Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I hope it's good

It kind of dismays me whenever I overhear discussion of a film's commercial prospects. I mean, it's not like there's anything wrong with such a discussion, aside from the fact that smart people who study the subject for years still can't accurately predict a film's box-office performance, which makes the guesses of random Joes about as meaningful as pissing into the wind... actually, that's exactly why it bugs me. You don't know how well that movie's going to do. I don't either.

Oddly enough, between us, we do know how well the movie's going to do. Probably better than any individual expert. Go read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. The salient point is that averaging the guesses of a group of uninformed individuals, when it comes to things like predicting box-office performance, is likely to be far more accurate than the guesses of professionals. The book explains how it all works, and I'm not going into it, because that's not really the subject at hand.

What makes a movie good?

Imagine you are given a ten-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, only it's blank, and you're told that you have to paint a masterpiece on the puzzle, and you have to do it one piece at a time, while they're disconnected. If you change one piece, that causes the next forty pieces over -- and maybe some pieces on the other side of the puzzle -- to need to be changed.

A screenplay is ten thousand choices; a movie is a hundred thousand. In a good screenplay or movie, every choice is made in the context of every other choice. They integrate as a whole, rather than merely being a collection of good but otherwise unrelated choices. They have, for lack of a less fraught word, synergy.

The choice to have one character have behavior X should be integrated with the choice of another character having contrasting behavior Y; deliberate symmetries and parallels should be present on the levels of beat, scene, sequence, act, and overall story. Costume choices should complement character attributes; set design should complement the characters when we want the audience to feel comfortable, and it should contrast with them when we want the audience to feel uncomfortable or wary.

I marveled when I discovered that the mere choice of camera lens could affect the feeling of a scene. Choose a wide lens, and move the camera in; choose a long lens, and move the camera far away. You may be framing the same angular distance, but the scene will look different, and feel different. Is a cold-blooded assassin professionally taking out his target? Try a long lens and minimal camera movement, to get a calm feel. Got a drunken husband busting in on his cheatin' wife, and beating up her lover? Wide lens, close shots, move the camera around. You want the audience to get in and feel what the husband feels, feel passionate about beating up this cheating scumbag.

Or shoot it from the wife's point of view; she's a wicked manipulatrix who wants her husband to catch her in the act and kill the guy she's sleeping with. So use a long lens at medium, so that the fight is in the background of the shot, and she's in the foreground, pretending to cower but secretly thrilled that her plan came to fruition.

I'm pulling these out of my ass, I'm sure half of what I just said about lenses and angles is bullshit, but the point remains: Good movies are good because their thousands of choices are fully-integrated.