Make that love.
We had some friends over for dinner recently and the discussion, as is common, turned to movies. Everyone’s opinion on what makes a good movie may differ, but there is one fundamental thing a movie needs: movement. For example, my friend Dave said that while he liked “Cloverfield,” he had a problem with the monster itself. It didn’t seem to have a purpose and its movements were random. Now Godzilla, on the other hand, was always on the go. He moved and did it with purpose. He was on his way somewhere. I had to agree. I too liked “Cloverfield,” but the monster’s intent was like its shape, amorphous and random. So what could have been a new, genre-defining monster movie was merely an engaging and likable affair that featured a bit of credibility stretching by using a hand-held camera POV for its duration. There is a world of difference between “like” and “love.”
This year, two movies in particular were competing for Best Picture at the Oscars. One was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” loosely based on “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, and the other was (eventual winner) Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Both movies feature sadistic central characters and have a theme of “the times they are a changin'”; the first due to unabated oil development around the turn of the last century and the other to a rising tide of drug running and criminality along the Texas border in 1980. But there’s a key difference to what separates the first movie from merely being an attractive, if long-winded exercise in greed and megalomania, to a thought provoking, riveting, and accomplished feat of storytelling in the latter: movement.
Like Godzilla, the characters in “No Country For Old Men” are always on the move, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. There is blood, too, and we frequently see it in trails of wounded animals and characters. In “There Will Be Blood,” we have a character, Daniel Plainview (the always amazing, and now multi-Oscar winning Daniel Day-Lewis) who, to what can only be surmised, is getting revenge on the fact that he wasn’t all that successful at mining for gold early in his life, then discovered oil and therefore became a complete a-hole. Or something. I sure as hell don’t know what. There is no back story to speak of, no real enduring relationship with anyone, male or female, other than his adoptive son. The Plainview character starts nowhere, and ends a hollow shell of a man. The journey is opaque, bitter, and untold. It is a credit to Day-Lewis that he managed to hold our attention for (most of) the 2 1/2 hours. Paul Thomas Anderson has yet to make his masterpiece (“Boogie Nights” is certainly close), and I have no doubt he will, but this isn’t it. The Coens have already made, oh, maybe eight or nine already including personal faves “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?.” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski” are borderline for me, but “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Intolerable Cruelty” are simply misfires that neither time nor new director’s cuts will rectify.
To draw a historical parallel where similarly paced movies competed at the Oscars, I would pick the year 1939 when “Gone With the Wind” won Best Picture over “The Wizard of Oz.” Both remain great movies, but in “Oz,” the whole story is about movement, and self-discovery along the way. The characters are always on the go, with the focused purpose of getting what they lack—a brain, heart, courage and home—from an all-wise and mysterious wizard. “The Wizard of Oz” is still the textbook in economical movie pacing, story delineation, not to mention Technicolor spectacle. It has a deeply entrenched place in movie lore for these reasons and more. I know this particular movie better than any other and can vouch for the fact that it holds up to numerous, approaching infinite, viewings. I still find nuance and layers to the characters and story. And while “Gone With the Wind” is a spectacle too, it lacks a sense of triumph in the end. In fact, it’s a bit of a downer. Of course it lacks the great songs that “Oz” has, but it is still easy to watch even today. I just wouldn’t recommend endless viewings unless you have half a day to give up each time.
Another thing that is often times overlooked in what makes a great movie is the entire cast. In “The Wizard of Oz,” you have the note-perfect acting by everyone in the ensemble. For examples, watch Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin), Miss Gulch/ Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) for their reactions, not their lines. There is no acting, they simply are their characters. In “No Country For Old Men,” virtually every character, no matter how little screen time they receive, is fully formed. And if they don’t have movement, it’s usually because they are stuck behind a desk. It matters not because their whole being is etched indelibly in their physicality; the lady that runs the mobile home park, the motel clerks, the cartel kingpin, and the gas station owner. Never mind the amazing performances of Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and the Oscar-winning Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh.
In “There Will Be Blood,” which is bold and ambitious in many ways, it’s really Daniel Day-Lewis’ character that the story zeros in on and we are forced to watch. You can’t really look away, it’s true, I just wished the story moved—and moved me—the way “No Country For Old Men” did. I liked one movie, but I loved the other.
Dude, what you’re calling movement, I call character development. Each character must be different at the end than they were at the beginning. Godzilla (and you may be the first person ever to tie Godzilla to Cormac McCarthy) at least evolves, so to speak. This is why villains who are just nasty without motivation are lousy villains. They need to move.
If there’s one thing about modern movie-making, it’s the destruction of characters as a storytelling element. Which is a shame for the reasons you’ve outlined.
Tim Gaskill says
Exactly. Character development normally follows movement of some kind. Maybe this is why the “road movie” is often times a great form of entertainment.