Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weak memories, strong memories

As I was revisiting Scott Frank's excellent crime thriller The Lookout last night, it occurred to me how strange our memory can be about movies we've seen. Liking a movie does not necessarily mean you remember it, and hating a movie does not necessarily mean you forget it -- even if you tell everyone you're doing your best to repress the memory. In fact, the opposite can be true more often. Hate can be a much stronger emotion than love, depending on the circumstances.

But it's especially strange with this movie, because this movie is about a guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets into a serious car accident that causes brain damage and memory loss. He functions pretty well as a regular person, holding down a janitorial job. He's even allowed to drive a car, though my wife thought that seemed unlikely -- if he weren't prohibited because of his mental impairment, then he'd definitely be for having caused an accident with two fatalities, in which he turned off the headlights as a game. But he has terrible problems sequencing ordinary events, he can't figure out how to open a can of soup without instructions, he confuses lemons for tomatoes, and has a bit of a memory problem. He remembers everything from before the accident, but the stuff that's happened since is a bit jumbled, such that he has to keep track of things in his notepad in order to remember them.

This is strange because I, too, had memory problems when it came to The Lookout.

I saw the movie on March 3, 2008. Just 20 months ago. I was over at my friend Dave's house. I remember really liking it. He did too.

But only a few months, maybe even a few weeks, later, I could remember almost nothing about what had happened in that movie. It's as though it made almost no impression on me, other than the fact that I would enthusiastically recommend it to a friend.

I wouldn't have dwelled on the issue except that the movie was available for review on my website. I like to put in for any movie I've seen that isn't reviewed, and The Lookout was no exception. Except I didn't do it right away. I held off as a result of my selective Alzheimer's about The Lookout. (As a tie-in with the film's subject matter, I like to imagine that a beam shot out of the screen and wiped my memory, like the "flashy thing" in Men in Black.) And if I didn't remember the movie, I couldn't review it. The Lookout became just like any movie I hadn't seen that's unreviewed: I'd have to see it before I could review it. So it ceased to be a priority.

But I guess it kind of gnawed away at me, this inability to remember. I had to figure out what it was that was causing the memory blockage. I didn't think it was just the overload of watching as many movies as I do. I didn't think it was the equivalent, in computer terms, of reaching the last few kilobytes of available space on a hard drive, then losing what you're working on because something needs to be deleted, or the system needs to be rebooted, before you can continue.

There are plenty of movies I've seen whose details are this fuzzy, but not things I've seen within the last couple years. Should I be worried about an actual diminished capacity of my memory? I expect this kind of thing from a movie that is lame and genuinely unmemorable, but a movie as good as The Lookout? It didn't make sense. I had to see it again, and besides, I wanted to show it to my wife, who loves films in the thriller genre.

So I finally got approved to review it, and this weekend, we watched it. It didn't feel like I was watching it for the first time, but I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten. For example, I didn't remember that Gordon-Levitt's character has a blind roommate played by Jeff Daniels. I didn't remember that Isla Fisher plays his love interest. And I didn't remember what happens in acts two or three, though it also didn't strike me as virgin footage to my eyes. It was just temporarily misplaced in my head. In fact, you could almost say that I remembered nothing after the car accident, which takes place in the film's first five minutes and is a pretty jarring start to the action. I'm like the film's protagonist, in that way.

Coincidence? I think so.

(Wait a minute ...)

Although I never truly identified why the details slipped through my mental fingers, I'm really glad I watched The Lookout again, because this is a fantastic movie -- well-acted, tightly scripted, clever, and extremely gratifying. And also, because it helped redeem Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

And here's where the "strong memories" part of this post comes in.

I saw Rian Johnson's Brick on September 24, 2006, about 18 months before seeing The Lookout. And hated it so much, that not only do I remember the details clearly, but have allowed the film to permanently stigmatize Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star.

I guess I've never been the biggest fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was always a bit of a curiosity to me. He appeared in Third Rock from the Sun, then suddenly graduated from "little kid on annoying sitcom" status to "leading man on the big screen" status. There was no time in between for me to mentally integrate Joseph Gordon-Levitt into this community of serious adult actors. What's more, perhaps because of a physical similarity, he seemed like he was trying to become the next Heath Ledger. And I didn't like that, even when Ledger was alive, but especially now.

But Brick was what really turned me against Gordon-Levitt, even though that film's failure probably had little to do with him.

Now, if you don't know Brick, I will do it the courtesy of telling you that a lot of people seem to like it. Those of us who hate it, though, hate it something good.

It's a stylized detective-noir film that occurs in and around a suburban high school and the town where its students live. It features almost exclusively teenagers, or more realistically, 28-year-old actors playing teenagers.

This could have been a really great idea, but we'll never know, because the way Johnson decided to execute it was insipid, obnoxious, self-important and self-indulgent. The actors' stylized way of speaking is supposed to be a throwback to the gumshoe movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but it hit my ear as incredibly false and misguided. This kind of thing can be successful if it's done smartly, but a real failure if it's done too smartly -- as in, overwritten to the point of linguistic strangulation. That's the case here. Maybe I just can't accept conceits like this -- I consider the massive failure of Joss Whedon's Serenity to be largely the result of a similar problem with the dialogue.

Okay, so the dialogue is bad, and the idea feels really dumb as a result. It's neither funny, which it's sort of trying to be, nor clever, which it's desperately trying to be -- making matters worse. But worst of all is how much pretension there is in the characters, how much of a strained effort to be as cool as humanly possible. And this is where Gordon-Levitt really comes in. Sure, this is how he was directed by Johnson -- the actor proves in The Lookout, among other places, that he's just as happy to play shy and uncertain. But by being the main character, who spoke more of that terrible dialogue, and struck more of those poseur postures, than anyone, Gordon-Levitt became the personification of what I hated about Brick.

And I carried that hate around with me. Hate has a long memory.

I hated Shadowboxer, and thought it probably had something to do with Joseph Gordon-Levitt having a small role. His presence made me less excited to see (500) Days of Summer, and true enough, I liked it about a third as much as it was hyped. And though his face was obscured for much of the time, and his role was relatively small anyway, Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander had to have something to do with why G.I. Joe sucked so much, right?

But seeing The Lookout again reminds me that the actor is only doing the bidding of his director. He's essentially clay, waiting to be molded. There's good clay and bad clay, to be sure. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not bad clay. Rian Johnson is just a bad molder, whereas Scott Frank is a good one.

That's something I'm sure to remember this time around.

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