Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Showing Magic and Fantasy Elements

I feel like we’ve talked about this before (after four years of blogging, we’ve probably talked about everything at least twice) but a few things recently have me thinking again about how to show things that aren’t real.

I’m judging a contest right now and one of the entries is based on a really clever little idea and the writer clearly has a great imagination and I feel like maybe she has a vivid picture of what’s going on in her head, but she’s not doing a good job of putting it down on paper. In a nutshell, she’s failed to ground me and I don’t know what’s “normal” and what’s “magic” and what’s just a mistake in her logic and/or technical writing and storytelling abilities. Basically I’m confused and frustrated.

I think especially when you have elements of fantasy or magic in your story you have to be very clear about the elements that are real so readers can tell the difference and trust you. Once a reader has lost confidence in you as a writer--forget it.

And this brings me to two films I saw at the festival. One which was awesome, and the other pretty horrible. Poor Molly saw the horrible one with me--the only film out of 23 this year I didn't like. But I’m actually glad I picked that movie because even if it does get a theatrical release it’ll be a short one, so the festival might’ve been my only chance to see it. And I think there’s as much to learn from bad movies as good ones.

The bad one was PASSION PLAY with Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox. I’m going to probably include some spoilers here to make my point, but I seriously doubt any of you will ever see this movie…  So that said, Mickey plays this has-been jazz musician who slept with the wife of a mob boss. (Mobster played by Bill Murray) And one of the mobster’s guys takes Rourke out in the desert to shoot him.

He gets saved and right away we know something strange is going on—the people who save him not only rush right off without speaking a word, they look like a cross between American Indians and a karate class out on a field trip—but although it was weird, there was nothing to really tell me whether or not I should believe what I just saw. Then he stumbles onto this small carnival in the desert, which looks like something out of the 1930’s, and consists of a freak show and a Ferris wheel. So, I start to think… okay, the strange ninja-karate-class-Indians are working for someone at the carnival. Someone saved him because they wanted him to go there. And happy with my theory I stop thinking about an explanation for his saviors and move on to the new strange bits. (And actually Rhys Ifans as the carnie was probably the one bright light in this movie. Loved him. Just the right amount of menacing creepiness.)

And once he's at the freakshow, Rourke meets a girl with wings. Yes, wings. So clearly we know we’re in some kind of altered reality, but since there are also bearded ladies etc., it’s still not really clear if we’re supposed to believe that this girl was born with wings, or if maybe someone put them on her surgically or whether it's some kind of carnie trick. And there were lines to deliberately confuse us about this whether the wings were real or not. The Rhys Ifans character says he found her in an alley, and she says she became the bird woman because she couldn't grow a beard... so it's certainly implied that this is some kind of a trick or a transformation executed after Rhys found her, but we're never really sure.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with the so-called plot—because, really, there wasn’t much of one—but for the rest of the movie I was distracted by small inconsistencies that I assumed arose because of a low budget and/or a lack of attention to detail… Details like obviously fake snow and plot holes and continuity issues… As the film went on, I got more and more annoyed at the filmmaker, thinking he’d been sloppy and hadn’t paid enough attention to the details. Plus, there were boring, unnecessary scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I saw zero chemistry between the two leads so had trouble caring about the romance or her plight or whether or not he’d save her…

Then, BIG SPOILER, (skip to next paragraph if you care), at the end, after this ridiculously fake and poorly shot flying scene, which made no sense based on the rules about her ability to fly we’d been told earlier, we see his body lying in the desert. Okay. He was shot at the start. He’s dead. This whole movie has been a flash dream before he dies. Or part of his afterlife, or whatever. So only at the end, do the strange inconsistencies and breaks from reality start to make sense. Maybe.

I have to say, the ending almost redeemed the movie for me, but not really.

And one reason I couldn't consider it redeemed was I’d seen BLACK SWAN a couple of days before, a film which also asks the audience to question what’s real and what’s not… and does it so, so well. And there are lots of twists that keep you guessing and lots of hints to tell you things are not as they seem. The story breaks into and out of reality seamlessly so that while the ending makes sense when you get there… you don’t really see it coming. Or at least not fully and once you do it's so gripping and heartbreaking the tension is amazing.

I don’t want to post any spoilers about BLACK SWAN, because I think everyone should see it and the trailer is so good already and reveals just enough, but it really was amazing to see how a talented filmmaker and storyteller like Darren Aronofsky solved the “problem” of confusing the audience and keeping us guessing without ever annoying us, where the other film failed so badly at this.

(General consensus about Aronofsky’s second to last film, THE FOUNTAIN, was that he didn’t pull off conveying a complicated story and ideas without annoying or confusing the audience…  I happen to have liked THE FOUNTAIN, but I did have to think about it after to figure out, or at least come up with a plausible guess, about what was going on… Clearly Aronofsky learned from that experience and grew as a filmmaker before BLACK SWAN, which I think will work for a much wider audience and still thrill the critics.)

Anyway... The only other thing I will say about BLACK SWAN is that while they’re marketing it as a psychological thriller, parts sway more into horror territory, but in a good way—at least for me. First time in years that I’ve had serious chills in a movie. Goosebumps literally prickled up my arms. The performances by all the leads, Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel were awesome. The three women especially. Fabulous movie.

I’m going to see it again as soon as it comes out. Early December, I think?


Molly O'Keefe said...

I think this is one of the hardest lines to walk and - as usual - it all comes down to the right details. Too much oer the line and you're killing your world and your book by explaining everything. Too much the other way - like the very bad Passion Play - and the audience is going WTF?

We want to feel like we're in the hands of a storyteller than knows what they're doing - a sure and deft hand etc... but man, it's hard. But when it works it's magic.

Sinead M said...

Worldbuilding, especially when the world is complicated, is so difficult.
As Molly wrote, it's such a fine line to get it perfect.

Cannot wait to see Black Swan.

Chevy Stevens said...

I really want to see BLACK SWAN. I also really want Natalie Portman to play Annie, in STILL MISSING.

Maureen McGowan said...

Chevy, she'd be perfect as Annie!

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen - you had me with Black Swan until you mentioned The Fountain.

I tried... but I have no idea what that movie was about.

I guess I'll have to give him another chance.

Maureen McGowan said...

Steph, did you see THE WRESTLER or REQUIUM FOR A DREAM? Those were both Aronofsky, too. Not to mention PI.

Not easy movies, to be sure... but I do think that BLACK SWAN could be his first commercial success.

I'm going to have to watch THE FOUNTAIN again now. I was sure I had it figured out after I saw it... At least I projected some meaning onto it that I thought was interesting. But now I forget. :)

Black Swan much better.

Stephanie Doyle said...

I've seen part of the Wrestler.

It's running on HBO now and I always sit down to watch it but then it makes me sad and so I usually click away.

I really am a creampuff when it comes to entertainment.

Maureen McGowan said...

I find it hard to concentrate on quieter, more challenging movies when I watch them at home. Too easy to turn away or turn it off when it gets uncomfortable. That's why I like seeing films like that in the theatre. You can get totally swept up in it without distractions. Especially at the festival where the audience is quiet and respectful of the films.

Eileen said...

Passion Play lost me the second you said Mickey Rourke. He gives me the heebie jeebies. How's that for cream puff status, Steph?

As far as the world-building/fantasy elements thing . . . I think there has to be an internal logic. You make your rules and then you'd better stick with them. And major plot elements need at least a little explanation. We finally saw Legion the other night. Does anyone know why that baby was so important? I sure don't. It made the whole thing seem totally random and even more goofball and it was pretty goofy already.

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