Wednesday, October 26, 2011
TV's distinct advantage over the movies
Warning: The following post contains very minor spoilers about 50/50 that do not really spoil anything of significance. In other words, something late in the plot is discussed, but it doesn't give anything away. I'm essentially telling you to read on -- but don't be mad at me if you wish you hadn't.
Near the end of the overrated film 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cancer-stricken character gives in to a moment of fear and emotion, and shares a cathartic hug with his mother, played by Anjelica Huston. Prior to this, he has clashed with her, considering her to be a bit of a smotherer. Their relationship has heretofore been played primarily for comic effect. This moment works as well as it does because those dynamics shift, becoming those of a son simply needing his mother in a moment when the future looks bleak.
It reminded me of a similar moment on the TV show Six Feet Under. Nate (Peter Krause) is going into surgery to relieve problems related to his potentially fatal brain condition called AVM, which puts him at increase risk of having a stroke. He breaks down and starts blubbering, and his mother -- the batty eccentric Ruth, played by Frances Conroy -- is there to comfort and soothe him, as she did when he was a child. Because their relationship has always involved friction, and she has always been portrayed as a bit of an insufferable loon, the scene has incredible emotional impact. In this moment, none of their prior baggage matters -- all that matters is the unique maternal gift she can give her frightened son.
The scenes are extremely similar -- I've avoided saying that JGL's character was going into surgery, in case you didn't heed my spoiler warning well enough -- yet the impact of the Six Feet Under scene is far, far greater.
Why? Because TV has a luxury the movies do not -- getting you invested in the characters over the course of dozens of episodes and a handful of seasons.
Since I value movies over TV in most cases -- I prefer to watch the former over the latter on almost any given occasion -- it's hard when I realize how much a film can be hampered by how much it has to do in such a short amount of time.
The good films pull it off. Films that aren't as good -- which is my take on 50/50 -- amply demonstrate the difficulties facing a short-form story.
I actually did think the scene between Huston and Gordon-Levitt was effective, but it didn't put a lump in my throat the way the Six Feet Under scene did.
However, the rest of the conditions in place are similar enough that the time spent with these characters becomes the most important variable. Like Conroy's Ruth, Huston's Diane is a very frustrating character. Both characters are the epitome of a certain archetype: the nagging, neurotic mother who tries your patience. In fact, if I'd been given only two hours with Ruth, I'd probably think that's all she was, so determined were they to make her character hysterical and unlikable. With longer exposure to her, I saw the positive aspects of her character. Given this little time with Diane, that's how I felt about her -- that she was one-dimensionally hysterical and unlikable. She asks her son the kind of annoying questions that makes him roll his eyes, and seems to be assessing things on the superficial level of gossip and unsolicited nit-picking. Like I said, the archetype of the nagging, neurotic mother.
Gordon-Levitt's Adam and Krause's Nate, on the other hand, are both relatable protagonists. Adam is a bit nicer and more generous than Nate, but that's only because we got to spend so much time with Nate that we saw him make questionable decisions and hurt people for reasons that revealed his weakness. But Nate was basically a flawed reflection of who we are: people who try to do the right thing but sometimes fail in that regard. Because we have so much less time with Adam, we see only his good side. (Or do we? I'd nitpick some of the ways he handles things. But let's keep it simple and just say Adam is basically a saint.)
And both characters are on a hospital gurney, about to go into a surgery from which they may not emerge alive.
The contrast between these two scenes made me realize how TV allows characters to be fleshed out into real human beings, in a way that movies often strive for but can't quite accomplish. In a movie version of Six Feet Under, Nate would have to be more saintly and Ruth would have to be more one-dimensionally shrewish. But because we had spent two seasons with the characters at this point -- I was surprised to be reminded, in researching it just now, that Nate's surgery comes as early as the end of season 2 -- the emotion of that moment is intensified by seeing the ordinarily strong Nate in a moment of crippling fear, and the ordinarily emotionally needy Ruth in a moment of pure giving. It's because we'd witnessed where these characters have been that we appreciate so much where they are now.
The moment should be equally effective in 50/50, but it's not. I say "should" because a movie certainly should be able to contain a moment of intense emotion like this, and many movies have. Director Jonathan Levine stacks the deck in his favor, using a contemplative pop song on the soundtrack and slowing down the ominous surgery prep scenes to less than their normal display speed in order to allow us to exist in the dread for longer. And both Gordon-Levitt and Huston play the scene in the best way possible to get that catharsis that comes so effortlessly to Nate and Ruth.
Maybe if we'd already had two seasons' worth of Diane's nattering and two seasons' worth of Adam's high points and low points, this scene would have punched me in the gut. Instead, it was more like a tap on the shoulder.
Then again, maybe I just didn't like the movie all that much.