14 August 2005
Artistic Choices on Film: Six of the BestMotion pictures mainly distinguish themselves through great casting, quality writing, and strong direction or performances. But too often, very little attention is given to those minor but significant choices a filmmaker makes. They are especially ignored when the film itself is not regarded as an artistic one, so one or two of the selections below may surprise you ...
1. Blade Runner (1982)
The human nature of the replicants.
The concept of 'manufactured humans' - by which I mean not genetically engineered people but androids, entities evolved from robots and indistinguishable from humans - is an unlikely one. (One wonders what practical purpose they could serve.) And yet in the canon of science fiction, there exists something of an 'android' sub-genre. This may be a phenomenon that can trace its origins to what Isaac Asimov called a 'Frankenstein complex' - the belief that our technology will eventually become menacing to us. Indeed, it seems that in nearly all movies in which an android features, that creature has turned on its creators. (Think of The Terminator, Android, Alien and so on.)
In at least that superficial sense, Blade Runner is no different. The 'replicants' which the retired policeman Decard (Harrison Ford) is sent to hunt down are certainly murderous. In a scene with strong Oedipal overtones, for example, the replicant Roy (Rutger Hauer) kills his creator Eldon Tyrell (played by Joe Turkell). But in his depiction of these particular androids, director Ridley Scott made one important technical decision that truly distinguishes this film: the replicants are never portayed as machines.
In every other android film, sooner or later the robot has to exhibit some feature of its artifice. An injury to a body part reveals a panel of circuitry; the android can somehow be 'shut down' and so on. It is almost as though the director is embarrassed by the convenience of having humans play manufactured humans, with all the verisimilitude one would expect. To play with ease in fiction a creature which seems impossible to manufacture in reality does seem somewhat facile. And so a deliberate anomaly is sewn into the creation, something non-human which belies their 'human' nature. Extraordinary physical strength, for example. Or green skin, the inspired choice of whomever dreamed up the character of 'Data' in the latest exhumation of Star Trek.
In Blade Runner, this never happens. When the replicant Zhora is shot on the street, there is no fried circuitry or spray of sparks. The demise of Pris is equally bloody and agonising. All four replicants suffer physical pain before meeting their end. When one pricks them, they do bleed.
Additionally, the argot surrounding them is not that of machinery. Their 'four year life-span' is just that, not a battery warranty. There is never a technical description of their parts or manufacture. How easy it would have been for Scott's replicants to feature a detachable limb, a laser-eye or any of the other gimmicks with which this sub-genre is replete. He never falls into this trap, never becomes self-conscious of the humanity of the replicants. For in this very odd film, in a tale with a very unusual moral, their humanity is the point. And in the ending to the director's cut, it turns out to be a humanity indistinguishable from ours.
2. The Third Man. (1949)
Anton Karas' zither.
Carol Reed's noirish thriller is an atmospheric masterpiece which evocatively captures a largely undramatized period of history - the ruination and rebuilding of postwar Europe. It might have seemed inapposite for a film set in Vienna to be scored with an instrument such as the zither - one so redolent of the Mediterranean world. No other instruments are played on the soundtrack; not a single piano key is struck, nor a bow drawn across a violin. The zither is solitary and completely dominant. But this unusual choice of instrument never once strikes a wrong note, for as the film proceeds through scene after dramatic scene, its curiously detached and emotionless sound is used to register moments of dramatic importance without overplaying them. A violin would have told the audience how to react - the plainnesss of the zither merely registers when to react. Played quickly and pizzicato during a chase sequence, it conveys all the urgency required without overstatement. In the introduction to his novel of The Third Man, Graham Greene himself acknowledged 'Reed's brilliant discovery of Mr Karas, the zither player.' And as the film critic Danny Peary once said, it was just this choice that raised this film to the level of meisterwerk. High praise indeed for a movie dominated by greatness - of actors, writing talent, and improvisation.
3. Lost in Translation. (2004)
The unheard closing remark.
Usually when a story involves two people meeting up in a strange city in a foreign land, an intimate situation blossoms. (Room with a View comes to mind.) Here, it's clear from the outset that nothing of the kind will happen to the two protagonists. Bill Murray's character is married, middle-aged, and looks and acts every bit of it. Scarlett Johansson's character is barely out of her teens. So what can they get up to together? Well, they manage to have no small amount of fun while haring around Tokyo and taking a break from the personal problems that beset each of their lives. And they do so without once vocalising these problems.
Both of their characters gel together so well that a kind of platonic chemistry develops. It's a strange experience for the audience: over two hours it's like waiting for a bubble of intimacy to pop - but we know it's never going to happen. Yet some sort of closure seems necessary. As the story draws to a close, the fiftysomething man and the twenty-year-old girl have become deeply significant to each other. But there's a gulf separating them. And at the end of the film, as they stand there in the hotel lobby, trying to bid goodbye to each other in fumbled sentences, the crevasse seems unbridgeable. For a moment, it seems, sadly, that it will stay that way. Then, minutes later, while sitting in a taxi, Murray spots Johansson in the crowd. He leaves the car, catches up with her, and with hardly another word, they embrace. It is at that moment that Murray whispers something in her ear, something inaudible. She nods, dries her eyes, and they go their separate ways. You only realise how glum Murray had looked in the taxi beforehand when - by contrast - you see the expression on his face when he gets back in. Cue closing song.
The cleverness of Lost in Translation lies in it's unassuming nature. A film about two oddball characters stranded in Tokyo? A premise that's mainly played for laughs? It couldn't have anything profound to say, surely. But that's just what allows the film to sneak up on you. The emotional impact of the ending took me completely by surprise - you really have no idea how much you've grown to like these two characters until you are forced to watch them separate. It's an epiphany.
An unheard remark spoken at a pivotal moment has been used in movies before to powerful effect. Remember The Hustler? I've always wondered what George C. Scott whispered in the ear of Piper Laurie that made her scream at him and beat him in the middle of a crowded party. What did Sean Penn say to Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War as he was being led away to prison for the crime Fox had turned him in for? The closing words of Children of a Lesser God are not spoken, but signed. We may not know what intimate messages were hidden in that secret dactylology, but we can easily guess.
In the case of Lost in Translation, I don't think we're meant to wonder. The decision to give the protagonists a closing line but never to let us hear it was as brilliant as it was bold. Moments before, words spoken in public in a bustling lobby, were not working. Now, a word whispered in private, drowned by street noise, works wonders. Not even the cinema audience with a God's-eye view is allowed to hear it. What could these two characters possibly have to say to each other? Thanks to this denouement, we'll never know. I wouldn't have it any other way.
4. Memento (2000)
The backwards narrative.
I went to see this modestly budgeted thriller with few expectations, and partly suspecting that they would be let down. A film played in reverse chronological order? How wilfully arty. There had better be a good reason for this. The review told me that there was. Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man with Korsakov's Syndrome - the inability to store new memories outside of a few minutes. He's looking for the man who killed his wife and gave him the injury which resulted in this curious disability. The film begins with a murder, and then scene by scene, works backwards in time to the beginning. This device, I was told, facilitates an important effect: every time a scene opens, the audience - like Leonard - has no idea what has happened in the preceding few minutes. It still struck me as a gimmick. I'd heard of these radical 'effects' before. Brecht's pretentious 'aliention effect' had exactly that effect on me. (I would never want to see a play in which an actor steps out of character but not off stage. The idea of having Charles Laughton exiting stage left but standing in the wings, smoking a cigar in full view of the audience before stepping back into the action to become Galileo again always struck me as contrived and pointless.) I assumed likewise that the artificial plot structure of Memento would be equally offputting. Within minutes, I was delightfully disabused.
Memento is such an original idea and such a brilliantly plotted thriller that by the time you have reached the end of the played-in-reverse storyline, you are completely convinced that it could not have been done any other way. Indeed, you come to realise that all the suspense and drama of the plot actually flow from knowing what the ending is in the first minute. How does a screenwriter still manage to craft an expert thriller while giving it the mother of all handicaps from the outset? That's who expert this film is.
So why did Leonard shoot this man? What is he looking for? The film seems unique among murder mysteries in that the audience is not constantly asking themselves whodunit, because they already know and that's not the point. This film is a whydunit. And even today, despite being critically adored, this film is criminally overlooked. If you haven't see it, please do so soon ... before someone spoils the beginning.
5. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
The segue between languages
So many English-language movies grapple clumsily with the problem of long scenes involving non-English speakers. Even quality war movies like Schindler's List feature Germans speaking alternately in German and German-accented English. When this happens too often over two hours or so, it becomes a suffusing blotch, contaminating the film's credibility.
With that in mind, The makers of The Hunt for Red October faced an obvious problem. In fact, the problem had two prongs: (i), at least half the film would be set in a Russian submarine; and (ii), the Russian and Americans crews would meet each other face-to-face at the denouement. How silly was this going to look if both groups had just spent the whole film speaking English? How to get around this without immersing half the cast in subtitles for half the film? Fortunately, someone had a bright idea. It involved no technical wizardry, just one clever idea.
A few minutes into the film, sitting in the captain's cabin, the Soviet political officer begins to read a passage in Russian from the book of Revelations. As he does, the camera slowly closes in on his face, until his lips, mouthing the words, nearly fill the screen. At that moment, midway through the passage being quoted, the Russian language gives way to the English language, the camera withdraws, equally langorously, and the audience has been transported to a world in which they neither have to imagine or read what the Russians characters are saying. And for once in film history, it's not hokey - just sensible. Nice work.
6. All the President's Men (1976)
The closing few minutes.
Alan J. Pakula's film about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal can be impenetrable at times: you really need to know the cast of characters to fully comprehend what's going on. Nevertheless, the historical canvas is so huge, and much of what happened is so well known, that the esoterica can be forgiven.
It has already been remarked upon that one of the best choices made in this film was the manner in which the contacts, officials and public servants whom journalists Woodward and Bernstein are constantly phoning always remain unseen. The movie never intercuts between two people on the phone. Instead, it's always Woodward and the disembodied voice of an unseen denizen of the corridors of power. This certainly creates the impression that these two reporters are battling a shadowy and invisible behemoth. But for me, the manner in which the film closes is superb. How many films could have pulled off a gripping ending with not one, but two zero-dialogue scenes of ... typing?
No words are spoken by any of the characters in the final minutes. Instead, we are shown the open-plan offices of the Washington Post late in the evening, with a television in the foreground upon which is playing the scene from Richard Nixon's inauguration. As the scene wears on, the offices become increasingly emptied until we're looking at just two things: in the foreground, Nixon celebrating his being sworn in; in the background, out of focus, the two reporters writing the exposé which will shortly drive him from office.
The denouement? A lot has to be compacted into it. The fallout of the scandal; who was indicted; who was jailed; who resigned. We cut from the newsroom to a close-up of a telex machine literally hammering out this history in plain English. All of the facts therein could have been predictably presented as a rolling crawl before the closing titles. But Pakula chose to keep filmimg the real world while supplying us with the facts in a matter-of-fact manner. When the typing stops, the silence is deafening. A chapter of history has closed.
I have to give a mention to the worst filmmaking choice I can think of:
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. (1984)
The accent behind the accent.
The title of this film speaks volumes. In fact, it goes on and on. A few more commas and subclauses could have at least given the pomposity some comic value. There's also the matter of the plot's central premise, which emphasizes how Tarzan is descended from English landed gentry. His journey thus takes him from darkest Africa to dullest Fopshire. This unlikely pilgrim's progress from Lord of the Apes to Lord of the Manor is not, however, the film's whopping flaw.
Hugh Hudson, the director who had previously been critically acclaimed for his work on Chariots of Fire would here distinguish himself by correcting a mistake with a mistake. Permit me to unpack this. Seeking someone who could play the part of the young English rose Jane Porter, Hudson, for some unfathomable reason, overlooked all English talent and chose Andie MacDowell, the pretty and talented American actresses, then at the early stages of a promising career. At the conclusion of the shoot, Hudson decided - quelle surprise - that the American accent exhibited by Ms. McDowell's character somehow did not gel with the English country house in which she had supposedly lived all her life. Why he did not notice this the first day of the shoot and correct the problem immediately is anyone's guess. But for the tardy of hearing there was a redemy, of sorts. All of McDowell's dialogue was to be dubbed over with the voice of a performer whose accent would sound more English - and for that task, Hudson chose the American actress Glenn Close.
I'm bound to admit that if I were asked to choose between watching these two discordant phenomena - an English character speaking in a mild American accent, or Andie McDowell opening her mouth only to have Glenn Close's voice emerge - I would easily have lumped for the former. But by attempting to apply this band-aid in the editing room, Hudson gave us both flaws at once. Needless to say, McDowell did not make a secret of her displeasure at this decision, which seemed ... well, inconsiderate. You really have to watch the film to appreciate the awfulness of this butchery: it manages to eclipse Christopher Lambert's performance as Greystoke, for example. McDowell's dubbed character is the elephant in the room - a bizarre and unignorable anomaly that strikes a wrong note in every scene in which she appears, and eventually has a very wearing effect on the credibility of the film as a whole. This is the only motion picture I know of in which a performance spoken in English was then dubbed in English.
And a final word on:
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The title. The premise. The cringe-inducing 'f*** Hitler' scene. The overwrought Aaron Copland-esque score. The syrupy ending that cheapened everything that went before. And the towering fact that it's an anti-war film - with real pretensions of being taken seriously - starring Tom Hanks and Ted Danson. (Enough said.) Most people I spoke to disliked this film without quite knowing why, and the same people preferred the contemporaneously-released Thin Red Line (while acknowledging all its flaws) without quite knowing why either. I think I know why.