Tuesday, March 15, 2005

This just in: Hollywood screenwriters use confusion to mask cluelessness!

Do you remember in high school or college, when you'd have to write a paper? Two A.M. would roll around and you'd keep reviewing your notes and the source material, desperately trying to synthesis some sort of cohesive statement about the subject matter you were studying. Sometimes in the midst of your sleep deprived, caffeine jolted state, you fingers would just start typing. You'd whip out some SAT vocab and throw in some quotes hither and thither, somehow managing to bang out four or five pages, whatever the assignment called for. Then you'd read the darn thing, and wouldn't you know it, none of it made a lick of sense. What was most astounding was the grade you recieved, much higher than expected, with comments written in the margins like "unique analysis" and "interesting points." Hah ha! You had fooled your own teacher into thinking you were smart by confusing them! Your teacher had been thrown off by your meandering babble, peppered with impressive word choices. Your teacher thought you had hit upon something even they didn't fully understand, and so in turn they decided to reward your B.S., instead of tearing it down as the dreck that it was.

The reason for this scholarly trip down memory lane was brought on because I went to see the film "The Jacket" on Sunday evening. (To view my thoughts & opinions on the film before I saw it, please refer to the posting, Take me away! I don't mind...) "The Jacket" is a prime example of Hollywood trying to confuse their audience into thinking they are watching a meaningful and clever film, when in fact they are watching foolishness.

Following in the footsteps of David Lynch, the founder of the cinematic club "If you don't understand it, that just means its too intellectual for you" The Jacket bandies about with the ideas of mental illness and time travel, weaving together a plot that makes little to no sense. Adrien Brody plays Jack Starks, a Gulf War vet who suffered a head wound and had a near death experience. The next time we see him he is hitchhiking along the cold and lonely roads of Vermont. Jack stops and helps a mother and her daughter fix their car. Jack is quite taken with the little girl, Jackie and gives her his dog tags. The mother who is a drunk, gets belligerant, and thinking that Jack is being inappropriate with her daughter leaves him on the side of the road. Jack gets picked up further down the road by a local, and when they are pulled over by a cop, Jack goes to exit the vehicle, blacks out, and the next thing we know he is being remanded to a mental institution for killing the cop who had pulled the local over.

It is in the mental institution where the bulk of the plot starts to unfold. Dr. Becker, a senior administrater at the hopsital, uses unorthodox methods on his patients, namely injecting them with anti-psychotics and shoving them in a morgue drawer for hours at a time. Jack becomes Becker's latest target for his treatment. Once in the drawer, bound in a full body straight jacket, Jack begins to travel through time. He shoots forward fourteen years from 1993 to 2007. There he runs into the little girl, Jackie who he had helped on the side of the road. Only she's not a little girl anymore, she's hyper hottie Keira Knightly, with smoky eyes and an out of control oral fixation. Jackie takes pity on Jack (interesting name choices no? Jack and Jackie?maybe it means something... or maybe the writer was just lazy) when she sees him standing on the side of the road, and invites him to her home to crash on Christmas Eve. It is in her apartment where Jack sees his dog tags hanging on a bulletin board, and a photo of her and her mother from years before, that he puts together that this Jackie, is that Jackie, the little girl on the side of the road. When Jack tries to tell her who he is, Jackie freaks and accuses him of going through her things. When Jack tries to prove his identity to her, by describing that day on the side of the road, she insists it can't be him because Jack Starks died January 1 1994. Jack realizes that is only about a week a way from the timeline he was just in.

After this first exchange in the future, Jack is whisked back to the past, or the present as it were. The film has now set up what could be an interesting murder mystery, where the protagonist Jack is the sleuth trying to solve his own murder. Unfortunately it deteriorates into complete and utter chaos. The next time Jack jumps into the future he decides to do a little investigative work. He convinces Jackie to go with him to the mental hospital, and there he pretends to be the nephew of himself, questioning different administrators and doctors about his death, which apparently occured on hospital grounds. A key character in this exchange is Dr. Lorenson played by a bedraggled Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the past/present she is a concerned caring presence in the hosptial who is suspicious of Becker and the way he treats his patients. In the future she is a somewhat snarky suit, who alludes to the fact that Jack helped her in the past with an autistic child patient of hers. You lost yet?

Here's where things start to get really hairy. Apparently Jack gave Dr. Lorenson some specific information that led to a breakthrough with this child, Babek. Jackie(Keira Knightly) does some research and finds an article online where Dr. Lorenson is quoted as saying that her breakthrough with Babek, came when she realized he was epileptic, not autistic, and needed low level electro-shock therapy to improve. Jackie/Keira tells this to Jack, and the next time Jack is in the past/present, he tells this to Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, Dr. Loreson. We then see that she employs this technique on the child Babek, and it does in fact work. But wait a minute - this makes no sense. There is absolutely no point of origin for this pertinent piece of information. Jack finds out this information from an article written in the future which quotes Dr. Lorenson. Then he goes back in time and relays it to her, so this is how she found out about it in the first place. Huh? The information about Babek doesn't come from recent medical discoveries that Jack encounters in the future, or some secret about the little boy that's revealed to him, he just hears about himself telling her in the past. Woah man, that's so trippy, its so existential, its so....dumb.

The movie continues on in this fashion, where Jack returns to the past/present with information that he learns from people in the future about what he supposedly said to him in the past, which is still the future to Jack because it apparently all takes place in those seven days between when he first gets in the jacket and when he dies. My head is spinning.

The film makers want to impart a sense of confusion on the viewer, with the loopy time travel logic, and the fast cut montages of Jack's memories and dreams. They succeed in their endeavor, but to what end? So twenty-something hipsters can sit around their local coffee shops exchanging brain farts on the paradoxes of time travel?

One of the only parts of the film that makes some sort of logical sense is when Jack tries to alter her Jackie's destiny for the better. Jack has seen what becomes of Jackie in the future, realizing she is well on her way to following her mother's footsteps as an alchoholic. He also learns that Jackie's mother burned to death when he fell asleep with a cigarette. So the next time Jack is in the past/present/1993, Jack bums a ride from the disheveled Lorenson, and goes to their house where he tries to have an intervention with Jackie's mom about the direction her and her daughter's life will take. He delivers an onimous letter, and we then see Jackie's mother reading it and taking it to heart, so we are led to believe the future for Jackie will be changed. Finally a plot thread that actually makes a little sense, Jack passing on information that he actually learned first hand in the future.

At the very end of the film, the truth about Jack's death is revealed. He slips and cracks his head open on some icy pavement. In his death throes Jack begs Lorenson to put him back in the "jacket" and the drawer so that he can return to his beloved Keira/Jackie. Lorenson shoves him the morgue drawer and he returns to the future - 2007 where he immediately runs into Keira/Jackie again. She drives a swanky new beetle instead of her old GMC, and her lack of smoky eye makeup intimates an innocence she was lacking previously. It would appear for all intents and purposes that she does not recognize Jack, her previous existence altered by her mother getting it together. But as they drive off into the sunset we hear her say "How much time do we have?" which once again derails the plot into uncertain oblivion. Does Jackie remember him? Has she forgotten him? Why did she say that? Because she thinks Jack has to go back to the past again?

The last line, like the rest of the film, intends to disorient the audience, and even suggest various layers of meaning. But once again I ask what the ultimate point is. As I mentioned before, David Lynch films represent the epitome of this technique. I have friends who believe Lost Highway to be masterpiece. I myself, can not make heads or tails of the damn thing. I commend filmmakers who challenge us to think. But I do believe that behind all that thought, there should lie a thesis or point to be discovered. This is not to say I need a film to spell everything out for me, or that I do not tolerate open endings, because neither of those things are true. I simply ask that a film follows its own rules and that it creates characters who are consistent even when they are erratic. Even if a film can be interpreted in different ways, I'd like to think that at least the film maker knows what he's talking about. That when the writer and/or producer is putting together a movie, that he has some idea about what is going on in the story he is shaping. Sadly I don't think this is always the case. There are film makers who think that by making no sense, we will give them an A for effort, just as our teachers did to us in days gone by. Maybe screenwriters are more like procrastinating students then we might think. Typing away trying to create a story that hopefully will make some sense, but if not will at least wow people with its twists and turns, aimless as they might be.
The other side of the coin is that people/audience members are afraid to look like simpletons who can't appreciate a complex film. Sometimes, when a deeper meaning actually exists, people's digging is merited. But on other occasions, the deeper meaning being sought simply isn't there. Its like the emporer's new clothes syndrome, - no one wants to be the one who comes out and says the guy is naked, because they don't want to be seen as the village idiot.

There in lies the viscious cycle. Film makers trying to fudge their way through plot and story, audience members too afraid to call something out for what it is. Its like high school and college all over again.


Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

Don't forget that David Lynch is really a visual artist at heart. Anyone who watches Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway trying to make real-world sense out of it Memento-wise is asking for a lot of trouble. Lynch follows his own train of thought and can take the viewer places they least expect, following his own sort of logic, often referred to as "dream logic" by critical sorts. I happen to love his films because I like to be surprised with things that are outright weird, yet creative and beautiful.

Now if D. Lynch claimed that his films had an underlying truth, then that would be something else. Nothing else is more annoying to me than a movie that pretends that it all makes sense once you figure it out, but is in reality truly nonsensical. See, e.g., Arlington Road.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:50 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. I suppose that maybe who I hold more at fault are some of his fans who try and give readings to his films that don't really hold up. I have never seen Arlington Road, but have heard others rail about it, perhaps its time to rent that one....

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

You most definitely should -- it's a classic as far as terrible filmmaking goes. And I'm not sure in which film Tim Robbins is worse: Arlington Road or Mystic River?

11:38 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Touche! Aw, I didn't think Tim Robbins was bad in Mystic River, although I do feel that film was over rated on the whole. In fact I feel that director's work is often overrated and recognized....see what I'm drivin' at?

2:06 PM  

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