Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The narrative conventionality backlash

If you had to choose one thing that the most number of people would say is wrong with the movies today, you'd get a lot of solid contenders. There are too many reboots and remakes. I'm sick of all the digital effects/3D. The tickets are too expensive.

But I think one almost everyone can agree on is:

Movies are too predictable.

Even the movies that are big successes -- say, the Marvel Universe movies -- have gotten complaints about how easy it is to telegraph the 20-minute battle sequence that will inevitably close the movie. Literally, almost every single one of them has that sequence -- the more characters involved, the better.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons movies follow a conventional structure. Stories are more fundamentally satisfying to us if they contain a clear protagonist with a clear mission, joined by a clear set of cohorts and romantic interests, opposed by a clear antagonist. There's some flexibility about where these stories can go in the middle, but not so much about where they need to end up. It's the details, as well as a few allowable surprises, that separate the interesting movies from the soulless clones.

Well, this past weekend I saw three movies that defy some of this narrative conventionality we've come to expect. As it happens, one was great, one was middle-of-the-road, and one was a dud.

Is that enough to posit a genuine backlash against predictable movies? I'm not sure, but the concentration of those movies in one viewing weekend -- all intended as crowd-pleasers in their own way -- certainly gave me food for thought.

I'll go in neither the order I saw them nor the order of their quality.

First up chronologically was Cuban Fury, which I watched on Friday night. And SPOILERS lay in wait, so proceed with caution.

Cuban Fury is Nick Frost's big attempt (or, perhaps, small attempt) to branch out on his own, free from Simon Pegg or Edgar Wright. It's the story of a teen salsa-dancing sensation who loses his enthusiasm for his gift when a bunch of bullies beat him up and shove the sequins from his shirt down his throat. Deciding that salsa is for pussies, he slowly turns into a middle-aged schlub with nothing much to show for himself.

Learning that his pretty new American boss (Rashida Jones) is also into salsa dancing, the former prodigy (Bruce by name) determines to get himself back into shape and win her heart by showing off his once legendary moves. Opposing him in this effort is a jerk from his office, played by Chris O'Dowd, whose hobby of belittling Bruce only intensifies when O'Dowd realizes he also wants to make a play -- a more lascivious, misogynistic play -- for the new boss.

Cuban Fury seems pretty comfortable with most romantic comedy tropes, as it goes crazy introducing confidants for Bruce (I almost wrote a separate post about it) and includes a big dance competition as its finale. Where it deviates from the expected is this finale. In most movies, Bruce's rival for the girl would also be his rival on the dance floor. We'd know the girl preferred Bruce, but he'd have to symbolically win her by winning the final competition against his favored rival.

But in Cuban Fury, O'Dowd is a casual dancer only. He and Bruce do have a funny dance-off earlier, but it's a private, one-on-one affair (in a parking garage, no less), not the type of public shaming that would definitively declare Bruce his better. In fact, O'Dowd (Drew by name) is jettisoned from the plot, with prejudice, before this final dance number, when he makes an unwanted (and frankly, completely illogical) romantic pass at Jones (Julia by name). Bruce does win the dance competition (against unknown competition), but his partner is his sister (one of his many confidants), and what's even stranger is that Julia is not actually there at the time he wins. Cuban Fury wants to have its big finale, sort of, but it intends to tell us that even though Bruce was motivated to return to dancing by romantic love, he's really doing it for himself, not for a girl. She does show up afterward, but the fact that she's not there applauding with a sparkle in her eye is telling. This is Bruce's Bruce moment.

The result is that the movie feels a bit slight, but still quite enjoyable. I guess I'd say it works for the movie to end this way, but it definitely left me with a feeling like something was missing.

The movie that really doesn't work with its unconventional narrative is Chef, which I saw on Sunday night. And I'm going to SPOIL this one as well, like food left out overnight.

If Cuban Fury was about a man who's eaten a lot of sandwiches rediscovering his old self, Chef is about a furious man reinventing himself through Cuban sandwiches. Writer-director Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-hot celebrity chef who has gotten lambasted by an influential food blogger after being compelled to serve his "greatest hits" to the critic rather than the more adventuresome menu he had planned. Carl is shown how to join Twitter but not how to use it, and gets himself involved in a flame war that ends up blowing up on him in a very public and embarrassing way. Before you know it, Carl is out of a job.

The key to his salvation is to start a food truck. Let there be no doubt that this is a very good idea for a movie. It's the execution that's wanting.

In a conventional movie, the idea to start the food truck would be Carl's. He would sit up in bed at night, struck by inspiration. Or he'd be at his lowest moment and see a food truck across the street, and get that look in his eyes that Gregory House always got when he'd landed on the correct diagnosis -- the moment I always marked by saying "Wait a moment!" in a Holmesian British accent. Then he would begin this momentous uphill battle to establishing himself in the increasingly competitive food truck industry.

In Chef, though, the first mention of the food truck is some offhand reference to it as an idea that had already been considered and discarded. Something like "Don't bring up the food truck idea again." It's this lack of dramatic intensity that characterizes the whole movie.

So Carl flies from Los Angeles to Miami with his son (their relationship is another frustrating example of conventionality discarded) in order to take possession of some ramshackle old food truck, in a scene involving a truly puzzling cameo from Robert Downey Jr. They whip the food truck into shape and are almost immediately a hit. With Twitter working in his favor this time, the food truck is swamped by customers wherever it stops on its trip back to Los Angeles, as people throw wads of cash at them for Cuban sandwiches. Then, basically, the end.

Where is the conflict?

Favreau made this movie as a very thinly-veiled attempt to get back at the critics who have trashed some of his recent movies, most notably Cowboys & Aliens (which richly deserved that scorn). It's an intentional return to a more indie sensibility, but it casts him as a pretty unlikable creative talent (playing a version of himself, no doubt) whose only real misstep is that he did not understand the dangers of publicly tussling with a critic in the age of social media. His food is universally praised -- well, by everyone except that critic -- and never for a moment does he makes a misstep in the kitchen. It's basically a very self-indulgent project designed to show that Jon Favreau the person was hurt by criticisms that have been directed toward him, but at his core he's an exceptionally talented person whom everyone loves.


The third movie -- the great one -- is the one that had no choice but to discard narrative conventionality. That movie is, of course, Boyhood, and I already wrote about it a little bit earlier this week. But this is a movie I suspect I will keep writing about, keep coming back to. I already like it significantly better than when I first got out of the theater, and I expect it will only continue to move upward from here.

There will be some small spoilers, but mostly related to structure.

Due to its design, Boyhood basically had no choice but to be structured as it was -- purely chronologically, without the beats that mark a traditional narrative. Or so we might be tempted to think.

See, just because Richard Linklater culled his footage from a dozen different years does not mean he was compelled to edit them together in that order. He could have included flashbacks. He could have shown the scenes non-sequentially for other artistic reasons. In short, he could have forced his raw materials into a more conventional package if he wanted to.

But Linklater realized that one of the keys to the power of his movie would be our sense of growing alongside the characters -- our sense of surprise as they abruptly age (and it is very abrupt at times), and our paradoxically contradictory sense of having been there with them every step of the way. If we got to see what Mason looked like at age 18 in the first 20 minutes, it's a very different movie. That movie might be interesting in its own right, but I don't think I want to see it.

When I first emerged from Boyhood, I loved it, but I was dragged down by the "yeah but"s. "Yeah, but because of the type of project it is, it doesn't have the necessary structure to pay off in as satisfying a way as it should." Was I really saying this? Am I really such a slave to structure to think that?

Again I return to the idea that narrative structure exists, and is slavishly adhered to, for good reasons -- reasons that don't make a filmmaker uninspired for following them. They go back to the very beginning of oral storytelling traditions with the early humans. They should not be discarded, entirely or even partially, without good reason.

But my initial instinct about Boyhood was wrong. The movie reaches a transcendent new level by employing structure in a way we've never seen before. Actually, we've seen it, I suppose -- we've seen it in biopics, which also tend to go chronologically without a traditional three acts. But we've never seen it with the same actors playing the characters at a wide variety of ages, and that effect itself is what delivers the movie's immense levels of satisfaction.

Because that's all we really want as viewers: satisfaction. Satisfaction and truth.

Whatever structure gets you there is the one to use.


Nick Prigge said...

I watched Cuban Fury a couple weeks ago. While I enjoyed it to an extent, I also had a lot of problems - particularly with the Rashida Jones character. make a really good point about Frost's character. I almost want to reconsider my review (which I haven't put up yet). Might just leave it as is, though.

Still, either way, good take.

Vancetastic said...

What I'm waiting for is your Boyhood review. It is conspicuous by its absence.