Monday, August 24, 2009

Audiences, Speeding Tickets, Harry Cohn’s A_S, and Hollywood Logic

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


A friend recently sent me an email about a film he saw on cable that he felt was indicative of a worsening practice in movies today. He referred to EAGLE EYE, a film I missed. Here’s his description:

“The male and female leads are recruited, pursued and managed by some super government computer that has supreme control over all things mechanical and digital, etc.

They are told to drive ‘72 miles per hour’ on a busy urban street with lots of traffic. The entity controls all the traffic lights so they wink green just in time for them at each intersection (what [about] the cross traffic suddenly getting a red light in an unexpected time frame?).

‘Lie down in four seconds,’ [the hero is] told just as a huge crane's arm comes crashing through a wall of a municipal building. He follows additional instructions to escape his captors. On a subway moments later a stranger's mobile phone rings with a TEXT MESSAGE for him!

And on and on.

Much later, the duo decides not to follow all the instructions fed to them that have kept them alive in impossible situations by split-second timing. The evil entity now turns on them.
Somehow, though, [the entity’s] pinpoint accuracy and 100%-on timing are no longer so accurate. These two ordinary folks are able to duck, deflect and evade all that is thrown at them by this same never-fails source.

The filmmakers set up this can't-miss, powerful 'thing,' but then allow it to suddenly fail and become vulnerable when the heroes ‘see the light’ and try to fight back. Why is it no longer so accurate?

It reminded me of the ‘can't-get-shot’ finale` of the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA.

Actually, it's not much different than The Great Leslie evading every single pie (save one) in [the old comedy film,] THE GREAT RACE. Of course it was funny there.”

I responded:

“It is a [pretty well-recognized] policy in screenwriting to make coincidences go against the hero and for the villain in stories; to give nearly all the breaks and advantages to the villain and few or none to the protagonist, so that he/she has to overcome them all by sheer ability, intelligence, and resourcefulness. This sounds like they switched it.”

I added a list of the “real rules of screenwriting” that, among them, included these:

· Airline flights always leave and arrive at noon.

· During all police investigations, it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once.

· The ventilation system of any building is the perfect hiding place. No one will ever think of looking for you in there, and you can travel to any other part of the building without difficulty.

· If being chased through town, you can usually take cover in a passing St. Patrick's Day parade - at any time of the year.

· When paying for a taxi, don't look at your wallet as you take out a bill - just grab one at random and hand it over. It will always be the exact fare.

· Cars which crash will almost always burst into flames.

· All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts so you know exactly when they're going to go off.

· It is always possible to park directly outside the building you're visiting.

· Most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communication systems of any alien civilization.

· Any lock can be picked by a credit card or a paper clip in seconds - unless it's the door to a burning building with a child trapped inside.

· When they're alone, all foreigners prefer to speak English among themselves.

· Women always take showers immediately upon arriving home if someone is hiding in their house.

· Scantily-clad young women will always go down into basements when they are being hunted by killers

· Television news bulletins usually contain a story that affects you personally at that precise moment, and it's never necessary to listen to the complete bulletin.

· It doesn't matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts - your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one. They'll dance around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors.

He added several more, including:

· The keys are always already in every vehicle.

· At night streets are always wet.

· At night people stop and exit their cars, but NEVER turn their lights off.

These kinds of lists are all over the internet. Whole books could be written of them. We all have our own favorites. And it would seem many screenwriters, directors, and producers are unaware of them. Now my friend has encountered an entire film dependent on and brimming with such Hollywood logic.

How can this be? How can films continually give their audiences such ludicrous lapses in plain common sense?

My answer? They don’t care! And they don’t care because, apparently, we don’t care. They will always prefer appearances over reality, the sizzle over the steak. They are well aware that audiences have grown used to such nonsense. Only a small fringe group of people will ever demand better from them. And Hollywood chooses to live without them. So those folks go to foreign films, read books, and only occasionally pay to see a Hollywood offering, generally one of those prestige films that are trotted out for LA and NY audiences by Dec. 31, just in time for the big awards.

In the case of my friend’s example, we have a film that has taken an industry tendency and made it an operative principle. No wonder that despite being Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg, and starring a cast of solid actors, it came and went so quickly. It is one of the latest offenders in a class of films many of which never appear at your local cineplex. Most of these pictures either show up on cable television or go straight to video rental where they enjoy a prominent spot on the front of that dollar-a-movie vending machine outside the drugstore. You get what you pay for.

But why do they ever do this kind of thing in the first place? It comes down to Harry Cohn’s Ass. It’s a famous and well-documented story that original Columbia Pictures mogul, Harry Cohn, could always tell a stinker when he saw one: he claimed that if he started squirming in his seat, the film was no good.

I wonder what he would have done with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, because that estimable film is on many, many Ten Best lists, yet it is a bum-numbing 3 hours and 47 minutes long (Restored, U.S. roadshow version –

But Harry wasn’t alone in his preferred diagnostic method. As an industry, Hollywood film producers are uniformly obsessed with—snap-snap—keeping it moving. They know that their audience will never give their films speeding tickets. But the entire population of suburbia will walk out of slow pictures. So taking the time to show James Bond parking at the airport, shuttling to the terminal, going through baggage check and security, and then awaiting boarding—even if it explains how he gets some key piece of info—just won’t cut it. EAGLE EYE is just under 2 hours long as it is. Restoring common sense might have added fifteen or twenty whole minutes, making it too long to fit the ideal thriller length or those 3-shows-a-night theater schedules.

The thing is, these days, most films take this tendency too far. Anything is fair game for elimination in the interest of pace, even common sense. It’s gotten us to the point where, now, they’re throwing out the babies with the bathwater. Then there’s the effect of incrementalism. First, it’s “Let’s cut ‘slowly I turn, step by step,’ and just have him take a drink and then spit it out when the other guy says, ‘Niagara Falls’”; and then it changes to “Nobody’ll notice if we cut the back-story on why Joe does the ‘spit-take’ whenever somebody says…” And so, with the set-up now gone, the joke itself is lost.

So, in the case of my friend’s film, things have now gone so far that films aren’t just being truncated in the interest of pace. No, they’re now being conceived for pace and pace alone. It isn’t that some internal story logic has been removed. It is that that logic was never there to begin with. In fact, the film now has a different logic, if you’ll accept the Orwellian new-speak, a Hollywood logic. Hollywood, then, has become a kind of a Lewis Carroll-styled, “Alice in Wonderland” place where, if producers think, in order to understand the story, the audience needs it, then the story probably has to lose it. Too much thinking is a bad thing, it's like the thread in the sweater: pull too hard and the whole thing comes unraveled. If the villain is omniscient in the beginning, by the end he suffers from senior moments. Why? Because “The bad guy has to be impossible to beat, but we’ve got no happy ending if the bad guy wins,” and “we lose the audience out the door if we have to take the time to tell ‘em how the hero does it.”

Bottom line: there is now no difference between many Hollywood films and those arcade games in the lobby.#


Lee A. Matthias

1 comment:

  1. Much truth in this. Getting harder & harder to find much "considered" film these days.
    Sometimes better to just trip thru my days as if it was a decent movie unspooling in my head....

    Anonymous, Toronto.