My Year in Film Studies (part two)
For those who missed it, part one is here.
Before continuing on with how I decided what to watch next, I want to quickly review what worked and didn't work about my use of Jerry Maguire for the courses opening act, and look at what I would do differently next time around
Was Jerry Maguire a success?
The film was certainly a solid choice if my sole purpose was to examine the conventional 3 act narrative structure in mainstream film storytelling, as we could observe how Crowe's film observed the requirements of each act in not one but two plotlines that were quite capably interwoven. Beyond that, the film also has plenty to recommend, it is at times funny, romantic mildly subversite and unflaggingly energetic. If they were perhaps a bit less than rapt, Jerry Maguire had little trouble capturing and holding both classes' attention, and was awarded a 3.5/5 rating by the class in a film-ending survey. However, it is interesting to note that by year's end the class had no trouble identifying the film's elemental filmsiness when comparing it to the many far more superior and significant films we enjoyed over the rest of the school year. In the year end survey, Jerry Maguire's rating slipped down to 3/5, and it was ranked at 19th best out of the 20 films we watched in their entirety. And lest you think I prejudiced the class with my feelings about the film, as you will see when we reach this point in the course, no amount of enthusiasm on my part was able to convince students of the remarkable achievement that I and most critics maintain.
What would I do differently?
Simply put, use a different film. Next year I will give Hitchcock's North by Northwest a try for a three reasons. One, it accomplishes the assigned task of portraying the standard narrative structure in mainstream film. Two, it is a better made film that JM, and Hitchcock is clearly a more accomplished technician and storyteller than Cameron Crowe. Three, I can replace many of the Hitchcock films I showed in the Auteur Theory portion of my course with those of another filmmaker (yet to be determined) instead.
Overall grade for Jerry Maguire and the Study of 3 Act Narrative Conventions: B
Next up: A look at how some filmmakers like to push convention's envelop in their storytelilng choices, while still acknowledging the demands of their chosen genre so we could also use this as a jumping off point to study the subject of film genres. The films in question? Christopher Nolan's Memento and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Memento (USA, 2000, Christopher Nolan)
My rationale for choosing Christopher Nolan's remarkable sophomore effort Memento as my means into examining risk-taking storytelling must be self-evident to fans of the film. I wanted to choose a film that (a) plays with and challenges the narrative conventions we have just been studying (b) demands audience attentiveness (c) works firmly within at least one movie genre. Memento does this and so much more. Among it's many teacher-worthy aspects, Memento also boasts an appealing but extremely unlikeable narrator, a wicked (in the both senses of the word) plot twist and a deliciously indeterminate ending. The film begins with a bang, as our hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) dispatches his nemesis with a gun shot to the head. It becomes clear immediately that the situation is FUBAR, as blood starts running up the walls, and Leonard's Polaroid picture begins to un-develop before our eyes. As we adjust to the recognition that we are watching events play out in reverse (is that kid in the projection booth toking up again??) the film jumps into what appears to be some semblance of normalcy. But the feeling is fleeting, as the appearance of the murder victim from the previous scene alerts us to the fact that the story has looped back on itself, and is being told in reverse. Not in a frame-by-frame reverse of the opening scene, but rather in a scene by scene reverse trajectory. What a clever monkey this Nolan is, we think. But what of it? Is this just a clever gimmick to get us to pay more attention?
But wait, before we can answer these questions, what's happening now? The film has switched from colour to black and white. And it appears that these scenes are being in a chronologically "normal" fashion, in contrast to the rest of the film. These scenes seem to serve as back story, filling in the blanks of Lenny's story as he converses with an invisible stranger on the phone who most likely is the man he ends up murdering in the opening scene, police officer (?) Teddy Gammel, the always watchable Joey Pantoliano, aka Joey Pants. Also, before I forget, let me praise Pearce's fine work here. It easy to play a mental disability in a gimmicky way to gain audience sympathy, but Pearce does not of that sort of actorial mugging. His portrayal is nicely nuanced, as Leonard is a driven, distraught, confused and angry man seeking revenge for his wife's murder, and Pearce hits the notes cleanly, without resorting to any sort of heart-tugging tactics. But as we are going to learn later, perhaps we cannot believe everything we are learning here. That Nolan, such a cheeky monkey. Is he just trying to keep us on our toes, or does he have some deeper purpose?
And it seems just about everybody we are forced to reassess our initial impressions of everyone we meet. Leonard, a one-time insurance agent, suffers from short-term memory loss due to a head injury he suffered on the night of his wife's murder, and as a result, cannot retain information for more than 15 minutes. As a result, every time he meets someone it is for the first time, regardless of whether he has never seen them or has met them a dozen times before. So people get repeated chances to make a first impression, and consequently, we discover that those we thought helpful or kind could very well turn out to be devious, conniving, self-serving. And vice versa. Is the film trying to make us wary of our perceptions, and teach us to distrust the story as it plays out before us? If so, what could be the point?
And it is here that the film's cleverness proves to be so much more than that. Nolan uses these techniques not just out of playfulness or to draw attention to his cinematic wittiness, but for several and sundry reasons besides. Most obviously, Nolan forces us to see this world from Leonard's damaged perspective. As he struggles to gather and piece together the facts in pursuit of his wife's murderer from a distinctly disadvantaged perspective, so do we. His disability is ours. His frustrations are ours. It is a very crafty way to gain our empathy for Leonard. But more importantly, these techniques challenge our understanding of truth and reality, while not exactly in a Rashomon-like way, in its own unusual and provocative fashion. In Rashomon (as we will see in subsequent My Year in Film Studies entries) is a groundbreaking study of the subjectivity of our perceptions of reality. It posits that truth may be imperceptible to lowly humans due to the taint of personal biases and rationalizations. Self-interest and self-delusion go hand in hand in Kurosawa's great film, but we are often completely oblivious to this. So, is Nolan merely covering familiar ground, paying homage to the master in a modern American urban setting?
(A scene proving that Memento can be funny too)
I don't thing so. Here I must offer up a SPOILER ALERT for those of you who come to this review not having yet seen the film. In Memento, Nolan is tilling similar soil as Kurosawa, but reaping a slightly different crop. Leonard's difficulty in discovering the truth appears to be based on his inability to hold onto memories, a struggle that he meets by keeping copious notes, tattooing key information on his body and taking Polaroids pictures. As he cannot be certain of what has just happened, it seems that he cannot be accused of misrepresenting facts or twising the truth to suit his purpose, unlike the leads in Rashomon's drama. But like much in this film, things are not as they appear, and Nolan's point becomes clear only at the moment of the film's aforementioned wicked plot twist, where it becomes clear that Leonard's brain injury, while preventing him from holding new memories, does not prevent him from manipulating reality to suit his purposes. In fact, he is willing to pretty much obliterate truth in order to give himself a reason to carry on. While the film boast aspects of many film genres, include thriller, murder mystery and police procedure, in this moment Memento honours its film noir heritage. In a twist that causes us to not only reevaluate everything that has gone before, but also our own willful manipulation of truth in our daily lives, Memento has a desperately cynical conclusion that matches the mood and attitude of great noirs through the ages, from Double Indemnity through to Touch of Evil. The world is a rotten place, these films say, so you do whatever you need to do to keep a leg up on the decay. And since the real world isn't about to give you what you need, you take it. By any means necessary.
So, onto the evaluation. What worked?
Everything! As a study of narrative envelop-pushing, you don't get much more interesting than Memento, and as a study of working within the rigours of specific film genres, the film holds its own with aplomb.
What didn't work?
Nothing! The film was well-received--though I was careful to guide students through some of the film's more serpentine plot developments--and students were engrossed throughout. The film ended up as the 3rd ranked film out of 20 at the end of the year, and was given a rating of 4.5/5
What would I do differently? Nothing significant.
Overall Grade: A
Next up in part three: Hitchcock's Psycho