Thursday, January 9, 2014

"What Are Movies Supposed To Be?"

I am jumping off of a recent comment by “Harkaway” concerning my post about Inside Llewyn Davis, who, after seeing the film’s preview, remarked that

it didn’t really convince me it had actually figured out what it wanted to be about.”

I was also inspired by an L.A. Times newspaper article concerning the Golden Globes Award people’s recent difficulty in categorizing the 2013 crop of recognition-worthy movies as either dramas or comedies. 

What’s Nebraska – a drama or a (dark and nuanced) comedy?  What’s August – Osage County?  (It’s a movie about a play, neither of which I have ever seen.)  What’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  (It’s the contemplative Ben Stiller version of a Danny Kaye vehicle that was originally created for laughs.)

The article listed these movies and others as examples of the current trend in filmmaking in which – it’s not exactly “dramas leavened with comedy”, nor is it “comedies injected with dramatic gravitas.”  It more like a ice cream “swirl” – no, wait, it isn’t, because in “swirls”, the two flavors are visibly observable – this is more of an indistinguishable homogenization.  They’re like the coat and the lining, but where it is difficult to determine which is which.

I say “Boo hoo” to the awards people who are unclear how to categorize these movies.  The real question is,

“Why were they ever separated in the first place?”

“Well, because we wanted awards for the ‘serious-minded’ movies, and different and separate awards for the stupid ones.”  

As a comedy person, I take serious umbrage at this arbitrary and insulting distinction.  (In an earlier time, I would have challenged them to a duel.  And then have haughtily backed down, my point having been made by the challenge itself.) 

Today, many filmmakers – and I say “Yay” to them for doing so – are creating “classification problems.”  This was hardly their primary intention.  They were simply trying to more accurately mirror real life, in which comedy and tragedy live propinquitously side-by-side.

Now, returning to “Harkaway.”  (Though in no way criticizing.  I instead thank “Harkaway” for giving me something to write about.

“What are movies suppose to be?” is vastly more than a single-post investigation, and I am certain I shall return to the subject numerous times in the future.  But let me essay a toe-dipping introduction to the matter.

When you evaluate a movie (or a preview of a movie) on the basis of its apparent unclarity as to “what it wanted to be about”, you are making the assumption that the moviemakers wanted it to be “about” anything.

Which is, overall, a pretty safe assumption.

(With the exception of Andy Warhol “anti-movie” movies like “Sleep” (1963), where Warhol filmed a friend sleeping for five hours and twenty minutes, and that was the movie. 

Wikipedia reports that of the nine attendees at the film’s premiere, two of them left during the first hour.  Really?  Seven people stayed longer than an hour?  Those folks must have had a lot of time on their hands.  The point of Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’” is either “If I can sell pictures of soup cans as art, I can sell a sleeping person as a movie.”  Or, more generously – and to the subject of this blog post –

“Why does a movie have to be about something?”) 

Another version of which is,

The movie was indeed going somewhere, but the viewer did not connect with that selected direction, and consequently – if I may insert hypothetical thoughts into their heads and out of their mouths – they evaluated that movie as being unclear as to where it wanted to go.  

I’ll bet the Coen Brothers would defend the narrative intentions of Inside Llewyn Davis, adding – perhaps generously – that, while it was okay for others, they personally were thoroughly disinterested in the more commercially popular template of “The Rise and Fall and Subsequent Rise” story trajectories of, say, Ray (2004) or of Walk The Line (the Johnny Cash Story) (2005.)

Many serious filmmakers feel understandably fractious about the categorizational pigeonholing of their efforts, not just by awards committees but the audience’s expectations as well.  Their work, a realization of the way their minds function, seeks – not “seeks”; it is simply natural for them – to obliterate such boundaries. 

Does a movie have to be substantially comedic or substantially dramatic?  Why should it?  Does a movie have to be about something?  For me, it does.  (You won’t catch me paying good money to watch a guy sleep.) 

Does a movie have to narratively “connect the dots” in the tried-and-true manner the moviegoing audience has been preconditioned over time to expect?  (That is one of a hatful of reasons I had trouble writing movies.  If I followed the template, it felt like I was writing a movie that had already been written.)  Though I never found a way to do one differently, I would still say “No.”  A screenwriter should be free to tell any story any way they decide to.

However, they should not be surprised if they have trouble selling that movie.  And, if it somehow does sell, they should be ready for the audience-at-large to be heartily confused by what they were thinking.  (And, therefore, stay away.)

I shall stop there for today.  But I am sure there is considerably more about this topic that I shall return at some future date to explore. 

Stay tuned. 

And, of course, feel free to chime in yourselves.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think you're giving the movie people too much credit to attribute the categorization into drama and comedy (and what about letting James Thurber in on having created The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, hey?), in that the pairing goes all the way back to Greek classical times and can be seen all through the history of theater. (HAMLET has comic relief scenes, but we never think it's one of Shakespeae's comedies). On TV, the rule that comedies are half-hour shows and dramas are one-hour shows seems to be entrenched (I remember how confused I was when BOSTON LEGAL was classed as a drama. Were they kdding?). So my feeling is it's a mistake to view movies in isolation in this regard.


pumpkinhead said...

I've always felt that dividing comedy and drama into separate categories for awards was to allow comedies to have a fair shot at winning an award, since there is a clear bias towards serious movies in giving awards. I always thought the Oscars should do the same thing as I watched movies I had no interest in beat out great comedies year after year. Although perhaps it should be one Best Movie, with separate categories for funniest movie, scariest movie... that sounds, however, like I'm suggesting the Oscars use the TV Land Awards as a template, so maybe I'm losing credibility here...