Monday, November 12, 2012

Musing Pictures: Skyfall (2012)

I didn't think I'd be writing about plot holes when writing about "Skyfall", but some comments on plot holes by Sean Quinn (who I only know as @nachofiesta on twitter) got me thinking.

Here's the background:  Scott Feinberg (@scottfeinberg, who I know from Brandeis) got in to a bit of an exchange with Mr. Quinn on Twitter after noticing this:

@nachofiesta: Another movie that's complete shit is Marathon Man. God damn that's a terrible movie.

When Feinberg pressed Quinn for an explanation for this surprising assertion (since Marathon Man is sacred ground to many cinephiles), the response was very specific:

@nachofiesta: So many gigantic plot holes.

Well.  A plot hole does not a lousy movie make.

I think back to films with plot "issues" that are considered great films.  "Batman Begins" has a thirty-minute climax that makes no physical sense (wouldn't a giant microwave boil people, too?).  "The Big Sleep" famously doesn't seem to have much of a coherent plot altogether, and it's downright canonical.

Now, I think plot holes do have their impact, but only if the films are weak, or lack narrative conviction.

Plot holes are a kind of continuity problem.  With visual continuity, we expect to see visual elements play themselves out in a natural, uninterrupted, contiguous way.  A lit cigarette should get shorter and shorter with every shot.  If it's a little shorter in one shot, then long again in the next, the discontinuity can be distracting, and can remind us that we're watching a film -- a construct (and if we can see the seams, it's not a very good one, is it?)

But we often miss these continuity "mistakes", especially when they're in great films.  My favorite example is in Jurassic Park, during the fantastic T-Rex attack sequence.  It starts with a T-Rex walking through a fence, and it ends with a car being pushed off a cliff.  Trouble is, the T-Rex entered the scene from exactly the same spot where the car plummets at the end.  It's complete spatial nonsense, but many people don't see it, even once it's been pointed out to them.  The scene is extremely engrossing, made with conviction, so we don't spend time looking for the seams.  We're absorbed, enthralled, lapping it up.

Unlike spatial continuity, plot holes can be much more forgiving.  Usually, plot holes are moments where certain decisions or opinions or actions don't seem to make sense in the context of a character or story.  They don't indicate a violation of hard-and-fast rules, but rather critical omissions.

Here's where this connects to "Skyfall".  Not far in to the film, James Bond is shot at by a bad guy.  The bullet breaks up, and he's hit by fragments.  A while later, with MI6 in jeopardy, Bond gives them some of these bullet fragments to analyze.  The results of the analysis are very new to MI6, and allow them to quickly narrow down their search for the bad guy.  But of course, in the big scene where Bond is shot at, the same bad guy fires off hundreds more rounds.  MI6 couldn't trace one of those hundreds of bullets?

Here's how we forgive plot holes:  We get the facts of the story that are presented to us, but we know there's more to the story than what we're getting (at least, that's the way movies work these days -- we get a selection of shots that show us a scene, then another scene, then another, with sometimes vast gaps of time and space between them.  We know there's more to the stories.)  When we find a gap, we fill it in.  "Plot holes" are just a little more difficult to fill in.  In this case, I'm sure I could come up with reasons why MI6 didn't trace the bullet fragments.  Maybe they were busy with other stuff?  Who knows?

Who cares?

Ultimately, THAT's what does it.  If you come across a plot hole and you care enough that it distracts you from the immersive experience of the story, it'll rip you right out of the film.  But if you'd rather the story continue, you let it continue and ignore the discontinuity.

It's like when you're dreaming, and it's morning, and you're kind of waking up, but the dream is so good, so you keep sleeping.  Sure, you're kind of awake, so the dream isn't really a dream any more, but if you like the dream, or if you care about where it's going, you'll do whatever you can to stay in that dream world just a little longer.

So, when it comes to Sean Quinn's experience of "Marathon Man", I think something very sad happened.  Whereas most people who saw that film found the experience engrossing enough to lose themselves in it despite the plot holes, Quinn couldn't overcome the realization that the story doesn't come together enough.  It's sad because ultimately, we're all looking for that transportive experience.  Sometimes, if you watch films too closely, too analytically, they can lose their magic.

And what about "Skyfall"?  I think I was lucky.  I caught the silly moment in the plot, and I considered letting it bother me, but I really wanted to enjoy this film, and so much of it had thrilled me already, so I let it go.  On the drive home from the theater, I mulled the possibility of writing about the cinematography, or the unusually "artsy" action set-pieces, or any of a number of other topics.  The "plot hole" was far from my mind minutes after the scene ended, and wouldn't have re-entered my thoughts had Sean Quinn not gone on about plot holes.


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