Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today

By Jay Stringer

Scott's post yesterday raised some interesting ideas. Re-watching cherished old films can be a minefield. Often, as Scott said, it's best to leave them in the past if you want to maintain the memory.

I must be wired wrong. I'm not a big 'souvenir' guy. My mum has always told me off for the way I can simply cut off possessions and move on. I can move home with a suitcase, I don't take photographs, and I've never taken things that have been offered to me when family have past away. With cherished films, books and comics, I need them to stand up. I seem driven -and I don't know why- to make sure that they are good. I purge, and I cut things that don't hold up.

For example, Jurassic Park. It was a film I loved. I talked about it as an example of great structure, of great set up, and of some great one-liners. Then last year, while doing one of my pieces for the guys over at Matinee Idles, I revisited the film with my writers brain.

For most of the film I was still wrapped up in it. The jokes. The effects. The storytelling. The god damned raptor fence. Clever girls. The T Rex sequence that will always be one of the finest examples of it's kind.

(A very narrow kind, I admit.)

But then I got to the ending and I was ripped out of the film.

The film is studious in training our reflexes. Before the T Rex is revealed, we are taught to sense it's approach. Like the ticking clock in Peter Pan, we are primed and ready. Pavlov's audience. The impact tremors. The sound. The ripple in the water. These were the things that scared seven shades of milkshake out of me in the cinema, and that still had an effect well over a decade later. But the thing is, Spielberg was so taken with how well the T Rex worked, they threw her in later on. In the final scene, when the humans are trapped inside a building by the remaining two (three?) raptors, the T Rex sneaks up on all of them and eats a raptor.

No impact tremors. No sound. No key to the building nor, surely, any understanding of what the building was or why to go in. They may as well have had the Rex walking on tiptoes and turning to the camera saying, shhh, be vewy vewy quiet, we're hunting wabbits. While we were in New York last summer I visited the American Museum of Natural History and marvelled at the T Rex statue. It was huge and magnificent. It dominated the room, even with my back to it. No way was that thing going to be able to sneak up on me.

The only reason to throw the T Rex back into the film at that moment is because it was cool. It lead to a cool moment. And that is something the writer in me can't live with.

Picky, maybe.
Harsh, yes.

But it's bad storytelling. The final act of a story should be built on everything that you've done to that point, not contradict it. If you want to have that cool moment with the T Rex, fine. Earn it. Go back and restructure the story. Lay the groundwork.

I have recently been revisiting my top ten films. Working through them one by one to see which ones stay on the list, and which ones I can dump out of my mind.

One of the more painful break ups was with Clerks. It's a film that I have loved hard for a long time. Ever since I first saw it as a snarky teenager. I loved everything about it. Its pacing, its dialogue, its slice-of-life realism. I loved the sense of achievement, of some kids with credit cards living the dream and making a movie. Their movie. On their terms.

And some of those things still hold true. There is enough in there for me to still enjoy the film. It's still an achievement when you think of the resources at the time. It's still funny for long stretches, and has a bucket full of charm.

But coming at it now, with a writers brain, there were too many things to poke.

It feels like a film that's often trying to hard to be a film. It's trying so hard to have a plot, and to have something important to say at every turn, that it smacks it's head on the door frame every time it tries to step through into greatness.

In the moments when it's just a couple of low-ambition guys talking about their lives, it manages to fly. There is wit and charm, and some very nice wry observations. But every few minutes it has to force in some contrived moment to justify it's presence on the screen. And the dialogue that I used to be so engaged by, now too often sounds like it's all coming from the same mouth. The author, as funny and engaging as he is, gets in the way of the characters.

I'll give you an example of the kind of contrived plotting that now pulls me out.

The dead guy in the toilet was a joke that used to split my side every time. It was greatness. But looking at it now, it's just a progression of contrived and unlikely events that lead to an impossible sexual act.

First, we have to allow that an old guy will go into the toilet of a convenience store with a porn mag and some tissues. Okay, it's not that likely, but I've read some crazy shit, so I'll go with it. Then, the characters have to forget about him. Stretching me further there. I've worked in many shops and, even on the height of a saturday rush, I always had an eye on the foot traffic and on who was doing what. And if I had given a customer permission to go somewhere they shouldn't, or do something they shouldn't, no way is that going to slip my mind. But the film is making me laugh and I want it to win, so okay, roll on with it.

Then we're asked to believe that the bathroom lights stop working at some random point in the afternoon, every single day. Why? Nobody knows. The film even tells us that nobody knows. If a film tells you that 'nobody knows' that often means that the writer doesn't know. He's doing something that he knows doesn't make sense, and he wants you to ignore it. The reasin it's not fixed? The electrician won't fix it because he's in a dispute with the shop owner over late video rental fees.

There are so many logical ways to fix this problem, that leaving it unresolved is the least logical thing to do. Cancel the guys late fees if he agrees to fix the light. Or call another electrician. Is he really the only guy in Leonardo, New Jersey, who can fix a light?

The guy dies at some point. We can assume from the fact he has an erection that it happened quite early, when he first went in with the magazines. The light going out also gives us the latest point when it could have happened. He could have spent the whole afternoon in there having fun, only to conk out just before the light stops working.

Then in the evening a woman goes into the bathroom and, upon finding a silent and unmoving man hiding in the dark with an erection, she decides it must be her boyfriend, and proceeds with the whopee. I don't know which part of that scenario is the least likely, so lets all just agree that none of it makes sense.

Although, credit where it's due, Kevin Smith does a bit of work here that Jurassic Park doesn't. He does drop in reference earlier in the script of a mistaken-identity-fumble in the dark, so that the character has a previous for it. It's just that he's laying the ground work for such an improbable situation that I'm pulled right out.

I'm one of those guys who does research. I speak to people who are in the situations I'm going to write about. It leads to some fun contacts. One of the people who has to put up with random questions from me is called Joe, and he's a mortician. So when it comes to certain questions about death, decomposing, or how to dispose of a body, he gets annoying calls from me.

After watching Clerks he got one of these calls. It turns out that a stiffy doesn't last for very long after death. It lasts for about the same time yours would if you were standing in a cold bath and thinking of a moose. The blood, without an excited heart pumping it around, will settle at the lowest point available. If Kaitlin got into the bathroom at pretty much the same moment he died, it's possible. Just about. Maybe. But given that we've already established he would have been dead for some time, there's not going to be any sex going on.

Yes, I know, I hear your groans, my favourite film is Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I worship a film that contains a magic box from the sky that kills people, yet I baulk at a little bit of accidental necrophilia? Thing is, I've never seen a real box from the sky that kills people. I've never seen Nazis try to open such a box in real life, and so as long as the story telling is cohesive I'll roll with it. But I can pick up the phone and ask a guy what happens to a man's stiffy after death, so I would expect writers to do the same basic checking.

A writer needs to earn the suspension of disbelief. By the time we see our first dinosaur in Jurassic Park we have a basic idea of what's going on, and then we're given the science -the rules- of the fictional world to run with. As long as the film sticks by the rules it gives us, then it can do what it wants with the impossible beasties on the screen. It's when those rules get broken for the sake of a cool moment that the films falls down.

And with Clerks any of those steps along the way could have been earned and accepted. But when you're using a series of unlikely events to justify and impossible one? Once again, it's sacrificing too much simply to get to a cool moment. Nah, count me out.

So that's the danger that Scott was writing about yesterday. Sometimes, you really can't go back.

I feel at this point I should pay a few taxes. Steven Spielberg may have incurred MY ineffective wrath by turning a T Rex into Elmer Fudd, but he's made more great movies than I will ever write average books, so I guess he can sleep safe. And, as much issue as I now take with Kevin Smith's writing, his podcasts are brilliantly funny. He's a genuine comic talent who has found his voice in the last few years far more than I think he did on film. Again, I'm sure he can sleep safe.

And while I'm talking about writers from New Jersey. Keep your eyes on Dave White's Amazon page.


John McFetridge said...

Zack and Miri Make a Porno could have been a great movie about some real stuff...

MysterLynch said...

To be honest, I never thought Clerks was great. Good? Sure, but not great.

I think Clerks II is a much better film.

Dave White said...

Okay. Aside from Raiders... what's a favorite childhood movie that holds up?

Jay Stringer said...

Childhood films that have held up (not all of these are part of my 'top ten' project) have been;


Im thinking GOONIES is probably best left as a memory.

I wonder if JP is a turning point. The moment when the planned ending was thrown out in favour of the T Rex because it "looked cool," I wonder if that is a moment of cinema history. It's when the filmmakers realised they can visualise anything they want, so -to borrow from the film- once they no longer needed to ask if they COULD they also stopped asking if they SHOULD.