I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.
Which movie scenes absolutely infuriate you?
I am mostly infuriated by bad dramatic storytelling, and I think the of two biggest crimes that you’ll see are the following…
Characters making decisions that not only feel wrong for that character, but feel wrong for any human being. They are doing something only because the writer needs them to do that thing.
Scenes that have no dramatic purpose in the story, thus ruining the momentum of the film and causing you to worry that you’re going to be in unsure storytelling hands for the rest of the film.
Some recent examples of these storytelling crimes (from memory, so I might have some details wrong).
Snow White and the Huntsman is full of scenes that serve no dramatic purpose in the story. I believe this is what led to many people finding the movie to be boring, despite many striking visual moments. For example, there is the scene where Charlize Theron’s character takes a bath in a white liquid that appears to be milk. The milk also spills out of the bath, draining down from her tower to a bunch of poor kids who drink her second hand milk. Charlize going in and out of the milk bath is a stunning visual that was well used in the trailer, but the scene serves no dramatic purpose in the story. The plot doesn’t advance at all. We already know that the Queen attains eternal youth by magically stealing beauty from young girls in the kingdom, so the purpose of the bath is totally unclear. We already know that she is a terrible Queen, so it’s not like seeing starving kids is really necessary at this point. In essence we are wasting screen-time with a dramatically pointless scene just to get a shot of Charlize Theron entering into and emerging from a milk bath.
Prometheus is full of scenes where characters make decisions that are in direct opposition to their established character and are in direct opposition to anything that I would consider to be human. A simple example would be when two scientists decide to pet an alien snake creature. These scientists previously made clear that they had no interest in taking unnecessary risks or interacting with alien life while on this planet. On top of that, they were just trapped in an alien structure against their wishes during a storm. And now suddenly they decide to investigate and actually pet a scary-looking alien snake creature. This is in direct opposition to something we just learned about the characters. It’s also in direct opposition with any action I believe a normal person would take in that situation. These guys are both rightfully scared at that point in time, and there is no way I believe they would start petting an alien creature. Obviously the creature kills them.
These two types of storytelling flaws are interwoven throughout Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman, making them interesting to study for the impact of these storytelling decisions on a finished work. Obviously these problems don’t bother all people to the same degree, as there are people who love both of these films.
But I do think that if SWATH had well constructed dramatic scenes as well as striking visuals then the film would have pleased everyone to a larger degree. I believe that if Prometheus had the same exquisite attention to detail applied to character decisions that was applied to visual texture, then the film wouldn’t be plagued by complaints regarding confusion and weak characterization.
It’s incredibly hard to make a good movie, and every storytelling decision you make has to balance multiple positive and negative ramifications on how the audience experiences your film. Unfortunately, I believe that the two types of storytelling flaws I point out above are becoming more and more common as the business of the film industry changes. Primarily this is because the success of big-budget movies these days is based more and more on opening weekend economics.
If a big-budget film does well enough on opening weekend, then the rest of its revenue follows a predictable pattern and the film will be profitable. If a big-budget film doesn’t do well enough on opening weekend, then it’s incredibly unlikely that word-of-mouth will boost the revenue across its entire release. That is the basic nature of the film industry today, and I believe it leads to some frustrating problems for the quality of these films.
Because a film’s success is primarily driven by its opening weekend, the overall quality of the film becomes a less and less important factor in the success of the film. Audiences make their decisions to see a film based on information that is extrapolated from the film, but are not necessarily related to the film itself. Decisions to see a film are usually made based on marketing materials, elements associated with the film, and the level of exposure to these two things.
Marketing materials primarily consist of trailer, television ads, and key-art. The stronger these materials sell an appealing experience, the more likely an audience will want to see the film. Now of course the question remains of what makes a film seem appealing. I would argue it’s a mix of comfortable familiarity (this film is going to be like other films that I know I like) and visceral uniqueness (this film is going to show me something I’ve never seen before, but getting a peek at it in the trailer excited me). Both SWATH and Prometheus benefited heavily from this. The overall quality of a film can sneak into the marketing materials, but it can’t really drive them.
So let’s say you’re constructing the story for a big-budget film and you are approaching the creative decisions required for a film. You have a bunch of different ideas of what could happen in this scene, and you get out your storytelling scale to balance out the impact of the various creative decisions you can make. One type of decision will have the characters make sense and the story advance, but doesn’t really lead to a striking visual moment that will help sell the film. Another type of decision leads to a fantastic striking visual moment, but it’s almost impossible to also have that moment advance the story and be consistent with character. Which do you choose? If the marketplace rewarded the overall quality of the film, then the system would encourage you to choose the former. If the marketplace rewards the strongest marketing materials, then you are encouraged to choose the latter. Of course the ideal solution would be something that serves both story and marketing, but films are generally made under strict time pressure. You don’t have the luxury of saying we haven’t figured out a way to do everything perfectly, and you’re forced to choose from amongst the ideas you have at hand (the time pressure of filmmaking is another big problem, but way beyond the scope of this answer).
It’s a bit disingenuous to say that each creative person sits there and makes a calculated decision like this. In truth, I believe that artists such as directors and screenwriters have a voice and an approach to filmmaking that is natural to them. Most filmmakers won’t just make decisions based on whether they think it will make the film more marketable. However, there is a bit of market selection going on here. The filmmakers who naturally would choose to sacrifice story quality for strong marketing moments are more likely to have their films made and are more likely to have the films be rewarded by a system that values opening-weekend box-office grosses. The filmmakers who are driven by story and character decisions and don’t come up with the strong marketable moments will have fewer films greenlit and those films will probably underperform in a system that’s designed around opening-weekend success. This is how the system encourages choosing marketing quality over film quality.
But back to the other piece of the puzzle for how people decide what movie to watch. When I say the “elements associated with the film” I generally mean the title, the concept, the genre, the director, the stars, and the property. These are the things that an audience knows about a film without seeing it. An audience doesn’t really know the storytelling quality of the film, except via out-of-context snippets presented in a trailer. It’s a rare film and a rare trailer that can express storytelling quality well, but it’s easy to tell people that Johnny Depp is in the movie and Tim Burton directed it. So when a film is made, the decision is usually driven by these elements and by the perceived ability to make strong marketing materials from the screenplay. Of course the quality of the script and the storytelling is a factor, but it’s not really a primary factor because what really matters commercially is can you get people to the theater on opening weekend, and that audience decision is driven by marketing.
So as an audience member and as a filmmaker, it frustrates me when I see scenes that exhibit sloppy storytelling in favor of moments that can work well in a trailer or TV commercial. In part these moments frustrate me because they are bad, but mostly they frustrate me because they are symptoms of a short-term thinking approach to filmmaking that I think is undermining the art form and undermining the audience’s goodwill towards movies. There are only so many times you can fool someone into watching a bad movie with good marketing before they decide to just stop watching movies and find an art form that they can enjoy and trust.
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