Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Revealing and obscuring plot points

I’ve seen three movies recently that got me thinking about this topic and how there's kind of a sliding scale in terms of how much a writer decides to reveal and when.

Great storytelling constantly strikes a balance between revealing and obscuring plot, posing and answering questions, and this keeps pages turning, (or people from checking their cell phones and annoying me in the movie theatre.)

And these three films differed strikingly in this regard: what they showed the audience, what they held back.

Black Swan – As I watched this film, I was constantly figuring things out (I thought) and thinking of alternate explanations, but as many times as I changed my mind or went "aha!" I didn’t really know what was going on until the end. And reaching the end just made me want to see it all over again from the start. Every time you think you have it figured out, the filmmaker takes you in another direction.

127 Hours – The polar opposite of Black Swan in some ways, because you know how it’s going to end before it starts. At least I did, because it’s based on a widely known true story. But I liked this film too. A lot.

Certified Copy – With this film, as many things as I guessed, by the time I got to the end, all of those possibilities (and likely more) were still possible, and I never got a hint as to what the frak was really going on. Not even when I was part of a discussion of the movie with the audience and two prominent Toronto film critics.

A bit more about each:

I loved this movie. I saw it back during the tiff and can’t wait to see it again. And other than what I’ve already said, I don’t want to say more, because I fear it would be spoilerish. The trailer is very good. If you’ve seen that, you know as much as you should before going in. This is a film where the filmmaker figured out just how much to show and how much to hide and which ways to misdirect, to end up with near perfect storytelling. Of course this shouldn’t have been such a great surprise to me since I’ve admired all Darren Aronofsky’s previous films,  Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, (even The Fountain, although I’m not sure I’ve figured that one out, yet).

Even though I knew the basic true story and therefore the ending before the film started, it was one of the most tense and emotionally draining movies I’ve seen in a long time. And James Franco... That really should be enough.

Even if you haven’t heard of this movie, you might remember this guy’s story. It’s about the hiker who, back in 2003, got his arm suck under a boulder at the bottom of a narrow canyon in the Arizona desert, and the way he finally survived – by cutting off his lower arm after five days.

The moral of this story (other than being a major testament to one man’s enormous will to survive) is never go hiking alone without telling people where you’re going, and never leave home without a Swiss Army knife. (And filmmaker, Danny Boyle, manages to foreshadow both of those so cleverly...)

How this man finally manages to sever his lower arm without even, um, his Swiss army knife... well, let’s just say it was miles past horrific, and made you wish he'd remembered that knife, and if it hadn't been a true story, I’d never have believed it. Let’s just say he certainly didn’t have it as easy as Merle in The Walking Dead -- no handy saw lying on the roof :). If any of the news stories back in 2003 had the graphic details of what this guy did to get free, I forgot them.

But what impressed me about the film, and increased my awe of the fabulous Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire among others...) is how tense the story was.

Even though, right from the beginning, you know that at some point he’s going to fall and trap his arm, you don’t know when this will happen, and so the part of the movie that passes before the event is gripping. I tensed up every time he jumped over anything, or did something dangerous—both of which he does, a lot.
Then after he’s trapped, you know from the film’s title (and doing some math in your head) that he’s not going to get himself out for five and a half days... and yet even though he tries some new method at, say, 14 hours in, you’re rooting for him and thinking his plan might actually work. (Or, I guess, trying to figure out why it won’t work...)

I can’t remember when I’ve felt so physically wrecked after a movie. I cried during a lot of films at the tiff this year, and felt emotionally spent after several, but 127 Hours left me physically drained too, as if, for at least 90 minutes, I’d been part of his 127 hour ordeal.

Now this is a film that purposefully misdirects you, confuses you... and then not only doesn’t give you an answer, it gives so many contradictory clues, it’s pretty much impossible to puzzle through what happened. The whole time, I kept guessing and second guessing what was going on, and trying to relate it to the title and philisophical discussion about the value of copies vs originals in the art world... And I do admit that kept me (mostly) interested. But I felt somewhat frustrated when it ended without answering any of my questions, instead left me asking more.

Certified Copy is definitely an art film, (although, for some bizarre reason, CBC film critic, Jesse Wente, referred to it as a romantic comedy when he introduced it... wha-at?). It won Juliette Binoche the best actress prize at Cannes, and opens in North America in a few months. At least that’s what Jesse told at the sneak peek screening I saw. I can’t decide whether or not Binoche deserved that award. I found it nearly impossible to get a clear read on her character, but based on the fact that by the end I also could not come out with a clear read on the entire film, maybe her somewhat flighty performance was the point?

Now, I do worry that if any of you want to see this movie I’m ruining the experience by telling you that you'll never figure it out. At least not in the same way the person sitting next to you will... but the two critics at the sneak peek screening claimed it was richer and more interesting on a second viewing. (They both first saw it in Cannes last spring.) But I’m not interested enough to find out if they’re right. And they also said they watched it the second time looking for clues to support their favored theories... but ended up seeing so many contradictions that picking one through-line that explained it all was possible.

While I know I'm making this movie sound aggravating, I also think I'm making it sound more interesting than it was, and maybe that's why Wente went (pun, ha!) with Romantic Comedy as a genre. It's reminiscent of Before Sunrise... Most of it is one couple talking. And the main questions you have are how, or if, these two know each other and whether or not they have a history and whether or not at certain parts they're role playing to make points, or whether it's the truth, or whether the screenwriter is really just screwing with us. Which was my conclusion. Someone at the end said they thought the pair were meant to be like a copy of every couple... not one specific couple. But yeah... while I didn't hate this movie, I'm not recommending it either.

So, how do you take your stories? With cream and sugar? Revealed or obscured? A little of both?

Can you think of other cool movies or books that used misdirection well? Hmm... I’m already thinking of a few, but will stop talking now. ;)


Molly O'Keefe said...

Hey - great post - I want to see all of those movies! I love the reveals and I honestly think that hiding what happened, or what is happening to some extent or (and it sounds simple, but it's mostly not) what will happen is what really good story telling is supposed to do. I think a lot of people like things far more straight forward - entertainment is supposed to be entertaining, not hurt your brain. Note the incredible popularity of Law and Order. But if I can be entertained and challenged at the same time - amazing. I love those movies wherein you know the ending and you can still get totally worked up about it. I really can't wait to see those movies!

Angi Morgan said...

Not going to see 127 HOURS. NOPE. I am not up for physically draining. I need physically uplifting.

I did see Matt Damon's fall movie: Hereafter. Thought it would be great. Felt like I'd been beaten up by a big brut with a big stick.


Maureen McGowan said...

Angi, 127 Hours is ultimately uplifting, but also draining. I had to look away for parts of it...

I saw Hereafter at the tiff. It was just okay for me. I, frankly, was a tad disappointed. I think I was just expecting too much from Clint Eastwood, not to mention Matt Damon.
Although that opening scene during the tsunami was amazing to watch. But I thought the way all the stories came together in the end was kind of clunky...

Bev Katz Rosenbaum said...

Just saw Black Swan and sort of loved/hated it. At the end, I was still confused about what actually happened, and I don't think that's a good thing. But loved how it was filmed, loved the performances, and of course, loved the dancing and the music!

Maureen McGowan said...

Bev, we'll have to talk about it. :)

I felt quite sure I knew what really happened... But can't wait to see it again. Maybe my impression of what happened won't hold up...

Eileen said...

I'm looking forward to Black Swan, but I'm with Angi on 127 Hours. Nope. I bet it's fabulous, but it's not an experience that I want to have.

Speaking of when to reveal and when not to reveal, we just saw The Informant! with Matt Damon. Yes. I know it's old. It takes me a while to get to these things. It was actually kind of a fun/interesting movie, but I think it probably really failed precisely because of when and how it decided to reveal things.

It's another "based on a true story" movie. I started out thinking it was a whistle-blower story (which it kind of was), but as that kind of story, it was a little dull. Then about halfway in, it became clear that Matt Damon's characters had a lot of secrets of his own. That's when the movie actually got interesting/funny. But it was a long time to wait for that pay off.

Maureen McGowan said...

Eileen, I think you probably nailed what was wrong about The Informant.
I think I (mostly) enjoyed it, and had "thoughts" at the time, but failed to capture them in a blog and barely remember it now.

The only thing I do remember was loving the cheesy sound track that reminded me of 1970's game shows...

Eileen said...

The cheesy soundtrack. The 70s mustaches and clothes. The Midwestern claustrophobia (that might be a personal thing from growing up in Nebraska). It really captured all that.

It was just a not particularly tense sting movie until that midpoint where it became clear that Matt Damon wasn't exactly who everyone thought he was. Then we couldn't stop giggling. Every time the amount of money he had supposedly embezzled jumped up, Andy and I cracked up. It was beautifully handled from that midpoint on, but if we hadn't been waiting for Alex to get home from a party, we might not have watched it all.

So there's an answer. You need a 16-year-old who has just gotten his license to be out at a party to get you to the interesting part of the movie. :-)

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh yes! I'm remembering it better, now. It is interesting when they make you think one thing, then twist it around on you.
But I remember being slightly disappointed in that movie, too. Especially given the people involved in making it. I figured my problem was I saw it during tiff (right at the end) and was suffering movie-burn-out.
But definitely worth a rental if anyone reading this hasn't seen it. (I suddenly want to see it again.)

Eileen said...

No. You were right. It was disappointing. Maybe if we'd had some hints that Matt Damon wasn't the most honest guy in the room earlier on? There was just something missing.

Sinead M said...

Wow, I want to see all of those movies... me, I love the reveal, and if it surprises me, then fantastic.

Cannot wait to see Black Swan.

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