Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week - well actually last week

The Men Who Stare At Goats is the best Coen brothers' film that the Coen brothers never made. Although I knew going into the movie that they hadn't written or directed it, we arrived a little late so missed the opening credits. It's so like one of their movies, complete with Coen regular George Clooney in the lead role, and Jeff Bridges virtually reprising his iconic role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, that I was convinced I would discover at the end credits that they had at least produced it. But they didn't and to my knowledge had nothing to do with it. However it was interesting to note that there was a strong British influence, from writer Peter Straughan, to producer Ruby Films and BBC Films, which was all the more remarkable considering the movie felt so much like an American indie.

The supposedly, maybe, a little bit true, premise is that the US military once had a special unit trained to fight by using the power of the their mind. So they could mentally detect where someone was hiding, or even kill etc. They are called Jedi warriors, which seemed like one big in-joke considering the presence of Ewan McGregor. But the movie is actually about guilt and redemption. Clooney's character is the star pupil, and reaches the point where he is tested as to whether he can kill a goat simply by staring at it. At first he is reluctant - what has this innocent goat done to him? But soon he succumbs, and is willing to sacrifice the goat because he just needs to know whether he can do it or not. But when he does, he is racked with guilt, and he is never the same man again. Of course it's daft and played for laughs. But isn't that a poignant and profound observation. Just because we can do something, doesn't necessarily mean we should. And this (rather weird) journey is all about how he can atone from this one moment weakness.

And one moment of weakness is at the heart of the climax, or probably anti climax would be more accurate, of A Serious Man (definitely the Coen brothers this time.) I liked this movie. I liked the eccentric characters and I liked the very bittersweet comedy. But the ending was infuriating. I've never been a fan of movies that just seem to stop, with no sense of resolution or even evolution. In fact, considering all the bad things that are hurled at the protagonist, the one moment of fraudulent weakness he displays at the end feels like it should come at the beginning. Maybe that's the point and I am missing it. The subject of faith and God comes up on a few occasions in what must be the most Jewish movie of all time. And perhaps the Coen's are suggesting that the Almighty already knew what Larry Gopnik was going to do and therefore punished him in advance! But I'm not sure I buy that. However leaving the ending aside, what was really interesting to note was how the Coen's handled their protagonist. Larry is not a bad man. And you certainly don't get the sense that they don't like their leading man. Quite the opposite. But nevertheless they don't hesitate is putting him through the absolute wringer. That is where the drama and wry comedy comes from. And I often find that I am too easy on my characters, especially the protagonist. I created them, and I get to know them better than anyone, and then I am soft on them! I don't want them to suffer. But if they don't suffer, emotionally as much as physically, then the story will.

So what did we see from my NY movie fest. In brief:
Into the Storm - don't be afraid to make your protagonist, even a national hero, into a complex, often unpleasant, human being.
Up - the power of visual story telling cannot be underestimated. It's crucial in animated movie because children respond to it. But as adults we never lose this and a picture really can be worth a thousand words.
Julie & Julia - a lack of much at stake and of narrative drive will mean the story falls flat, even with a couple of likable lead characters.
District Nine - On the contrary, a strong narrative drive with very clear goals and a tough journey for the protagonist, will keep an audience emotionally engaged on the edge of their seat.
The Men Who Stare at Goats - real themes and emotions can make even the most surreal of plots resonate.
A Serious Man - Don't love your characters so much that you aren't willing to put them through hell for the sake of the story.

I'm willing to bet that we all knew these things already. Nothing written above is anything particularly new. But as soon as we decide to become screenwriters, our days of casual viewing are over. Entertainment is one thing, but we can take learn from everything we watch. And reading theory books and attending lectures is one thing. But when you see it on screen, and pick out this is why this does or doesn't work. That's when the writing really comes alive.

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