Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Great Movie Question: Should Stuff Happen?

The Cabin in the Woods is the most cathartic experience I have had at the movies this year. I saw it, and then I saw it again, and then I mused to friends that it felt like the antidote to a string of more "difficult" films I had seen in the past year, films that "had no ending"; Martha Marcy May Marlene and Meek's Cutoff came to mind. Both of those end with the suggestion — unrealized — of something visceral about to break loose. But nothing does. The climax of Cabin in the Woods breaks fully loose and mauls the tamer, in a balls-to-the-wall descent that sees Joss Whedon throw almost literally everything in the book at the audience, and then the book, and then the kitchen sink.

Flash forward: Tonight I have just come from a Los Angeles Film Festival screening of Kleber Mendo├ža Filho's Neighboring Sounds, a mesmerizing new Brazilian film reminescent in content of Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building, but in form infinitely superior. The story sprawls through one high-rise apartment building in urban Recife, and uses exquisite sound design and some of the best widescreen photography since There Will Be Blood to create a pervasive sense of rising tension, as it twists together characters including a rich son, his girlfriend, a bored housewife, a security guard, and a maid. At the Q & A afterward, someone asked Filho whether he consciously intended to subvert the audience's expectation of a violent climax, toward which the whole film seemed to be building. I couldn't have asked it better myself. Then, realizing how much my impression of the film had been shaped by what didn't, but might have, happened in the final 15 minutes, I posed to myself the following question, and simultaneously employed my first-ever use of one of the most pretentious words in filmdom: Can any film be canonized as a Great Film if there is no third act denouement?

 

In a way, it seems obvious that the answer should be "No." As they say in screenwriting seminars, your film's ending is your film. Everything naturally builds toward the third act. But what of the aforementioned films, which may subvert conventional notions of plot altogether, let alone the three-act formula? Another fantastic film at this year's LAFF was Ursula Meier's L'Enfant d'En Haut. A remarkable performance from 14-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein anchors a meandering "fable" (as Meier herself called it) that, in addition to being moving and rich, is another candidate for the pantheon of Films That Have No Ending. I cannot say that the third act of L'Enfant is more memorable than the second. And, by extension, though it is very fine, I cannot say that the film as a whole will last in my memory five years from now.

Surely this must be a shortcoming of my own. I remember being profoundly unsettled at the turning point in No Country For Old Men the first time I saw it, so great was my desire to see the story play out as the conventional cat-and-mouse thriller as which it masquerades for its first hour. Of course that subversive turning point is an essential part of what makes No Country a Great Film for so many people. Yet on the other hand, I think of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, a Great Film for the ages if ever there was one — and a nearly perfect companion piece to Neighboring Sounds, with the singular difference being that whereas Do The Right Thing erupts into a catharsis of violence at its climax, giving it the scale of an epic allegory, Filho's film broods quietly into darkness, and then ends. Everything that precedes the lackluster final 20 minutes is remarkable — captivating, suspenseful, and pregnant — but in the end it goes nowhere. And, simply as an observation, I doubt if Sounds, either, will endure as a Great Film.


No, that's not right. It's wrong to say the film "goes nowhere." What it does is play out the way things more often do in the real world. (With the unfortunate exception of a contrived reveal in the penultimate scene, which is both unrealistic and unexciting compared to the rest of the story.) As did No Country For Old Men. In the real world, [SPOILER] men who go on the run from cartel assassins generally wind up dead; and the racial and social tensions of a neighborhood tend to fester quietly behind closed doors.

But what, then, I ask, is fiction for, if not grabbing artistic license by the balls, and synthesizing the world around us into a higher-pitched, extra-vivid, and more "meaningful" version of itself? Werner Herzog (whom I think I must quote in every single essay, apparently) says that the pursuit of cinema should be "ecstatic truth," which is a totally different kind of truth from journalistic truth or scientific truth. Why did Crash win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Because people who live in Los Angeles, ie, the Academy voters, sensed that the enormous and preposterous narrative liberties taken by the script illuminated real Truths about race in LA. (They did.) Why do audiences roar when Ripley screams "Get away from her, you bitch!" in Aliens? Because Cameron has finally brought the mother-daughter vibe of Ripley and Newt's relationship out of the realm of subtext and brazenly, triumphantly into the realm of physical impact. Audiences love movies that evoke emotion, then distill that emotion into avatars that punch each other in the face.


This is all, of course, a shamelessly "flat" approach to cinema. Despite everything I've just said, several movies come readily to mind that are both Great and lacking a knockout third act: Farhadi's A Separation. Wong's Chungking Express. The first Lord of the Rings movie. Hell, even The Night of the Hunter — and that film is on my list of the 50 greatest ever made.

And yet I can't help myself. In the war between films defined by their "atmosphere" and "vivid characters" and films with a single rip-roaring narrative twist that plunges everything into unexpected territory (...a war which will surely be defining for all civilization in the 21st century), I will always side with the twisters. Part of why I adore Bollywood melodramas is for their ability to coat whatever the Serious Message du jour is in an utterly, unabashedly entertaining package; I think world cinema is at its best when it caches subtext in an accessible narrative. In other words, I am a dog, and I am happy to asborb a poignant rumination on oppression and resentment — but it will go down best if it's inside a banana.

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