December 9, 2008

What are your favorite cinematic themes and/or elements?

Think of your favorite films. What do they have in common? What draws you in again and again? Perhaps it's a particular actor or director, or films of a certain country, but are there thematic elements you seem to gravitate toward? Here are the five themes that can almost invariably get me to a theater or video store.

1. Unrest in the suburbs. Mosey over to this post to see my full exploration of that little fetish.
2. Challenges to masculinity and/or destruction by too much power. This theme appears in some older movies, such as Written on the Wind (1957), where it takes the literal form of impotence that drives one of the male leads to insanity. That can be fun and all, but I also gravitate towards stories that show the dangers of being overly masculine (or having others expect you to be). The last few years have been ripe with these films - The Departed, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men stand out as examples. Just as too much testosterone can shorten your lifespan (true business!), being too macho ultimately destroys you. It's an interesting change of pace from the indestructible he-man that Hollywood depicted for so long.
3. Real relationships between real people. Hollywood glamour and magic can be nice, but sometimes, it's just grating. You can't always watch gorgeous celebrities reading picture-perfect screenplays of romance (or even picture-perfect destructions - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great film, but far more theatrical than real life). The closer to real a relationship is, whether in terms of passion, dialogue, or attractiveness, the more I'll dig it. Examples: the stream-of-consciousness dialogue in Before Sunrise, Zach Braff farting on Jacinda Barrett in The Last Kiss, the unglamorous marital messiness but ultimate reunion of Harvey and Joyce Pekar in American Splendor, people with bad social skills falling for each other in Punch-Drunk Love. As much as you hear that the cinema is escapism, people can connect more to the real.
4. Bittersweet endings. A good ending can make or break a film. Lots of older films (noirs and crime films in particular) have slapped-on happy endings put there by the Production Code (see my exploration of that subject here ) that seem awkward, but can be forgiven with knowledge of the extenuating circumstances. Crap endings in modern films - when the director/screenwriter actually has options - infuriate me. Both happy and sad endings have their place, but I believe that the Holy Grail is the bittersweet ending. Maybe things went to shit, but there's a glimmer of hope. Maybe you lost the girl, but you gained a friend. Without explicit spoilers, Casablanca, Annie Hall, and The Squid and the Whale are examples. Alternately, I like endings that show that things don't really change, or that cycles continue, such as Election or Thank You For Smoking. Another version of the bittersweet ending is one that is technically a happy ending, but doesn't give you a huge movie kiss on a silver platter. See: The Apartment, My Fair Lady (even though I hated MFL).
5. Combating aggression with intelligence. In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart remarks to a gun-toting thug, "My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail." SO COOL. I'm a sucker for films where protagonists can defeat enemies with just their wit. Courtroom dramas are a subdivision of this genre that I naturally love - such as Inherit the Wind, where Spencer Tracy takes down a whole courtroom of creationists by, like, making sense.

What premise or themes are you drawn to?

1 comment:

Jordan Troublefield said...

Wow! Two posts in two days? :) You've been sorely missed. Um, I completely agree on, among other things, the bittersweet ending. It's never really the end you want but you gotta' respect the hell out of them when pulled off the right way. Not the most monumental of films (though, I think, under-appreciated), 'The Terminal' does this. Oh! Also -'Once' does so FANTASTICALLY. Personally, I seem to navigate towards any plot that surveys the depths a character(s) go through immediately following the death of a loved one. 'The Big Chill' I just watched for the first time and loved. Also, 'Ordinary People' when it stops being boring and finally gets good. There are also many others though, for now, they escape me. I think I love that theme just because there's something beautiful in the appreciation after the loss of a loved one and it's something all of us fear though can never escape. It's universal.