today about how I can shoehorn a doctoral dissertation (even one as light on substance as mine) into a blog post and get back to you.
Janice said…
Sorry, Kelvin, guess I was busy taking potshots at whoever stuck their heads up! You certainly don't have the corner on curmudgeonly crankiness...but I'm glad you started the whole thing, it's been a while since I had this much fun!!! I enjoy a bit of sparring, gets the blood flowing. Perhaps K could be a
little clearer about who he/she is in future, to avoid cases of mistaken identity. Again, I apologize for biting your head off, t'wasn't very nice of me.
Anonymous said…
Why did I enjoy this movie?? Purely because it is a bit of fluff. As a 47 yr old female, I grew up listening to and mostly enjoying Abbas music. I didn't like it all but in this movie they have used all the big hits. I enjoyed it for the memories of my teenage years it evoked, I enjoyed it because the cast all seemed to be having an absolute blast, I enjoyed it for it's complete inaneness (is there such a word?!),I enjoyed it for the (for me anyway) completely foreign concept of Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep and Colin Firth singing, I enjoyed it because it was never meant to be taken seriously. There is just soooo much nastiness and misery around us that this was an opportunity to turn the world off let go and just laugh.
Anonymous said…
Kelvin, John Clark is a man of accomplishment, but I do not expect him to know abotu the theological significance of melodic flatulence (which is not a reference to 'Mamma Mia'). In St. Augustine's The City of God, Augustine, not otherwise noted for his levity, makes mention of men who "have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing." That mankind in general has lost this ability he attributes to the first sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences with respect to body control. (The City of God Against the Pagans, ed and trans Philip Levine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), XIV.24.

You read it first here!
VenDr said…
Melodic flatulence is the perfect description of Mama Mia, although, admittedly, it is a bit light on the melodic bit.

Indeed I did read it first here. If it is indeed a skill lost at the fall, a whole new depth of meaning wafts fragrantly around the angelic choir. No wonder the shepherds in the field abiding were sore afraid at the sound of them.
Anonymous said…
OK, I was being kind to the film - haven't seen it, don't intend to, but I'm sure it's a gas (methane).
As for Augustine, the whole passage is extremely interesting, but I defy even you to work this into a sermon:

('Now, Kelvin, remember what your mother said: don't fart before her and don't accept dares!')
VenDr said…
Do you mean content or method of delivery?
Tillerman said…
Kelvin: - It is a far better thing to set a light to a bottle of flatulence and watch the wondrous fireworks than it is to curse the darkness - you have much too yet learn grasshopper.

Anon: -- if this is indeed true of Augustine it is very intriguing indeed. I wonder if there is something about cultural practises of his age that we are ignorant of. Perhaps in his time farting after a meal was a form of appreciation in a similar way to Middle Eastern belching.
There is need for further research. I feel a mission coming on for you. This would be in the form of a BlogSpot on flatulence. You could call it Augustine's Anus - Your signature music could be Bach's 'Air on a G string'.
Anonymous said…
Tillerman: indeed it is true; you may check it out on wikisource, the fons et origo of all truth.
But I will leave the research project to your good self. I do not feel a mission coming on, but perhaps there will be an emission from you? If there is wind of such a thing, perhaps you can break news of it here. You are after all in those Blessed Isles where it was believed money could be made (cui bono?, I have to ask) by taxing bovine flatulence. As the tight-fisted Irishman said, a farthing for your t'oughts!
Tillerman said…
Anon: - There are emissions of various genres from me all the time and I have to be wary of naked flames and some grim faced Mamma Mia doubters at all times.

Thankyou for your reply, it made me smile a Great deal and smiling is good for you.

You aren't one of the script writers for Mamma Mia are you?