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.


Nick Prigge said...

I can't necessarily disagree with your points here and I think this is one of the reasons why I have always responded much more strongly to great film than to great TV. When a film CAN pull off those types of emotions you write about it's just always much more meaningful and intense. At least to me. You're on this ride with them for a couple hours that doesn't stop and start and builds to a conclusion and so on and so forth.

Of course, many, many movies can't pull it off. Yet I never stop hoping that they will. Which is why I have to sit through so much crap. But when I get to see the great ones.

Win-Lose? Lose-Win?

Vancetastic said...

So Nick, am I reading between the lines when you say you "can't necessarily disagree" that you disagree with me on the quality of 50/50? Just curious, as I'd be eager to see what my readers think of this film that has gotten quite a lot of positive coverage.

Nick Prigge said...

Well, I was referring more to your points about film vs. TV, though I do think I probably liked "50/50" more than you. Not as much as some people, but I did enjoy it.

You're certainly right about the director stacking the deck in favor of Adam, however, not just in that scene you mentioned but overall.

I actually liked Huston's work. I suppose she could be considered an archetype but I felt like her overbearing concern came from a genuine place and one of the things I enjoyed most aobut her character was how little growth she displayed. She gets that hug at the end, yes, but I got the distinct sense she was still just the same person. A static character in a disease movie is pretty bold.

Vancetastic said...

That's an excellent point about Huston's character not changing, and it's very true-to-life -- most events don't essentially change people. In fact, if you want to get down to the nitty gritty, character arcs themselves can be considered sort of an artificial construct in fiction storytelling. They're there because they satisfy us on some primal level, not necessarily because people really do change all that much in real life.

And that may be part of why I was unsatisfied with 50/50. I think it's a problem, on that primal level, that pretty much none of the characters change. You don't get that moment where Seth Rogen's character figures out how to be less of a douchebag. He cares despite being a douchebag, which I guess is the point. Anna Kendrick's character sort of changes, but she's such a tightly wound character that I found there to be something artificial about her in the first place.

I guess part of why it's such a bold decision not to change Huston's character too much is because we DO need that change. Perhaps this film wasn't trying hard ENOUGH to manipulate us, which is a funny negative comment to be making about a film.

Nick Prigge said...

I feel like the characters WILL change eventually, down the road, but that 50/50 was essentially just the first act. I tend to enjoy films where the end feels like a conclusion to a first act and you sense there is still so much to be played out. I just loved the last line of the movie because it really highlighted that notion.

But that's me and if you're looking for closure - and sometimes I'm looking for closure, too - then a movie like this would definitely be frustrating.

Vancetastic said...

Actually, I loved the last line too. And then JGL's little "eyebrow shrug," for want of a better term.

I think it was most of what came previously that I didn't like so much. I was most troubled by the portrayal of Bryce Dallas Howard's character. Clearly, it's an unusual situation for a twentysomething to have to care for a cancer patient who is not someone in their parents' generation, let alone a significant other. Her character tries her best to do it -- this despite the fact that ample evidence suggested that she and Adam were already having problems. He gives her the out, and she does NOT take it, indicating her character's courage and intestinal fortitude.

She doesn't live up to her own hopes and expectations about how to handle the situation, but the movie makes it out like she's some evil shrew whose downfall is worth celebrating. The whole scene where they torch her bad artwork just seemed like unnecessary reveling in the very human failings of a person who is generally good, but is just ill-equipped to play the hand life has dealt her. This was a very crucial tonal misstep, and I found myself having a hard time recovering from it, as a viewer.