Saturday, March 15, 2008

Under False Pretenses

(Spoilers Throughout)
Friday night I watched a great double feature on TCM of Gaslight followed by Bunny Lake is Missing. The two work surprisingly well together as dual studies of faux and real insanity, the first being faux the second being real. While I enjoyed watching both again immensely what got me to thinking was a scene near the end of Bunny Lake. Carol Lynley quietly makes her way from the "crazy off his rocker" Keir Dullea at the end, walking and walking and walking while we see Keir confused and peeved near the slide at the playground. She gets to a greenhouse and hides Bunny inside, then leaves and locks the door. Seconds later we see Keir was inside the greenhouse the whole time. Which means he somehow got ahead of her while we saw her within distance of the greenhouse and he on the playground, then he correctly guessed that she would hide Bunny in the greenhouse, hid himself in the greenhouse (while we still see him on the playground) and... well, you get the point. It's impossible. It's based on a premise of him out-thinking and evading her that doesn't work.

And it was okay. It was okay because the movie is interesting, involving, even captivating at times. So we forgive it. I have an old film textbook, Analyzing Films, that covers this very phenomenon, explaining that if a film is directed and edited well enough it can get away with all manner of false premise. As an example it uses Rocky. From Analyzing Films, edited by William H. Phillips:

Consider Rocky's big fight with Apollo Creed at the conclusion of the film. At age 30, with no previous major fights and after only five weeks of training, Rocky becomes the first man to knock down Creed; Rocky becomes the first man to go the distance with Creed (last all 15 rounds). In the 14th round, Rocky in fact seriously injures Creed, who begins to hemorrhage. Rocky very nearly wins the fight, losing only by a split decision (two judges voted for Creed; one for Rocky). Rocky achieves all this though his nose was broken in the first round!

The editing of the fight is handled well enough and is engaging enough that we either don't notice or don't care. In a bad movie this kind of thing drives the viewer crazy and will often be included in a critique of why the movie is so bad. Yet in a good movie it doesn't seem to matter. Which leads us to the question, "If the movie's good enough will we forgive it's plot holes?"

I would say the answer is a resounding "Yes." If a film is well enough made I don't care how many plot holes exist, or improbabilities.

One of my favorite improbabilities is from North by Northwest. The bad guys (James Mason, Martin Landau) want our man Thornhill (Cary Grant) dead and proceed in the most complicated way imaginable. In particular, he is sent to meet someone at a desolate and secluded bus stop in the middle of a vast open plain.

So what's the best way to kill someone you have purposely fooled into going to the middle of nowhere?

Simply have someone wait at the bus stop and shoot him once the bus leaves? - No.

Have a gunman drive by, slow down, shoot him and drive off? - No.

The best way of course is to hire out a crop dusting plane (easily traceable), have the plane actually release pesticide over an area with no crops so that an innocent bystander can remark how odd that is to our hero, then fly around waiting for everyone to leave until finally it can begin to chase and fire at our hero from the air, where, being in a plane and all, it's a lot tougher to hit your target.

Ah yes, that's the solution! Brilliant! To cap it all off, let's have our hero coax the plane to ground level at just the moment a truck is pulling up so the plane can crash into it. Happens all the time. And to get our hero out of here let's make sure this previously abandoned outpost is suddenly flooded with gawkers so that he can drive off in one of their vehicles.

All in all, it's patently ridiculous. And all in all, I don't care. Ever. I love the movie and love the scene too much to let such things stand in the way of a good chase. Had North by Northwest been one of Hitchcock's failures, this scene probably would have been critiqued and examined more closely but as such it stands as one of the great attempted murder/pursuits in the history of film. A false premise vanishes in the face of an expertly shot and edited movie.

Which brings us to the big one. The granddaddy of false premises. The king of impossibilities. The champion, if only because it is so highly regarded. That movie is, of course, Citizen Kane.

Any movie lover worth his or her salt has seen it, probably multiple times. And every movie lover who has seen it, and pored over it's camera work, editing and acting has noticed the same thing: No one, but no one, could have heard Kane say "Rosebud." He is very clearly alone in the room as he whispers (Whispers!) "Rosebud" on his deathbed and drops the snow globe. Then the nurse walks in. And yet the entire movie is based on the premise that everyone wants to know what his last word "Rosebud" meant. It sets the entire story in motion. Even though no one could have heard it. Later, when the butler, Raymond, says he heard it he is talking about a different occasion as Kane destroys Susan's room, and even then it's hard to believe as Kane once again whispers it and Raymond is down the hall! According to Tim Dirks at some people have even gone so far as to explain this by assuming the entire film to be Kane's "life flashing before his eyes" final moments before he dies but I'm not buying it. I think that Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz simply didn't care. Or even did it on purpose to amuse themselves. After all, it would have been very easy to show a nurse sitting at the foot of the bed and when the snow globe dropped you still could have shown a second nurse entering the room. It wouldn't have affected the film in any way and would have solved the "who in the hell heard him say 'Rosebud'" mystery.

There are probably many other examples of false premises or plot holes in movies so good, or enjoyable, that the viewer forgives them every time. For me Bunny Lake, Roger Thornhill and Charles Foster Kane can engage in all manner of unbelievable set-ups and I'll forgive them every time because they charm me in so many other ways. But when hundreds of beach goers in Speed 2: Cruise Control don't notice a very slow moving cruise ship approaching the shore until the last minute and then said cruise ship plows for hundreds of yards inland, when in reality a simple sandbar or dock will stop a ship dead in its tracks, man that shit just pisses me off.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tolkien, Eisenstein, Montage and The Battle on the Ice

On March 8, 1939 J.R.R. Tolkien presented what is now considered a pivotal lecture on mythology at The University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was titled "On Fairy- Stories" and it distinguished the mythology of the Fairy Story from that of Science Fiction and Dragon or Animal Tales as taking place in an entirely separate environment from that of this world. So Arthur and Gulliver and Grendel may provide fantastical tales but they are tied to a time and a place recognizable and regionally specific. Middle-Earth and Narnia on the other hand are their own worlds even if they do employ distinctly Anglo elements.

Tolkien became the leading writer of this genre and with praise from such luminaries as W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis he became the most critically successful as well. That is until Edmund Wilson spoiled the party by giving his widely read negative review of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in The Nation taking Tolkien to task for considering his works "adult" in nature and countering specific items of praise offered by other critics before him. An excerpt from his review concerning Sauron states:

Once Sauron's realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye scrutinizing all that occurs from the window of a remote dark tower. This might, of course, be made effective; but actually it is not; we never feel Sauron's power. And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat. The ring is at last got rid of by being dropped into a fiery crater, and the kingdom of Sauron topples in a brief and banal earthquake that sets fire to everything and burns it up, and so releases the author from the necessity of telling the reader what exactly was so terrible there.

Wilson was the leading literary critic in America at the time and once his reviews were out the tide began to turn against Tolkien. And the band-wagon boarding was swift. By the release of The Return of the King W.H. Auden was now having to defend against his liking the works in his positive review:

... among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien's forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light "escapist" reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

However, Mr. Wilson makes it quite clear in his review that not only is he a considerable fan of heroic quests and imaginary worlds but he is a fan of The Hobbit itself and his review, while scathing, does seem measured, critiquing the way the story is told (as evidenced by the quote above) rather than criticizing the story elements themselves. He even takes Auden to task directly:

The most distinguished of Tolkien's admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders has been Mr. W. H. Auden. That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien's verse - there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive - through lack of interest in the other department.- to the fact that Tolkien's prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime - as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one's interests - he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself.

Although there were no winners and losers in this debate the reputation of Tolkien as a great writer did take a fall after Wilson turned the critical tide against him. Of course, the books themselves, once released in paperback in the sixties became enormously successful and their popularity continues to this day. By the early 21st century the entire book (broken into three books by Tolkien's publishers much to his objection) had been made into a grand series of epics that eventually (with the third installment The Return of the King) won the top Oscar for Best Picture. And so, as often happens with history, it is the story, not the specifics about the level of amatuerishness or professionalism of the prose, that is remembered. It would be easy to say that Tolkien won, and handily.

Which swings us in the direction of Sergei Eisenstein by way of a battle that will work its way into our story soon. Eisenstein is known to all students and scholars of film. There is not a student of film alive who does not connect his name with "montage" and rightly so although most people's idea of montage has something to do with Rocky working out to Eye of the Tiger. Montage as Eisenstein saw it was much more complicated. The director or editor takes two or more images that are specifically unrelated, edits them together and creates a linear arc that was not present in the unrelated images themselves and thus creates a third, separate entity that now has a new meaning. The images do not have to create a linear story arc within themselves. They can be used to create a third entity that in and of itself has no beginning or end but does have meaning. For an analysis of this as it pertains to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin go here.

Eisenstein in his development as a filmmaker used montage in the linear sense and to great effect. At the time of his later work in the late thirties through the late forties he was suffering from some of the same problems that Tolkien would suffer just a few years later, only in reverse. That is, while his prose and verse (his technical skills as the director) were never in question, his stories were. He suffered the critique (whether true or not) that his movies existed for his technical skills to be displayed, rather than his technical skills being used to enhance a great story. Such is the case with Alexander Nevsky, which in many ways mirrors the problems that Edmund Wilson found with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In Alexander Nevsky the villain, like Sauron in LOTR, is without a true face. He is indeed visible, unlike Sauron, but has no character, no personality, no humanity. He (and the German hordes he leads) seems to exist only for Nevsky to defeat. And the story surrounding the true tale of Nevsky elevates it to a mythic status so that even Nevsky himself seems only designed to defeat the German hordes. He too is a man without a face.

And now film and literature, montage and verse, Nevsky and Orcs clash, or more precisely, merge, as Alexander Nevsky (released the year after Tolkien published The Hobbit), providing a fully developed Eisenstein at the very top of his abilities as an editor of montage, offers the perfect medium for Peter Jackson to take the story of LOTR and bring it to life. Eisenstein provided the technical expertise, Tolkien provided the story.

I am referring to The Battle on the Ice in Alexander Nevsky. While there were battle sequences in film before (among the first and most notable prior to this was the Civil War clash of brothers in The Birth of a Nation) none had the the elements of Nevsky. What separates Eisenstein's miraculous sequence from Alexander Nevsky is that the build-up to the battle is more exciting than the battle itself. Just as Auden understood the journey was the thing while Wilson concentrated on the destination, Eisenstein understood the tension before the battle was where the adrenalin truly builds. It is a sequence that has so heavily influenced battle scenes in film that most filmmakers probably don't even know they're paying homage to it. They are doing their scene this way because the last director did it this way and on and on.

In Peter Jackson's LOTR Trilogy, it is echoed throughout in battle after battle but most notably in the climactic battle for Gondor in The Return of the King in which many of the elements of Eisenstein's Battle on the Ice can be found.

While students and scholars of film are familiar with Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein's other works are generally little studied. They're known, but not accorded the same analysis as Potemkin, and yet many of them, particularly the action and battle sequences of Alexander Nevsky, have been more influential on the editing of modern day action and adventure films than anything found in Potemkin. Of course, in a battle of influence Potemkin would win hands down for simply being the first to develop so many of the techniques in place today. But Nevsky refined those techniques and thus provided a clearer blueprint for modern filmmakers to follow.

Please watch the preamble to the Battle on the Ice below if you have not seen it (and if you have, watch it again). Tolkien said that Fairy Stories took place in mythical worlds yet provided identifiable characters that did not seem alien no matter how fantastical. Since they drew on universal themes they seemed familiar to even the first time reader of fantasy fiction. That's how Eisenstein feels to me. Even if you've never seen one of his films, they should already look familiar to you the first time you do. Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938, but it's been remade regularly every year since.