Saturday, January 19, 2013

Process Stories

It's Oscar season again, which is about the only thing that can usually pull me out of the woodwork to start blogging regularly again, for at least a month or so.  I'll get into what I think about specific categories as the next several weeks go by, but today is something different.

Looking up and down the list of major awards contenders, I began to notice a trend this year in the types of stories that were being told.  With many of the acclaimed or otherwise successful films this year, we usually know the ending before we get into the theater, or at least by a few minutes into the movie.  

Does Lincoln get the 13th Amendment passed?  
Do the hostages get out of Iran?
Do we find Bin Laden?
Does Hitchcock manage to make and release Psycho?
Does the family in The Impossible manage to survive the tsunami aftermath, reunite, and sell the movie rights to their story?

These are, of course, matters of history or common knowledge.  But then consider the fictional films.

Does Django get his revenge on the oppressive/racist White Man? It's hard to imagine a bleaker story than one in which the slaveowner wins the day.
Does Pi survive his adventure at sea? Considering the adult Pi is narrating the tale from the start, the question of life or death seems moot.
Does Snow White defeat the Evil Queen? Always and forever.
Does Denzel get away with the tragic consequences of his alcoholism, or does he ultimately face his demons? 

You get my point.

There really weren't many surprises this year.  Yet I'd argue 2012 gave us one of the best crops of films we've had in quite a while.  How is it that so many movies with predictable endings could be so fascinating and satisfying?  Because ultimately we don't go to the movies to see what happens - we go to see how they happen.  The big twist ending or the big reveal or whatever is maybe five minutes of what following two hours of how.  You can have a crappy ending and still have enjoyed the ride and be grateful for the experience.  Or you can have a crappy ride, but get blown away by the finale, and subsequently confuse that with high quality.  But the best cinematic experiences are the ones that strike a balance.  When you suspect the ending will be satisfying regardless, and the trip the filmmakers take you on to get there is the truly enthralling part.  

Which brings me to Argo. I saw it in theaters and I was underwhelmed. I thought it was a well-made film, and Ben Affleck's direction held everything together. But Best Picture? Meh. 

You see, the whole time I was stuck in my head. I kept thinking, "This thriller isn't very thrilling. We know they're going to get out of Iran, we know the plan worked, so why am I here?" So I enjoyed the film but I questioned its necessity. 

But I watched it a second time recently and it was a different experience.  Having gotten the negativity out of my system, I realized that even though we know the hostages escape, they don't. And suddenly a tautness entered the movie that wasn't there before. I was also able to step back and look at some of the production elements more objectively - the costumes and production design were superb.  Giving the "Film Director" character curly hair and an ascot was brilliant.  The story juggled two or three locations/subplots at a time, but the editor never loses track of them so neither do we.  There's really not a bad performance in the entire ensemble.  The screenplay shows a fascinating look at the Hollywood system and the US intelligence system but includes just enough family tension to give Affleck's character an emotional core.  

All that said, it's not a perfect film. Because there are so many characters, only a few of them are developed beyond their function or the lines they are obligated to say to move the story forward.  And I think Affleck made a mistake in casting himself in the lead role - it might have been the writing, but it simply wasn't a charismatic enough performance from the guy who's supposed to be leading us through the adventure.  Not a bad performance by any means, but not exactly a memorable one. 

I looked up the historical accuracy and noticed that the screenplay takes liberties to create a more heightened sense danger than may have actually existed, but that doesn't really undermine the preposterous nature of the extraction plan or the fact that they actually pulled it off.  The story of the process trumps the announcement of the outcome. 

Life of Pi is essentially a story making that very point. Pi narrates the tale of his sea voyage with a tiger named Richard Parker, and when its integrity is questioned he responds simply, "Which story do you prefer?" 

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are how you get there, not where you get.  

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