October 7, 2014

ZAHOS | When Story is Not Enough

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“I never remember plots in movies,” Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood and certified Big Deal, said before an attentive audience Sunday morning. According to Indiewire’s dispatch from the New York Film Festival, Anderson elaborated as follows: “I remember how [movies] make me feel and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen, but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together.”

Note how Anderson, who I agree with, says “emotions,” and not themes, subtext or any other undercurrent that could be deemed intellectual and thus pretentious. It’s not a matter of reading into a film, at least not at first. Critics — those who write professionally and the rest of us who argue with friends over a film we just paid to see — look for meaning because we have to do something with those emotions a movie brings to the fore. Taking note of what Anderson calls “visual things” helps us comprehend those feelings, and tether them to some valuable lesson, but they stay with us longest when they are incomprehensible. Critics — those who write professionally and the rest of us who argue with friends over a film we just paid to see — look for meaning because we have to do something with those emotions a movie brings to the fore.

I wrote about similar matters in my last column, “How to Read a Movie,” where I detailed a few loose rules to which I hold the films I write about. I do not wish to repeat myself, but with Anderson’s comments and David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl in the air, I would like to defend my first rule, “Story is not enough,” with a few more words. Because, you see, when faced with that standard, Gone Girl does plenty right but even more wrong.

I will not spoil the movie, but let me just get it out there that, regardless of whatever grievances I am about to air, you must see it. Not only are movie people talking about it but also TV people, music people, you-say-I-get-to-see-Ben-Affleck’s-penis? people — all the peoples. For Gone Girl satisfies a basic human need, in that it tells a ridiculously engrossing murder mystery set in small-town suburbia. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the best-selling novel and adapted it to screen, leads you to one assumption before blindsiding you with its inverse, and Fincher is so precise that even those familiar with the book will be surprised by certain cuts, reveals and flashes of light, like those from media cameras refracting through glass onto Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) statuesque orange cat.

Yet the movie is so, so compelling for the speed with which it serves its ever-shifting plot that I worry it overlooks qualities that would stand out with subsequent viewings, when the question is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Is this art? Is this really a masterpiece?” While our conditions for “masterpiece” status clearly differ, one condition I hope we can agree on is that plot for plot’s sake is not ideal, for revisiting a mystery story with the answers in hand usually amounts to diminishing returns. Gone Girl does not suffer that problem, exactly, for it quite loudly and incessantly calls attention to the bloodsucking media swarming the Dunne family, the sexist construct that is the “Cool Girl” and the delusions required to marry and stay committed to another person. At one point a character rants to another about how his/her (I said no spoilers) demands condone murder, and the other character snaps, “That’s marriage.”

The movie is making a Big Point, you see. In fact, it does what critics are relentlessly accused of: overanalyzing a situation. By pushing its multiple critiques so far into the foreground, Gone Girl wants to assure us it is more than pulp, not just meaningless “airport novel” trash. It has things to say all right, but these verbal and visual stingers indicting cable news, marriage and sexism struck me, for the most part, as easy, smug and way too abstract, like the lazier bits from The Daily Show. It’s one of those things where I “get” what the movie is trying to say and then, in my head, scream, “You think I don’t know that already?!”

The indirect reason for this is that Gone Girl spends almost every waking moment issuing plot developments that the psychology of Nick and Amy Dunne never finds time to take root. Now that may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but I am convinced the great movies we return to again and again feature protagonists with tricky and boundless interiorities, snippets of which we see during largely plotless moments.

These moments do not need to be slow, though they many memorable ones are, such as Scottie’s silent stalking of Madeleine in Vertigo or Juliette Binoche’s stare into the camera in Certified Copy (the masterpiece I keep imploring you, yes YOU, to see). We can also peek into the minds of our heroes when the action gets tense, like when Gary Cooper’s conflicted marshall stalks the streets in High Noon. Just so you know I think Fincher does this beautifully in other movies, how about in The Social Network, when Mark Zuckerberg aims his genius at coding Facemash.com, in what we see, through a brilliant, exhilarating montage, to be a misogynistic reaction to an unsuccessful date.

During revealing moments such as the ones described above, these movies cease to be about a story of made-up people or hot button themes but human behavior. There is no phenomenon better suited to cinematic exposure than the way we look, move and sweat, and if the filmmaker is talented enough, those external snapshots will clue us into what lies within, which, as a viewing experience, can be quite emotional.

Gone Girl is so cynical that neither Nick nor Amy Dunne face any chance at redemption, and so Fincher keeps their interiorities, to say nothing of their moralities, out of sight. It’s a shame, because not only did I not learn much new from this slick piece of entertainment, but I left the theater without any empathetic connection to two of the most messed-up characters in recent cinema, and what the hell am I doing to deserve that?