December 3, 2008

#003: Characters vs. Plot

     There are movies out there that just seem to have no plot. It used to drive me nuts to sit and watch a movie where nothing happens. This year I really started focusing on paying more attention to the how the plot effects the characters and visa versa. I realized that sometimes a movie isn't about what happens, but rather who it happens to. I started noticing whether plot elements were there to move the story forward, or help develop a character. It got me a lot more interested in knowing who the characters are, and why they act the way they do. I think about how a writer has to sit down and consider every word a character speaks, and the body language and tone he uses. There is so much thought that has to go into each character. Then once the concept is there, the director has to get the actors to execute it correctly. Some movies do a very good job of this, while others rely on an exciting plot to carry the movie. This post is going to consider the "character driven" film.

      Don't get me wrong, there is no dichotomy between character movies and plot movies. Every movie has to have some sort of plot; and every movie has to have characters, or at least someone/something the movie is about. There is a pretty big range between the ends of this continuum, and all movies fall somewhere in between. I would say that most Hollywood blockbusters fall on the plot-driven side. Independent movies tend to be more character-driven, where the plot elements are used to further develop the characters. I think the best way to illustrate what I am trying to talk about is to make examples of some movies.

      The first movie I want to think about is Transformers. This movie is almost completely plot-driven. Why do I say this? Lets look at our characters played by Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox. There is very little time spent developing either of these main characters. We do learn some things about Megan's past, and how her father was a criminal, but this has very little impact on the overall plot. It might have contributed to a side story that was never really explored in the final cut of the movie. When I was done watching this movie I realized that I knew very little about the characters involved in this story. Any other teenage guy, with totally different issues, could have replaced Sam Witwicky, and it wouldn't have changed the movie all that much. There just aren't very many scenes that give us a background of why he is the way he is, or why he reacts the way he does. Those scenes are left out so they can just show him doing things. I am not saying this is a bad thing. I mean, it is an action movie.

     The next movie I want to look at is I Am Legend. I had a lot of fun watching this movie, but at the end I was disappointed. I really feel it was lost on the cutting room floor. To me this movie was trying to split the middle between plot and character. They wanted it to be an exciting action movie, but they also wanted to explore the impact this situation was having on the main character. I imagine there were a lot of scenes captured on film that show us the mental anguish his solidarity was causing him. However, in the final product, we got a lot more of the action, and not enough of the character. Certain plot elements in this movie hinged on us realizing how emotionally tormented Robert Neville was. I think he was basically at the point of insanity, and was only hanging on because of his dog. However, they didn't take enough time showing us this. For example, there is the scene where he is talking to the mannequins. I think we were supposed to think that he actually thought he was talking to real people. To me, it didn't work at all, and came across as comical; almost like he was joking around. However, when the male mannequin is out of place, he reacts as if he thinks the mannequin walked there himself, which didn't jive with the feeling of the previous scenes. My point is, it was confusing. I don't even know if my interpretation is correct, it is just how I took it. If he realized they are fake, and the mannequin moved without him moving it, he has to know something fishy is going on. Instead, he walks right into the trap that was set for him. This movie was pretty suspenseful, but for me, any suspense wasn't because I cared about the character, but because I was worried something was going to jump out at me. I didn't really understand what he was going through, and how much his dog meant to him. I didn't get a sense of the hopelessness he must have been feeling. All that being said, I really enjoyed the first hour of this movie. Then the ending came... When the CG zombies attacked I completely disengaged with this movie. It was probably one of the most ho-hum endings I have seen for quite a while. Part of this was due to the "fake" look of it, but a lot was because I wasn't emotionally invested at all in this guy's survival.

      Now I want to give an example of a main-stream "character" movie. I can't really think of an example that falls almost completely on that end of the spectrum. Most love stories usually have quite a bit of character development. They also usually have a well structured plot with a problem and clear resolution. One fairly popular movie that doesn't have much plot is Lost In Translation. I haven't seen that movie for quite some time, but I remember how nothing really happened. Most of the movie was just watching the characters deal with their issues, and at the end there was nothing to really resolve. I watched one movie this year that completely epitomizes what I am trying to talk about, but it isn't likely many people have heard of it. It is called The Station Agent. There is almost no structure to this movie. It merely shows us how 3 people meet, and how their relationships form. The movie shows us their interaction for a while, then stops. I think that is my main problem with these type of movies. We have been programmed to think that a movie needs to have a nice clean resolution at the end. When a movie doesn't offer that to me, I feel.... odd. In the past I would watch a movie just waiting for the big payoff at the end instead of enjoying the journey. Now I try to consciously focus on not projecting an ending, and just going along for the ride. To finish this post off I will list some movies I have watched this year that seem to do a very good job at developing the characters, and relating how those character traits effect the plot.

The Station Agent: I liked this movie, but you have to be in the right mood for it.
Children Of Men: Clive Owen stars in this post apocalyptic tale about a world where no more babies are born. Great characters, great story, and great camera work. I would definitely recommend watching this movie if you haven't seen it. Pay attention to the scenes in the city towards the end. There are a couple of continuous shots that follow Owen around the buildings. These shots don't cut for a very long time. It is impressive.
Waitress: This movie tells an entertaining story and has great acting. I would recommend this movie even though it is a little quirky. I am not sure that everybody will like it, but it is worth watching.
Rocket Science: This is an indie film about a high school boy with a stutter who joins the debate team. Its a good movie, but might be hard to find.
Dan In Real Life: You've probably heard of this movie starring Steve Carell. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out. Its a nice little movie.
There Will Be Blood: I rented this movie expecting a action thriller. I got a slow movie about an "oil man" and his son. I really didn't like this movie. However, it got tons of positive reviews, and Daniel Day-Lewis will probably get an award for his performance. I should probably give it another shot at some point. You will have to decide for yourself if you want to invest 158 minutes of your time to watch it.

The last two movies are probably my two favorite movies I saw this year. I obviously would recommend watching both of them if you haven't yet seen them. I might do dedicated posts for each of them at some point.
Pan's Labyrinth: This movies is in Spanish so you will have to deal with reading subtitles, but it is worth it. My initial reaction was mixed, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I just watched it again not too long ago, and I liked it just as well the second time around.
No Country For Old Men: This is just a great movie. I really like Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem in this film. I am really looking forward to seeing this one a second time.

So thats my list of movies that focus a little more on character development than most. Let me know what you think about this post. Did it make sense or am I completely out in left field? If you have seen any of the movies I mentioned let me know what you think. Do you agree with me that they spent more time making sure we understood the characters? I would love to read your feedback.


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