The end is in sight …

I was watching The Descendants the other day …

Well, not the other day, because that implies there are only two days and since one is in the past it would mean today is the end of the world. Obviously, if I had that kind of information, I would have told you earlier so you could go wild and enjoy it.

I’ll start again.

I was watching The Descendants recently and … well, have you seen it? It’s kind of an odd film. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here. It’s good for the majority of its length and I came away thinking I enjoyed it, which is cool; but for the first (rough guess) fifteen, twenty minutes the audience were very unsettled. There was this vague tension in the air and you could hear people shifting awkwardly in their seats.

I think the problem was no one was really sure what they were watching. It kind of felt like it should be a comedy, but it wasn’t funny. In fact it was quite serious; but then it wasn’t very dramatic, so didn’t feel like a drama either.

No one was laughing, no one was tensely wondering how any of the characters would deal with … stuff. People were just kind of sitting there, unsure how to react. Me among them. It was like no one wanted to laugh in case it wasn’t meant to be a comedy and was just a badly made drama.

Then George Clooney did some silly running and everyone broke into a very nervous, over-reaction laugh.

 

From then on, it was like everyone knew it was okay to laugh – as if they’d suddenly been given permission. The rest of the film was thoroughly enjoyable and in fact very, very good.

Or at least I thought it was. You may beg to differ.

Nothing I’ve written so far has any connection to the point I want to make. Although I guess it drove home to me the importance of opening a film with a genre scene. Musicals start with a song, action films start with some action, comedies start with a joke and not an incredibly long, mild-mannered narration about the back story.

Seriously, by the way, if you’re a film maker and you want to start the film with the main character literally telling me what’s happened in the last few years before the film starts, if you really, really feel I need to know that information and there’s absolutely no way you can think of to dramatise it … just give me a hand out before I go in. I’ll read it during the slide show at the beginning and be up to speed before the trailers roll.*

So there I am, enjoying The Descendants and thinking it’s a really good film … when my mind wandered.

“I wonder when’s this is going to end?”

I thought.

Followed closely by:

“I wonder how this is going to end?”

It’s one of those films where, after a while, there didn’t really seem to be any story left. There isn’t anything to aim for, there’s nothing left for the characters to do or say, they’re just waiting for a (pretty important) event to happen and then we can all go home.

But there’s no telling when that event’s going to happen. There’s no ticking clock, there’s no build up, there’s no … nothing really. It’ll just happen at some point and … well, maybe the film will keep going and spiral off into an amazing new direction … but more than likely, it’ll just stop.

And that’s a kind of weird feeling to have near the end of a film, that there’s not really an end in sight … it’ll just stop at some random, unspecified point and you can leave.

The phrase which popped into my head was:

“The race is more exciting when you can see the finishing line.”

I don’t know anything about sport, but I reckon if you told me some people were going to race around a track for 60 laps (in a car, on foot, on giant mutated chickens, whatever) ,,, then the first couple of laps might be quite interesting as people find their position and rhythm … but after that it’s probably pretty dull until the last few laps when everyone knows the race is nearly over and suddenly tries that little bit harder.

Is that what happens? I don’t know. Sounds reasonable to me.

It also sounds reasonable to assume if those racers didn’t know how many laps they were going to be doing, then lap 60 would be pretty much the same as lap 30 or lap 47.

If you can see the finishing line, or at least know where it is, then you’ve got a goal and a target and a reason to try your hardest and there’s tension and pace and drama! If you have no idea where or when it’s going to end, then it’s hard to create any of those things.

Films are tricky beasts because you’ve got no idea how long they are. At least in an hour long, story of the week, TV show you know exactly when it’s going to end. If it’s not interesting and exciting in the last quarter of an hour, if you can’t see the finishing line then it’s probably either going to be a two-parter or a bit shit.

Smallville used to throw me a bit with that, because they’d have their climax around 40 mins in … and then 20 minutes of epilogues. During which I’d be wondering when the hour was up.

I feel when I’m watching a drama I need to know where the finishing line is. Some people may think that makes a drama predictable, but since most pieces of fiction are predictable (the hero will probably win, the lovers will probably end up together … it’s probably going to be alright kids) then surely it’s about the journey, not the destination?

Which kind of sounds like I’m contradicting myself there, which is entirely possible; but maybe you need to know where the finishing line is, then be distracted by the amazing scenery until the finishing line pops into view … and then be utterly fixated on crossing that line in the last few minutes?

And let’s face it, just because you tell the audience where the finishing line is, doesn’t mean you have to reach it. A film can be totally satisfying if it crosses a different finishing line to the one originally aimed for; but I think initially having that false finishing line in mind helps give the film a feeling of pace and momentum.

Possibly.

I don’t really know.

All I know is I mentally composed most of this blog in the last ten – fifteen minutes of The Descendants while I was waiting placidly for it to end. Which it eventually did or I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Given the beginning of the film is a voiceover lecture, which could either be an unfunny comedy or a risible serious drama, and the end just kind of trundles on for a bit and gives up … and I still thought it was a really good film, then the middle majority must be fucking excellent.

So, you know, if you haven’t seen it, you probably should. Just try not to be upset because I’ve managed to spoil the beginning and the end of the film without actually giving away a single piece of plot.

That’s fucking skill that is.

A skill I apologise for.

———————————————————————————————————

* Was it Wayne’s World, Clueless or Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey where they handed out pamphlets explaining the slang beforehand? Can’t remember which, I just remember feeling really, really fucking patronised.

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Categories: Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “The end is in sight …

  1. The only thing I disliked about the film was the voice-over intro dump. I agree with you about ‘where/how’s this going to end’ but I like it when films can buck some storytelling trends & go with their gut instead. The results may be mixed & defy some established screenwriting wisdom but we need more of that, I reckon, rather than following tried & tested routes or typical developments & denouements.

    • Was your ‘where/how’s this going to end?’ said in an interested/excited internal voice?

      Because that I quite like.

      For me, it was in an idle, no longer fully interested kind of voice. I’d pulled out of the film at that point, stopped caring and was just waiting to be allowed to go home.

      • Yes, interested! I was suitably engaged to hang out with the characters.

        • Ah, well, then “How’s it going to end?” is a good thought.

          Actually, I’ve been thinking overnight and I’m fairly certain this entire post is completely wrong.

          Not wrong in content, but wrong in application. I think my disinterest in the end of The Descendants has more to do with the story (or what I perceived to be the story) ending considerably earlier than the film. So it crossed the finishing line (the characters achieved what they needed) … and just kept on going.

          I feel like I didn’t really care about certain aspects of the plot, but I did care about the characters – so once they’d sorted themselves out, the rest was just killing time.

          I felt like that about Captain America too.

  2. “I don’t know anything about sport, but I reckon if you told me some people were going to race around a track for 60 laps (in a car, on foot, on giant mutated chickens, whatever) ,,, then the first couple of laps might be quite interesting as people find their position and rhythm … but after that it’s probably pretty dull until the last few laps when everyone knows the race is nearly over and suddenly tries that little bit harder.

    Is that what happens? I don’t know. Sounds reasonable to me”

    Yes. Formula 1. Dull. Unless someone crashes.

  3. H

    Smallville used to throw me as well. Sometimes I’d be watching and Kristin Kreuk wouldn’t be on screen. I mean, what was that all about?

    And once in season eight Clark went into Smallville hospital and a woman at reception asked him his name. Clarke spent more time in that hospital than in school. Him turning up should be like Norm arriving at Cheers.

  4. beigefreezone

    I didn’t like this film (although I liked many things about it – like how many Hawaiian people were in it. Why don’t you see that many Hawaiian people in Hawaii Five-O?).

    I agree with you about the first half hour or so being unsatisfying. I think it’s because it was just total exposition, which made it feel very flat rather than having a dramatic build to a point where you can relax and think “Ah, I know what’s going on now”. I always think your brain is in information-gathering mode in the first act of a film, but you can’t sustain that concentration so you need to reach a point where you’re let off the hook, you know you’ve done all the major information gathering and you can relax and let yourself get taken on the journey. I think it’s why that first plot point is so important.

    I also think in the last half hour you need to feel you’re in the final stretch. And with this film there were two plot strands – which on the face of it were very thematically relatable and yet they never were really linked at all. (Overcareful spoiler and convoluted-grammar alert here) I assumed that the one plot strand would inform how the characters dealt with the other, and that the end of the second plot was worth waiting for, was thematically related to the first plot, and would be the real end of characters’ story. I felt pretty let down when it just tailed off.

    • Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier. I was wondering if maybe I just missed the point, but I felt I didn’t really care what happened in either case.

  5. Pingback: 2012 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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