November 4, 2011

Films that should have been something else

It's rare that films come into being because the idea was best suited for that particular medium. Adaptations obviously happen, as well as transformations during development ("Glee," for instance, was originally envisioned as a film), but it's not like a variety of artists are all chasing the same material. Consequently, it occasionally happens that you wind up with a film that (at least in my opinion) should have been something else, where the strengths play to a different medium entirely and the choice of art form drags it down. Here, then, are some films that I think were "born into the wrong body," so to speak.

Scarface (1932) as a graphic novel
When I finally got around to seeing Scarface, I felt like I was missing something. I love a good gangster picture as much as the next guy, and even Scarface's notable contemporaries like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy seemed much more lively. To me, the film lacked the manic energy that made similar films work. There was too much dead space, too many awkward stretches, too much focus on plot. So I propose it would feel right at home as a graphic novel, where the pace can be more relaxed while still holding interest. The machine gun fire would explode in big graphic rat-a-tats, and stylized artwork (black and white, perhaps) would do the heavy lifting instead of mostly novice actors. I'd read it!
The Producers (1968) as a musical
Now, I'm aware this is sort of cheating, since the film HAS been made into a musical (albeit one I haven't seen, so I'm counting it). It's perhaps because I am aware of the musical that the film felt to me like a musical with the songs cut out. The plot is oddly arranged, the shtick gets old fast, and the vast majority of it is two actors stuck in a room getting hysterical at each other. The fundamental premise is so goofy that I think the full musical treatment would really highlight it and bring the absurdity to the max. (I'm clearly right, if a six-year Broadway run and 12 Tonys are any indication).

Beetlejuice (1988) as an art exhibit
Unlike many, I neither unconditionally love nor blindly hate Tim Burton - I take him one film at a time. My frustration with Beetlejuice was that it had wonderful production design - and that's it. The acting, directing, cinematography, editing and story were indifferent. He probably knew that he could get more financing for building a whimsically gothic collection of giant beasties if he shot a film with them. I've been to the recent Tim Burton art exhibit that's been touring the world, but the focus there is more on two-dimensional works and isolated movie props. Ideally, the world he created for Beetlejuice would have been transplanted into an immersive gallery environment where you experienced it firsthand, not once removed through a movie screen.

Once (2007) as an album
Once is about music. Any plot developments or character arcs, most of them minor, are entrenched in the music. So why not just leave it as music? The film plays like a long music video, although that's not even the best description because music videos exploit their visual component. Once does not - the characters just sit around either playing music or just kind of hanging out. Make no mistake; the music in question here is absolutely fantastic. They just didn't need to build a movie around it.

The Man From Earth (2007) as a play
I had heard a ton of great buzz about this little indie, but it proved to be a huge disappointment. There's an interesting premise buried underneath terrible acting, shoddy production values and elevator music: an immortal, non-aging man has seen all of human history unfold. Instead of being a 20-part history epic, however, the format is a bunch of intellectuals sitting in a room and talking. I don't have an intrinsic problem with this format and have seen many films that use it well, but TMFE is a textbook example of what not to do. Take a few of the sillier indulgences out of the script, cast a powerhouse ensemble of actors, and it could be a pretty great stage play. (Frankly, the way the film is made I was surprised to learn it wasn't adapted from one.)

Black Swan (2010) as a ballet
I'm well aware that the film uses the ballet Swan Lake as a launching point. But Aronofsky's dark, sexy, weird version of the ballet at the end of the film is like no Swan Lake I've ever seen. The offscreen drama of the finale is fantastic too, a virtuosic opera of madness that melds perfectly with the ballet performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is Natalie Portman whimpering and clipping her toenails. I'm not dismissing the film entirely, since the ending was one of the more inspired moments of cinema I saw last year. So why not combine the ballet of Swan Lake with the story of a ballerina going mad preparing for it? The histrionics fit the tone of "dance-acting," the production design can remain the same - just cast actual dancers who have been trained to emote through their bodies. 

Le Havre (2011) as a photography series 
Aki Kaurismäki's latest film immediately pulls you in with its stunning lighting. It's a strange thing to single out, but it's highly theatrical and makes the rainbow palette of the film really pop. The rest of the film, however, isn't nearly as notable - flat characters, a story that overestimates its importance, and barely enough energy to keep the thing moving. But viewing stills from the movie, they look like a carefully choreographed photography series spring-loaded with possibilities. I can totally picture them in a gallery or museum. The nature of film as a moving picture really does these compositions an injustice.

What do you think? Can you think of any films that seem destined to be something else?