Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Somebody get Aristotle in here for a rewrite"

As it happens, I am teaching bits of Aristotle's Poetics to my AP Literature class. A lot of it seems so elementary and self-evident, and yet apparently it isn't. For instance, Aristotle writes that a play is an imitation of an action. Not a person, not an idea, an action. Yet major expensive films omit that on a regular basis.

Take The Conspirator (2011), about the sham military trial and summary hanging of Mary Surratt, accused of being part of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy by virtue of being Southern, being related to one of the conspirators and of living among angry wounded people (Americans) desperately in need of scapegoats. Ignoring the prologue, which shows the various parts of the conspiracy in motion, at the outset of the story, Mary Surratt is going to be tried before a kangaroo court and be hanged. Not only do those facts never change, but the purported protagonist, Surratt's appointed lawyer never manages to change them. The second hour of the film runs out of narrative gas so badly that it repeats the same scene three or four times. Stanton tells Aiken nothing can be done. Seward tells Aiken nothing can be done. The other lawyers tell Aiken nothing can be done. Round and round the wheels spin, throwing up mud and going nowhere.

And then there is Dean Spanley (2008), which I will, exercising the utmost self-restraint, not describe as a shaggy-dog story, but which also would earn Aristotle's scorn. It also happens that I am teaching a creative writing course (yes, my teaching life is quite wonderful at the moment), and I am trying to hammer into the students the importance of making a timely promise to the reader (or audience) as to where the story is going to go. The classic rule in film is that by ten minutes in, you have to clue the audience in as to what the film is going to be about, what the objective is, what the conflict will be.

Dean Spanley lets an hour go by before it settles down and decides what story it wants to tell. It does have quite a touching and remarkable payoff, but not one worth that arid first hour. At least 45 minutes of the movie are engaged in pure misdirection, whether or not intentional it is hard to say. But it makes it hard to invest in the emotional stakes the film is really interested in. Once again, filmmakers have attempted to cram one hour's worth of story into two slam-bang hours of middle-aged men sipping liqueurs.

People, these are not just rules for their own sakes. Breaking the rules of screenplay structure has consequences! You're playing with fire! Or in the case of Dean Spanley, some rather tepid and dingy bathwater.
On more purely cinematic territory, why was everything in the past blurry, grainy and distorted in color? Was the air that different back when? This penchant, as displayed in The Conspirator for arty visual treatment to suggest earlier eras (it's even worse with future noir films) started, to my recollection, with The Godfather, which stood for the proposition that everything in the past used to be more yellow. That was bad, but it at least had to be planned in advance so that filters could be put on lenses. Now directors can decide in post-production that the whole world is topsy-turvy colorwise, which raises the question as to whether future cinematographers will need any competence at all, given that images can be reframed, objects added or removed and color timing completely reconfigured at will.

And are there no American actors other than Paul Giamatti (who seems particularly contemporary to me) who can portray people who lived long ago? Look at the picture at the top of this blog, and there is an Englishman facing off with a Scot, pretending to be 1865 Americans. I think SAG needs to step in here. (At least they got John Cullum, as authentic a Virginian as you can find anywhere, to play a Southerner.)

I think the English can share their objection, given that in Dean Spanley, English people are portrayed by Ozzies and Kiwis in a quite indiscriminate way. What next? Carmen sung by a soprano? Or a bass?

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