Monday, August 6, 2012

R3V13W3R$: Aesthetique Thoughts

Yes, I have more thoughts about what it's like to be a film reviewer. As always, if you're wondering where I got the "R3V13W3R$" title, click here. Hopefully, this entry won't be so long that you have a hard time following what I'm discussing, or coming up with your own thoughts on my opinions.

We've all been there at some point: unless you mindlessly accept everything that happens in a movie, you hit a part of a film that really bothers you. Maybe you don't like sad endings, or you can't believe that a character quickly changes from "bad" to "good" (or vice-versa). Perhaps you don't like that someone died, or some sub-plots seem completely improbable.

In each case, we're being critical of what the filmmakers chose to do with their stories. It's like reading Great Expectations and thinking (SPOILERS), "how could that young boy grow into such a small, unfortunate adult?" You're challenging the validity or credibility of narrative choices that are made by professionals. But most of the people who do this are amateurs, not pros.

Why's that kid such a mope, huh?
As such, today I want to spend a spell describing when I think these sorts of complaints are valid, and why. The real key, I believe, is to focus less on your own preferences and more on "objective" good rules of writing. Ultimately, it's the writing that's my usual focus (unless I'm shooting photos, of course), and I think I have a good-enough technical knowledge and stylistic ideas to get into this topic.

By the by, I'll focus mostly on TV plots because it's less likely that I'll spoil something huge for you; you might start watching a series and forget the late-game spoilers I reveal below. If you want to think about movies that do what I'm complaining about, just consider most romantic comedies, scifi, and horror over the last 20 years; your mind should supply its own examples, all spoiler-free.

I'm pretty sure that I do not dislike story-lines just because they don't go how I want them to. You know what I'm talking about - you get invested in characters and you want him and her (or whatever combination) to get together and have a happy ending. The kid gets saved, the spouse doesn't die, the bad guys face justice. I have my preferences, of course, but I wouldn't demand them from a thoughtful story-teller.

I've seen films where a couple I don't want getting together actually gets together (Garr and Dreyfuss in Hot to Trot). I've seen main plots that end up exactly where I don't want them to be (12 Monkeys, The Mist). I've seen minor plots go in directions that I found unexpectedly boring and/or typical (American Beauty, Spider-man 2), or without any logic at all (X2). I did not reject any of these movies for doing something that I found flawed...

In the end, what matters most is what feels true to the characters, what feels true to the world established by the movie, and what feels true to good rules of writing. A professional's story should: not be very predictable; have a thesis or real subject or something to say; favor showing rather than telling; flesh out its characters; have a consistent tone, and; have events and dialogue that flow from the characters and situations.

One of my relatives described Nip/Tuck to me. It sounded like a show that started out as daring, but quickly became a Madlibs where "what's the most messed-up thing we could insert here?" is the deciding factor. A guy sleeps with his best friend's wife before their wedding day - and it doesn't feel organic or true to the role, it's just... the writers wanted tension. And so they manufactured it.

Space: where crazy s--t happens, but nothing actually changes.

Another relative watched a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They told me how the show was about a ship that has like at least 100 families on board. They also said that every romantic interest for the 7 leads was a mere illusion: by the end of the hour, there's some reason that two people can't be together, and the big reasons seem to be: (a) we don't want to pay for another actor and (b) it's too "definitive" to give one of the stars a serious relationship.

Another relative was a big fan of The X-Files. What did they say about the series? That Chris Carter and the writing team constantly approached answers/resolution for the show's big questions, but always backed off at the end. I also learned that X-Files had a long-running will they/won't they thing for the leads - but it only pays off in the movie and in the later seasons when the male star (Duchovny) left for other projects. Yup, the relationship only happened when they had no choice but to make one of them into an absentee boyfriend.

If you've read some of my TV-related entries, you know I watched Lost. Well, it took until season 6 (the last season) for the audience to get any answers to: what is the smoke monster; who is Jacob; why did everyone come to the Island; and what's the deal with this island, anyway. Who's supposed to be satisfied with 118 episodes of waiting to get answers 2 episodes before the very end?

Funny, John's is the only well-defined role.
Or, to give you at least one specific example from cinema, I'll point you back to what I wrote in another article where I discussed Being John Malkovich. I don't care that (SPOILERS) the characters played by Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener wind up each ditching John Cusack's role, and get into a relationship. More power to 'em for being sexually flexible, I guess.

However, by the film's end, we have two supremely selfish women who are made to seem "deep" and suddenly "thoughtful" and the only real difference we see in their lives is that they're having sex with women instead of with a man. I don't think becoming a lesbian/bi-sexual somehow makes anyone into a less self-centered person. What happens to John Cusack's character seems similarly "this happened because it happened," not driven by the emotional intricacies of his part.

My problems with BJM don't lie in the specifics of what happened, just that the events are so disconnected from what I've seen that it comes off as artificial, manipulative, or flat-out absurd.

Many real lives and relationships don't have happy endings. Many people have arguments/fights/break-ups that are just the result of mis-communication. Many people chicken out, or don't follow their dreams, or do the wrong thing for the worst reasons.

But I do get pissed off when writers force a plot awkwardly, or decide to just exploit the audience with things like "a big twist." I especially hate it when the romantic leads of a film have a big fight and it feels like it's only happening so they can get back together later. "We still have another 30 minutes to go! We can't create any tension unless they completely break up!"

Well, I have to ask, "Why?!" Is this just a lack of imagination, or is there some rule that says "it has to be this way?"

I'm not saying that all stories should be the same, any more than every story must go the way I'd prefer. On a writer's part, it takes courage to do something unusual, just like it takes courage to not gratify your fans. It's like working without a net, because it defies audience expectations and goes against the grain.

Then again, BSG did change things up - idiotically.
And the people who do make those creative decisions? On occasion, these are just the choices of some jerk who's being "different" just for the sake of being different. Taking the "alt-choice" each time is no more special or impressive than taking the "cliche choice" every time. They're two halves of the same unambitious coin.

However, it takes no guts, in the TV world, to leave a character largely undeveloped, then start to delve into them in the ep of/before their planned death. Similarly, it's gutless when a long-standing show, one that's been very static in progressing its story or roles, creates a finale that's loaded with fan service developments or changes that would never have happened if there were more story left to write.

These sorts of things are important to pay attention to. In part, they help distinguish writers who are ambitious from those who are merely typical. For another, lots of shows and films can lose steam as they go on, and these sorts of things help you start to realize that your favorite story may be going down-hill. Fans of House seem very strong on that point.

Parker, Sarsgaard, & Gugino in The Center of the World - so hot, so f---ing senseless.
It's very hard to take your instinct and distinguish it from your own preferences, or to really articulate why it feels so wrong, but I think I can boil it down to this: Sometimes, the only real sign that you have of a choice being "wrong" is that you say to yourself, "if this character is going to do that unlikely thing, then the writers, director, and actor didn't set it up properly, because this seems like complete bs."

Actually, avoiding discussions of movies feels too cowardly. Screw that - SPOILERS! DJ and I discuss movies sometimes, and we came up on the topic of "turns" versus "twists." We even argued over the basic definition of each, tho I think I won out (of course). A twist changes some little part of a movie so that something unexpected happens; a turn changes the whole course that the film follows.

So the end of The Sixth Sense is a twist - it fits into the narrative we've seen like a key in a lock, clearing up questions and issues. But in Malice, the picture sets the audience up for a drama about out-of-control genius/doctors and the damage they might cause; and early on/halfway through, it turns into another type of story entirely. In the simplest terms, one is a bigger deviation than the other, altering the whole tone of the piece.

If you've seen a great film called Lone Star, you know that two characters are confronted with a real problem to their relationship - and they make a choice that can be called controversial. I don't care whether I wanted it to happen or not, the moment works for the players. It matches the tone of what the audience has already seen.

So what would I call a bad twist? Try 300, where the oddest conversation in the world leads a character to betray everyone around him. Or perhaps every single choice and event in Splice, or the sidekick role in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

And what would I call a bad turn? Try Breaking the Waves, where we think we're getting a slice of small-town life and we end up with a story about the destruction and martyrdom of a simple, dim woman? I could also try to credit Splice with an atrocious "turn," as the leads suddenly abandon their work and/or the situation gets kinda... freak/nasty. Even with a spoiler warning, I don't wanna reveal more...

How many times have you noticed a series forcing its romantic leads to stay apart? How many times have they done this without undermining the idea that these two people are good together? How many times does it have them get together in what the producers know to be the last season, or the last ep? Actually, I think these sorts of writerly choices are even more gutless than just never properly developing a character to begin with.

Yes, Bruce Willis did have hair once; it was lovely.
Or we get "The Moonlighting Effect," by which the series' writers are more likely to actually go insane than to figure out a way to execute a status change intelligently. Oh, I get sad just thinking about what the writing and plots and dialogue were like before the show runners brought everything to a head - after, they just crashed and burned...

By this point, I've seen and read so many different kinds of stories. I've enjoyed lots of them, even ones where I didn't like what happened to a character, story, or subplot. I hope I never start to trash movies, books, or television shows just because they don't show me what I want to see.

Yet I also hope that I never just blindly accept what feels like a forced development, or something that simply stalls the audience. And I hope that when you watch or read something, you don't completely lose your critical eye. This sort of critical eye is the main thing that helps distinguish intelligent and clever artists from people who are mediocre or simply predictable.

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