Chekhov's Gunman

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#1: “Fighting Rocky IRL”- Watching Things is Not a Competition

Rocky

Welcome to Chekhov’s Gunman- a film and television blog covering different topics from the point of view of Kevin Lanigan, an up-and-coming writer of screenplays, novels, and eventual tell-all memoirs about how daddy didn’t hug me enough. I hope you enjoy this thoughtful piece with a sarcastic twang. Mild spoilers follow, so please don’t yell at me, I am weak.

We all like to feel superior. Deep down, people want to be wearing bunny slippers, smoking a Cobb pipe, and watching That 70’s Show reruns on what seems like every channel. We don’t want to be the slippers. We do different things to facilitate this desire. We laugh at the kid who doesn’t understand imaginary numbers. We pick on those who do understand imaginary numbers. And, we try to outsmart the movies we watch, as if we’re more clever than those transforming robots that turn into cars. Oh yeah? Can you turn into a car, smart guy?

Watching movies is not a competition. You are not Rocky, squaring off against Apollo Creed (in this scene played by that copy of Memento your friend loaned you three months ago and will not shut up about).

Now, don’t hear me incorrectly, I am not defending predictable film. Often, there is nothing more grating than a by-the-numbers explosions and mild cleavage PG-13 romp. But something equally as annoying is the guy next to you saying that he saw that coming, really pissing off people only there to admire the abs of Captain Forgettable (whoever the current Sam Worthington might be).

I’ll give you an example. Last year, I was in a Film Appreciation class at Webster University and we screened the film In America, a truly wonderful film directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton. It’s a film that really sweeps you up and takes you. You laugh, you cry, you admire at just how adorable Irish children can be. And some tosspot always has to ruin it.

A ways into In America, there’s a scene where the breadwinner of a poor Irish family attempting to make their way in New York goes to a carnival to try and win an E.T. doll for his daughters. He just wants them to have something to play with. It’s tense. You stop breathing. As our hero puts down more and more money, failing again and again, your hope gets more and more desperate. You ache for him to win. He throws… And it goes in! Yay! You care about him so much that his victory is the audience’s victory as well.

Unless you say, “Of course he won. It’s a movie.”

My professor’s answer to that, which forever earned him a lot of points in the secret log I keep on everyone, was frank and sweet: “Well you just don’t know how to appreciate movie magic anymore.”

“Movie magic” is a pretty standard term, usually thrown around on DVD special features by the creative team who spent hours making it look like Gerard Butler and army were carved out of marble by sex-crazed housewives, but its connotations run deeper than that and speak to what exactly makes movies work.

Movies shouldn’t work. Let’s get that out of the way right now. A bunch of pictures projected on a wall should not entertain us, much less move us to tears. It’s a glorified slide show. But I’ve never seen anyone pee their pants laughing while watching a slideshow. And I’ve seen some pretty damn good slideshows. The fact that we connect with films at all is nothing short of dumbfounding.

It has to be the magic. It’s being a part of something larger than yourself. It’s being swept up by the drama of it all, or the hilarity. It’s forgetting that you can’t find a date, or you can’t pay next month’s rent, and remembering how great it is to watch Jeff Goldblum almost get eaten by dinosaurs. It’s about the journey and changing our mood. When Buster Keaton stands next to anything vaguely breakable, we have a good idea that it’s going to break, but the way to truly watch a film is to wait and see how it will break.

I speak, now, to everyone reading this who watches things:

Is it not more interesting, more fun as a movie-goer or TV-watcher, to let yourself get caught up in what you’re watching, to be swept away by the adventure and the characters than it is to lob self-servicing pot shots from the rafters like a fleshy Muppet? Going in with an idea that anything can happen, that, yeah, maybe John McClane has finally uttered his last “Yippie-kay-yay,” will give you a much more enjoyable movie-going experience than tracing the three act structure out on your leg like some sort of film-savvy Rain Man…

(Did Rain Man do stuff like that? I’ve never actually seen it, but I’ve seen enough casual references to get a handle on it. Also, I will not accept that his given name isn’t “Rain Man.”)

Think back to a time when you were young, before you had TV Tropes bookmarked, before you ever had coffee with a human being who owned multiple Coen Brothers movies… Didn’t you enjoy movies a little bit more back then? You weren’t thinking as critically, but you probably watched Aladdin a thousand times in a row. Or Star Wars. Or Toy Story. You never thought you were smarter than the movie. A movie was a story being told to you. You interacted with it the same way you did when some lady in overalls would read to you at the public library. It was an active engagement between you and the movie, but you never tried to outguess it and predict that Pikachu wasn’t going to Chu his last Chu. As far as you knew, he was going to…

Listen. Is it likely that Spider-Man is going to die before the credits roll and the mediocre rock song plays? A safe man could bet his house on “No” and walk away with two houses and the knowledge that the twelve-year-old he bet against is not likely to make the same mistake twice. But wouldn’t it be more interesting, as someone who pays money to watch these damn things, to think, “You know what? Yeah. Maybe Pleasantville is going to eat it this time,” and get sucked into all of it?

Again, I am not defending predictable film. That inkling voice in the back of your head, the one that sounds like that film student that only watches Fellini movies, has a point. If you’re able to passively predict every step of a film before it happens, that is a huge mark against what it is that you’re watching. I’m not telling you to be surprised whenever Adam Sandler gets to make out with whatever actress is collecting a paycheck this time. All I’m saying is that being open to the idea of her ending up with Steve Buscemi instead might make the experience slightly more intriguing. On a different note…

I speak, now, to everyone reading this that makes things (but all are welcome and can learn from this):

IT IS YOUR JOB TO MAKE SURE THAT WE’RE NOT THINKING ABOUT THIS STUFF!

As the person theoretically getting paid to lob dialogue and Subway product placement at us for $12 a pop, it is your job to either surprise us or make us think that we’re surprised.

Joss Whedon did a really nice job at this with The Avengers. Sure, there was a very high chance that Iron Man was going to save the day and that the movie wouldn’t end with a moody music cue as the credits roll over a still shot of Black Widow’s sullen corpse. That was probably not going to happen. But you weren’t really thinking about that because OH MY GOD, CAPTAIN AMERICA’S JUMPING OVER THE—AND THOR’S HITTING THE- AND OMG HOLY CRAP BALLS GEE WHIZ UH-UH AHHHHHHH!

I wasn’t thinking about the Second Act Pinch because I was really interested in just what Loki was planning. I was invested in the idea of Iron Man making the Act 3 rush to the airport to tell Hulk how much he loved him. Let the fan fiction rain down upon me…

There is hardly any genre that has become more predictable than superhero films. Seriously. Spider-Man set up the formula and everyone else pretty much followed it to a tee. After the first Iron Man, it took something really phenomenal to get us excited about anyone in tights again. That’s why the overall reaction to Thor was something pretty comparable to “Meh.” It tried to give us the big emotional, romantic ending bits that Spidey and Iron Man walked away with, without ever really setting up a romance. That movie is two hours of First Act and a quick half-hour third act. I feel there is an entire middle section of that film missing where Natalie Portman and Chris Hemworth develop chemistry. It’s not there, but we’re so accustomed to the superhero girlfriend that it’s really just thrown in there like so many maimed Frost Giants in Thor’s least “Meh” scene.

That’s why we should really look to The Avengers for inspiration. Something about that film blew our minds, even in a genre that has already grown stale. The greatest trick Joss Whedon ever pulled was convincing everyone that The Avengers wasn’t predictable.

Perhaps one of the modern masters of this is Quentin Tarantino. I have hardly ever known how a Tarantino film is going to end. I was constantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. And with Django Unchained, by the time DiCaprio was introduced I had no idea where we were headed. And it was a brilliant ride. Perhaps his most predictable ending was to the Kill Bill saga, which he really brought on himself with the title, but the ride to the final showdown with Bill was so interesting and fun that I didn’t really care. As a craftsman, you’ll be surprised how much pure entertainment can make us forgive certain structural weaknesses. (See: The Avengers, above)

That’s why people are so unforgiving when Christopher Nolan makes something with noticeable plot holes. Because he aims above strict “entertainment,” if his story falls flat, as many feel The Dark Knight Rises did, we pick at it more because there’s no pretty colors to fall back on. If the story for X-Men: First Class falls a little flat we can let it slide because Kevin Bacon is evil and the X-Men are taking on the Cuban Missile Crisis and there are pretty colors EVERYWHERE!

It is a well-documented idea that an audience should have all the information they need for the ending, that nothing should truly come out of left field. I agree with this. We as an audience get angry when things come out of nowhere (I’ll cover this more deeply in a future post). We feel that it was random and that the people making the movie didn’t put any real effort into it, but if it’s layered in there with lead-up and fore-thought, we appreciate it. Say what you will about Rises, but the ending was set up. Was it particularly well set up? No. In fact, it was very rigidly shoved in there with a neon sign pointing down, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Good examples of this? In Bruges– We know about Harry’s rules, the canal, the painting, the change in Ken’s pocket. The Shining– We understand Jack Nicholson is insane and that there is a hedge maze.

Great example of this? Wreck-It freaking Ralph. There is not a moment or twist in this film that is not set up earlier in the movie and it’s beautiful and I hope it wins all the Oscars. Watch it again, or for the first time if you’re lame. The big ending twist, almost every single joke or moment, all of it is telegraphed. Some of it is not very subtle, but it is a film aimed at ankle-biters so you can only expect it to be as nuanced as your ankles, those unsubtle knobbly things them.

And filmmakers, it is your job to develop a satisfying ending with proper set-up and introduce it to us in an interesting way. It is. It’s your job and you get paid a lot of money to do it. You don’t get to forget about it because it’s difficult. A construction worker can’t neglect an important component of a building because “Air conditioning is hard to integrate.” He does the job that he gets paid to do.

Speaking again to everyone…

This column is a proposal of an idea, my view on a particular topic that I’ve seen pop up. Try going into things with an open mind. Let it unfold before you. This is also my first blog ever and I hope you give me some leeway as I get a handle on this whole business.

I don’t expect this blog to change a large part of the culture or anything (far from it), but I hope I can impact people who read this column and hopefully get you to both think more deeply about what you’re consuming and perhaps enjoy it a little more.

Have fun and keep your wits about you.

Extracurricular Activities: Watch anything I mentioned in this blog that you have not seen. I kept it pretty diverse, as I’ll try to do, and odds are you’ve probably seen The Avengers and Batman, so mostly I’m just telling you to watch In Bruges.

Follow me on Twitter @KevinWroteThis and stay tuned to this blog. I’ll be posting the second Monday of every month. If you liked it, be sure to keep checking back and to share this with people you know. Hopefully we can all learn something from this.

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9 thoughts on “#1: “Fighting Rocky IRL”- Watching Things is Not a Competition

  1. Excellent article. The Avengers is a particularly good example, since I will often give a movie points for the ineffable quality of “getting swept up in it”. Avengers’ third act provoked two parts of my brain to alternately bark at each other, “Well, that army doesn’t seem like much of a real threat” and “THIS. IS. SO. FREAKING. COOL.”

    I would also submit that suspension of disbelief can be improved if you consider that any story about the main character worth putting into a film would have to be one of the more interesting days of that character’s life. I’m not just talking about the fact that our cameras happened to check in on John McClane on the day that his estranged wife’s Christmas party was taken hostage, but rather that our cameras happened to check in on George Bailey on the day he was feeling despondent and thinking about killing himself. The character’s “most interesting day” could be a product of an internal or external struggle. The character could be on the verge of a major change of heart, lifestyle, or career – or he might be on the verge of being in a plane crash and getting stranded on a desert island.

    The most important task the film has to perform is not to convince me that objectively, there’s a good chance that the main character in a superhero film is actually in mortal peril and might die. All that the film has to convince me of is that the main character of a superhero film thinks that he is in mortal peril. That his loved ones are in mortal peril. That his heroic sacrifice is the only thing that can save them. That’s what made Iron Man’s near-death at the end of Avengers so resonant. It wasn’t just that the film made me forget, for a split second, that there was already an Iron Man 3 in development, and even if there weren’t, Marvel wouldn’t let Joss Whedon kill off their biggest star. It was that Tony Stark made a believable sacrifice, and he did it for a good reason.

  2. I would also mention – while I adore In Bruges, I do find it ironic that you used it as an example in this particular argument, considering that McDonagh’s next film is a brilliant genre deconstruction called Seven Psychopaths – a gangster film that is about as far up its own ass as Adaptation. or an average episode of “Community”, and does so brilliantly (it was my #4 film of this year).

    • Seven Psychopaths was #4 on my list as well. Excellent film. Easily the best time I had at the movies this year, if not being the best film. Psychopaths will definitely be mentioned in posts yet to come, if only because I’m in love with it. I kept it out because it was a little new so I didn’t want to spoil anything and In Bruges so perfectly encapsulated what I was trying to say. Also, you mentioned “Community,” my favorite show, so you are welcome back on this blog any time.

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