Monday, March 15, 2010

How To Ruin A Movie

Neil Young--"Motion Pictures" (mp3)

Spoiler Alert: I am going to try my best to talk generally enough about plot and film so as not to ruin movies that you might not have seen, but you should know that the two movies that inspired this discussion are either still in theaters or have only very recently been released on DVD.

Movies have no obligation to depict the real world. They are, after all, fantasies and entertainments, even the most topical and realistic of them. If you are using movies to teach yourself about life or history, you are probably deluding yourself.

That being said, there are still "laws" that movies (and the books that they are sometimes based on) must follow. "Must" may be too strong a word, and it may not really apply. If you are making a movie, you don't have to do anything, except what you think will sell. But, I would argue that there are things that you should do, if your goal is to create a satisfying movie experience for your viewers.

I watched two movies this weekend--one at the Rave, one in my kitchen. Both depicted the lives of solitary men who live in the unique worlds that they have created for themselves. Both of those lives are lives that no one I know knows. Both are ultimately sad worlds. Both depend on surprise endings to create a fuller understanding of their characters. But one movie was ultimately quite satisfying and the other felt like a cheap trick. Here are the broad reasons why:

1. Surprise must have purpose. Put simply, a good surprise should make you exclaim "Oh!" not "Oh, no." The former utterance reflects a stunning discovery; the latter, of course, is an expression of disgust. Most surprise endings depend on a "red herring." A red herring should be a masterful plot device, something so organic to the story that even as you are awe-struck, you also realize that you shouldn't be surprised at all. A good surprise ending for a movie about fishing is not the discovery that no one was ever even on the water.

2. Some things only work once. Make your own list. Mine would certainly include The Sixth Sense and the first book or movie I ever encountered where it all turned out to be just a dream. I think it was back in grade school when they used to show us Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge," the Twilight Zone version, every year, it seemed. Poor Confederate traitor, just as he's about to reach his wife back at his plantation, we discover that the noose didn't break the first time after all and that he really is just swinging away at the end of a rope. What a joy it was to see Sleuth the first time (on stage, I think), but could that trick work again? (I won't name it, just in case). Just don't try to throw me a souped-up version of The Others meets Identity.

And don't try to give your movie extra weight by casually tossing in the Holocaust or 9/11.

3. The easier of the two ways out is the less-satisfying. So for the sake of intensity, you put your character into a situation that he or she can't possibly get out of, but through some kind of supreme, even unbelieveable effort, they do or die trying. I love that kind of stuff. I love to see someone take on overwhelming odds and even if, like in 300, I know that they can't possibly succeed, I appreciate seeing the scope of their efforts.

But to put characters in that kind of situation, or that kind of apparent situation, and then switch to a different storyline where they aren't really in the circumstances I thought they were, are, in fact, in a situation where less is at stake or more has already been determined, that just stinks. If you're going to call your movie Conspiracy Theory, it better be a damn good conspiracy. It's why thrillers like No Way Out or Enemy of the State are so satisfying. You're not just paranoid; they really are out to get you.

4. Movies must be true to their own realities. Each movie creates its own universe. It doesn't have to be a fantastic place like Middle Earth or "a galaxy far, far away." It just has to establish rules and follow them. The beauty of The Sixth Sense, whether you liked it or not, whether you figured it out or not, was that it was consistently true to its own reality. The kid sees dead people, you accept that as a given in that world, and off you go. Even a "normal" movie like Adventureland creates a universe where Lou Reed is incredibly popular, and your having met him makes girls find you more desirable, going into a working-class tavern guarantees you that his music will be available on the jukebox. That's a good world, but it's not one that any of us ever lived in. But we accept it and move on.

It is the movies that attempt to challenge their own reality that often find themselves in trouble. If nothing is as you thought it was, can you accept what it ultimately is? If the character hasn't been seeing things the right way, has he not been seeing them the right way consistently? Is he always delusional? Does he misread the situation or does the filmmaker trick us so that we have to misread it? If we thought the movie was headed one way, and now we find the "truth" to be ridiculous or even less believable than the previous reality, that human beings would have had to act in elaborately unusual ways for the new reality to fit, then we're likely to walk out frustrated and feeling cheated.

At least that's what I think. You?

Neil Young's classic On The Beach contains "Motion Pictures." Available at eMusic.


cinderkeys said...


Tucson movie critic Stacey Richter summed up this issue nicely: we don't care in Star Trek that every planet has a breathable atmosphere as long as the characters remain consistent and Spock's ears don't fall off.

Billy said...

Having read the book -- if the movie you're referencing is the one I think it is -- I gotta say it was a slight disappointment for me. Several of his other books moved past it based solely on the let-down of the "gotcha" at the end of this one.

A Daniel Handler novel, "The Basic Eight," totally riffed the surprise from a more-familiar book/movie (it might even be your kitchen movie, for all I know), but the book still had teeth and quality on its own right even with my "been there, seen that" reaction to the ending.

But yeah, in general, if the entire joy of your film rests on the gamble at the end... that's one helluva dangerous gamble. It only worked for M. Night Shyamalan 1.5 times, and his shooting percentage has been nose-diving rapidly.

Bob said...

Since it doesn't seem to be a huge spoiler for anyone, let me clarify that I thought the surprise in Up In The Air worked, that the surprise in Shutter Island did not. At all.

Neil said...

I think there are too many lazy movies these days that rely on a twist for their entire appeal. In most of these circumstances, I see it as being lied to for an hour an a half so that the movie can go, "surprise! now wasn't that amazing?". In most cases: no.

The perfect examples is (I think an Argentinian) film I rented (and that got good reviews) called "Nine Queens". Essentially it's about a con man taking a smaller time con man under his wing. I don't want to ruin it for you, should you decide you want to be lied to for 90 minutes, but let's just say film lies to you for 90 minutes before presenting an entirely different version of events, which would have been more interesting to watch in the first place.

Lazy, lazy film-making. Movies need to get away from relying on withholding substantial portions of "the truth" just to fool their audiences into thinking they saw a better film than they actually did.

Billy Bob said...

Neil, thanks for your comment. I hope that you don't mind that I used one of your songs to go along with this post.

Thom Anon said...

Loved the ending of "Jacob's Ladder" when I first saw it. Hate it now, years later in retrospect.

Luckily, Adrian Lyne would go on to direct Indecent Proposal.


Billy said...

Neil -- I thought that movie was called "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and I looooved the surprise ending! The Jackal!!