Friday, March 2, 2018

Surprise! How Movies Hold My Attention

With the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony heading this way fast – with pundits predicting and glamorous ladies taking their #MeToo stories into fitting rooms – I’ve started mulling over my personal taste in movies. The 2017 movies I’ve most liked, I realize, are those that manage to surprise me, that take me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.

Of course surprise is a tricky business. It needs to suit the project; it can’t just be imposed on it like an M. Night Shyamalan ending. (See The Village for a particularly egregious example.) And it can’t rely on an unexpected outside force to swoop down and change everything  The Greeks, needless to say, had a word for it: deus ex machina. This translates as “god from a machine,” something that was a familiar feature of classical drama. In ancient Athens, just when everyone onstage was in a state of serious crisis, a god-figure would descend from the rafters in a mechanical contraption and set things to rights. (Something of this device shows up in Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, where in the modern age it’s generally played for laughs.) 

Looking over the slate of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I see that my favorites are full of surprises. We know at the start that in The Shape of Water our heroine is going to fall for a sea-creature (the ad campaign makes that crystal-clear), but I hadn’t anticipated all the political intrigue surrounding the lovers. Three Billboards Outsider Ebbing, Missouri contains characters whose motives are so complex that they can absolutely shock us from moment to moment, for better or for worse. In Phantom Thread, what seems to be the story of a couturier obsessed with the need to create fine fashion takes a sharp left turn into a battle of the sexes whose outcome no one could have predicted. On a much smaller scale, Lady Bird is full of surprises, stemming both from Lucas Hedges’ character arc and the up-and-down relationship of mother and daughter. 

It’s much harder to surprise when you’re dealing with history. Maybe that’s why Christopher Nolan tried so hard to tell his World War II saga of the Dunkirk evacuation in a way that is stylized, impressionistic. Only problem: it’s highly difficult to know exactly what’s going on. And so the tiny surprises built into the plot, like the identity of the main British soldier’s silent companion, just about pass us by. I must say that I found the much-admired Call Me by Your Name” woefully lacking in surprise. The gay love story is sensitively made, but there was never a moment when I didn’t know what was (oh-so-slowly) coming next. 

Which brings me to Get Out, a movie that has certainly prompted a great deal of cultural conversation. I give Jordan Peele’s work high marks for that, and for dreaming up an apt metaphor for the lives of black folks in today’s supposedly liberal-minded America. Get Out has such passionate supporters within the movie industry that some critics are suggesting the film might surface as the best-picture winner at Sunday’s Oscar-fest. Here’s my problem; I do try to avoid reading reviews and hearing spoilers about films that pique my interest. But a casual radio comment by Peele himself –that Get Out can be taken as a  variation on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—along with poster art strongly implying a horror film essentially clued me in to what was about to happen. So for me a lot of the excitement of discovery was lost. But if Get Out wins Best Picture, that will be a surprise indeed.

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