Saturday, July 9, 2016

The beloved dead character is all tell, no show

You know when your friends go on and on about some awesome person you've never met, and eventually all you want to say is "Al-right, al-right, we get it, he's great"?

Movies about dead characters we never meet are kind of like that.

And they're not all that uncommon. It's a pretty standard framework for a movie about loss and grieving to give us a character who has already died at the outset of the movie. Flashbacks can provide us a bit more about that character, but many movies opt not to do go that route, considering it maudlin and emotionally manipulative.

You can respect that choice, but then the problem is we're left to assemble the traits of that character only from what the other people say about him or her. And that's anathema to a medium that prizes showing, not telling.

The movie Tumbledown, which I saw Thursday night, perfectly exemplifies this problem. The fact that the deceased character is a musical prodigy and nascent rock star whom everyone idolized only makes the problem thornier. If it's hard to paint a portrait in words of someone who has warts, it's even harder to get a satisfying sense of someone whose shit don't stink. That makes him sound arrogant. Really, we should just be saying it's a portrait of a saint.

But what's most challenging is that movies like Tumbledown place most of the emotional weight of the story on this person who isn't there. The device is designed to be revealing about the person they left behind, the person who is probably the protagonist of this story, and that person's relationship to others in the movie. But it doesn't always work. When you watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, all the talk about the character Skipper who committed suicide is supposed to illuminate the relationship between Brick (Paul Newman) and Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor). Well, it does and it doesn't. Sometimes, you just wonder why there's so much talk about this person we never met, the texture of whose impact on these characters we can't fully feel.

There are times where this works better than others. One of my favorite movies about grief is Rabbit Hole, in which characters played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman try to rebuild their lives after their son is hit by a car and killed. The child has died before the events of the movie, and most of the conversations are in some way about him. But here, how great the child was is not important -- as we know from various religions, all children are innocent and will get in to the afterlife. Here it's more clear that he's a symbol of something they've lost, a tremendous change on how they perceive the world, whether he was angelic, or the type of little shit who terrorized other kids. As a child, he has a privileged role in their relationship, and his loss really does tell us about his mother and father rather than him.

So I suppose Tumbledown is supposed to be about how Hannah (Rebecca Hall), as a person, is recovering from the loss of her musical prodigy rock star husband, a poet and a lover of life and everything else about him that makes his early passing all the more tragic. And how the guy who wants to write a book about him, played by Jason Sudeikis, insinuates himself in her life and ends up falling for her (and as much as I recognized this movie would follow this path, I did not care for that dynamic to their relationship).

But I guess I'm not that interested in the story about how a woman grieves the loss of her husband, if I don't get anything about the husband beyond the fact that he sang beautiful songs in falsetto, created a folksy brand of music that is considered to be timeless (think Jeff Buckley here), and had a lust for life that represented itself in a sprightly playfulness and emotional generosity. I've just described the idealized version of any character who has ever died in (or before) a movie. But I don't want him described. I want to see him and know why the wonderful things he did made him emotionally irreplaceable.

Flashbacks are not necessarily the answer. As indicated above, they tend to come with their own set of problems. Plus, only getting the snippets of the person does not give us a real person. It only gives us the details that have been idealized by the person remembering that person.

So what is the answer? I guess I don't know. I guess just to do it better. To rest fewer of the emotional stakes on demonstrating that a person was great, and more on why the person who is still around can't function without that person. Even trying to come up with the answer I'm not fully convincing myself.

Hey, I'm not a screenwriter. As a critic, I just tell them what they did wrong. It's their job to try and fix it.

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