Movies 101

February 18, 2007

Sigh.

It’s been a great year at the movies, but it’s also been a tough year to watch.

I say “great” because, as I find every year, there have been movies this year which have transported me. Movies which have surprised me. Movies which have educated me. Movies that have enlightened me.

Unfortunately, many of these same movies have failed, and failed miserably, in the basic, fundamental, movie-making-101 elements of storytelling.

What makes a great movie? Story? Obviously. Performances? Duh! Directing? Of course! Cinematography? Sure, who wants an ugly movie? Music? Editing? Visual effects? Yes, yes, yes.

And most of the nominated movies had most of these qualities. But many, many, many of them missed two key elements of a great story, and a great movie: joy, and character development.

Joy may be the less tangible of these two things, so let me tackle that first.

Is it possible to watch a spectacle that is utterly free of any joyful moments, and yet deem that experience to be a worthwhile use of your precious time?

Perhaps.

After all, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is, with only a few glorious, yet brief, interludes, an absolutely joyless play, and yet for reasons that elude me, people seem to like it. I’ll freely admit, I don’t know why. Old Will was clearly feeling pompous and full of vinegar when he wrote it — probably because he couldn’t make up his mind between the blond and the brunette — both wanted to jump him, but one had bad breath, and the other a mole on her forehead.

“That it should come to this!”

And so we endure over and over again hours upon hours of Hamlet navel-gazing and wondering if it is worth just getting up tomorrow to face another day. Tip to Hamlet — it isn’t. Just off yourself and save us a depressing and wasted evening. “To be or not to be?”. Trust me: choose “not.”

But I digress.

A basic element of any story, no matter how difficult the subject matter, no matter how gruesome the plot material, is that it must, somehow, capture the viewer so that she/he cares. Otherwise it’s not a movie, it’s the evening news.

It is not enough, in the forum of storytelling, to simply report some hideous facts about a horrific story and characters therein. We have to be invested in someone in the story. There has to be someone who grabs our imagination, and makes us want to care whether they succeed or not.

But this basic principle of storytelling was, by and large, forgotten in 2006.

Also ignored was the idea that, in a story, a character starts somewhere, but over the course of a medium popcorn, medium soda, hotdog and 1 washroom sprint (for me, not the character) goes to somewhere else (either a better or worse place — doesn’t matter. They have a journey, and the journey is what counts).

In 2006, gas prices must have had an influence, ’cause too many characters went nowhere. They just stayed home. I wished I would have too, so that I wouldn’t have had to witness their monotonic, joyless voyages, and this post would be far more joyfull (good thing!) too.

Some cases in point:

  • “The Last King of Scotland”: What was the story about? Some bad, bad shit in Uganda. OK. And the story of the two main characters — Idi Amin (played gorgeously by Forrest Whittaker) , and Nicolas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy) . As for the bad, bad shit — I think there was at least one moment in the film where I didn’t feel like utter crap (but this flash of joy might have came more from an ice cube from my soda ending up inside my shirt rather than from any actual mirth in the movie…) As for character development. Dear Idi started out as a fun-loving homicidal maniac, and ended as a homocidal maniac with no friends. Nicolas went from being a fun-loving, naive cad, to a cad who needs to escape so that he doesn’t get tortured and/or killed.And I’m supposed to care? Let them all die, I say. Just wish they would have sooner.
  • “Little Children”:puhlease. A man and a woman who are bored with their lives, and too lazy to do anything about it. So they have sex. I must point out they are married to other people, and so we have the conflict. Fortunately, for reasons never shared with us, they decide they are bored with each other too and so sneak back to their previously boring lives.No joy. No character arc, as far as I could tell. Come on!
  • “Blood Diamond”: And we are supposed to care that dear Leo’s character finds the damn rock? Why??? I suppose I should have had sympathy for Solomar Vandy (played by Djimon Hounsou) — after all his son was pressed into insurgent service and he became a slave. Yeah, I suppose I could have cared for him if the camera wasn’t so much on Leo, and if they both didn’t spend so much time not being hit by bullets. Whatever. Character development? I suppose so, if you count running from here to there so that you don’t get a bullet in your head. Yeah, not so much.
  • “The Devil Wears Prada”: OK there was some joy in this one. character arc, however? Hmmm. Meryl Streep starts off a bitch and ends up as a bitch. Holy crap! What a journey! My life is forever changed.
  • “The Departed”: bad guys stay bad guys, until they die. Conflicted good guy stays conflicted good guy, until he dies. Wow. I never thought that was possible (insert sarcasm here).

But are there counterexamples? Movies, with “tough” stories”? Movies that had a character arc and weren’t completely fracking joyless for the entire film?

For your consideration, ladies and gentlemen:

  • Million Dollar Baby
  • The English Patient
  • Unforgiven
  • Schindler’s List
  • The Deer Hunter
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • West Side Story
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • In the Heat of the Night
  • All Quiet on the Western Front

and so on. Oh yeah, all of the above shared one other quality too: they all were chosen by the Academy as Best Motion Picture of the Year.

Hollywood: it can be done. You can take a character on a journey. You can tell a hard, uncomfortable story. And you can do it not just by cludgeoning your audience; you can actually entertain.

Just not often enough in 2006.

ps. dear reader: don’t you dare mention that “Hamlet” won for Best Picture in 1948. I know, but that was due to Olivier, who somehow managed to elicit empathy towards modern literature’s most pathetic character.

And anyway I posit that the exception proves the rule.

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