Monday, January 3, 2011

Set it Up and Knock it Down

I believe, if pressed against a wall and questioned relentlessly, anyone could identify one particular aspect of the storytelling process the most fascinating to them. There's hundreds of various facets that make up a film, but something draws each of us uniquely. Sure, we are certain to pay attention to as much as possible, but in reality so many things go on in a particular shot our heads would explode trying to simultaneously analyze, dissect, and commit to memory each individual piece.

Hence, the favorite. If you're not a hundred percent certain as to what your particular favorite is, I recommend thoroughly going through a good number of your own reviews and it'll reveal itself. We can concentrate on any number of things, but in general there's always one thing that can makes a break a film.

For me, it's always been characters. I love them. You sell me a wonderful character and I'll give you my mind and heart for as long as you need. As a consequence the aspect of storytelling I find most riveting, and in turn crucial to my appreciation for the world, is the set up. The opening portion of the tale that defines the various components of the story to come.

Take for example the film Unbreakable. It's merits may often be debated, but in particular it holds a firm distinction as being one of my all-time favorites. Why? For the simple reason that the entire film is character and set-up. We get to know these individuals, their lives, and the direction the events will take them. Sure there's an element of basic plot structure, but most of it is broken down in the simple confines of superhero setup mythology. Things such as the use of color and art direction are extraneous icing on the cake.

Now take my all time favorite film Seven Samurai for example. Kurosawa meticulously designs and builds his characters from scratch. Through the opening hour we get to meet each one and in doing so gain a viable attribute that describes the manner in which they operate. The journey exposes and enforces these beginnings with the final action tying it all together. This basic principle is extrapolated on a far more grand scale in films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A quick way to get on my bad side is to have a bad setup, or a journey that fails to extend on the setup. One of the primary no-no's in this is the 'oh-yeah-by-the-way.' You know it when you see it. The sudden revelation three-quarters of the way through the film that wipes away any major issues in the following journey to allow for more action. One example of this can be found in a character randomly having a talent they haven't possessed up until the finale and no indicator in the flow of the narrative that they had gained such a talent. An example of a film which over utilizes this particular story-telling technique is the recent remake, Clash of the Titans. The movie darts through its setup at such breakneck speeds cheetahs paused on the sidelines to say "damn, that's fast."

If you're wondering why I hate it so much I can answer is quite simple: empathy. Now, I'm not referring to something high-minded like 'empathicalism' as you'd find in Funny Face. I simply believe that in order for me to truly divest myself into a story, I must understand and want to know its characters. You can leave some things blank for mystery, but make me love them. Make me want to know them and go on this journey with them. It's the building block of any real relationship. And don't go trying to tell me this just a fling either! Two hours my time may be years in yours so you better believe some loving is going to go down. It may not be sexual, but even platonic relationships rely on more than merely face level give and take.

3 better thoughts:

flixchatter said...

Nice post, Univarn. I'm with you about characters being a huge factor of what makes a film... and totally agree about Unbreakable. That's why I still think M Night's career might not be over just yet. As for 'Clash,' well, if the Kraken is a more developed character than the lead, then you know what you're in for :(

Andrew Robinson said...

Nicely Done Sir...

I agree 100%. Unless the characters are setup properly then you never care whatever happens... not to say that movies that you don't care about are good, but it is a factor that helps to seperate the good from the fantastic

Mike Lippert said...

I'm curious how you would respond to David Mamet's highly compelling (though not saying I agree) theory that there is no such thing as character development, only action because character is naturally defined by their actions.

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