Prior knowledge and film

January 05, 2004

I just finished watching GoodFellas and was oddly reminded of Seabiscuit: both movies rely on external knowledge to keep the viewer's interest.

The first hour of Seabiscuit is a montage of the lives of the three main characters: the jockey, the owner, and the trainer. Their lives are presented in a series of short vignettes, cut together with a series of slick transitions, and all indicating that these are flawed and broken people.

But, if you did not know that these were the three men whose lives would intersect with the racehorse, you would spend the first hour of the movie being confused. I know - I watched it with people who had not seen the trailers or read the book, were approaching the movie as a blank slate, and whose comment early was "this is all very nice, but who are these people and what is going on?"

Similarly, when I watched GoodFellas all I knew was that it was a well-respected gangster movie and that the "restaurant shot" was a spectacular piece of moviemaking. And, while Henry's narration quickly tells us that "all my life I all I wanted was to be a gangster" and the continued voiceovers tell us that something has happened, something has been lost, the movie itself is boring. Now, this might be because I was watching it in bits and pieces in the half hour between losing productivity and becoming sleepy, but I several times turned off the movie because I was bored with it. As I was watching, I decided that the movie was trying to derive its dramatic interest from the fact that gangsters are sexy - like vampires - and so anything about gangsters must automatically be exciting. After seeing the ending I now see what the movie was building up to, and if I had known that - if I had watched the movie during its first release when all the trailers and buzz were going on - then there would have been a lot more suspense.

I think it was Hitchcock who pointed out the nature of suspense. If you show two minutes of some men sitting at a table talking and then a bomb under the table explodes, the audience will be first bored and then surprised. If you show them the bomb under the table and then show the men talking, they will spend the two minutes wondering if the bomb is going to go off. That is suspense.

Both GoodFellas and Seabiscuit, and I suppose also ROTK, suffer because the moviemaker has relied on trailers and advertising to tell the audience about the bomb under the table. Essential background or narrative information has been left out of the film itself because they are incorporated elsewhere in the marketing and packaging that constitutes a modern major theater release.

I should add that there are times when a piece of narrative art - book, film, play, poem - relies on something at the end to re-shape and give new meaning to all that came before. Brideshead revisited is a very different novel the second time you read it, for you know for sure what will happen to Sebastian and you know how later events in the narrator's life have shaped his recollections of the events in the book. In poetry, the second time you read "Richard Corey" it is a work of suspense, the first time through the final couplet is a bit of a surprise. The difference between these and the movies I am writing about is a difference in execution rather than structure - Brideshead Revisited is interesting and it makes sense the first time through. There is a coherent narrative with foreshadowing aplenty, and while the novel improves on re-reading you don't have to read it twice or read it backwards for it to make any sense.

In contrast, I really did get the feel in Seabiscuit that the director and cutters knew what was going on at such a deep level that they forgot to tell the audience what was about to happen. This is not a new problem in film - we have all experienced trailers that give away the film or, as in Carrie, trailers that tell the reader what will happen, turning the surprise into a suspense or the "what will happen?" into a "how will these terrible things occur?" But, you can watch Carrie and know that something awful is going to happen - the trailer just gives away the what and where while the whole movie is drenched in foreboding doom.

I am repeating myself, I will close by just saying that for folks like me, who see our movies late and in bits and pieces, it makes watching movies dreadfully frustrating.

Posted by Red Ted at January 5, 2004 10:52 AM | TrackBack