Thursday, May 29, 2014

Podcasting and Procreating

Just look at that little guy! He makes Little Debbie look like a pile of puke! One week old and already smiling and robust. But the kid is on his own now (being raised by wolves somewhere, I presume) so I’m ready to jump back in soon.

In the meantime, I’ve made another appearance on the Narrative Breakdown podcast, this time discussing false goals, true goals, false philosophies, and true philosophies. We also range far afield, discussing a lot of last year’s Oscar nominees and whether or not you want the subject to be involved in the making of his or her own bio-pic.


Harvey Jerkwater said...


Parenthood. Intense, isn't it?

Devin McKay said...

That's fantastic. Congrats!

MCP said...

Congratulations! Best of luck with the little guy!

j.s. said...

Ditto on the congrats.

Enjoyed the podcast too. Though the discussion of arcs and stakes in GRAVITY and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS did raise some questions for me.

One reason you cited for not yet catching up with a film like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS was your perception that the storytelling was too close to the still-living protagonist, who sold his life rights and his services as an adviser to the production. You say that a character like Captain Phillips can't therefore meaningfully change or confront some kind of longstanding problem, because the entire production by conscious design lacks perspective on his choices.

That's certainly a fair enough generalization, even if I don't feel like it applies much to this film.

But the opposite problem is what so often makes me disappointed in biopics and other films based on true stories -- where the writers will impose big phoney feeling arcs on the protagonist signaling major changes just because they feel like it's a screenwriting necessity, rather than because it relates to anything meaningful about the character or true about his/her real life journey.

It's the moment-to-moment problem solving that I find compelling in a film like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS or GRAVITY or ALL IS LOST. I couldn't be less interested in the backstories of the protagonists, in how their respective philosophies of seafaring/spacefaring might need to be challenged. Or the dead kid whose sad memory they've left behind.

And frankly it's the small procedural linkages of believable and compelling mini-goals -- the chain of cause and effect -- that are actually harder to do and usually the ones most often lacking in bad films that can still have some semblance of the larger overarching Hero's Journey sort of arcs/goals.

So is it really never enough just to recount a gripping dramatic recreation of a event like the Maersk Alabma hijacking? Even if there are plenty of surprises along the way and all of the characters on both sides of the story are more resourceful than you think they're going to be, than any of the news media reported at the time? Or must we always also force real people onto the Procrustean bed of a change arc?

Unknown said...

Congratulations! How cute it your little guy?! He's adorable!

I'm so excited you're on NB. I LOVE that show and it's why I started following you in the first place! You guys always have great conversations that are very helpful.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks for the congrats, everybody.

J.S., the dilemma you cite is hard to resolve:

One point of view says that it's too easy and/or cliched to go to the well of personal pain, and more ambitious to make minute-to-minute decisions compelling in their own right without any emotional underpinning.

The other point of view says that, while such movies can be gripping in the moment, the risk is that they won't have any real weight or impact in the long term.

There are examples and counterexamples that led credence to both sides. Certainly, masterpieces like BATTLE OF ALGIERS or Greengrass's own BLOODY SUNDAY show that "moment-to-moment" movies can be just as powerful and memorable as any other movie.

On the other hand, an empty-headed action movie like the hapless reboot THE BOURNE LEGACY leaves the viewer yelling at the screen, saying "But this doesn't mean anything to me! This guy is impossible to care about! Where's the human element??"

j.s. said...

Well, I think that within the very narrow genre of the minimalist movies I'm a booster of there is almost always an emotional underpinning. It just happens to be just as stripped to the bone as everything else. I'm speaking of the protagonist's visceral instinct to survive.

Another great example of this is the one Bresson film I bet you'd like better than all the rest: A MAN ESCAPED.

Anyway, it's interesting that you mention THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. I don't know if you are aware that it's probably Greengrass' favorite film and one that has also influenced CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

I'd argue also that THE BOURNE LEGACY doesn't just create a hero who's difficult to care about. It creates an entire world where the stakes aren't so compelling. I think it is possible to take a more minimal approach to the action genre though, where we don't know much more about the hero than what we see him do from one moment to the next. You see this best in Jean-Pierre Melville's work and the countless contemporary filmmmakers he's influenced, perhaps most notably Michael Mann.

j.s. said...

I think that a better example of the living subject intentionally or unintentionally colluding in a "based on a true story" hagiography is LONE SURVIVOR.

Now, I have followed the real story of Operation Red Wings since it broke. And I've read Marcus Luttrel's books and seen him speak. Quibbling about any of the details he reports aside, I have absolute respect for the guy. If any serviceman has ever been a hero, he's it, as are his fallen brothers.

What happened to his small unit of SEALs couldn't be more dramatically compelling. It's literally the scenario that Special Forces (and Special Operations Forces) soldiers have been training with for decades because its presents such a difficult decision and there's no clear right answer.

But the intense slathering on of bathos with which the filmmakers and even Mark Wahlberg (in what may well be his worst performance) treat each moment of the film turns what was no doubt intended to be the most serious kind of testament into what plays for me like a perversion of everything interesting about the story and admirable about the characters (with their incredible low-key grit). At times it feels like you're watching unabashed propaganda, a sort of Verhoeven-esque WHY WE FOUGHT reel that plays like a recruiting film.

It's as if everyone involved, instead of trusting the material and simply trying to be true to it and tell it like it was, felt that showing the proper respect demanded turning up the volume on every choice to 11.

Matt Bird said...

And yet, that's the only movie about combat in either of our recent wars that made money. I think audiences were hungry for an unabashedly-pro-US movie, and, ironically, the fact that Luttrel himself never politicized his story made him the perfect candidate. A Greengrass-style treatment of the same material would certainly be interesting, though.

I have a screener around here somewhere, but I still haven't watched it. I just can't get past the casting of Wahlberg as a Texan good-ole-boy. The star system has become so all-powerful that, as soon as a star is attached, everybody is supposed to be automatically overjoyed, and nobody is allowed to say, "Um, no, he would be totally miscast."

Jill Rasmussen said...

Congrats Matt! Hope you're getting some sleep :)

Mickey Burdick said...

Hey Matt - I actually first heard about your blog a few months back, while listening to an interview with you on Narrative Breakdown. Love the podcast, love the blog, and I've been following you since! Any time I'm stuck on a story, I give your site a look and go through the story checklist and sure enough, something sparks me. You're a wealth of knowledge, and I appreciate you sharing.

Parker said...

So cute! Congrats!