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Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Much Is Enough? Part 2 - Jeopardy & Empathy

SPOILERS: Sideways, Bend It Like Beckham, Adaptation, Tremors, Dog Soldiers
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When it comes to the notion of jeopardy in film, this does not neccessarily have to mean life or death, though of course this is standard fare for some genres - horror, action-adventures and thrillers the most obvious.

Rather, *something* has to be "at stake": a character has to be in a position where he or she will lose something, whether it's their life and/or skin, identity or "human-ness" (maybe becoming an actual monster), lover or potential lover, respect or moment of clarity.

If taking a movie Like Sideways into account for example, Miles will not die if he does not pursue Maya; he can go back to his life and carry on, as normal. However, once he has made the realisation that he hides from life, he knows there is no going back, as do we, the audience. Had he then walked away from Maya's door, or had she not left the message about his novel on the answer machine, it would have been hollow viewing.

Adaptation has a great moment when Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman asks Script Guru Robert McKee why movies can't be about moments in life where "nothing very much happens". Brian Cox's spluttering and profane reply might echo what more experienced writers think, but I have been asked this myself by a number of students and clients. Life is pretty dull: by anyone's standards then, absolutely anything, even only slightly out of the ordinary, could be a catalyst for a movie. Indeed, sometimes movies on the surface can seem pretty boring when one looks at their subject matter: a boy or girl's struggle to become a sports star for example means little to someone like me who has total zero interest in sport. However, this does not mean I did not enjoy Bend It Like Beckham or Goal! because I did. So, what separates the subject matter and the execution?

Jeopardy and empathy.

Jess' plight in Bend It was not about sport, it was about acceptance. She wanted to be recognised not so much for her sporting prowess, but her right to be who she needed to be. This included her parents' blessing but also her best friend's. A number of hurdles were put in Jess' way throughout the movie, ranging from having to lie to her parents about training and going to Germany, her sister's impending wedding, even her best friend's jealousy at Jess' blossoming relationship with The Coach of the football team. All pretty stern stuff in any girl's life, but not particularly "out of the ordinary".

What separated Jess' plight and made it a film as opposed to a rambling account of one girl's existence was the writing and its structure. That sense of jeopardy never lets up throughout the movie: all the way through the audience see Jess struggle and wonder if she will achieve her goal (pardon the pun). In conjunction with this then, we cannot help but empathise with Jess: she is a well-drawn character and her plight is echoed by thousands, if not millions of teenage girls growing up, albeit in different ways, for different reasons and within different cultures. Jess has to learn that she shouldn't lie in order to achieve what she wants, but equally, those around her have to realise they must allow her to go her own way and find out who she needs to be.

Another movie where I think this comes across particularly well is a childhood favourite of mine, Tremors. I rented it out the other day and was shocked to discover it came out in 1990, a whopping sixteen years ago, yet in comparison to a lot of what I call "turn-of-the-nineties" films (Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead and the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer spring immediately to mind), it has not dated at all in my view. This might have a bit to do with its arena to be fair (there are no ra-ra skirts and flourescent make-up in the middle of a desert town, after all), but more I think with its sense of character, in particular those notions of jeopardy and empathy.

For those of you who don't know or recall the film too well, Val and Earl (played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) are two handymen who live in a middle-of-nowhere Hicksville place called Perfection. Earl wants a better, more satisfying existence and complains bitterly about his lot, though Val is content enough...Until, one day, they are reminded how small a spot they are on the arsehole of the universe and they decide to split for Bixby, the next big town on the map.

They're one day too late.

Each time they try and leave, something happens. They find two bodies (both of whom died in gross and mysterious circumstances), then a suprise landfall blocks the only route out of the valley. Helpfully (and before being attacked by whatever called the landfall), workmen were drilling at the same time and put the phones out. There is no radio signal, as the valley is surrounded by rock. The nearest town, the aforementioned Bixby, is forty-odd miles away up the valley - only a four wheel drive or horses can make it. The intrepid handymen set off on horseback, only to be ambushed by underground giant slug-like monsters on their way, the cause of all the trouble. They of course escape, but the beasts start to pick off the people of Perfection, tracking them by the vibrations they make walking around, talking, etc. Once the beasts know they're hiding on the roofs, they begin to tear down actual buildings too. There is literally no escape.

This is great jeopardy and indeed, a lot of horrors (or genre hybrids, for Tremors is a horror/comedy) make good use of such scenarios, ensuring people are trapped in valleys, underground, in space or on islands, so confrontation is inevitable. Another favourite of mine, Dog Soldiers, has a bunch of military men trapped in a country house at the bottom of a valley in a similar fashion, the irony being they're squatting Goldilocks-style in the werewolves' very own family home. Ouch. Also, as mentioned in the previous article,the FBI profilers in Mindhunters cannot escape the island training ground as the serial killer sets up a variety of booby traps to ensure they cannot, including blowing up the only boat moored there.

However, what does not always go quite so well with such jeopardy is the sense of empathy that should be employed as well. None of The Profilers in Mindhunters were particularly likeable people, so I found myself counting the moments down until one of them died, especially since most of their demises were quite flamboyant. Though I enjoyed the Soldiers' banter in Dog Soldiers and there were some genuinely funny moments, for the most part the crew were expendable and easily missed. In comparison then, what I liked about Tremors was each member of the cast, bar one, had something about them that marked them out and made an audience want them to stay alive and not just the two Handymen. For example, when one, an NRA-Post-Apocalyptic-Gung-Ho Enthusiast manages to kill one of the creatures with a massive arsenal of weapons, he berates their lack of foresight to his wife: "Complete geographic isolation! Air filtration, water filtration, gieger counter...Underground-godamn-monsters!"

It's hard to choose between Val and Earl in terms of who is the protagonist, though I have always been of the opinion it's Kevin Bacon. This is not just because he was (and still is) the bigger star; his character Val has the furthest to go in terms of a journey. Earl if you remember already hates Perfection; Val has to find out it's not the idyll he thinks, especially when there are monsters underneath it. He also discovers love with Rhonda, the college girl investigating the the strange earthquakes in the region. Journeys help empathy. Val's incredulous disbelief that his normal, straightforward world has been invaded by creatures from "outer space or whatever" hooks an audience in. We root for him. We actively want him to beat the nasties and get the girl. When he does, we've got dramatic satisfaction. In comparison then, though I loved the male characters in Dog Soldiers, I actively hated the female character: she made no sense to me, I couldn't empathise with her and therefore her motives were unclear. Though eventually it came out that it was she who had been helping the werewolves, all her talk of wanting to "get out of such a fucked up family" had clouded various issues for me, like why the rest of the family had turned with the full moon and not her?? It seemed as if her part in the film was purely to provide a rather bad PMS-related joke at the end.

What are the best - and worst - examples of jeopardy and empathy in films you've seen?

3 comments:

Mr Brainwhispers said...

Do you think when Kevins parents were in the act of baby making all those years ago, his Dad stopped halfway through and said to his mum, "Hey, we're making bacon"

James said...

Probably. Probably was a kinky sex thing :p

Tremors is a great movie. It's Jaws on land. I'd agree with Kevin Bacon being the protagonist for a couple other reasons. 1) He gets the girl. 2) He saves the day.

Generally, it is the protagonist who does that stuff.

Lucy said...

James, c'mon! That's the SHORT version, we only do long-winded round here...

Brain: you know what, I had never thought that. But now I will every time I see Kevin Bacon. Thanks.