Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Wonders of Genre

Every once in a while, a great genre movie gets made. Matchstick Men was a great genre movie. Panic, several years ago now, was a great one. The Departed, hardly unsung, was another. Speaking of which, my favorite Scorsese film is Cape Fear, and I’m not just saying that to be absurd; that is the ultimate transcendent genre film, a movie that fits completely inside a box that already existed as far as plot and character are concerned, but which explodes with an entirely individual energy. These are movies that make me believe and make me care; their heavy outlines are actually invigorating rather than tyrannical. I troll video stores for these experiences.

I am thrilled that Michael Clayton is such a film- not least of all because I’ve been trying to get Jamie to watch it for quite some time, and she only just gave in and really liked it, proving me to be correct. Michael Clayton is a genre film to the bone, and therefore it could have been absolutely mediocre. It would have been entirely possible to take the same actors and the exact same story and deliver it in a boring, unbelievable and loveless way. State of Play with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck is a perfect example of a genre film with a good story and a good cast that felt like a complete waste of my time. Convention is a springboard, not a crutch. The plots of these movies aren’t what matters at all, and I have better things to do than watch pretty people deliver banalities.

The solitary weak line in all of Michael Clayton comes early, when a reporter hisses “Give me something I can print!” through a phone receiver. After that, there is nary a groanable cliche. It has an assurance to it, a coolness, that reminds me of the feeling of Panic. It has a final showdown that you may actually want to rewind and watch again. It even has a private conversation about manhood between the protagonist and his son that is not only unsaccharine but plausible and affecting, and that has to be absolutely one of the rarest things in the movies.
But the best thing about Michael Clayton is that it understands something about the cinema feature form that should hardly be a big secret, but somehow still is. 
Consider: it has dawned on the restaurant industry that the most exciting part of a meal is the appetizer course. The main course is usually more predictable and less intense, because you have to eat a lot of it. The appetizer is the chef’s greatest opportunity to be spontaneous and virtuosic. This is why we’re all eating so-called “tapas” and ordering demi-portions of entrees.

Movies are somewhat like this. (Pardon this analogy, but we just came back from a great restaurant.) During the first act of a film, the viewer understands perfectly well that a great deal of exposition will eventually occur, but there is plenty of time for that. The viewer is not yet trapped in the story. This is an opportunity to do something brilliant. There is time at this point for a scene or two in which the story can do something entirely unexpected that will completely perplex the audience. 

In Michael Clayton, that scene occurs just before the story jumps four days back in time. I don’t want to describe anything about what happens, because that would ruin some of the magic of stumbling on the scene. The universe of the film seems to be spinning a bit out of control, but there’s nothing to fear, because this is the beginning of the film. The viewer doesn’t mind being lost. In fact, the viewer may very well want to be lost. Why should everything be perfectly explicable if it doesn’t need to be yet? This is the best and maybe only chance for real mystery and confusion, and in cinema, this can be sensory as well; what we see and hear can be just as lyrical and surreal as the apparent story.
The viewer is flung into confusion

Once the gears of the plot are set in motion and we’re 30 or 40 minutes into the story, however, a window has closed; it is now going to be much more difficult to introduce anything that seems entirely tangential, because it will either be too hard to eventually explain, or it will annoy the viewer who at this point doesn’t want to be taken out of the story. Basically, it will rupture what has already been established. Many people claim to dislike the Syd Field school of three-act screenwriting, but it happens to be true that the human brain can only comfortably digest a feature length narrative film if its thrust is consistent; it can be unpredictable, but it can’t completely defy the viewer’s expectations. There are, of course, many highly rewarding masterpieces that lay waste to narrative traditions, and I love some of them to bits, but watching them requires an act of forgiveness on the part of the viewer. Watching 8 1/2 is work. I am much more likely to want to watch La Strada.

Tradition is the very thing that allows films to have such powerful openings. Think about the openings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch Drunk Love. They both have spectacular first acts that hurtle us into deep bewilderment. These are not really genre films, but there is certainly something traditional about both of them; at the very least, they both have heroes fighting for love over three acts. It's the fact that we always feel the story moving forward and can sense a greater structure, even as we are confused, that gives us enough confidence to care, and we are handily rewarded for our faith that we're being guided through some kind of master plan. Without a good solid frame, the early excitement in these stories would have crashed. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A whiz-bang opening, and then- meh. So I think our narrative traditions really are essential, and a successful genre film is simply the most dramatic way to remind us of this.