August 30, 2008

Third-person narration done right

A couple of days ago, I saw Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I feel that this film should be taught in film schools - as an example of every single thing not to do. For starters...the title? Um, yeah, it's the two main characters and the setting. It's also hopelessly out of touch - "oh, these crazy young folk and their sexual escapades! They're all bicurious and unfaithful!" It's riddled with tired stereotypes and generalizations - Americans are uptight, conservative, and perpetually dissatisfied! Spanish people are tempestuous and passionate, and are constantly either stabbing or fucking each other! One reviewer astutely pointed out that this film leaves you hungering not for a sequel, but for a prequel - Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz arguing in Spanish and alluding to their former love affair give hints of the movie I would prefer to see. But this film's worst offense, by far, is the voiceover narration.


Ask anyone who's studied film for three or more minutes and they can tell you that one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is "show, don't tell." Don't have a character say "I am so sad right now!" - have them cry instead. Narration can be a very tricky thing to master - you shouldn't do it unless there's a concrete reason. Third-person narration in particular is near impossible to pull off, because it lacks the personal connection to the story gained from one of the characters narrating in first person. It can't just be a crutch. I think great cinema is achieved when it doesn't take very much to convey a lot. When one look on an actor's face says it all.

Well, in VCB, the actors' looks have to say mostly everything, because the narration renders them useless. The movie is like an audiobook with pictures. One of the opening shots has Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, sitting in the back of a taxi. The narrator spills out their life stories, values, likes, dislikes, habits, and desires in one fell swoop while the two talented actresses sit there and stare out the window. WTF?! Don't just have a random voice saying "Vicky was conservative and traditional in matters of love, while Cristina was adventurous and free-spirited" (or whatever they said to that effect) - have Vicky on the phone with her man from back home while Cristina flirts with the cab driver. Something! It's so patronizing that it's offensive.

Not only was the voiceover patronizing, it was redundant. Long ago, it became cinematically accepted for characters to do several things in a montage sequence without painstaking explanation. Two characters say "we're going to have a fun day!" Then they go shopping, get ice cream, see a movie, go dancing, walk through the park, etc. These can all happen in rapid succession without someone stopping to clarify everything they're doing. Woody apparently missed this memo, because shots of the characters going to a bakery and a sculpture garden are accompanied by that goddamn voice saying "Then they went to a local bakery and sampled candies and sweets. Then they went to see a sculpture and Vicky thought it was beautiful." Those lines are as close to verbatim as I can remember them. It's like a slideshow of someone's vacation.

So as a favor to Woody, who apparently does not know any of this, I will provide some legitimate and creative reasons to employ third-person voiceover narration as a cinematic device, and some filmic examples of each.

1. To lend an epic nature to the proceedings
Successful examples: The Big Lebowski (1998), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
At their cores, Lebowski is just a movie about a Los Angeles slacker embroiled in a kidnapping mystery, and Anchorman is a silly story about a newscaster. But by employing a booming voice to set up their stories, The Dude and Ron Burgundy
become heroic men of their times. Another byproduct of this faux-epic setup is, unsurprisingly, humor.
Excerpt: "
And in San Diego, one anchorman was more man then the rest. His name was Ron Burgundy. He was like a god walking amongst mere mortals. He had a voice that could make a wolverine purr and suits so fine they made Sinatra look like a hobo. In other words, Ron Burgundy was the balls." -- Anchorman
Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude." -- Lebowski

2. To establish a thematic context
Successful examples: Amelie (2001), Magnolia (1999)
These two films are both largely about the interconnectedness of people, so the narration talks about events that may not pertain directly to the main narrative - but that's exactly the point.
Excerpt: "
On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born." -- Amelie
(after noting several historical coincidences) "
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just 'Something That Happened.' This cannot be 'One of Those Things...' This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This was not just a matter of chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time." -- Magnolia

3. Expressing a character's thoughts that, no matter how talented the actor, they couldn't express themselves
Successful example: Little Children (2006)
A good actor can display a myriad of emotions. He or she can give countless different readings of a line. But there are subtler trains of thought that can't be conveyed any other way. As talented as Kate Winslet is, how else could she communicate the train of though below? Besides, a lot of the source material from Tom Perrotta's novel was probably just too good not to include.
Excerpt: "She didn't feel shame or guilt, only a sense of profound disorientation, as if she had been kidnapped by aliens, and then released, unharmed, a few hours later."
"Sarah was short, and boyish - and had eyebrows that were thicker than Brad thought necessary." -- Little Children

4. To pack in a lot of backstory about a character
Successful examples: The Royal Tenenbaums (2002), Network (1976)
I know I said earlier that the voiceover in VCB explaining the characters' lives away was unnecessary. However, that was because it was discussing their traits and characteristics, which should be able to come out in their performances. At the beginning of the two films listed above, there's just some narrative information that needs to get out there, and fast. Also, when your narrator is Alec Baldwin, it's hardly ever superfluous.
Excerpts: "In the sixth grade, he went into business, breeding dalmatian mice, which he sold to a pet shop in Little Tokyo. He started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance." -- Tenenbaums
"This story is about Howard Beale, the acclaimed news anchorman on UBS T.V. In this time, however, he was a mandarin of television with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, started to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks." -- Network

5. To set up a chronology that might otherwise be unclear
Successful example: The Killing (1956)
Kubrick's early film received initial criticism for its non-linear account of a robbery, which was cited as confusing. However, that same element holds up as a strong point today. Without the voice specifying what time it was, the full impact of the overlapping storylines might not have been achieved. Interestingly, though, the narration was added at the studio's insistence and Kubrick hated the idea.
Excerpt: "An hour earlier that same afternoon, in another part of the city, Patrolman First Class Randy Kennan had some personal business to attend to."

6. When the source material is a widely-known classic and people will be pissed if it isn't included
Successful examples: movies adapted from Dr. Seuss or Shakespeare
Could you imagine a Dr. Seuss movie without the delightfully nonsensical rhymes of the corresponding book, read in voiceover by some narrator with a twinkle in his eye? Or how about a Romeo and Juliet adaptation (one that uses the original language) where the famous opening is just hacked off? It simply can't be done. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) added a twist by having that opening read as a newscast, but it was still there.
Excerpts: "Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean..." -- any decent R+J adaptation
"And so, all ended well for both Horton and Who's, and for all in the jungle, even kangaroos. So let that be a lesson to one and to all; a person is a person, no matter how small." -- Horton Hears a Who (2008)

What other movies do third-person narration right - or horribly wrong?

August 20, 2008

Actors that are not only still alive, but have been consistenly working since their heyday

It's always sad when a prominent and/or talented star either retires, fades into obscurity, or dies. Sometimes after the former two happen, the star in question will make a comeback, for better or worse (looking at you, Jane Fonda...seriously, Monster-in-Law was worth coming out of retirement?). But there are also curious cases where not only is a star still working, but they never stopped - although simultaneously fading out of the collective consciousness. Here's a sampling of some such actors, whom you might have even assumed to be deceased or retired, but have been slaving away in showbiz all these years (with varying degrees of success).

1. Faye Dunaway
Poor Faye. She was a go-to girl in the late 60s and the 70s for playing complex and sophisticated women, winning an Oscar for her devilish role in Network (1976) and earning nominations for her roles in the classics Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Chinatown (1974).

And then?

Lots of TV movies and TV guest appearances. Dunston Checks In in 1996, where she costarred with a monkey. Independent movies where she is billed near the bottom.

Lowest point: Cougar Club (2007).We're not talking about wildcats here....

2. Eli Wallach
Making his film debut in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll in 1956, Wallach is best known for his menacing turns in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but kept busy with juicy roles through the 1970s. He is also a Tony-winning stage actor.

And then?

TV appearances ("Whoopi"??), voiceover work, an uncredited bit part in Mystic River (is that cool or sad?), and headlining several independent films about Italians. At least he's managed to maintain lead or high billing all these years, but that doesn't really matter if no one sees the movie, huh? He shows no signs of slowing down despite being 93 YEARS OLD.

Lowest point: Two Much (1996). Right from the punny title, you know it's comedy genius...

3. Mickey Rooney
Best known as a child star, Rooney of one of the major musical stars in MGM's stable in the 1930s. He made 15 films as his Andy Hardy character, costarring often with Judy Garland, and countless shorts as his Mickey McGuire character. He received four Oscar nominations, and a special "juvenile" Academy Award in 1939.

And then?

He did receive one of his Oscar nominations in 1979 for The Black Stallion, an impressive four or five decades past his heyday. But he never stopped - there were TV movies, endless appearances as a grandfather figure, voice work, and bad, bad movies.

Lowest point: The year 1998. How about Sinbad: The Battle of the Dark Knights (1998), with its stunning 1.6 star rating on IMDB? Or how about Babe: Pig in the City (also 1998), where he is credited as "Fugly Floom, The Speechless Man in Hotel"?

4. Kevin McCarthy
Best known for his role as the lead in the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy also had a Golden Globe-winning turn as Biff Loman in 1951's Death of a Salesman. He also made an appearance on practically every TV show of the 50s and 60s.

And then?

Even though he acted highbrow fare like the 1966 adaptation of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, McCarthy hasn't lost touch with schlock. He played "fire department rescuer" in the campy Mommy (1995) and despite his ripe old age of 94 he has a film coming out called The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (tagline:
" They Sing! They Dance! They're Teenagers from Outer Space!"). He also played Dr. Bennell in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), a groan-inducing nod to his character's name in Invasion.

Lowest point: Trail of the Screaming Foreheads. Yes. This exists.

5. Lauren Bacall
A husky-voiced screen siren of the 1940s, Bacall made her smoldering debut in To Have and Have Not (1944), playing opposite future husband Humphrey Bogart (they fell in love during filming). They made three more films together, and Bacall moved on to other such films as How To Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

And then?

She actually received an Oscar nomination in 1996 for The Mirror Has Two Faces. Through the turn of the millennium, she's been in about one movie a year, often with fairly high billing. You go, girl.

Lowest point: none, really. I mainly included her on this list because she is often thought to be dead. Even if she did star in some movies that weren't amazing, there was no Trail of the Screaming Foreheads equivalent.

Any surprises here? Who else fits this description?

August 15, 2008

The death of the answering machine

Ah, the answering machine. A perfect cinematic device. Even more so than a telephone, really, because you can hear the voice on the other end more clearly. It has so many applications: in the romantic film, after the couple's big fight, the offending party can leave soul-bearing message after message until the offendee can't bear it anymore and picks up. In the thriller, the bad guy can leave a string of menacing messages (although he's probably more inclined to go for the Breathy and Abrupt Phone Call). The comedy sees a hapless protagonist leaving embarassing messages, probably on the machine of his dream girl. And so on.

Trouble is, I don't know anyone with a traditional answering machine anymore. Even those old dinosaurs who still have land lines have probably made a mandatory switch to digital voicemail. Pressing a speed dial button, hearing a short ring followed by the robotic lady saying "Please enter your password," punching in a password, hearing "You have __ new messages" and listening to them just isn't compelling cinema. I've noticed that to cling to the answering machine for as long as possible, some filmmakers hide behind the excuse that a character has a crummy little apartment and isn't tech-savvy. Well, as previously mentioned, most phone companies have forced people into voicemail, so that line of reasoning doesn't fly.

The introduction of cell phones has also had a quiet but profound effect on cinema. In a movie made before the advent of cell phones, if you had arranged to meet with someone at a certain time and place and they didn't show, they were probably dead, kidnapped, standing you up, setting you up, etc. Now it's a different story - give them a quick ring on their cell ("Oh, you meant that park. I'll be right over."). This is a welcome development in the real world, but it makes things a little too easy on screen. Again, some filmmakers are flat-out ignoring the existence of cell phones and clinging to payphones for as long as possible, despite the fact that they barely exist anymore. Payphones/phone booths are another unfortunate loss from the silver screen, as they are wonderfully dramatic - not enough money to finish the call! Random payphone ringing! Calling the person in the next booth over to discuss your evil plans! But in the age of cell phones, payphones just seem sad and ridiculous.

What are some other fading technologies that are winding down their glory days on screen?

August 7, 2008

A few thoughts on celebrity offspring

I like celebrity gossip as much as the next guy. I might not buy a copy of US Weekly, but I'll flip through it in a waiting room, and I'll absorb all the latest dish online. I like to know who's wearing what and who's sleeping with whom - I think it's a perfectly natural human impulse. But there is one aspect of celebrity worship that I simply do not understand: the attention given to their new babies.

We're all adults here (at least maturity-wise, I presume), so let's be honest about something: ALL BABIES LOOK THE SAME. Unless you see their special parts, you can't even tell if it's a boy or a girl. The only variations are size, skin tone, and amount of hair, but a human baby is a human baby. If you put one of the Brangelina twins in a room with 100 other random babies and instructed someone to find the celebrity spawn in the bunch, they couldn't. Now, if you put 100 random men in a room and instructed someone to pick out the one that Angelina Jolie was sleeping with, you probably could on basis on attractiveness (although there was that Billy Bob Thornton debacle). Or which of 100 evening gowns she had worn. The point is, reading about celebrities is fun because of all the sparkle, glamor, and variety, but their babies are the one thing in their lives that are just like everyone else's. They're not born with halos, lightning scars, or an otherworldly glow - there's nothing distinguishing them from some hick baby born in a trailer park.

I sometimes wonder if the tabloids that pay 19 kajillion dollars for a picture or two of a famous baby half-expect something special. They send out their check, and they get back a picture of the celebrity in question holding...a baby. A regular baby. Honestly, I'm not surprised that more people don't try to scam the bloids by sending in a random Google image of a baby and trying to pass it off as one of famous pedigree, because if it wasn't for the inherent shadiness of the source, NO ONE WOULD BE ABLE TO TELL.

The celebrity baby obsession is also pretty bipolar, however. Once these kids are about a year old (or in the case of adopted children, once they've been with a new celeb family about that long), they fade into oblivion instantly. No one cares. Their baby pictures may have financed three new houses, but by age 1 they're dead to the world. Their only hope of re-entering the media is through one or more of the following: 1) an expos
of their famous mom or dad's bad parenting skills that involves them only as a victim 2) an adorably futile attempt to become a star in their own right and not because of their lineage, or 3) some slutty scandal of their own.

And while some stars savor the publicity that their bundles of joy can bring, others (at least act like they) hate it. This
article about Nicole Kidman and child made me roll my eyes so far back in my head that I didn't know if they'd come back. To summarize, she issues a whiny plea to the paparazzi to leave her newborn daughter Sunday alone. This won't work, because she is a celebrity and gave her baby a stupid name like Sunday (as an aside, who wants to be named after the day of the week that you spend groaning about how you have to go back to work/school?). Hey Nicole, you know how you can get the the shutterbugs away from you and your precious cargo? Go back in time and don't become famous, or don't have a baby. Being a celebrity stunned that paparazzi want to stalk your baby is like being a normal person shocked that their baby isn't potty-trained from birth. As powerful as celebrities are, they are powerless to change the social structures designed to document every second of their lives.

What do you think? Am I alone in being passionately disinterested in celebrity spawn?