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.