Saturday, October 25, 2008

Synecdoche, NY - Unkept Promises

In all fiction projects, an author makes promises to the audience, reader, etc. The protagonist is this kind of a person with a specific personality and unique friends. These are just a few things shape a character. The film, novel, or short story tells us where we are going.

Authors may not give a specific road map. At least we know what kind of a journey is in store. The character has flaws that need confronting or demons that need exorcising. The audience expects that something will engage this character in a specific regard. The author makes promises to the reader and the reader expects them to be fulfilled.

Don't misunderstand. I don't hate twist or surprise endings - they are fun and exciting. But the author must produce them organically. Character and plot progression must feel natural.

For the first two-thirds of Synecdoche, NY writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) presents characters that I care about. Now, I think I understand the Kaufman aesthetic enough to say that it is a unique experience and that I will need to think through some issues in order to comprehend the narrative. But Synecdoche, NY doesn't fulfill on its promises. In fact, it doesn't even make any.

I understood the plight of the characters and issues that need solving. Kaufman only takes me so far down those roads. The last third of the film is overly complicated and leaves me searching for the cinematic equivalent of "verbose." Synecdoche, NY is verbose. The film is complicated just for the sake of being complicated. Kaufman complicates the narrative to such a degree that the last third of the film could have shown ANYTHING and I would not be surprised. It seemed that anything that happened could be justified through Caden Cotard's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) psychosis. And because his psychosis became convoluted, anything was possible.

Allowing oneself to take a plot in seemingly any direction is lazy filmmaking. The audience feels no satisfaction because Kaufman did not allow the audience to want anything. Synecdoche, NY presents a fork in the road with about a million options - and none of them are the wrong choice. When I say that Kaufman didn't make any promises, I mean that he didn't provide a road map for the film. There is a responsibility of a filmmaker to guide the audience. He did that for the first two thirds of the film but then sabotaged his narrative with Caden's neuroses that allow for any possibility I had no idea what would come next. Synecdoche, NY is lazy filmmaking because if there are no"right" answers, then there are no "wrong" ones either.

Think of the difference between two Tarantino films: Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Both feature non-linear narratives, but one narrative grounds itself in a specific moment - meeting up after a jewelry store robbery. Tarantino controls the narrative and answers the questions that we need answered. Who are these people? How did they meet? What happened during the robbery? What events led to the current predicament? Tarantino goes back in time to answer these questions in a restrained way. Pulp Fiction jumps around in narrative purely for the sake of it. This non linear structure does not enlighten the narrative. Reservoir Dogs is a complicated and robust story, but I understand it immediately. Pulp Fiction is only complicated and thus REQUIRES multiple viewings to understand the film. I hold films accountable for this mistake.

An author cannot expect an audience to make the journey twice - just to understand it. WANTING to see a film again and NEEDING to see a film again are two different things. And don't accuse me of "not getting it" either. A story needs to be clear. It's the difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity. Good ambiguity leaves a reader with thoughts about where a story can go OR where a story came from. Bad ambiguity leaves the reader wanting more OR questioning the validity of the narrative.

Don't force me to see a movie again! MAKE me want to see it again!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sixteen Candles - John Hughes Update #1

Part of me feels like a presidential candidate needing to hold a press conference explaining my actions. For reasons unknown, movies were not a part of my childhood. My family isn't cinephilic in the least. Mom likes going, but Dad just can't understand why anyone would want to spend two hours of a sunny weekend in a dark theater. What is the fallout of all this? Charley has seen only one John Hughes movie: Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

And I don't even like it! Cameron's (Alan Ruck) phone conversation with principal Rooney is the only funny part. I can't buy Broderick either. His demeanor is awkward and I don't think he can carry a movie. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999) works for me because Broderick's Jim McAllister IS Matthew Broderick!

What John Hughes films haven't I seen? Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty and Pink. When my friends discuss these films, I stay silent. Having not seen them, I don't have anything to contribute. So, when I admitted that I had not seen this Molly Ringwald trilogy, I am surprised there wasn't an earthquake from all the jaws hitting the floor. It's surprising for two reason. The first is that these films are quintessential coming-of-age tales for my generation (those born in the early to mid-eighties). The second is that these films are about high school, something that I love. I could watch She's All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) and Can't Hardly Wait (Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan, 1998) anytime. If they're on television, I can't turn away.

My friends were very willing to help. MH lended Sixteen Candles. I decided to watch this trilogy in chronological order, so let's begin with Candles. Ringwald's Samantha is immediately recognizable as an outcast teen. She has her own circle of friends, but is obviously not part of the jock and motorcycle crowd. To make matters worse, her family forgot her sixteenth birthday. The film follows her day at school. The object of her desire is typical jock-with-money Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). The quest brings these two characters together.

Ultimately, the reason to watch this film is for The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall). A courageous outsider with stereotypical prowess with technology. At first only interested in obtaining the underwear of a girl, Candles of course finds his reputation soaring like an exponential curve. An unlikely partnership forms between Jake Ryan and The Geek. The Geek has information about Samantha that Jake Ryan wants. Jake Ryan has a girlfriend that he is all too happy to dump on The Geek, who is all too happy to take her.

If you've seen any teen comedy, then you know where all this is headed and I don't need to explain it to you. In the end, I think I was a little disappointed. I like Molly Ringwald as the lead, but Schoeffling mails it in. His best scene is with The Geek, but only because Anthony Michael Hall CAN carry the scene. Schoeffling only serves as the eye candy.

A post on The Breakfast Club is coming...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do the Subtle Performances Win Awards?

The recent past shows actors garnering praise for flamboyant performances. Think Johnny Depp in Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean or Daniel Day-Lewis in P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Their eccentric or loudest moments are the most memorable.

"I've abandoned my boy!"

No doubt he gets pumped for these kinds of scenes and he delivers. Going back to his work in Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I remember his opening lines best. Delivering lines is only half the battle. In Film Art, Bordwell and Thompson evaluate performances by also looking at an actor's eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. But why stop there? Why not evaluate the entire body of performance?

Again, let's look at Bill the Butcher's first scene in Gangs. He leads his gang of natives to the battleground with Vallon's (Liam Neeson) "foreign hordes." He stops at his mark and assumes a particular stance. His feet spread apart, balanced, and ready for the upcoming skirmish. His hands grab the knives at his waist. And he doesn't just hold them - his arms are flexed and prepared for battle. The Butcher's overall body language is aggressive, and not by mistake.

This is Bill's opening scene and while his character deepens throughout the film, these initial minutes display the Butcher's intimidating presence.

His opening lines may be memorable, but the reason the performance is striking is the subtlety of the rest of the film. Later in the film, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) challenhes the Butcher to a final battle. Watch how Bill handles his pipe and the way he leans against the post. He thinks for a moment and then delivers the line: "Challenge accepted." Perhaps too reductively, the flamboyant scenes are memorable, but the subtle moments win awards.

Switching to P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, two scenes stick out that illustrate my point. One is the aforementioned "I've Abandoned My Boy" sequence. It's the showcase sequence for Day-Lewis' performance. It's the part that everyone remembers most vividly. But it is not Day-Lewis' best scene. Anybody can act crazily on screen, but to tame, temper, and taper the performance shows an attuned ability.