Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Because then I couldn't be in it" and other Impossible thoughts

Having been teased by the sensational opening 15 minutes of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, I was really looking forward to a full movie dealing with the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands on the shores of the countries abutting the Indian Ocean. (It was a tease also in terms of the potential for that dud of a movie, but that's another story.)

So when I saw the first trailers for J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, I knew it would be on my must-see list, likely in the theater. And so it was that I sat for a few extra minutes in my parked car the other day when I heard star Naomi Watts being interviewed on NPR prior to the film's release.

It was a good interview in which Watts sounded typically intelligent and graceful, but one moment could have thrown her if she'd let it. (I don't know if they're given the questions beforehand, but I doubt it.) Interviewer Melissa Block asked Watts if it gave her pause that this movie focused on the smallest demographic of people who died in the tsunami: European tourists, as opposed to Southeast Asians, who made up probably 99% of the casualties.

Here's a paraphrase of how Watts responded: "Well when I learned that it was a serious filmmaker who was going to approach the topic sensitively, I didn't worry so much about that."

But here's what she easily could have said: "But if it was a movie about a Thai family surviving incredible odds, I couldn't have appeared in it."

And I honestly think this would have been a reasonable, if probably too frank, response.

As an actor, especially an actor who takes herself as seriously as Watts does (has she ever appeared in a comedy?), you thrive on the opportunity to play roles that aren't just a carbon copy of the last role you played. A woman who improbably lives despite being at ground zero of the deadliest tsunami in history is a pretty unusual character to be able to play. And I think you'd agree that if a truly serious movie about a topic like this is to be made, it has to be based on historical fact. It can't be just some fictional person surviving some fictional tsunami, because then it just seems like it could never have happened.

So if Watts were ever going to be in a position to star in a movie about the 2004 tsunami, that movie would have to be about a white couple (Spanish in real life, British here). Are we saying she should turn down this opportunity just because the movie might have the unfortunate unintended consequence of making it seem as though the life or death of this English woman is "more important" than the life or death of the Thai woman serving her drinks in her cabana? That's not Watts' responsibility. She's just the hired help, and she's hired to help the director make the most sensitive possible movie he can about a British family trying to survive a horrific natural disaster. She succeeded, I'm pleased to say.

What she could have said and it would have been true, but thank goodness she didn't: "You can't make a movie like this about a Thai family. No studio would ever give you the money, because they think nobody would watch it. And they'd probably be right."

Some other Impossible thoughts:

In their shoes

In case you can't tell from what I've written so far (and how could you?), I did actually see The Impossible, on Christmas Eve. Which was a funny day to see it for a number of reasons that had the effect of putting me even more in this family's shoes.

That's of course the desired outcome of any movie about a natural disaster in which you follow the struggles of a couple key characters -- to feel like you are really going through what they're going through. But in my case it was a lot more specific in a couple interesting ways.

For one, I happened to see the movie on December 24th. This also happens to be the very day the Bennett family's story begins. They touch down in Phuket on Christmas Eve 2004, two days prior to the giant wave that tried to smash them to bits. It was odd sitting there in a theater in Southern California exactly eight years later, having the same proximity to Christmas they had, the same hope inspired by the holiday -- a hope that was to be dashed on Boxing Day, only they couldn't have known it then.

Then that night, to mark Christmas Eve, they participate in a ceremony on the beach in which hundreds of paper lanterns are sent floating into the sky. I had witnessed this very thing myself, also on film, in the movie I had re-watched just the night before: Tangled. In fact, as I was watching one of the most famous sequences in Tangled (famous in part for how effective the 3D is during that scene), it occurred to me to wonder whether sending floating paper lanterns into the sky is a real thing, or just something invented for this Disney fantasy world. Who would have thought it would have taken just 16 hours to have my question answered.

Then something else occurred just yesterday. As I was driving in to work, I popped in an audio book I received for Christmas: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Reading his own work, Bryson discusses very early on that it's impossible to tell which stars in the sky are alive and which are dead, because in some cases their light has been traveling to us for thousands of years. This same thing is discussed in The Impossible as a young boy and an old woman are looking up at the night sky. She uses the word "impossible" -- thereby providing the most overt meaning for the title -- in discussing how to tell that very thing, which stars are alive and which are dead. It's clearly intended as a metaphor for their current situation, where the reigning chaos has left it impossible to know who's alive and who isn't.

Eschewing vanity

One of the reasons Naomi Watts should get to play whatever role she wants is that she puts so much of herself into each performance. This has always been the case with her. If you're like me, you first became aware of her in Mulholland Drive, where she gives one of the most fearless performances I have ever seen, yielding completely to whatever David Lynch wanted her to do. Since then, it's just been more of the same. She never seems to balk at nudity, and you also get the impression she couldn't give a shit whether or not she's shot in a flattering light. All that matters is the work.

It wouldn't surprise you to know that this same Naomi Watts shows up for work here. She spends much of this movie caked in blood, hyperventilating, screaming out in agony, and generally looking three shades of green.

But the moment that really struck me was after she's weathered the two initial waves that tried to KO her. While walking through some reeds with her 13-year-old son (the revelatory Tom Holland), she turns to him, and he awkwardly registers that one of her tank top straps has ripped, exposing one grime-covered breast to the world. Dutifully, she ties the loose strap to the strap on the other side, and starts walking again.

Through this one little moment, you really believe that this tsunami is the kind of thing that would leave a person so exhausted and so unguarded that she might temporarily forget the ordinary human instinct toward shame. On the larger scale, it also made me recognize that this is the method that makes Watts such a good actress -- she isn't aware of shame, and she throws herself into a project like it's a tsunami that wants to chew her up. Only if she emerges from it beaten and bruised does she know she's done her job.

No strings attached

I won't lie to you -- I got emotional a number of times during The Impossible. Now that I'm a parent, I'm a sucker for anything that involves children in peril.

According to one review I read, the reason I got emotional was because of composer Fernando Velazquez's manipulative score. The reviewer noted "His score for The Impossible is so over-the-top melodramatic that at times it borders on parody."

It got me thinking. Yes, I suppose that we wouldn't become emotional in as many movies if there weren't string instruments at the ready to let us know it's time. But is this a bad thing?

One of the great assumptions when discussing scores is that if a viewer isn't shrewd enough to note when he/she is being emotionally manipulated, he/she is some kind of unsophisticated rube. But I'm here to say this kind of thing is not universally bad. If you don't notice the strings are manipulating you, then they've done their job. They've given you the emotional catharsis you were yearning for. If you weren't yearning for it, you would have heard those same strings and laughed.

And speaking of laughter, I think there's a useful analogy to be made with laugh tracks on sitcoms. A sophisticated viewer is supposed to categorically disdain the laugh track, to consider it the single most fraudulent thing about a comedy designed to be consumed by idiots. But those kind of broad generalizations just don't hold water.

When used well, a laugh track can provide the small amount of encouragement necessary to nudge you into your own laughter. Consider the case of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Seinfeld. Now think about watching Seinfeld without the laugh track. It would be indescribably odd. I've chosen Seinfeld because it's pretty much television teflon -- no one you talk to about it could mount a serious complaint against it. Yet Seinfeld uses its laugh track the way Fernando Velazquez uses strings: to cause you to acknowledge and give in to an emotion you are already experiencing.

The idea is supposed to be that a genuinely emotional moment in a movie should be so pure, such an unpolluted creation by the actors and the director, that it should translate to all audiences without anything so vulgar as music to call attention to it. But that's simply not realistic. Movies are the end result of the contributions of many collaborators, and the composer is hardly the least of them. If you wanted to take this argument to the extreme, you could say that no movies should have any music, because the purpose of all music is to enhance emotions that should be able to express themselves through words and actions alone. But movies would be a pretty dismal pastime if none of them featured music.

It's as with anything. If it's done well, it's good. If it's done poorly, it calls undue attention to itself. If a sitcom isn't funny and there are bales of hysterical laughter coming from the laugh track, you notice it and think the laugh track is awful. Similarly, if the actors haven't succeeded in making you feel the emotions of a certain moment, and the strings swell to compensate, you laugh where you should be crying. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

So what I can't quite figure out about this guy's review is that he finds everything else in the movie strong. He praises the acting, the writing, the directing. If the score didn't call attention to weaknesses in those aspects of the movie, then it probably actually called attention to how great they were.

Wait, this guy directed The Orphanage?

I still haven't seen The Orphanage, so I don't know how odd it is that J.A. Bayona directed that and then this. But I'm sure some people think it's strange that he's going from a literal horror movie to something that can be described as a metaphorical horror at best.

Well, I don't think you'll be disappointed, and the evolution from one type of movie to another makes sense in a couple key scenes.

That's right, one of the things that removes this from the squishy realm of "inspirational drama" is that there are a couple set pieces that use actual horror tropes to convey what the characters are experiencing. There was at least one that didn't make any literal sense that I could determine in what is otherwise a very realistic movie. It may have been something that was purely impressionistic, and is the kind of thing that makes me appreciate this movie all the more.


1) If staying in a resort on the coast of the Indian Ocean, try to get a room on the second floor.

2) When you hear what sounds like a herd of elephants stampeding toward you, don't wait to see what it is -- just head up the nearest tree.

3) If you fail in the first two and get struck by the wall of water, do your best to avoid hitting any stationary objects in your path or moving objects rocketing toward you.

4) If you can, see The Impossible.

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