July 23rd, 2005

Cinematic verisimilitude - or lack thereof

Last night I saw a highly-regarded horror film made within the last few years; I'm not going to tell you the name of the film, partly because I'd prefer not to (knowing someone acquainted with the making of the film), and partly because I'm going to address generalized points here anyways.

So, to the point: This film - which has won awards and been acclaimed as one of the best horror films of recent years - left me completely unimpressed, for many of the same reasons that most American/European films fail for me as well. Here are a few of my pet peeves:

- The film is predicated on one central event that is so improbable as to be virtually impossible (another recent example of this: War of the Worlds)

- The film's actors work hard, but somehow they're just never entirely convincing. Too often high-octane emoting seems overblown and out of place; other times it feels uncomfortably like posing.

- The film offers us a blue-collar setting, suggests that its protagonists are poor, and then offers us production design that would be right at home in an issue of Architectural Digest. Are western filmmakers so self-involved that they can't even picture how most of us live? And don't give me the argument that they need larger spaces to film within; the best fight scene of the year (in Unleashed) takes place in a tiny bathroom stall. Next time you tell me a character is poor, show me a poor apartment, not a production designer's wet dream.

- The film tells us it's set in a specific locale, and yet anyone who has ever been to that place knows there's not a single shot in this film actually taken in that place. Now I know that production costs often prohibit filmmakers from using the actual city their story is set in, but for god's sakes, at least send a second unit to the real city or incorporate some stock footage.

- The film, in the beginning, goes to great lengths to establish some particular aspect of the protagonist's life...which it never uses in the rest of the film. Writers and directors love to think they're paying homage to Hitchcock by using the "Macguffin", but unfortunately it just comes off as sloppy padding. Don't set something up that you don't pay off - shouldn't that be a prime lesson in Writing 101?

- The film's reputation is partly derived from a promotional angle that has very little to do with the actual film itself.

My friend Del Howison would argue to all of the above that movies are just "entertainment" (a view I don't happen to share), but I'd argue: Even "just entertainment" needs verisimilitude, authenticity, honesty. If you don't believe a, b or c parts of a story, the whole enterprise becomes a house of cards collapsing in on itself. And there's nothing less entertaining than that nagging suspicion that you're watching a collapsing house of cards.

The sad thing about all of this is that - while I've come to expect all of these flaws routinely from Hollywood films - the film in question was an independent. Even our so-called independents, by the artiest of filmmakers, seem to do little more than aspire to Hollywood incomprehensibility and dishonesty.

The day before I saw the film in question I happened to re-watch a recent Hong Kong film called Beyond Our Ken. It was shot in actual apartments, in 11 days, with actors who were probably making three other movies at the same time (certainly Daniel Wu must be doing that!), and it was more entertaining, coherent and true than anything I've seen from Hollywood in ages. It has a central plot twist that stands up to repeated viewings.

Is it any wonder I prefer Asian cinema?