Jan 20, 2002

The Shipping News

This film doesn't work for a number of reasons. Let me focus on two.

Every story starts with the problem/need of the hero. But this one is ridiculous. In the first ten minutes of this film, a strange woman named Petal jumps into the hero's car at a gas station. The hero, Quoyle, says he loves her, she has their baby, and she brings other guys back to the house for sex.

Wait, there's more. Quoyle gets a message on the office answer machine that his parents are committing suicide, Petal sells their daughter and then dies in a car crash.

By the time this sequence is over, the audience is gone. Instead of feeling sympathy for the hero, I was laughing out loud at the overkill and feeling that this was the most pathetic guy in history.

Shipping News also suffers from a lack of plot. Plot comes from hidden information. And the most powerful hidden information is about the opposition. This film bases its plotting on a technique used in a number of psychological stories, like The Prince of Tides. The hero uncovers information, not about the opposition, but about the ghost.

Virtually all the major characters in this story are hiding something from the past that is still haunting them in the present. Notice that means the reveals always take us backward. Instead of a plot that has dramatic power in the present, and therefore in the future, this film leads to a climax based on actions that ended years ago. Result? Boredom.

One final quibble: this total loser somehow wins the affections of Cate Blanchette and Julianne Moore. Which means the rest of the guys in this movie must be dead. And the women must be crazy.

Jan 12, 2002

Gosford Park

Altman's latest foray into horizontal storytelling succeeds mostly in showing the limits of this approach.

Horizontal storytelling is the result of increasing the number of major characters and emphasizing simultaneous action over sequential action.

The primary advantages of horizontal storytelling are that it allows you to explore a society, show the society's effect on the individual and compare characters.

These advantages quickly dissipate, however, the more horizontal you make the story. At some point the tensile strength of the bridge connecting characters becomes so weak that the center does not hold and the entire structure comes crashing down. If there are too many characters within a two-hour span, each character is so superficial that comparison between any of them is useless.

That is precisely what happens in Gosford Park. The writers steal their basic idea from the French classic Rules of the Game in an attempt to show the corruption at the core of a class system. But by adding so many characters to the mix, no one comes across as more than a resume. The writers have just enough time to show that almost everyone is hiding something, but not enough to make any of it matter to the audience.

As a result there is no emotional payoff for any of the characters in pain. And the comparisons between them yield nothing more than the insight that the master-servant relationship is crippling to both.

But that is something we all should have discovered long ago.

Jan 10, 2002

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is one of those small dramas that we used to pejoratively refer to as a tv movie. We can't do that anymore because the best drama written today, by far, is found on tv.

This film has some wonderful moments. My favorites are when the hero, Nash, figures out his great economics theory by strategizing how best to pick up women and when he uncovers a conspiracy by spotting the coded patterns in vast wall of numbers. Making genius public so an audience can see the character¹s brilliance in real terms is very difficult in drama. So this is no small accomplishment.

But A Beautiful Mind is deeply flawed in its structure. Once we learn that Nash has the mental disease of schizophrenia, the drama though not the conflict - essentially comes to a halt. Nash has no control over the visions he sees, so showing scene after scene of Nash struggling with those visions is false dramatics and thus redundant and boring.

The structural line of this story isn't Nash's struggle with schizophrenia, but rather the love story between Nash and his wife. Nash overcomes his problem primarily because of the love between him and his wife.

But that line is not set up properly. To show that his wife would stay by him through the hell of his disease, you have to show them falling in love deeply, and for deep reasons.

Instead we get a few short scenes of a socially incompetent man telling a woman he wants to skip the romance and go right to trading fluids. Boom, they're off getting married. That sort of chatter may qualify Nash as different, but it is not the groundwork for a great love story.

Because the audience has not invested real emotional time in the love of these two characters, the wife's loyalty and sacrifice for her husband make no sense.