Saturday, February 04, 2006


Is predictability always a problem?

By Edward Copeland
Commenting on my discussion of A History of Violence and Thumbsucker, Josh R. suggested that he always knew where both of the films basically were headed and that it lessened the experience for him. While I fully understand his point — I've criticized many a movie because I was way ahead of them in terms of story trajectory — it seemed to me that you can't expect every single film to be a new direction. What I liked about those two films were not that they surprised me, but that their paths were handled with such confidence by the writers and directors and fleshed out so superbly by the casts, it didn't matter. To me, it's when movies are deficient in the creative areas, that predictably becomes a detriment.

In an earlier discussion on movie plot twists, Dave wondered if critics place too high an emphasis on seeing something new because they've seen so many movies, they are more impatient than most. I think both types of movies can be great if done well enough. My two favorite fiction films of 2005 are a study in that contrast. A History of Violence seems fairly preordained in its direction, but the acting and taut storytelling more than made up for it for me. On the other hand, I was never certain where The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was taking me, but its confidence held me in such thrall that I relaxed and let the movie guide me to its final destination.

Of course, remakes inevitably are going to be predictable and aside from my bias against them when they are new versions of films that were great to begin with, you don't hear too many complaints when Peter Jackson remakes King Kong that it involves finding a big ape on an island, taking him to New York and having him plunge to his death off a tall building. The complaints come from other factors such as length.

There are so many films that could be discussed on these terms that I decided to start the conversation with the easiest way I know how: looking back at my top films from 1982-2004.

Tootsie, even after countless viewings, still has the ability to surprise me. I think it belongs in the category of films where you aren't quite certain what's going to happen and you don't care. Sure — you have to expect that Michael Dorsey's deception will eventually be discovered, but how and when is not clear.

If you had read the novel of Terms of Endearment before seeing it, you would have known where that film was heading — though Jack Nicholson's Garrett Breedlove would have been a surprise. I hadn't, though no one put too much effort into keeping the late-movie twist much of a secret — how many times did you see the clip of Shirley MacLaine demanding that nurses give her daughter her shot? I think it probably falls more into the category of a film whose writing and performances are so superior that it wouldn't matter if you knew where it was going or not.

Amadeus is another example where if you'd seen or read the original play, you'd have a good idea where the movie was going, but I hadn't done either and being only 15 at the time, was rather limited in my knowledge of Mozart's life. I'm not sure it really falls into either category — it's just a great moviegoing experience — period.

Going in, it's likely you would know that a movie character steps off the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Still, all the things that happen after that are a delight right up until the bittersweet ending. Ahh — how I long for the day when Woody Allen didn't repeat himself.

Hannah and Her Sisters has so many characters and story strands going, that it is definitely a journey movie. I defy anyone seeing that for the first time to be able to guess every turn of the story or its denouement.

Broadcast News is also all about the journey for me. I remember at the time that my mom was upset that Holly Hunter's character didn't end up with Albert Brooks, but to have a film that ostensibly sets up a romantic triangle and then has the courage to have none of the characters hook up at the end — that was great.

1988 brings my first favorite film that clearly is pretty obvious where it's going to end — Die Hard. I mean, would anyone really think that Bruce Willis wasn't going to prevail by the end? The individual details aren't clear, but this is a movie as a great thrill ride. It's not remotely about surprises or unexpected turns — it's just flat-out great.

Do the Right Thing though is definitely about the journey. With its large ensemble cast and the way the story plays, it's clear there will be some kind of racial explosion by movie's end, but there really is no way of knowing exactly how that will play out. It builds a suspense that definitely places it in the journey category.

Goodfellas is another example of a film based on a book I hadn't read. For me, this was not only my top film of 1990 — it's on my 10 best list of all time. Watching this movie is like going to film school in less than three hours — it emphasizes nearly every aspect of filmmaking. It's so great that for me it soars above either category.

The animated Beauty and the Beast is most decidedly a movie that you know the ending of in advance, but it doesn't dilute the magic in the slightest. The animation was astounding (remember when non-CGI animation used to have the ability to amaze?), the songs were brilliant (for the most part) and it not only pleased kids, but adults as well.

The Crying Game is about nothing if not surprise. With the countless twists — not just the big one — you are never quite sure where Neil Jordan is taking you, but he is so assured, that it doesn't matter. It's definitely a journey.

Schindler's List is more of an odd duck. You know going in that a movie about the Holocaust is going to include a lot of death. Really, this is more of a character study and not about the plot.

Then there is Pulp Fiction with its scrambled structure that makes it absolutely impossible to chart its course before it charts it for you. It's really a movie about both the journey and the destination.

Since Crumb is a documentary, I don't think it really needs to be considered in these terms.

Lone Star though is another large cast canvas that while ostensibly framed as a murder mystery, really cares more about character. It's all about the journey.

L.A. Confidential in its own way is similar to Lone Star in that respect, but it keeps you off balance. When one of the three major characters get killed and another character is revealed as the chief villain, it makes you question whether or not the other leads will survive until the last reel.

Gods and Monsters is another film that's more character study than either of the other.

American Beauty is a film that you can be way ahead of. It's also a movie that for me, has grown weaker on repeated viewings. At some point, I imagine I'll give in and drop it down a notch or two for 1999 and give the prize to Fight Club, which I really had no idea where it was headed even though the major twist had been spoiled before I saw it. My No. 3 film for 1999, The Straight Story, is another film that's definitely about the journey — and on a tractor no less.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon just enthralled me. I don't think I was ever concerned that much with its story — I was too busy watching with awe.

With Memento, I never knew where it was going — even though it was heading backward. That's quite an achievement.

Talk to Her also seems to be more about the journey — I'm seeing a pattern here. Maybe I am guilty of favoring the unexpected.

Lost in Translation is another film that seems more about character and journey than story.

2004 is one of the most disappointing years for me in quite some time. Back when I rated things on a 4-star scale, I failed to find any movie that year that I'd have bestowed a perfect score on. My top two films, Hotel Rwanda and Maria Full of Grace, were sort of a little bit of each. Rwanda was more of a Schindler's List-like character study while Maria, while certainly telling a story that I'd never seen before, also seemed sort to have a sort of predestined direction.

So what do you think? Is one type of film better than the other — or does predictability only become a factor when the rest of the movie has shortcomings?

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My original post on A History of Violence may require some clarification, since I think it's meaning has been misinterpreted to a certain extent.

My reservations about the film aren't based solely on the fact that I knew where it was headed - as you say, you can know perfectly well what the destination is and still enjoy the journey. The predictability of the plot was less problematic for me than the manner in which the story was told - basically, the predictability of the execution. You are right to extoll the merits of the film - it's well-made and particularly well acted - but I can't help wishing Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen had strayed a little further from the playbook in terms of how scenes were conceived and rendered. There's probably no such thing as an original plot - everything has been done before, in some form. The trick is to do it in such a way that it doesn't feel like the standard treatment.

I know you vehemently disagree with my assertion that A History of Violence is guilty of this - but I'm sticking by my guns. And I actually did like the film on the balance, so don't get the impression that I'm picking on your baby...if I was really trolling for a brawl, there's a couple of Scorcese films made in the last 13 years or so that I could do a nice number on.
I wasn't in any way trying to pick a fight. Since Dave had mentioned the opposite idea -- that many seem to prefer unpredictability to good storytelling, I thought it was a topic worth exploring. I know I'm torn when weighing one type of film against the other.
I didn't think you were trying to pick a fight...But you know I always enjoy a spirited discussion (-:
After thinking about it, I'll have to agree with that very last part: "predictability only becomes a factor when the rest of the movie has shortcomings."
A film will have to fail on most other levels before I start compaining about predictability. I'm way more interested in what's happening than what's going to happen. I want a movie to put something up on the screen and then let me look at it.

I want to make sure we're not talking about suspense here. A movie can still generate suspense even though we know what will happen. I think you've used the example of the Clock Tower-Lightening Strike-Doc-DeLorean climax of BTTF. You've seen it a hundred times, but it still makes you clinch your buttocks.

Lots of movies on your list to think about. Sure, I had no idea where "Hannah and her Sisters" was headed, like many Allen films, but it mattered not a whit as to whether or not I enjoyed it.

And just to get this off my chest, I always though "Tootsie" was lame, lame, lame, and sucked, sucked, sucked. Most any drag queen is funnier and more interesting.

Oh yeah, "Memento" is a good case study. I liked it O.K. and thought the acting was good, but after seeing it once, and maybe two days fascination re-routing th chronology in your head, who cares? I can't imagine ever wanting to see it again. I guess I can give it some points for being a gimmick movie in one of its purer forms.
So Tootsie was lame, lame, lame, and sucked, sucked, sucked? Ouch. I'm not as big a booster of the film as Mr. Copeland is, but that's a pretty harsh assessment. I think the film has more than its share of pleasures, not the least of which is the brilliant tour-de-force by Dustin Hoffman. The actor had never before and would never again be as loose and as funny as when doubling as Michael Dorsey & Dorothy Michaels, with the possible exception of Wag the Dog, even though his performance there verged more on caricature. The only thing I thought was lame, lame, lame and sucked, sucked, sucked was the performance of Jessica Lange, who's so smug in her role and so obviously ill-equiped for the demands of comedy (she seems to be on an entirely different page from everyone else in the cast) that you wonder how anyone like Michael would find her even remotely interesting.
josh r,
Since you've taken me to task on TOOTSIE, out of respect I'll try to watch it again someday soon with an open mind. It's been more than a decade since I've seen it. I just don't remember laughing ( and Bill Murry's in it, right?) and I was just not satisfied with Hoffman's performance.

I really don't think it was the Sydney i'm-the-epitome-of-middle-brow Pollack treatment that irked me, because I like some things like Nichol's THE BIRDCAGE for instance, that covers some similar ground, comedy-wise, if only in the most general way.

Maybe I should try thinking of it as just a tv satire, i.e. SOAPDISH. Wait a minute, that doesn't help. Anyway, I realize I'm pretty alone on this one. I have only one other friend (who does drag, incidently) that concurs, so I should probably make firmer the ground I'm on here.
I think your mistake is thinking of Tootsie as only a drag comedy. That's just a tool for its exploration of neurotic actors and male-female roles in general. I love Some Like It Hot, but it doesn't come close to exploring how Tootsie promotes new looks at relationships between the sexes. Bill Murray is hysterical too -- and he ad-libbed nearly all of his lines.
for movies that i struggle to be motivated to watch, i like to read reviews about them before i see them to find out what ther'e about, and this boosts my interest for them - this does reduce the unpredictability but it doesnt matter to me
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