There’s something about watching five or six movies a day for a solid week that makes a body contemplate how movies are constructed—and what makes them “good.” Back in 2006, at the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, I wrote a blog post about what I like to see when I plop myself down at the cinema. That list hasn’t changed much over the past three years, though there’s something I’d now add to a list of what I don’t want to see, and it’s this: Please, no more movies that are so preoccupied with how to convey the characters’ backstories that they forget to tell the story-story.
I started to sense the pervasiveness of this scourge at my first Sundance film festival, in 2008. There I saw one indie dramedy after another about characters who’d been deeply bruised by… what? The movies refused to say right away. The characters’ friends would all make oblique references to the death of a family member, or some past sexual and/or physical abuse, or a drug problem, or an arrest, but no one would just outright say what the problem was—presumably because that would make the screenwriters’ film studies professors angry.
The logic behind backstory-rationing is twofold. First off, the art of cinematic storytelling is supposed to be about showing, not telling. It’s supposed to be a crutch to use narration, or on-screen titles, or to have a character say, “Hi, I’m Blah Blahson and I spent 10 years in jail after I accidentally poisoned my baby.” I get that; I respect that. But the extremes to which screenwriters go in order to avoid filling us in can border on the ridiculous. More often than not, it’s obvious that information is being withheld only because the writers attended some screenwriting workshop or Sundance lab where they were told that characters need strong motivations for their actions, and that hemming and hawing about those characters’ motivations is what makes a “good” screenplay.
The end result? Grinding movies like the TIFF offering Solitary Man, written and directed by veteran screenwriting duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, etc.). I liked Solitary Man on balance—largely because of Michael Douglas’ roguish lead performance—but more than half of the movie is spent parceling out the details of what happens to the hero between the first scene and the “six years later” second scene. And it’s not as though Douglas’ character has some big crazy secret that needs to be withheld. All the necessary info could be delivered to the audience in a one-minute post-opening-credits monologue, with little impact on the integrity of the film’s structure. But then that would be “bad” screenwriting.
The second reason why screenwriters keep secrets is because it’s a handy way to hook viewers, and give us a reason to keep watching. And I have to admit, that can be an effective technique. Back at that ’08 Sundance, I sat through all of the godawful quirkfest Good Dick because I had to find out why the romantic leads were behaving so bizarrely. (Answer: The usual “broken childhood” bullshit.) If filmmakers rouse our curiosity, they can get away with a lot of self-indulgent moves that ordinarily would test an audience’s patience, just because we’ll feel like we wasted our time if we don’t find out the whole story.
This approach can be needlessly frustrating too. At this year’s Toronto fest I saw a Swedish film called The Ape that opens with a man covered in blood, then proceeds to show how he tries to make it through an ordinary day. Why all the blood? We don’t find out right away. Instead, we watch him fumble around, obviously distressed. But not knowing his secret doesn’t really add much value to the first half of the movie, beyond making us wonder how long we’re going to have to wait for answers. And in some ways, it’s a dramatic mistake that writer-director Jesper Ganslandt doesn’t tell us right away why the hero’s in trouble. It ultimately makes no difference to the story when we find out, and being kept in the dark prevents us—or prevented me, anyway—from seeing much irony or tension in all the scenes of a guy aimlessly driving around.
Understand that I’m not opposed to plot twists, or flashback structures, or even backstory in and of itself. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of my favorite movies at this year’s TIFF contained very little in the way of heavy backstory-lifting. In the Korean murder-mystery Mother, there’s one piece of information about the herbalist heroine and her mildly retarded son that we don’t get until about halfway through the film, but it’s information that emerges naturally and makes sense to hold back, because while it has no bearing on what we see in the first hour, it makes a huge difference in the second. Also, writer-directed Bong Joon-ho doesn’t tease us with it. He doesn’t have some neighbor refer to an “incident” and then leave us wondering what it is for half the movie. Bong tells us when we need to know, and only when we need to know. And then he gets on with the story. Similarly, in Jacques Audriard’s A Prophet, we meet a new prisoner on the day he’s sent to jail, and we find out more or less all we need to know about him—and everyone he meets along the way—within minutes. Any revelations to come have more to do with inner character—what people are capable of, how trustworthy they may be, etc.—than with anything they did or didn’t do prior to the opening credits.
While promoting Inglourious Basterds last month, Quentin Tarantino gave a fairly revealing interview to Charlie Rose in which he talked about running Reservoir Dogs through the Sundance Lab process, and how he was told that it was a vital part of filmmaking to map out the subtext for a script. So he dutifully took one of the movie’s scenes apart, figuring out all the characters’ motivations and objectives and the themes the scene was exploring. And when it was all over, he said, “Huh. That was interesting. Now I never want to do that again.” Tarantino told Rose that he has as little interest in subtext as he has in moral judgments or social messages. His characters just do what they do, and he lets them do it, without expressly saying whether he thinks what they’re doing is right or wrong, or whether it has any deeper meaning. After the movie’s in the can, he’s happy to sit around and talk themes and interpretations, but while he’s making the movie, he doesn’t want to know.
I mention this only because Tarantino has such an unusual approach to backstory. He claims to toss out whole sections of his scripts that fill in the personal details of his characters. He likes stories that jump back and forth in time, and if he needs to tell us a character’s history, he’s not averse to stopping the movie cold so he can do it. Heck, for Kill Bill, Tarantino waited until the second “volume” before he got around to establishing exactly why his heroine was so pissed off. But in keeping with that Rose interview, what Tarantino does with his playful structures and spontaneous monologues has less to do with plumbing psychological depths than it does with telling a story in a clever and entertaining way. If he’s planting seeds in our heads regarding character motivation, it’s not some emotional vaguery like, “That guy can’t say he’s sorry because his pride was wounded when he failed to make the high school football team,” it’s something oddly and amusingly specific like, “Bruce Willis has to get that watch back because Christopher Walken carried it in his ass for two years.” And again, he gives us that info exactly when we need to know it.
Increasingly I find that my favorite kinds of movies follow the principals that British director Michael Powell described as “the composed film.” Powell edited the climax of The Red Shoes so that it mirrored the rhythm of the music, and his films often have the quality of music, eliciting an emotional response through camera movement, performance, sound and cutting, all tangential to the story. Not all my favorite filmmakers fit this mold. I love the Coen brothers, and their films are often more intellectual exercises than emotional ones. Wes Anderson splits the difference, combining obsessively thought-out images and dialogue with moments that aim for a more gut-level emotional engagement. But by and large, I respond most strongly to directors like Powell, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, P.T. Anderson, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and Jafar Panahi, who tend to feel their way through individual scenes in their movies, intuiting what looks and sounds right, and not always worrying whether a scene’s running on too long or whether it fits neatly into the movie as a whole. Their movies sometimes come out uneven, but the parts that work have a transcendent quality—like a favorite song.
The problem is that these kinds of movies can be hard to defend as a critic, because my reaction often boils down to something felt. If you don’t get a giddy thrill watching Brian De Palma spend 15 minutes on a pursuit sequence that doesn’t pay off, there’s not much I can say to convince you that it’s awesome, any more than I can convince you of the greatness of a song that makes me cry but leaves you rolling your eyes—or a joke that makes me laugh but that you think is lame. I can talk themes and technique, but ultimately I have to shrug my shoulders and say, “I like this because it’s the kind of thing I like.” Generally speaking, I favor forward momentum, and I like being dropped into scenes that develop their own rhythm, and aren’t necessarily about moving the audience through the script outline, one checkpoint at a time.
And in the end, that may be what turns me off most about backstory-rationing: the sense that I’m being “handled” in some way by the filmmakers. It’s not enough that that they have to hold something back; they have to tell me that they’re holding it back, as though if they didn’t I’d jump out of my seat and wander off like an inattentive toddler. And invariably, what they’re not telling me isn’t even that interesting. So a guy’s wife committed suicide, or his brother murdered a priest, or he’s a recovering alcoholic who used to be a millionaire. That’s all fine. But why do you need to spend 100 minutes telling me what already happened? Tell me what comes next.