Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Who Decides Which Stories Get Told?

I watched The Impossible recently and thought it was fairly good. It's not the kind of movie that pushes the boundaries of cinema or leaves the viewer feeling like they saw something new and exciting but it was a good, solid, well-made movie. Based on the story of a Spanish family vacationing in Thailand in 2004 when the tsunami hit, it stars not Spanish actors but British, Scottish, Australian actors. This lead to criticisms that the movie was trying to make the cast more comfortably white for an international audience. The Spanish director of the film, Sergio G. Sanchez, said this in an interview with Very Aware Movie Blog in 2012:

We didn’t know if we were going to get the financing to make this film. That first draft was in Spanish. Even in that first draft, 80% of the dialogue was in English because after the wave comes, that’s the language everyone would use to communicate. So then with the characters, you never know where they are from. We let everyone keep their accents. Instead of working against that, we thought it was an interesting concept to have this family have no home. It’s not clear what’s the home they want to go back to. At the end, they realize home is where they are together. We were trying to make it universal – to try to create a place where nationality didn’t matter.

It felt quite natural to get an English speaking cast. It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.

And that, in turn, lead to the movie's main criticism which was that a movie about a tsunami that devastated the lives of untold numbers of Asians focused on a Western family on vacation, not the locals who are still living with the devastation to this day.

And that leads to the bigger question, which stories can be told?

The same types of criticisms have been leveled at different movies from different eras for years.  Schindler's List has received criticism for being about a German industrialist and his success in saving 1,200 Jews rather than focusing on Jewish families devastated by the Holocaust.  This video of Terry Gilliam criticizing the movie on those grounds has been a popular Facebook link for years.  But is it a valid argument?

Was Schindler's List about a success?  To a degree, yes, but Gilliam clearly exaggerates the tone and mood of the film.  If one had not seen the movie and went by Gilliam's description, one would walk away thinking Schindler's List was a lot brighter and cheerier than it is.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say there's a little deception in Gilliam's statement because Schindler's List isn't really about success so much as failure viewed from the vantage of a seeming success.  The tragedy of the story of Schindler's List is that six million other people died.  If anything, the movie plays more like a sick joke than a "Happy Ending" feel good story.  The punchline is that when everyone waves goodbye to the 1,200 Jews that escaped, they turn around and see a sea of six million corpses at which point they say, "oh, I get it."

But let's say Gilliam is dead on right.  What then?  Can't you still tell the story?  Hell, we've told numerous stories about Hitler, even making him seem downright human in Downfall, if not maniacal and despondent at the end.  So what about Schindler?  What's wrong with illuminating a small shaft of light in the darkness?

Let's go back to Sanchez with The Impossible.  Let's look at the second part of the quote again:
It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.
I'd wager that you can successfully tell any story as long as the story has something that makes it worth telling.  There may have been thousands and thousands of families that survived the tsunami but perhaps this story has an angle that makes it interesting.  And the director doesn't consider it a success but rather an illumination of the family's failure to notice the world around them before.  Before the tsunami hit, as far as the family is concerned, Thailand is a resort on a beach.  After, it is a nation of people, suffering and dealing with devastation.  And all their other stories can be told, too, but that doesn't exclude this one from being told.

On the other hand, who's to say Gilliam is excluding Schindler's List.  Maybe he's merely saying it's not his preference to tell that kind of story.  This, in fact, seems to be what he's saying though he's saying it with a fair amount of judgment against going the other way.  When he describes the kind of story that Spielberg makes, and the rest of Hollywood, a big general brushstroke he paints over everyone else making movies, he calls them "comforting" because they give you answers so you don't have to think about them after you go home.  In other words, thinly veiled code for "movies for stupid people."  And it's an easy out because aren't we all smarter than everyone else who goes to the movies?  Aren't we?  Aren't we really?  Well, maybe we are.  But that still doesn't mean we can't tell a story if there's a goddamn story to tell, does it?


Satish Naidu said...

I would argue that The Impossible needs to exist. Not because of the whole disaster-thing, because Bayona's film is an uncomfortable combo of tragedy and spectacle, but because of what I call "The Curious Case of the Left Boob". It pops up both literally and figuratively at a number of places in the film, and I am still curious about what Bayona is getting at.

Greg F. said...

Well, those gaping, bloodied holes certainly did make for an interesting left boob.

In all seriousness, I liked the idea that the son could face death and devastation all around him but couldn't bear to look at his mom's breasts. For adolescent boys, some things are simply too horrifying to see.

Satish Naidu said...

But was there repression built into the very DNA of the film? I mean, I don't want to come across as the pervert one, so I put forth exhibits from the film -

The film opens to Maria sitting not close to her husband Henry so as to display a traditional picture of a family, but a seat apart. Their conversations are not archetypal lovey-dovey couple but archetypal caught-in-the-rigors of life a-little-distant husband-wife. She gets up and sits next to Tom, and their interactions are considerably more personal. The camera felt a little tighter on the close-up too.

While Maria is dressing up for their evening on the island, we catch the briefest glimpse of her left boob. God knows why. Or maybe Freud does.

Before the big flood the husband and wife have another of their disconnected conversations. Especially about her career.

After the big flood the mother and son are left together. A lot of melodrama causes their union amidst the flowing waters, and while they walking ashore, we once again catch a glimpse of her left boob. Through the son’s vantage point. Awkward. He turns his eyes away while she ties her cloth all the time looking at him. Possible repression.

They meet a little kid who their rescue. The mother is one wanting to rescue the kid, while the son is more intent on finding safer grounds. More on this thread later.

They climb onto a tree, and as she sleeps, the son steals a little glance and the camera pans on to her…..guess…..covered left boob.

The cutaway from the son searching for his mother in the hospital is juxtaposed with the father, who we see for the first time since the big flood. It is a proper case of replacement via editing. Or maybe I am searching for too much.

The father leaves his two sons in the hands of a friend so that he could try and find his eldest son Henry and wife. It is a gamble. Henry finds them.

They all finally find each other in the end, and the mother is to be operated upon. While she is taken away for surgery, the father sits against the wall with the other two kids while the son is seated against the bed his mother was lying on. I expected them to all be together, all the kids under the umbrella of the father, especially after having shared such an ultra-melodramatic reunion. The power equation is not so neat and tidy, and it gets even foggier when the son gets up and lies down on that very bed in that very place his mother was there not so long before. Mr. Bayona causes overhead perpendicular shots that kind of unite both the mother on the surgical bed and the son on her mother’s bed. It is he who imagines/remembers/fantasizes/dreams about his mother in the big tsunami and the big wave hitting her.

We’re in the end, on the flight to Singapore, and she’s on a bed. Before the flight attendants ask everyone to be seated, the husband and wife hug and kiss in a rather impersonal far-medium shot, and as he goes back to his seat on the left aisle, he nods at his son, sitting on the right aisle to share whatever he has to with his mother.

The son walks up, and this is when we get a proper warm composition of the mother. She smiles upon looking at him. The warm closure we usually get the end of such disaster movies between loved ones that reinforce traditional familial dynamics (like for instance the glance shared between Laura Dern and Sam Neill at the end of Jurassic Park on the helicopter) is shared between the mother and the son. He talks about the kid they saved (who, it can be construed, was given a new life by them and is thus their kid) and she starts crying. That little life-form was theirs.

Am I seeing things, or watching them? I have no idea..

Keir said...

British AND Scottish actors? Talk about diverse casting!

Greg F. said...

British AND Scottish actors? Talk about diverse casting!

The Welsh got screwed over once again.

Greg F. said...

Satish - Jesus, how many times have you seen this movie?! You've got the damn thing memorized frame for frame. I did not notice any perversion but I did notice a much tighter bond between Lucas and mom than dad and mom.

I suppose I'd have to watch it again to see if there is anything overt I was missing but, frankly, I have no plans to ever see it again. When I say a movie is a "good, solid" movie, that's me saying I wasn't impressed enough to ever go back.

But you certainly make very interesting observations and I will say this, because it was very noticeable. When Lucas and his two brothers reunite, it's very emotional. When dad reunites with the mom, it's not. At all! It's kind of a "wake up and look who's here" and then she does and it's kind of played like, "Oh, it's you. You made it. Well, that's good. How about this weather, huh?" The director most definitely ties the mom and son together in a much closer relationship but I don't see perversion.

Greg F. said...

From my facebook page where this discussion is also going on:

commenter one said:

We line up exactly. Gilliam is a douche.

commenter two said:

We do not line up exactly. You must stay awake. It's not a matter of which stories can be told, but which stories get told ad nauseum while wide swaths of humanity are totally ignored by the people with the money to make and distribute films. THE IMPOSSIBLE is a calculating insult.

commenter three said: Well done, Greg. I agree wholeheartedly. I have heard these criticisms before and they always seem a bit small-minded to me. The Gilliam clip in particular annoys me because once every few months it makes the rounds on Facebook and gets a lot of accolades. I got into it pretty intensely with someone over Gilliam's quotes on SCHINDLER'S LIST (which, as you know, I love immensely) recently and it got ugly. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on the subject. If you're interested, here is another article on the subject of SCHINDLER'S LIST specifically which I revisit once in a while. The language is a little "Christian-y" but I think it makes a profound point.

I responded to the second commenter with this:

It's not a matter of which stories can be told, but which stories get told ad nauseum while wide swaths of humanity are totally ignored by the people with the money to make and distribute films

Not in my piece. In my piece, it is about which stories can be told. I have no control over who makes and distributes films. If I did, I'd see a lot more movies. I don't disagree with your point at all, it's just not the point I'm making. I'm saying if you can find an interesting way to make a murderer's story instead of the victim's story, do it (IN COLD BLOOD). If you can find a way to tell the victim's story, instead of the rapist's story, do that (THE ACCUSED). If you can find a way to get completely inside the mind of evil, go with it (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER). I'm saying there shouldn't be this outrage that someone told Oskar Schindler's story instead of Anne Frank's. Both have been told and many other stories from both sides of the equation as well. I'm saying tell any story you can if you can tell it well. Instead of "Well that story shouldn't be made, even if it is good." "Why?" "Because, this other story didn't get told." It should be "let's tell whatever stories we want."

Your point gets to a much larger issue that I feel is much more difficult to deal with in the case of THE IMPOSSIBLE. Unlike SCHINDLER'S LIST, which can at least claim to be telling the story of Oskar Schindler without changing him to a French man named Jonserat, THE IMPOSSIBLE does in fact change the lead characters in a supposedly true story. I don't think that makes them universal, as the director claims, I think it makes them bankable and I think the director knows that.

Greg F. said...

I responded to the third commenter with this

I just read it and I think it's an excellent piece. I particularly like the way he finds sentimentalism and cynicism to be two separate but equal ways to avoid reality. That's what I see in the Gilliam quote. I see cynicism used as a hip shield to dealing with the story itself. Gilliam's basic dishonesty in describing the tone of the movie gives it away. He doesn't deal with the movie that's really there. The movie he's talking about is one I haven't seen. He's talking about a movie where the lead character rolls up his sleeves and says of the Holocaust, "We're gonna lick this thing!" His smug remark, "A man can do what a man can do," is in no way, shape or form related to the reality of the movie SCHINDLER'S LIST. If I saw the Gilliam clip before seeing the movie, I would honestly be expecting to see a Frank Capra-esque movie starring Gary Cooper instead of the one that's there.

And here's the thing: I'm not even that big a fan of SCHINDLER'S LIST, I just don't find Gilliam convincing on the subject, which is why that's what I chose to focus on in the piece.

I removed their names since they didn't comment here but wanted their thoughts added to the discussion. Thanks

Adam Zanzie said...

Gilliam's comments are painful, arrogant and idiotic. Schindler's List is hardly a film that's only interested in success; Schindler's "I could have done more" speech exists to remind the audience about the people he *didn't* save, and the women Schindler rescues from Auschwtiz walk out of the showers unscathed but then turn around and see other Jews headed towards the gas chambers with a chimney blowing smoke overhead... clearly, Gilliam either hasn't seen the film in a long time or just has it in for Spielberg.

The Kubrick quote that Gilliam pulls from Frederic Raphael's book is highly-suspect, since most of Kubrick's friends and family (Christiane Kubrick, Jan Harlan, Michael Herr, Tom Cruise, Spieberg) have come down against it as a lie. I bet Gilliam also isn't aware that Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie Kubrick once tried to make, would have been about two Holocaust survivors (not victims).

And Gilliam sure is one to talk about happy endings, considering that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ends happily and Gilliam himself even acknowledges it on the DVD commentary.

Greg F. said...

Fourth commenter said:

What I found ridiculous in THE IMPOSSIBLE were Naomi Watts being "schooled" by her precocious child spouting the wisdom of a seasoned pro, and scenes of dissheveled characters sitting around quietly listening to one another's "stories." These reflect an idiotic trend that's plagued too many English-speaking films over the past twenty years. My bullshit barometer jumped upon hearing the eight-year-old informing his mom, "But mother, I don't know how to take care of my brother because I've never taken care of anyone before" — would it honestly be improper to punch the kid in the face at this point? — as did the group of adults listening intently when in reality they'd be interrupting and speaking loudly over one another. Reality crumbles under the weight of movie idealism intended to placate suburban sensibilities. It's those suburban sensibilities which prevent the film from showing the Asian population facing its worst nightmare, instead relying on a by-the-numbers scenario of privileged white folks whose vacations have been cut short by nasty weather.

Greg F. said...

My response:

I agree with a lot of what you're saying except the very end. I don't think the movie plays as white folks whose vacation is ruined. Remember the jerk guy whose wife and daughter looked fine and told Ewan McGregor that he couldn't use his phone? Those people had their vacation ruined. If the movie had told their story, where they're all just there, pissed off this happened and waiting for the first plane out, then, yeah, I'd say the movie was about a family whose vacation was ruined. But it was about a family seriously impacted and, here's the problem we've all brought up by now, they're white and don't live there.

I agree... that Bayona failed at making it universal. I still think, though, that the movie works as a disaster movie. If the tsunami had never happened and someone made this movie, it would work as a disaster movie on its own. It's the changing of nationalities and centering on tourists that runs it into trouble. But I still think it works on the basic level of a characters in a disaster movie fighting for survival.

Greg F. said...

Commenter two's response to my response:

Greg - You are splitting hairs. Of course people can and do tell whatever stories they like. What determines whether large numbers of people--or anyone--reads, hears, or watches those stories is what the people with the money and influence want the public to consume. From that standpoint, the stories that are told are calculated to please a small constituency. It's not really free choice if, as Bayona says, you're worried about getting the story told. He wrote it in Spanish originally, but chose to fictionalize the actual family to make it universal - only he failed miserably at that. I didn't relate to it, and I'm white and English-speaking. I understand Thai audiences were moved by it, so perhaps he did a better job than I think, but I imagine the tsunami scene itself simply brought back bad memories. I can't wait until someone decides to tell the stories of Hurricane Sandy, but that might prove embarrassing to the climate-change-deniers and legislators who don't want to provide aid to the stricken areas. So, you see, censorship in the form of self-censorship and marketplace demands drove these choices, and the execution reflects that.

Greg F. said...

And my response:

[T]hat's very true. You can make a movie about anything you want, if you have your own financing and distribution. If you don't, and that would included practically everyone, you have to compromise and modify. And that does mean that not every story will or even can get made. I guess I wasn't getting that from your first comment. My apologies.

Greg F. said...

clearly, Gilliam either hasn't seen the film in a long time or just has it in for Spielberg.

Adam, I honestly don't know that Gilliam has seen the movie. His description of it flies so hard in the face of its reality, I think maybe he skipped it and just believed any critique that confirmed his beliefs about Steven Spielberg and the movie.

I also think the Kubrick comment, if even true, is hopelessly vague. So what if a small part is about success? The overall picture is failure on an unimaginable scale. That girl in the red coat isn't about success, it's about her dying despite all her best efforts to go unnoticed. And as you point out, even in the end, not even Schindler believes he succeeded at anything, really.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Within the context of telling the story about the people that Bayona chose to tell the story about (and in the way he chose to tell it), I think the movie displays an inordinate amount of sensitivity to the Thai people, in terms not only of illustrating the roles they played in helping to save the McGregor/Watts family (and others), but also just the amount of visual weight given over to them as participants and victims in the aftermath.

I think the movie settles into less urgent rhythms as it goes along, but overall I found it as compelling as anyone with children might be expected to, and as Greg suggested, the movie finds a subtle way to emphasize the troubles still lurking underneath the Watts-Mcgregor relationship even after they've been reunited. It's pretty obviously disingenuous (as the argument often is about other films) to suggest that THE IMPOSSIBLE is chiefly about the poor Third World bowing and scraping to make sure the white leads are saved or otherwise redeemed in our eyes.

Yes, the movie makes concessions to the marketplace. Damn few movies that are widely seen don't, even the really good ones. And there are undoubtedly stories of other survivors from this catastrophe to be told, as there are from every real-life catastrophe that has ever been grappled with dramatically. To tell one over the others is pretty clearly a decision made with the marketplace in mind, but it isn't a statement that *that story* is the only one that matters.

Greg F. said...

I have to admit, the parenting aspect is what impacted me the most. You can't have kids and not feel that watching this movie. Maybe there's a different outlook on THE IMPOSSIBLE dependent upon whether you're a parent or not. I found that part of it is exactly what made me not care who the characters were, because looking after your family is indeed universal, even if the family really isn't.