I watched a movie last night that has not been released so I don’t wish to name it or give any details. This is not a review of that film. This is an examination of a comment someone made who watched it with me. One of his comments about the film was that it was too “on the nose.” He saw this as a flaw or a weakness.
Oddly enough, while I can agree completely with that statement, I didn’t see it as a flaw or a detraction to my enjoyment. There are several terms like this that get thrown around by film critics that to me seem really neutral and merely explanatory rather than harsh criticism. Another one would be calling a film sentimental or schmaltzy. I thought this film was both of those as well. And I balled like a baby.
There’s nothing new under the sun… some ancient Greek philosopher once quipped. Imagine how little newness there is 2000 years later. As a student and connoisseur of storytelling, I can say that I’m rarely surprised any longer. This has nothing to do with a lack of creativity and just an acknowledgement that I’ve almost seen it all. That is a blessing and a curse that comes with age.
If you’re paying attention, a story (be it a film, a play or a book) discretely makes its audience a promise somewhere early on that it must then pay off or deliver by its end. How it does this is where the creativity and ingenuity comes into play, but it will still do it in one of several expected ways.
Story is character and vice versa. I always harken back to the brilliant words of my college film professor, “A film is just a person with a problem.” The meat of the story is how that person solves his/her problem (or fails to). When the problem is solved, the story is over.
I think a film can be successful and fail to entertain. I think a film can fail miserably and be entirely entertaining. When a film achieves both, that’s when you generally have a hit on your hands.
Many people love the comfort of things working out the way they anticipate. That explains why people will eat at a McDonald’s when they visit foreign countries — the comfort of know what you’re going to get. Others love to be surprised and shocked. They like to be kept guessing the whole way through. I enjoy both but as I noted above, I need the story to hint at where it is going so I know what ride I’m on. I’m willing to go with you as long as I have some idea where we’re going.
One film I loved that did a 180 degree flip was Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. It started off as a comedy with Michael J. Fox playing a man who can communicate with the dead and he uses this ability to con people. The flip comes when he finds the dead are not so nice and the film rolls into a horror story for its second half. It felt like when it flipped from light to dark, I was cued in and I enjoyed the ride.
One film that failed this flip (to me, at least) was Guarding Tess with Nicolas Cage and Shirley Maclaine. Cage plays a secret service agent tasked with guarding an ex-first lady. It’s kind of played for laughs as Ms. Maclaine is a curmudgeon that gives Cage grief at every turn. The midpoint complication is she is kidnapped and buried alive and Cage has to find her before she dies. What!?!?! I didn’t see that one coming in any direction. It was like the movie had given me a punch to the solar plexus. I still hate this movie.
I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys movies I don’t like. And I only secretly think they’re idiots for disliking the ones I love. The more I see, the more I realize how incredibly subjective story is. Rare is the film that lands the consensus of being universally loved or hated. Personally, I think it’s because some people just enjoy being contrary to popular opinion. There are people who hate sunny days. Nutcases… unless you’re allergic to the sun, I guess.
In someone’s world, this is the best thing ever!