Friday, March 09, 2012

Musing Pictures: John Carter

Andrew Stanton's John Carter isn't as good or as bad as people say. It feels like one film that wanted to be several -- it is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars", but it is also an adaptation of all of ERB's books about Carter, the planet Barsoom, and the characters that populate it. It falls in to the pit that many first-in-a-series films ("tentpoles" is what the industry calls them) stumble upon: It tries to cover too much, resulting in thin, expository and often insufficient narrative.

The first film in a series has a lot to accomplish: It must introduce the characters (whereas subsequent films don't feel that pressure), and in some cases such as this, it must introduce an entire world, with its politics, shifting alliances, and even laws of physics.

Laying the groundwork like that is a difficult business, which is why most first-in-a-series films tend to be a little weak (the first "Harry Potter" film comes to mind, as does the first "Lord of the Rings" film, which is wonderful, but a little cumbersome).

I look at "Star Wars" as a good example of a first-in-a-series film that introduces its characters and universe effectively. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that Lucas had no idea if there would be enough of a following to justify a continuation of the story -- he had to make the first film good enough that it would merit a second, and a third... "Harry Potter", "Lord of the Rings" and yes, even "John Carter" were all but guaranteed that their stories would have more time to unfold.

In "Star Wars", anything "alien" is cast in profoundly basic, human terms: The Force and The Dark Side are, quite simply, Good and Evil. Although there are complex politics within the Rebellion and the Empire, the first film presents them quite simply as "good guys" and "bad guys". If we want to understand the politics more, we pick up on the details over time. In the meantime, the characters and their personal journeys take precedence, which makes the film engaging, exciting, and fun.

The real secret here, of course, is that the characters themselves fit very classical, defined "types", so we don't even need to get to know them at all. We recognize the short-hand, and the story can continue on its way. "John Carter" spends too much time filling us in on details that may be interesting, but that we don't need to know. John Carter is a hero, of course, and he's reluctant to be a hero, but a lot of attention is given to his tragic past, to try to justify his reluctance, when, really, he's just that type of guy -- let the justification come out some other time, when it's really relevant, perhaps in a subsequent film!

The trouble with adapting the John Carter stories is that they don't have the usual "Good guys/bad guys" structure, which means the usual pieces of narrative shorthand are harder to use. That said, they're often quite clear within each particular moment, and as long as we can track the shifts from one scene to the next, and as long as we can track John Carter's perceptions of who's "good" and who's "bad", we should be all right.

I think that's why so many reviewers found the film "confusing". It tries too hard to explain too much, and ends up diluting the really necessary exposition. We lose the important details in the sea of background information. The next "Carter" film could be quite different, as the pressure of introduction is off, and the narrative can take center stage.


Friday, March 02, 2012

Musing Pictures: Footnote

I was fortunate to catch a screening of Joseph Cedar's "Footnote" with the director in attendance. During the requisite Q&A, Mr. Cedar was asked a fantastic question about his process as a director to "liberate the story".

The question, Mr. Cedar's answer, and the film itself illustrate what for many people is a mysterious link between a script and what appears on the screen.

There's often a tension between what a filmmaker reads and what a filmmaker imagines. In many cases, there's even a tension between the filmmaker's imaginings and the resulting film. This was the first time I had heard the process of directing described as a liberation of narrative, but it makes a lot of sense.

Screenplays are very tightly formatted, carefully styled documents. Like blueprints, they are there to represent the details that are necessary for the construction of a film. Details that aren't necessary are usually excised from screenplays, but movies require all of those details to be present, or the film runs the risk of feeling "fake". When a director considers a script, he has to take this rigid, often very inflexible word-diagram and extrapolate from it not just the framework of a film, but all of the details that drape over that framework. For some, this is a literal process, requiring much creativity but little deviation from the words on the page. Joseph Cedar described a different approach, one that he discovered through his work on "Footnote".

In the academic world of Talmudic Scholarship which the film inhabits, text is (to some, literally) sacred. But text is also annotated heavily, to the extent that a page of a book might contain a few lines of that book, leaving most of the page for footnotes. In these footnotes, Mr. Cedar says, there's room to relax. Scholars can loosen up a little -- after all, it's not the text, it's just a footnote! Mr. Cedar used that in his film, creating cinematic "footnotes", short narrative sections that pause the story (literally, at one point) to digress, fill in some details and subtly editorialize. Mr. Cedar describes his "footnotes" as moments that gave him the freedom to "liberate the story", to take it off the page and turn it in to something more dynamic and visual than it had been. And these "footnote" moments are the parts of the movie that elevate it from being simply a good story to being a wonderful film.


(For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit