Thursday, June 2, 2011

Never say goodbye - on the phone in a movie

There's a reason movie characters don't say goodbye when they hang up the phone. It's boring.

Boring, like The Exploding Girl. (Note to self: Don't judge the potential energy of a movie by its title.)

Over a decade ago I read William Goldman's Which Lie Did I Tell?, a favorite tome on screenwriting among industry folk. Many parts of it stick with me, but the one I come back to most is why scripts usually exclude the logistical details that make up everyday life. Sure, it may not be "realistic" that the protagonist finds a parking spot directly in front of the courthouse, or that he always has exact change for the cabbie. But the alternative is to spend precious screen time on his frustrating search for an open spot, or on him counting out his money and waiting to receive the amount he's due back.

The best scripts are the ones where only what matters to the plot is included. The Exploding Girl, which my wife and I watched last night (until she bailed with 20 minutes left), is a movie where the opposite is true -- where the entire running time is frittered away on the equivalent of exchanging money with cab drivers.

"This is why characters don't say goodbye on the telephone in the movies," my wife, a screenwriter herself, observed halfway through. "It's boring."

And indeed it was. No less than a dozen, and possibly as many as 20, cell phone conversations are documented on screen in The Exploding Girl. That's a problem in and of itself. But with only one exception I can think of off the top of my head, each of these phone calls ends with one or both of the conversers saying goodbye. You notice it, precisely because you usually don't see it in other films -- and for good reason.

I've had times in the past when I've considered it a pervasive filmmaking flaw that movie characters never say goodbye. I always thought it seemed like such an easy thing to get right, because every person I know says goodbye when they hang up the phone -- assuming the call is ending in an amicable manner. However, after watching The Exploding Girl, I get it. Boy do I get it.

The characters saying goodbye in this movie is really only a small detail that's emblematic of writer-director Bradley Rust Gray's approach in general. Admirers of Gray's film will say that he is going intentionally life-sized -- that his very goal is to be modest and work in a human scale. Others, such as myself, will not be nearly so kind.

What passes for a story involves an epileptic college student (Zoe Kazan) who is home in New York on summer break. She hangs out with friends and tries to get her college boyfriend on the phone, though she senses he might be avoiding her. A male high school friend with whom she has always had a platonic relationship (Mark Rendall) is staying with her because his parents rented out his room. They may be more than platonic friends, but neither of them knows it yet.

Really, that's it. That's the whole story. The fact that she has epilepsy is not even particularly relevant. It's no more of an important character trait than the fact that she teaches some kind of improvisational exercises to inner city kids. There's only one scene where she does that, and maybe only three scenes where the fact that she has epilepsy is even mentioned.

Okay, I get that Gray doesn't want to make a film with big emotions and unlikely scenarios and all the hooks that are supposed to draw us in to a fiction film. But we can't reward him just for his relentless pursuit of realism. Just because he captures how people really talk on the phone for 80 minutes does not mean that he's made a piece of art. There's no there there, and I'm not so critically insecure that I'm going to pretend to like this film for the very reason that it doesn't try to do anything. I don't consider that a characteristic worth applauding.

My wife also made the smart observation that this film reminded us of Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, which we also did not particularly care for -- though it's better and more cleverly observed than this. Like that film, The Exploding Girl is also full of excessive navel-gazing, of endless amounts of gloomy pouting by characters we don't care about because they care too much about their own uninteresting problems. Actually, Ivy (Kazan) does have an interesting problem: epilepsy. But the problem she cares about is why her dull boyfriend doesn't want to still be with her, and that makes her hard to care about.

However, at least Gray made the triumphant artistic achievement of capturing the real way human beings end phone calls.


Nicholas Prigge said...

Nice post. I feel this is in some ways akin to that derogatory comment viewers always make about dialogue: "Who talks like that in real life?"

Come on, it's a movie! We don't necessarily WANT them to talk like real life!

Vancetastic said...

Nicholas, it's definitely a fine line, and I think we film fans can be guilty of hypocrisy on this front. Or maybe a better way of saying it is that it depends on the movie. Some movies depend absolutely on realism, or else they ring false to us. Others need to have a larger-than-life bigness in order to appeal to us.

However, I think movies that entirely lose their sense of narrative momentum so they can adhere to the strictures of realism are a waste of my time. I mean, I want to watch a movie because the story is about something more notable than the mundane things that make up our lives. Movies are the logical descendants of the oral tradition of cave people, and I doubt cave people usually got up around the file to tell their great stories of how they slept on a rock the night before and now their back hurts.