Sunday, August 14, 2011

They Come for the Frosting but They Remember the Cake


 When I first saw trailers for "Finding Nemo", they showed all the most fun parts of the movie. The cute little octopus that inks herself! The sweet loveable Science Teacher Mr. Ray! The sharks that are trying to give up eating fish and have formed their own 12 step group! The young fish that call a boat a "butt"!!! Hilarious! Sign me up!



 Then when you get to the theater, the movie begins with ***SPOILER ALERT*** hundreds of baby fish (and their Mother) being eaten by a vicious barracuda. Hey, what the heck?!? Where's the fun I was promised?!? Where's all the laughs?!?

 The film did a great job of promising you a lot of fun and laughs in the trailer. That gets your eager butt in the seat to see the movie. And the film delivers on that promise in spades. But there's another side to the movie, the part that you didn't really see in the trailer. And that's the part that will bring a tear to your eye and the part you will remember when you think about the movie later, and it's the part that gives the movie a great emotional punch, made it the highest-grossing Pixar movie (until "Toy Story 3") and made the film the hands-down favorite to win an Oscar.

 That part is the story of a father who suffers a horrible trauma and loses his entire family - except for one son - and the father is so desperate to protect his son from harm that he can't live his life and won't let his son live his life. And how he learns to stop living in fear and become a better father and let his son grow up.

 But if you make a trailer that tells the audience that they're in for a heavy movie with those kind of (potentially) dark themes, sometimes they get wary and stay away. If a movie looks too heavy or depressing it can look like it'll be a chore to watch and people look elsewhere. They get nervous that the film is going to be preachy and boring and lecture us. People always like light movies, ones that make them laugh, make them forget their troubles for a couple of hours. If a movie is too dark or depressing it can feel too much like real life. After all, we usually go to the movies to escape reality.

 I think the best movies deliver on both fronts: enough laughs to balance out the dark, heavy parts, but enough serious parts to give the movie some weight and make it actually about something. A movie that's all laughs - just a light and fluffy comedy - is okay, but you tend to forget about those ones the minute you leave the theater, and people actually want more from their movies, in my experience. Even when they don't realize it.

 Thousands of years ago, why did people start telling stories around the campfire before crawling back to their caves to sleep until morning? What's the point, after all? Why waste the energy doing it? Does it help us survive better?

Personally, I think they told stories for the same reason that we still watch movies, even after most of us have already seen quite a few already (and can usually guess how they'll probably turn out): people need stories. And more than anything, people need and crave stories with substance. They need stories because stories remind us that good can triumph over evil, that there are things like love, hope and faith left in the world, no matter how bad things get, and that there are some things worth fighting (and dying) for. They remind us of these things that are simple and basic, yet so easy to forget as we go through life and realize how complicated it can be.

 But nobody perks up eagerly at the campfire (or sleeps in front of a theater overnight) at the prospect of a story that aims to be a lecture on how to live your life.

 We want the frosting. That's what we react to in a trailer, that's what we like to see on the poster, that's what gets our butts in the seat. But it's the part we don't know about going in, the part hiding beneath the frosting, that audiences really want on a deeper level. And when the movie's over that's the part they'll find satisfying and will make them feel, afterwards, like they actually had something substantial.

 Nobody wants a cake that's all frosting (well, almost nobody - there re always exceptions). If they did, they wouldn't go to all the trouble of baking a cake. They'd just buy a can of frosting and eat it with a spoon.

 When it came out, the first "Jurassic Park" movie was an interesting movie to talk about in regards to this "frosting" idea.


 The dinosaurs don't show up for quite a while. The first part of the movie is getting to know all the people involved and setting them up. The first part of "Jurassic Park" tells you what these people are all lacking in their life, so we can see them learn and grow and gain these things during the action adventure part of the movie. And also it's supposed to make us care about the people so that, when they're being chased by dinosaurs, we actually care for them and want them to get away. If we don't know anything about them as people - if we aren't aware that they're good people and just like us - we won't care about them then there's no emotion on our part to root for them to escape. We might just as easily root for the dinosaurs to win. They're pretty cool looking, after all, and only following their instincts.

 So a lot of people found the first part of the movie dull. They would lament, "Jeez, I just want to see dinosaurs eating people. Why couldn't the movie just be dinosaurs eating people?"

 I think that's a good example of thinking you want frosting and frosting only. But a movie without any human emotion or deeper story than just dinosaurs eating people would be about as interesting as watching your dog eat his dinner. There's no stakes, no human drama, no bigger life lesson for the audience to walk away and remember after the movie is over.

 I think the real reason people were bored with the fist part of"Jurassic Park" is not necessarily that the structure is flawed, but that the human stories they set up aren't that interesting or compelling. But that's another topic....

 When you think about it, there actually are a certain number of films made every year that are just about people being terrorized by monsters/sharks/serial killers (or whatever) without any character development. But they don't really stick with people or last very long in the theater. So there is an audience that just likes the frosting and wants destruction without a lot of emotional stuff to get in the way, but I think it's a pretty small one, and even most of those people probably prefer more substance with their movies, when they can get it.

 The thing that compelled me to write about all this was the movie "Sucker Punch" ***SPOILER ALERTS*** which I just saw on DVD. And I honestly don't think I've ever seen a movie that tried harder to be all frosting.



 "Sucker Punch" has no story, really, it's just a thread of an idea that exists only to hang several pointless action sequences on. And each action sequence is completely meaningless and arbitrary. You can practically picture the director sitting down and writing on a piece of paper everything he thinks is "cool" and wants to cram into one movie: girls with guns, dragons, killer robots, mechanized zombie WWI soldiers, ten foot tall samurai with machine guns.......but they don't have any larger significance. They don't mean anything more than what you see on the surface. They're never metaphors for a bigger idea, they're just eye candy. There's no larger story that you can take away and apply to your life.

 It's just frosting. And totally unsatisfying.

 And the weirdest part is that - even though there's nothing beneath the surface of the visuals - it takes itself so seriously! For a flat nothing of a movie it sure seems to think it's weighty and important (which you can tell even from this trailer). There aren't any laughs or moments of lightness in this movie at all. There are some unintentionally laughable bits but that's unintentional. It's just a grim, pointless slog. And there's nothing redeeming to be had at the end.

 I always try to be generous and I usually go out of my way to avoid criticizing a film directly, because taste is subjective and I don't like offending people. Also, I always watch films - even those I don't enjoy watching - with an eye towards what I might have done better as well as what worked within the movie, so that each film can be a positive learning experience. Films are a lot of work and difficult to make so I always try to look as positively as I can on the efforts of the actors and the film makers. But "Sucker Punch" was that rare find, a movie that I found unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, as well as barren of substance.

It did provide me, however, with some confirmation of what I've always believed that audiences really want from a film. For as much as this film seemed to be "all frosting", it didn't find traction with audiences and disappeared quickly from the theaters, and I think that's because people want more than just frosting. Frosting may delight your taste buds but a little goes a long way, and it's the cake underneath that satisfies you and makes you feel full and like you actually ate something of substance. Nobody wants a cake that's all frosting. For that matter, nobody wants a cake that's just the baked cake part found beneath the frosting, either.....any good film (and any good story) has a good balance of both.

22 comments:

Jesse Hamm said...

I agree. Sucker Punch is the perfect illustration of the fact that all the coolest ingredients in the world won't save a story that's humorless and pointless. Man, that flick made the Underworld trilogy seem profound and engaging. And compared with Finding Nemo... GAH!

Thanks for another in-depth, thoughtful post, Mark.

Wirt said...

That also explains why so many sequels are quickly forgotten and ultimately disappointing : everybody kept the frosting from the last round, but forgot the cake.

John said...

Great post as always. I totally agree with all of it. However, as I was walking out of the cinema after Sucker Punch I couldn't help feeling like I had seen something that was, unintentionally, a completely new genre. VFX Porngraphy. And that wasn't because of the content of the film such as the scantilly clad women, but the structure of the film itself. A completely irrelevent story and extremely bad acting interwoven with gratuitous hard core visual FX. By the end of the second VFX scene I had become desensatised to all the graphics, despite how good they were, and got bored. It would be pretty fascinating to try and deconstruct the way Sucker Punch makes the audience feel, but forking out money to see it in the cinema made me feel like the biggest sucker.

Tom Lyle said...

Mark-
Perfect post.
I teach Sequential Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design and my biggest hurdle in teaching the students "storytelling" is getting them to see past what I call "eye candy" and you call frosting to the heart of the story ... if there is one.
Most times, there is no heart. No cake. No depth. Just eye candy.
I'm tired of it.
I want to care about the characters. Not stupid, cardboard, cut-out characters, but characters that have an interesting arc.
Thanks for this post. I'm glad someone cares.

Daniel said...

Jurassic Park came out when I was 10. I never found the beginning boring and it's been one of my favorite films, probably top ten, since the first time I saw it.

People ask me why, which is understandable because there's a certain level of cheese in it, and I always have trouble putting my finger on exactly why it's such a special film for me. Perhaps it's nostalgic, perhaps you just touched on a little of it hear, or perhaps it's just a damn good movie! :)

West said...

You do a great job of giving generous, but honest analysis to these subjects. Much appreciated, man.

Salmon Leap said...

You've also touched upon a pretty interesting phenomenon of funny or witty trailers for slightly more serious or "weighty" films — the one that comes to mind is Hitchcock's extremely unorthodox and frequently funny trailer for "Psycho".

I think you're bringing up a valuable point, people shouldn't be discouraged from making films that deal with difficult topics, but that aspect will have little appeal and one needs to focus on showing people beforehand the parts of the work that DO have instant appeal. I see a lot of film trailers, usually independent or low-budget filmmaking that I would love to support, who put together dour trailers that almost discourage people from attending, usually through no fault of the film itself.

Jennifer said...

A lot of guys think that about Sucker Punch. A lot don't.

I don't have the fortitude to sit here and explain why, but we did have a discussion about it on Google+ already and here it is:

https://plus.google.com/105216491640488683417/posts/BEEogKb1UCv?hl=en

The people who only saw frosting just plain didn't get it. That's about all I can say.

vinimation said...

This is so weird that you brought up Jurassic Park. I saw Jurassic Park recently on the big screen and while watching the movie, I swear I kept thinking "what would Mark Kennedy have to say about this?" I thought that through the opening lull, through the water glass shivering, and especially when the grandfather changed his priorities after getting lectured by Laura Dern's character. You completely ruined the movie for me lol. But I thoroughly enjoyed how indulgent the storytelling was without seeming hammy or over the top(dinosaur chases a jeep! The children must outwit the velociraptors in the kitchen! Samuel Jackson's severed hand!) Great movie, great blog.

mark kennedy said...

Hey Jesse - Glad you liked the post, thanks for the comment!

Wirt - yes, exactly!!!!!!!! Well said and totally true. Wish I'd thought of that.

John - I agree, I had similar thoughts. It looks great, the CG is well executed and well designed (at times) and seems to exist just to exist and look amazing. And that's just not a movie, to me, that's a show reel.

Tom - I remember well that when I was a student we would have these arguments amongst ourselves about beauty vs. substance. It's probably natural to gravitate towards beautiful art when you're young and not feel as strongly about the underlying meaning because that's what inspires you to become an artist...the amazing visuals. I wonder if getting older and getting your fill of beautiful stuff leads to a craving for more meaning.
Anyway, you're doing the right thing, don't stop telling your students what you think!

Daniel - there's plenty to like about it - the film has lots of fans. I find it clunky in parts but just my personal taste!

West - great, thanks for the kind comment!

Salmon - exactly true. There's many trailers that look too much like "eating your vegetables" and I can't usually bring myself to go.

Jennifer - it's too bad you don't have the "fortitude" to explain it to me. I'd be interested in a discussion of what you felt worked about it. And personally it doesn't help me to understand what you thought worked when you just say that "I didn't get it". I skimmed the thread at the link you posted and it seemed to be mostly people saying that "people who don't like it are just stupid" or "didn't get it".

I think I got it pretty well. I just didn't like it. Neither did the critics. Neither did my wife who happens to be a woman.
I agree with the critics that said that it masquerades as a feminist movie but really seemed to revel in violence against women and that the characters were very one dimensional sexualized cartoons. And even that I don't really care about. That's a political concern. And I tracked down some of the quotes by Zac Snyder that people on that thread were linking to, and frankly, I don't even understand his quotes.

I never said that people shouldn't like it or that people who like it are dumb, and I don't like it when people say that about people who DID like something. That's not illuminating, that's not helpful and that's not a discussion.

vinimation - I find many of Speilberg's movies to be clunky with great parts sprinkled in. And he's made some that are truly great. JP doesn't happen to be a favorite of mine. But that's just me.

Robert said...

"Schindler's List" must have been a nightmare for someone to come up with a promotional campaign for.

No frosting, not even much cake.

Salmon Leap said...

Speaking os something like Schindler's List, though, those sorts of films are in and of themselves a different kind of "frosting" (if you bear with me for a minute)

That film belong in the same sort of canon as The Killing Fields, The Thin Red Line, etc. Films that are about weighty topics, but that do so with exceptionally grand aesthetics. The cinematography and the music of those films give their own kind of aesthetic pleasures, even when they depict utterly horrific things.

Whereas films about similar topics that are a much more grim or difficult aesthetic, like Night & Fog, or Come And See, those films are seen a lot less often (except in the case of Night & Fog where it is mandatory viewing in most European schools) even though it could be argued that making it difficult to watch is more honest than finding beauty in something horrible.

Bringing it away from aesthetics and into Story which is the topic of the blog, Schindler's List gives you the story-based "pleasure" of making the protagonist someone who isn't being brutalized or murdered, and we see him grow as a person from a selfish playboy to a humble altruist. That is emotional "frosting" that sticks with people as much as the horrific murders depicted did, even though it's gaining pleasure through the redemption of someone who was arguably never in any danger.

(Movies about US civil rights are pretty much the same trick as well, films like Glory and Driving Miss Daisy almost always have a white protagonist who is emotionally changed by witnessing the plight of minority characters who are, themselves, not the protagonists.)

ural memis said...

I watched Sucker Punch too. i had the same feeling, but couldn't name it as clear as you.
For any kind of art, the storytelling side fascinates me more then the technical side. A lot of your posts fit in my needs. They are interesting and educating in many ways Mark.
Thanks for making this blog one of my favourites.

pbcbstudios said...

Those chicks were hot.

Keith Ballard said...

"...and people actually want more from their movies, in my experience. Even when they don't realize it."

I've tried to tell this before, but I still know a lot of people that insist that they just want to see a movie where they can switch off their brain. They're full of it, of course, because they always end up loving movies like Inception that do some pretty incredible things while advertising themselves to be mindless summer blockbusters.

That said, I do draw a line between what I consider to be a good and a bad movie when it comes to films that are almost entirely action. I don't fool myself into thinking that Sucker Punch should win any awards, but I had a blast with it. It's one of those ultimate roller coaster rides where there's a huge amount of real and CG sets, creatures, and scenarios, and the music is phenomenal.

It's often criticized for essentially not having a story or characters, but that's an exaggeration. The main character is a girl whose mother is murdered by a greedy husband. He goes after the daughters when he realizes that they're going to inherit all of the money, and Babydoll accidentally kills her sister while trying to fight him off. The twisted bastard has her committed and bribes and orderly to lobotomize her. She's shaken by all of this to the point that she re-imagines the building to be a brothel of sorts, and hatches a plan to escape. When she realized that she doesn't stand a chance she takes the opportunity to free her friend and accepts the lobotomy as a sweet release from her troubles. That's a story. It's not an award-winning one. Hell, it's not even really the focus of much of the movie, but the opening scene alone was enough to make me care about what was going to happen.

I really struggled to sit through Priest and the second Transformers movie, which are both movies that I would consider to have a similar focus. Sucker Punch managed to keep me interested, stay in my mind after I walked out, and got me to watch it multiple times after that. Maybe it was just the art and music. Maybe it was just because the film felt like it was doing something new. Either way I feel like there are a lot of movies that deserved this sort of critical reception a lot more than Sucker Punch did.

Oh well, this could all be some sort of bizarre exception that just struck me the right way. Either way, my review is over here:

http://sebspot.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/movie-bag-6-soviet-robot-bosses-in-your-dreams/

I more than agreed with everything else in your post.

Delidel said...

I think Zach Snyder is just that kind of (in my opinion vapid) filmmaker. I think all he wanted to do was push the limits of vagueness and verisimilitude with that movie.

But overall, I think we're lacking a whole generation of innovators: You'd be hardpressed these days to find a director like Hitchcock who could isolate a character with images of their neuroses, Bergman who could use figurative and literal reflection probably better than anybody, or Kurosawa who could scale his vision from grand epic down to quiet intimacy, and then back up with deft.

Maybe the medium has just lost it's novelty, or maybe the newer elements of cinema (e.g. digital compositing, 3d, mumblecore, split-visuals, synchronous multi-cam editing, etc.) just haven't been put into the right hands.

In my opinion, stories, regardless of how we choose to convey them, should always be reaching toward something nearly impalpable, generating that honest suprise in we the audience.

Kay said...

I can't agree with you're opinions on 'Suker Punch' it DID have a rather interesting and unique story that most people can't seem to grasp. I was very harsh when I went to watch this film, thinking it would be nothing but girls in short-shorts and guns. Turns out I had no need to be harsh this film had an incredible story that I guess some people are too blind to see. This is of course just my opinion, and you are free to think as you want.

Fawn said...

Great read as always Mark! Finding Nemo is one of my favorite from Pixar.

amauryons said...

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Tia said...

Haha, THANK YOU for pointing out the issues with Sucker Punch so gracefully. I watched this in the theater, hoping for a story as exciting as the trailer cuts. Sadly, did not deliver. The imagery was wonderful but didn't even stick as it was as painful as reminiscing on eating a whole tub of icing. They definitely took themselves too seriously.

I couldn't decide whether to vomit or laugh with all the overly dramatic music. I can handle bad stories okay, but not NO story.

Anyway. It is true the audience needs a good story. Even nearly-full fluffy humor movies or heavy action movies with some shred of story we can relate to, no matter how small, gives it some body. A hologram not sufficient.

Sarge said...

One of my favorite bait and switches was "My Girl" - in the ads, on the surface, a lighthearted preteen romance, until you see it and

*SPOILERS*

Macaulay Caulkin, the boy in the equation, gets stung to DEATH by bees. Not just dies, not hit by a car, not terminal illness.... Stung. To. Death. By. Bees.

It was a sweet little film, but they certainly didn't play up the whole dying part in the advertising.

I'm on board with John about the VFX Pornography. There IS a sector of the audience who are looking for just that - I've literally heard people say they just want to see all the vfx, and not all that character development stuff. I've worked in VFX for 15 years, and I can tell you from a personal perspective, I immediately step out of the story whenever I see a camera start to do impossible "rollercoaster" moves. They're going to have to give me something pretty durn amazing to justify resorting to full CG. The effects have to serve the story - otherwise, any monkey can pump out adequate cg now. I'm much more impressed watching Buster Keaton ACTUALLY doing the improbable, than CG simulating the impossible.

dandwdad said...

Love the site Mr. Kennedy, thanks for sharing your thoughts, drawings, paintings, ideas and stories. Very thanks. I too love a great story and although I am much more apt to watch the Disney shorts of yesteryear, I liked Sucker Punch.

I disagree with the 'you just don't get it.' That's crude and unkind. Those who don't like your story/pic/film aren't dumb. They see from a different perspective and by labeling someone as dumb, you don't get it, you just lose out on what could a good growth experience. I admire you for pointing out the frosting/no cake.
You are right.

For me the mini-stories were cool, the idea of not really knowing what level you are really on, the effects were great and horrible - the quests made sense in the level above but not on the present level whatever level it was. BUT. There were friendships and betrayals and violent acts that didn't bring you into the film. These could have been driven harder and be more than all the extras.

I think they used human beauty in exchange for personal beauty. Set an 'ugly old hag' in the role of Babydoll and you have lost any interest you had. It's not her, but what she represents.

I think they tried to make you care by making this tender, weak, pretty, and young girl the focus. It was not about her, but our want to protect the innocent/young. We should have had a relationship with her. We shouldn't care about her because our programming forces us to defend her.

A real past, not 2 minutes of violence, would help bring her to the fore more as a person than a symbol. I think they should have worked more on the relationships between the girls. Drop the dragon scene or even better, the future scene. Leave that as the 'reality' level. Remove the WW? influence in the dragon scene. Too much that's disconnected.

Sure we like the idea of bringing a newer technology to an older scene. The God power we would have is cool. Just make it fit the scene. Only a small amount that's not fitting. You mentioned in later post about matching both style and dialog/action to the overall feel of the film. There was too much discordant.

The WW? scene would have worked real well, leave out the dragon/castle/orcs. The mech launching while early planes fly about, hat alone would have been cool. But it was part of 'Too Much.' The castle and dragon and ... was overkill and in the end, you felt disconnected from the characters as much as they were apparently disconnected from the world they were in.

I did love the Samurai Blade vs blade/gun. If only the rest had been like that. It was novel and the God feeling was just enough to interest me but it wasn't a million miles away like the rest of the scenes.

In the end, it's got little story, some great ideas, a few great gags, no laughs and a lot of dark. Enough for me but not for most. And maybe the disconnection of the characters was meant to make us feel that same feeling. I don't think so.