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Walking out on The Laramie Project

I would like to make an apology. To the half dozen people in the back of ULH last night whose view I partially blocked as I walked out during a climactic scene of HBO’s The Laramie Project, I am truly sorry. But I have always heard that you should stand up for what you believe, and since I believed The Laramie Project was a waste of time, some standing was called for. And then some walking, all the way back to The Oracle news cave to write down my thoughts.

On paper, The Laramie Project must have been a great idea. No one can fault HBO for wanting to make us more aware of the Matthew Shepard story. True, the story garnered national headlines and sparked heated debates in 1998, but that was four years ago, and some might have forgotten. For those of you who did, you can read all about it on today’s front page. I’d rather not get into it; it just makes me think of how much more powerful HBO’s flick could have been.

Based on a play of the same name, The Laramie Project begins with a shot of Laura Linney reciting the first of many ineffectively melodramatic lines. These lines come from more than 200 interviews done by the New York playwrights with the Laramie, Wyo. locals. While I have no doubt that every word uttered by the people of Laramie was sincere and poignant, I could not suspend my disbelief when I saw recognizable Hollywood faces acting them out on film.

Having top-notch actors chewing up the screen, with useless dramatic pauses and falsely nervous side glances, only cheapened the effect of the film’s pretended documentary style. The problem is not that there are big name stars in the film or that the film is shot like a straight documentary. But the two ingredients make for a horrible mix. HBO would have done better to just choose one of the two: either popular faces in a dramatization of the events, or a true, first-hand account by Laramie locals.

I personally would have preferred the latter. It would have made the film what it needed to be – a real world story told by the people who were there. Anything else would only be a taste of the real deal.

When I walked out, Amy Madigan, who was pretending to be a local cop, was revealing to the audience that she may have contracted HIV from contact with Matthew Shepard’s blood at the crime scene. But the scene in the film was a pure blunder. While I tried to take the revelation at face value as a statement of facts that actually occurred to a real person, the shortcomings of the performance kept getting in the way. Not that Amy Madigan is a poor actor or that she wasn’t right for the role, it’s just that there shouldn’t have been a role in the first place.

There are some things you just can’t fake on film, and attempting to do so in this scene was a mistake. It’s not the first in The Laramie Project, and unless things made a sharp U-turn after I left, it probably wasn’t the last.

Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe the panel discussion made the whole thing worthwhile (and if not, the free CDs they gave out at the end couldn’t have hurt).

I just couldn’t sit there any longer watching people like Joshua Jackson (Pacey from Dawson’s Creek) pretend to give me a first-person account of the Matthew Shepard story.

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