***There will be spoilers for Brave, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Seeking A Friend for the End of the World in this post.***
As of last night when Boogie Nights thankfully–finally–ended, I’ve seen 58 movies this year. Most of those were for the podcast, or because of it in some way. Some of them were because my friends talked me into seeing them. (Hot Tub Time Machine is not a good movie, guys. I don’t care if Sebastian Stan IS in it for a whole fifteen minutes.) Some of them I made time to see simply because I wanted to. (I am not a girl who turns down Hedwig and the Angry Inch sing-a-longs.) I expected to love movies and hate movies, what I didn’t expect was that I’ve loved every single one of them, even the ones I hated and would never ask you to see.
When I first joined the Wrong Opinions Podcast I was worried. My co-hosts love film and can talk in very specific jargon about cattywampus (Dutch, for some reason) angles and slow first acts. I enjoy film, but don’t feel a particular affinity for it over any other kind of storytelling. In fact, I made it very clear in the beginning that all I could speak to was story and structure and characters. That turns out to be enough sometimes, and I’ve learned a whole lot in the last year or so about film itself, but it’s still the story part that really interests me over any of the technical notes. And when you mainline movies like I do, the differences in story start to stick out rather than blend in together.
Last weekend I saw three movies: Brave, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Seeking A Friend for the End of the World. Last weekend I felt like some sort of picky, sticky Goldilocks, and it’s because only one of those movies felt to me like it was trying to tell the right sort of story in the right sort of way. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the film I went into with absolutely no expectations.
Too cold. Friday night I saw Brave. I feel like I should preface this, as I always do, by telling you that I haven’t seen most Pixar movies. I’m just not that interested in them. I’ll watch Wall-E eventually, because the boyfriend and several other people keep telling me to, but I’m perfectly fine living a life where I don’t cry over the end of Toy Story 3 twelve times. (That’s what I re-watch Band of Brothers for.) But even though I haven’t seen most Pixar films, I’ve been left with a very specific set of notions about what a Pixar film SHOULD be, just by virtue of knowing other people who have seen them. It’s hard to explain these expectations, since I’ve never quite seen them in action, but I suppose Pixar films should be warm and emotional and adventurous and unsure. Leave it to a race car or a space trash compactor to remind us of what the human condition really entails. And Brave, even though the story does focus on a human, felt like it fell way short of that for me. It was too simple.
That’s somewhat fatuous of me, I know, to call out a children’s movie for being too simple. And it’s probably just nostalgia that colors in Sleeping Beauty and The Last Unicorn as richer in some way. That movie’s target audience will feel great about being able to predict what needs to be done before the witch even appears on screen, but I was bored after the half way point because of it. And it’s silly, because there is nothing wrong with simple story telling. You can get more out of your emotional payoffs if you keep things focused. I’m also not saying that it’s not fun to watch, because it’s genuinely funny, and I adore the father character. I laughed out loud quite a few times. I just wanted something more.
Too hot. We saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on Saturday morning, and that just left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied and liked I’d definitely seen a movie directed by the guy who directed Wanted. That movie did entirely too much. Or it tried to anyway, it didn’t really succeed in anything. A lot of the charm of the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter book lies in the fact that it takes a lot of factual information about Lincoln’s life and then just folds the vampires in. Even when the book is delivering action it’s matter of fact and paced like a biography, not like an action-adventure tale. The movie managed to strip away every last bit of that charm and then proceeded to shoe horn in a whole bunch of back story that the audience really didn’t need. And then there was slow motion leaping off of burning bridges. I mean, if you buy a ticket to something titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you’re probably going to be okay when it leaves out his days studying law and working in shops. The movie should have focused on ten years tops instead of forty. (On the plus side, Dominic Cooper is still a person doing things, which is always nice to see.)
Just right. And I guess it’s about managing expectations, because Sunday morning when we went to see Seeking A Friend for the End of the World I had no idea what it was about except for what I could infer from the title. I left that movie feeling like I haven’t felt since I saw I Heart Huckabees. Someone made that movie just for me. It was funny and touching and a little sad, but that’s going to happen when the world ends. Most importantly, it was paced well and it pulled out the right part of the story to tell like I felt the other two movies didn’t. We didn’t need back story for these characters. Their traits were given to us naturally through dialogue and action and not through exposition. We just happened to meet up with two people three weeks before the world ended and learned what we could in that amount of time. And it was wonderful.
Choosing the right part of a story to tell is hard. For me anyway. I am a total whore for back story. I want to know what brought the characters here. I want to know why they react the way they do to things. That goes for my own characters as well. A lot of the trouble I have with prose is separating what I need to know from what the audience needs to know, as well as making sure I get across the things that are just sitting in my head. Because it’s one thing for me to think ‘well of course Edmund would kill that man’, but it’s another for the audience to be on board. What have I shown them of Edmund before? What is it about his demeanor or his upbringing or his social standing that would make killing a man seem like the only thing he could do in any given situation?
Why did Merida not question the way the witch said the word ‘change’? What drove Abraham Lincoln to be so selfish in his pursuit to kill the undead? What made Penny force Dodge’s dad to turn the plane around? I can only answer one of those questions in a satisfying way. The stories that fall short for us can be fun and they can teach us a lot, but it’s the stories that sit in that perfect space that really affect or change us. I want to tell stories like the latter. If only I can figure out how to do it every time.