Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Gimmick fatigue

I'm told some people didn't like Birdman because they felt exhausted by the lack of edits. Essentially, the gimmick of making the movie seem like one continuous shot was a burden that distracted them and eventually ruined the experience of watching it. Perhaps they felt that an edit would give them a chance to breathe, like how you sometimes welcome an ad break in a particularly intense TV show.

I know what they're talking about now, but not because I watched Birdman again last night. In fact, I liked Birdman just about the same amount on second viewing as I had on the first, with the one difference being that it actually seemed to move faster for me this time. So in that sense you might say I actually liked it better.

I know what they're talking about not because of the movie I watched on Monday night, but because of the one I watched on Sunday night. That was Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows, and it was a fatiguing burden indeed.

Vigalondo is the director of the 2007 time travel movie Timecrimes, which is one of my favorite small discoveries of the past decade or so. We went in without knowing anything about it, and were thrilled to see where it went, what surprises it had in store, and what individual bits Vigalondo contributed to the already saturated genre of time travel conundrum movies.

Vigalondo has apparently had another film in between Timecrimes and Open Windows, 2011's Extraterrestrial, but that was actually not on my radar until after I'd finished Sunday's film. So I pitched Open Windows to my wife as Vigalondo's long-awaited follow-up to our much-beloved Timecrimes, and it jumped straight to the top of our queue.

I did also know the gimmick going in, and though it probably worried me on some level, I figured it would work out fine in Vigalondo's hands. The gimmick is this: The entire movie is supposed to take place on Elijah Wood's computer screen. Whatever would happen in the story of an obsessed fan stalking an attractive movie star would be reducible to what could happen on the open windows on his laptop. But given the multifarious types of video feeds that can now be accessed on a person's computer screen, this still left a lot of possibilities for the type of action the audience could witness.

Too many, as it turns out.

Open Windows barely considers it a limitation that the action is confined to Wood's laptop. The character, Nick, changes locations multiple times and gets involved in all manner of complicated hacker intrigue without even once losing his internet connection, to say nothing of the loss of battery life on his laptop itself. I mean, seriously -- couldn't they have spared a single line of dialogue explaining why he never drops his internet? They couldn't, because there was too much else ridiculous to accomplish that they literally didn't have the time.

I will spare you a deeper description of what happens in Open Windows, but know this: It relates to multiple video chats with hackers and other shady personalities, instant access to live security cams and other unlikely recording devices (a bag full of "ping pong ball cameras," anyone?), an omniscient awareness of what's going on by any number of people (yet an inability to hear each others' simultaneous chats on Nick's computer), and the unfettered ability of anyone to send various apps and live camera feeds to Nick's laptop at a moment's notice. For a guy who appears to know something about computing, Nick has a truly shitty firewall, and displays no aversion whatsoever to clicking on mysterious links offered him by sketchy strangers. At the very least, he should be worried about downloading a virus.

Oh, and all these high-level hacks, frame jobs and other intricate planning worthy of Jigsaw in the Saw series are in service of a plot to humiliate a movie star. That's a rather too pointed commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. If these people had these computer skills, shouldn't they put them to better use by hacking into a bank and stealing all its money?

Perhaps the worst part of Open Windows, though, was the claustrophobia I felt 20 minutes in to a 100-minute movie, knowing that I was going to be trapped in its format for the next 80 minutes. Looking at -- and trying to believe the reality of -- these cascading windows on his computer screen was going to be a chore to get through indeed. Vigalondo seemed to know this, which is probably why he gets Nick out of his hotel room and has him driving around a rigged-up rental car for the movie's second half. Of course, this was the worst of both worlds -- like the biggest concept offenders in the found footage genre, it violates the conceit nearly as often as it adheres to it. So while we're still stuck on Nick's computer screen, we can't buy anything that's going on. We're being tortured by someone teasing us with our freedom, then snatching it away.

Open Windows would be just a failed attempt to execute an ambitious concept if it didn't end with a truly inexplicable series of absurd twists that can scarcely be reasoned out or reconciled with each other. So after cheating on an exhausting gimmick for most of the movie, but at least holding together a basic storytelling logic, it then entirely collapses as a narrative.

To be fair to Open Windows, I may have already been conditioned against this gimmick from an experience a couple days earlier. The reason Open Windows came up at all for discussion, actually, was that my wife and I watched an episode of Modern Family on Hulu where the entire thing takes place on the screen of Claire's laptop. While that was executed a lot more cleverly, it was similarly unlikely in terms of her multi-tasking and shuffling between windows -- with the number of digital balls she kept in the air in this episode, you'd think she were a twentysomething, not a fortysomething. Making matters a bit more exhausting, we didn't get a break from the gimmick at all, because a glitch in Hulu caused none of the ads to play. (It was this experience that put me in touch with the value of having an occasional one-minute break from what you're watching.) So while I was laughing and ultimately applauded the effort, I felt a bit worse for the wear by the time the 22 minutes were up.

Now imagine that over 100 minutes, and you'll get an idea of the relentlessness of Open Windows.

If anyone felt during Birdman like I felt during Open Windows, I truly pity them.

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