Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Flow of Things

This is a comparative commentary on Stardust and The Golden Compass.

Reasons for this coming up right now (that's just for you, Carys, so you stop wondering!) are as follows:

We got ourselves a very cool 32" Sony Bravia, and to inaugurate it the first ever movie we watched on it was the just-released Stardust on DVD. It was either that or Blade Runner, the Final Cut I blogged about here. In the end it was Stardust and it was good. Great inauguration movie. I think it's very important to start off with such a major piece of entertainment equipment on the correct footing. Then you can say to yourself, and others, "Well, the first move ever we saw on this, was..."

I should add here that Blade Runner followed just couple of days later, and it was at least as good, and probably better, because Blade Runner is one of the few movies worthy of the appellation 'masterpiece'; at least in my book. Also, since Blade Runner was a Region 1 DVD, which I could play from my MacBook through the HDMI inputs of the TV--rather than having to use the HP Laptop, which is set to play Region 4 DVDs, but doesn't have a digital video output--the image quality was whoa!.

Some weeks back we also saw The Golden Compass, which, I guess, tried valiantly to position itself at the top end of the current crop of fantasy flicks. Unfortunately it a) tried too hard, b) wore its various 'messages' just a far too visibly and c) had a mediocre script. Three ingredients sure to nuke any hopes I had had for it.

It also had a whole lot of technical issues with the special effects, much like that other failure, Narnia. That would have mattered far less if the movie hadn't been so heavily reliant on these effects to accomplish its aim; whatever aim that might have been, apart from starting a franchise.

Stardust
also had occasional issues with obvious green screen quality control, but everything else was so good and so near-perfect that one just didn't care.

I've been trying to figure out the script and script-implementation issues that in the end sank Golden Compass, and I think it mostly comes down to the issue of 'flow'; which is, at its core, a story-telling thing. It's about allowing the viewer to immerse into the tale and be carried along with it in a natural progression of events and developments towards the denouement. Stardust carried this off with an ease that, upon second viewing, amazed me even more than on the first. After all, there was ample opportunity in a movie/story of this nature to be either formulaic to the point of it being noticeable to all but the youngest--who shouldn't have been watching it anyway, because there were potentially quite disturbing things in here. The alternative might have been to go the way of TGC and try to beef up what might have appeared to some as a somewhat facile fairy-tale either with contemporary witticisms or commentary; with pesudo-meaningful profundities; or with overly complicated backstory, populated with unnecessary details and/or characters.

Stardust did neither, confining itself to being a fairy-tale with its roots firmly in the 'classic' and an archetypal 'quest' story, though laced with modern-day sensibilities. Not as melancholy as Neil Gamian's book, from which the tale was adapted, but close enough in spirit to do it justice. Action flowed organically from one event and place to another; and though one might not have known about the next plot point at any given instance, when the point came it was like "Of course. How else could it have gone but this way?" And the background, complicated as it was, never got in the way, because it was explicated strictly on a need-to-know basis, which is an excellent, but often-neglected, recipe-ingredient for good story telling.

TGC, on the other hand, appeared to have absolutely no notion of its path and was cluttered with pseudo-important but basically irrelevant and unnecessary backstory. Instead of the story evolving naturally through a combination of the necessary and the contingent or incidental, it served us up unexpected, and sometimes almost predictable, contrivances, obviously designed to keep the story going; things that didn't have to be there to keep it going, but that were placed there, almost as if the things had been written by computer, according to one of those idiotic story-devising programs flogged to the self-deluded with the aim to substitute method and procedure for story-telling talent.

And then there was that whole pretentious political thread, which should have been delegated to subtext, discernible only to those who cared to discover it. Instead it became a kind of spine and a weak one at that. Thing is that, if this was addressed at adults, they would have done much better to stick to something for adults, like Blade Runner. If it was addressed at kids then it was done so badly that they are likely to miss it completely. If it was meant to be everything to everybody, then the lesson to be learned is that that probably can't be done.

You can't have an 'adult' spine supporting the meat of a 'kiddie' story. Well, you can, strictly speaking, but it'll end up crap. On the other hand, you can have a 'kiddie'-story spine able to carry 'adult' content.

Of course, you need to have an audience of adults who haven't lost some of the kid-like desire just be carried away on a floating carpet of suspension-of-disbelief. Or you can 'mature' the fairy-tale somewhat to elevate it to the state of 'adult fantasy'--and I don't mean 'adult' as X-rated, but as being closer to adult sensibility--and cater for the audience that responds better to flicks with heroes well out of their teens. That way you end up with e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Stardust--or Blade Runner. For the latter, as filmed--that not necessarily being the same as the P.K. Dick novel from which it was adapted--was a superb mix of adult fairy-tale fantasy, dystopic futurology and Raymond Chandler style gumshoe flick. It was also done in a very 'classic' and profoundly archetypal tradition, with a neat and almost complete inversion of the Hero with a Thousand Faces theme.

Based on instalment #1 of whatever TGC is supposed to lead into I probably will not waste my money at the movies to see it, and I may or may not bother renting the DVD either. Maybe not even waste my time watching it for free. On the other hand I'll happily watch Stardust with the same gusto over and over again as I have, and still do, The Princess Bride or a number of other flicks that just strike me as simply and unmitigatedly enjoyable.

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