I was excited last week when one of my friends finally agreed to watch Up in the Air. The more I think about the movie, the more certain I am that it’s my favorite film of 2009, and I could think of no better way to spend a monday night than to revisit it.
Her response: “I liked it. But I just don’t know what I was supposed to get from it.”
She elaborated. The story, she said, was excellent. The characters were interesting and fully drawn. The situations were thoughtful and compelling, and the movie definitely made her feel…something. It made her think about practical life questions. But it didn’t convey any easily defined or digestible “message.”
Her last point sent me back to a book I read about screenwriting when I was in college. I’ve forgotten most all the specifics in the text, but one sentence has stuck with me: “If you want to send a message, write an email.”
And it’s true. There is nothing more annoying than when the “themes” of a movie can be summed up in a sentence or two. For example, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (or as we call it, The Crappening), stops telling its story in the third act and becomes a not-so-thinly veiled editorial about our destruction of the world and nature’s impending retaliation. That whole movie can be summed up with “Don’t screw up the environment or you’ll be fucked.”
Or we can examine a lighthearted movie like Shrek, an entertaining little tale that spends ninety minute imparting a simple piece of advice for the kiddies: Accept who you are.
These movies aren’t necessarily bad (well, except The Crappening) but they are easy in every sense of the word. They’re easily ingested, digested, and dismissed. Maybe that’s part of the reason they’re so wildly accessible. But as a filmmaker, I have to ask the question: why even bother? If the point of your movie is to explore themes that can be summed up in ten seconds, why not just give us the basics…in email form.
Which begs the question: Other than entertaining the masses, what, if anything, can movies really do? Are they built only to create a quick emotional reaction, convey a simple theme and go on their merry way? Since I run a movie commentary site, it will come as no surprise when I answer with a resounding “no.”
When Stanley Kubrick set about making Full Metal Jacket, he said he wanted to do it because he wanted to make a war movie. When someone reminded him that he’d already made a war film with Paths of Glory, Kubrick clarified that Paths was considered an anti-war movie. Now he wanted to make a movie that simply “considered the subject.”
So he moved away from the simple themes we’ve seen done time and again (“War is Hell” anyone?) and instead created a complicated and thought-provoking movie about a complicated and thought-provoking theme. Still, he was simply considering a subject, and we have to ask why he chose to do it in a movie. Can’t the intricacies of war be better looked at in a documentary or a book? Can’t we get to the nuts and bolts of the psychology and affect of war better if we examine graphs, charts, facts and figures?
Once again, my answer is predictable. No.
And to prove my point, you don’t have to look any further than the haunting ending of the film–where our under-fire American soldiers are finally able to subdue a sniper, only to find that it’s a young woman. They watch, stunned, as she slowly dies in front of their eyes.
I would argue that there can be no book or article that can match the visual and narrative power of that moment. Only it isn’t a moment. It’s a culmination of everything Kubrick has done with the movie to that point, and without his ability to paint vivid characters, locations, and tone, that scene would never be as affecting (emotionally and psychologically) as it is.
There are certain ideas and certain elements of the human condition that can only be really explored with a story…some type of narrative that puts a face and name to the abstract concepts that rule our lives.
In creating a well-drawn situation, filmmakers (like Kubrick) can get at complex themes–lessons and ideas mixed with emotion and the human condition–in a way that other media can’t. “Images with sound” is arguably the most emotionally affecting medium, so when strong visuals are paired with believable characters in a story that illustrates a complex and often contradictory theme, the result is an affecting and thought-provoking set of themes that can’t be condensed to a single simple didactic statement.
It’s that one-two punch of immediate emotional response with psychologically challenging material that makes these kinds of movies great. They’re the kind of films that often confuse us on a gut-check level, prompting another viewing and long conversations with friends. It’s both emotional and intellectual, and that makes it somehow more “real,” powerful and lasting.
I love all kinds of cinema. I love the simply themed movies that, while ideologically dismissible, still have something to say. I love the movies that could care less about having something to say–whose sole goal is to sweep you away and entertain. I love comedies, dramas, action movies…I love them all.
But when I ask myself the question “What can movies do that other media can’t?” I always come back to movies like Up in the Air and Full Metal Jacket. Movies that can only explore their themes fully and honestly with characters interacting in a compelling story coupled with strong, meaningful visuals and sound. It’s a rare thing when a movie like that comes along, but it’s always worth the wait.