Monday, September 20, 2010

Beautiful Boy OR subtle storytelling inside a dramatic framework

Maureen let me tag along to some of her Toronto Film Festival Movies - I would have been able to see Ryan Gosling and his beautiful skin up close - but I have children and they ruin everything. So, I got to see Ryan Reynolds buried alive, Megan Fox with Wings and my highlight - Beautiful Boy with Maria Bello and Micheal Sheen. The story is about an estranged married couple who find out thier son shot seventeen people at his college campus and then killed himself.

This was exactly the kind of movie I DID NOT WANT TO SEE! Trying to keep my brain a happy place. But I'm very glad I saw the movie, not just because Sheen and Bello were utterly devestating to watch. But because this movie was a masterclass in keep it simple, stupid. And keep it subtle, stupid.

What the storyteller's managed to do within the framework of a HUGE and DRAMATIC story was utterly brilliant. After the inital terrible event, the plot points consist of: her reaching out to hold his hand. Him unzipping her dress. MArried couple gets drunk has sex. And you think, well, that's sweet. But it wasn't. It was edge of my seat intense and nervewracking. The stakes the storyteller was able to attatch to that hand hold - ridiculous.

My lesson in this is that the BIG DRAMATIC EVENT - doesn't have to be the story. It can create the story, but what follows doesn't have to have the same big scale intensity. You can pull the shades on your characters and let them create the drama after the event. I have a tendancy to make everything BIG. Drama. Drama. Drama. And I think because I don't trust my ablity to make a woman reaching out for her husband's hand utterly riveting - so I throw in a lot of extraneous stuff.

I'm going to try for small scale. It was a great movie.


Maureen McGowan said...

It was a great movie. But I don't trust my ability to pull off that kind of subtle intensity, either.

You need to see Blue Valentine when it comes out. (Sorry to make you feel worse about missing it.) Another subtle film about a couple with two amazing actors (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) and subtle, subtle storytelling. And in that film there isn't the huge dramatic event. Just a couple falling in love and then five years later, falling out of love, with the two timelines interwoven.

Eileen said...

Molly, you tapped right into something I've been thinking about this weekend! I've been reading a Jodi Picoult book and listening to an Audrey Niffenberger. In the Niffenberger book, a letter arrives. There are like four scenes built around this letter arriving. It's a letter. It arrives. We find out what's in it. Whoop de doo, right? Yet . . . I'm sitting in my car in the parking lot listening.

Stephanie Doyle said...

See I think with film though that medium lends itself to subtle. A look or gesture that can be seen can mean PAGES of dialogue.

I'm actually going to be blogging about this sort of... I finished Girl w/ the Dragon Tattoo and decided to watch the movie.

It was fascinating to see what they could sum in 5 minutes of film time that took 50 or so pages to read.

I'm not saying don't be subtle... I'm saying sometimes we can't beat ourselves up that we can't be as subtle as film? Does that make sense?

No film festival here but I'm waiting on pins and needles for Social Networking.

I miss Aaron Sorkin's voice. Can't wait to hear it again.

Cecilia Grant said...

Oh, my god. I hadn't heard of this movie but I love the premise. (As a parent with an overactive/maudlin imagination, I've spent a lot of time thinking not only about how unbearable it would be to lose a child in one of those shooting rampages, but also how unbearable it would be if your child was the shooter.)

As a reader/moviegoer, I'm drawn to structural tension, and there's an immediate structural tension inherent in choosing a subject of such operatic-level sturm & drang, and then focusing on small, subtle moments instead of throwing yourself into the s&d.

I wonder, though, like Stephanie said, if this is something that books just can't achieve quite as well as film. Will have to give this more thought.

Cecilia Grant said...

Okay, here's a weird coincidence: the other night I happened to see a rerun of the tv show Cold Case that centered around a couple of teenage sociopaths going on a shooting rampage in a shopping mall. And just now I imdb'd Beautiful Boy, and it looks like the same actor who played one of the Cold Case shooters is also the shooter in Beautiful Boy, if I'm reading it right.

He also played a sociopathic teenage killer in one season of Veronica Mars. That's some kind of heavy typecasting.

Maureen McGowan said...

Cecilia, I knew I recognized that actor from somewhere and now I realize it was Veronica Mars. He does do that sullen thing really well...

I also think it's harder to do those subtle moments in books. Directors have so many extra tools we don't get.
It's especially hard in faster paced commercial fiction. Most readers don't have the patience to notice subtle moments...

Even in film, commercial audiences often don't have the patience, which is why Beautiful Boy likely won't be a BIG movie. I'm not even sure if it has a distributor, yet. It might have been one of the ones that sold at the festival, but I'm not sure. On IMDB it says 2010 for the US, but no actual date and no distribution company listed...

I've seen so many awesome films at the festival that never end up in theatres or only end up in a few select cities for a short period of time.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I agree those moments are hard on paper - what's subtle on screen would be fairly trite on page - ie: there's the great scene in beautiful boy where the parents are driving because they have no place to go and they just drive and drive and at one point a school bus paces them and we see the dad wiping his eyes. Subtle on screen, not subtle on page. But I think the lesson in pulling back is still a good one. I tend to overwrite EVERYTHING!

Sinead M said...

Love when authors make it seem effortless. But I agree with Stephanie, easier when you have two amazing actors who can add subtext with just the hint of a gaze.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen - good point regarding film. Only "some" audiences have a taste for those quiet subtle films.

Most want bang bang bang.

I was reading an article by the Bones creator Hart Hanson, (looking for some reason for his cliche plot device usage) and he talked about Mad Men. And how he would love to be as subtle as that show but he had 10 million viewers to appease on "Network TV" as opposed to Mad Men's audience.

Of course I was like what a cop out. He sounded jealous and petty. As if the reason for shotty storytelling is because the masses like it like that.

Give us the good stuff and let the masses decide for themselves.

Maureen McGowan said...

I just saw last night that Beautiful Boy won the juried prize for the best film in the Discovery program, which is for first time film makers. I really hope that movie gets a proper theatrical release.

I agree that what the writer said was a cop out, Steph, but it's also possible he had a lot of pressure from the networks to do it the way they wanted?

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