Monday, January 26, 2009

Crossing that River in Style

I want to expand on something I said yesterday--when I say the key to good storytelling might be finding a balance between surprising and credible, by credible I don't mean the things in the story have to conform to modern humanity's scientific knowledge, or even be remotely realistic. What I mean is a narrative that includes the audience in its fun.

One thing Spielberg's particularly good at, when he's on his game, is thinking along with his audience. A moment in Back to the Future that seemed more Spielberg than Zemeckis to me is a bit near the end--after Marty's been freed from the trunk of the band's car, the guitarist says they can't go on with the show . . . unless Marty knows someone who can play guitar. Some directors might waste time having Marty say, "Hey! I can play guitar!" Instead, after the guitarist poses the question, we immediately cut to Marty playing guitar for them. Because it occurs to us at exactly the same moment that we already know Marty can play guitar.

Zemeckis, as a rule, isn't as good at this, and I can point to his recent film, Beowulf, for several examples. One thing that particularly bothered me was when Grendel attacked the mead hall, he flung open the doors . . . and then waited a long time out of sight before entering. What was he doing in that time? Based on Grendel's mannerisms and personality, it doesn't make sense for him to step around to the other side of the door and wait around for dramatic effect. It does, however, seem like something someone making a movie would do. It's a moment that makes us think of the director's personality more than the personalities of the characters, because it's not credible within the story, it's only credible as a filmmaking device, which does a lot to dispel suspension of disbelief.

But because we know and have (hopefully) enjoyed Marty McFly as an aspiring guitarist, we feel like we're continuing with the story of a character we know and like, and since the cut moves at the speed of our conscious thought, the tools we use to perceive the world are exploited for the purpose of communicating the story, rather than asking us to perceive the plot as something exterior to our senses. I think this is why post-modernism is often used as a crutch by lousy filmmakers.

I watched the fifth episode of Battlestar Galactica's second season last night, and it might be my favourite episode so far. After the Cylon in the first episode broke a baby's neck, it seems like the writers for the second season said to themselves, "Hey, the thing with the baby was pretty fucking hardcore! Let's do more things to babies." But they did well by their flights of infanticidal fancy.

I was impressed with how the Cylon posing as a doctor actually pulled off some insightful psychoanalysis of Starbuck, and used it to hurt her. That sort of thing does a lot more to make them seem dangerous than a million cgi robots with machine gun hands. That, and Starbuck's experience with the baby farm, sets up all kinds of nice possibilities. How can Starbuck ever trust Sharon after the experience? However obstinate Starbuck is with her from now on, we can't see Starbuck as being unreasonable for it. And after killing all those people for being part of the farm, how can she allow herself to accept Sharon's pregnancy as a good thing? Even if there isn't anything wrong with it? Gods, I hope the show explores these possibilities.

Adama's compassion towards Boomer was nice. But one thing that kind of bugs me is that I don't really know if he's being unreasonable or not when he dismisses Roslin's message to the fleet as "religious crap". Obviously there are people right there on Galactica who are extremely religious, and yet the society had seemed largely secular for much of the beginning of the series. Seemed secular, I say--it's fair to say that this religious fervour may simply have been off-screen all this time. But this creates a problem when we're not sure how to feel about Adama's reaction, or the colonel's when he expected the quorum to think the president was crazy for declaring herself a prophesied hero. Because now I'm not sure if Adama had no reason to expect a third of the fleet to go with the president, or if he was irrationally clinging to a false impression of human society.

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