Thursday, September 8, 2011

Herr Wozzeck Muses: Narrative Subversions

Warning: The following musing will contain MAJOR spoilers for The Debt, in addition to possible spoilers for Colombiana. Reader discretion is advised.

I'm going to take the subject away from filmmaking in general to storytelling in general for this musing, just as a warning. But I think it applies to movies just as well as everything else, given the state of Hollywood that everyone seems to be bemoaning about. ("Oh, where's the originality?" "Ooh, this movie isn't smart!" "Why are all the movies big and dumb these days?")

So where do I begin?

With a Facebook status, oddly enough. While I was heading over to the nearby Panera to write my review for Colombiana in the hours before I reviewed The Debt, I updated my Facebook status over smartphone to mention I had just seen it. About four minutes later, one of my friends had this to say:

"I hope this is not a movie depicting the image of Colombians as murdering ferocious drug-lords. Just saying."

I ended up getting into a conversation with him about stuff, and this was his very next reply to my 'eh, it was half and half' statement:

"And that's probably why I won't see it. I don't like seeing the country where I was born depicted in that way. Colombia is not all drugs and bananas and it sounds to me like this film just promotes that ignorance."

At first, I figured, 'eh, it was implausibly plotted anyway', and sort of left it at that.

But the more I thought about it throughout this week, the more I realized that this was an indicator of another, slightly larger problem with the plot of Colombiana: it was entirely too predictable.

Let's see the basic tenets, shall we? Drug lord comes in, gets some dude to kill the girl's parents (for a reason that's never actually explained), girl runs away to plot revenge, and girl gets revenge. There's something throughout most of the second act where almost the entire operation gets busted because of a few choice mistakes on Cataleya's part, but everywhere else it plays that kind of revenge superheroine thriller straight, with almost no variation at all.

And I realized then that it cheapened the tension a little bit. Yeah, it was there, but I always had the pervading sense that Cataleya was going to get the bad guys no matter what happened. Narrative conventions called for it, and when they were played straight, it almost comes as a given that the bad guy is going to eat it at the end.

It's a problem with this movie, and it pinpoints why some parts of the plot didn't work as well as they should have, I think.

However, I think it also serves to pinpoint one of the things that made The Debt so interesting in its narrative, because that movie also goes through familiar motions.

The Debt is that basic kind of Cold War/Nazi Killer espionage thriller in which a group of people are hunting down a Nazi war criminal. They go about their business, things go wrong on the end of the spies, but ultimately, we're expecting them to get the bad guy.

Except that it takes them 30 years to finally get the bad guy, and the tension is heightened greatly thanks to a few key decisions on the part of the filmmakers. The first decision is that they show the 'bad guy gets killed' ending to the 1960's portion at the beginning of the movie. That bit seems pointless, until we see the exact same sequence later in the movie. However, instead of the bad guy getting shot by Jessica Chastain, he gets away, and the mission is completely FUBAR'd... unless they all lie about it. So lie about it they do.

What that subversion of the plot does is add tension. It sheds new light on everything that occurred in 1997 earlier in the movie, and it makes the plot so much more interesting when it turns out that the Surgeon of Birkenau might have blabbed about it to someone else. Now, we're not so sure about what's going to happen next, and it's because our expectations have been jarred.

I for one think that there is no such thing as originality. As TVTropes is quick to point out with its article on The Tropeless Tale (, if you tried to create a story without using any elements that have been used before, it would be impossible because then you wouldn't have a narrative, or characters, or even a genre. So when we consider that originality is dead, then the next thing to do is to not try to break out with something new, but try to play with narrative conventions in a way that is fresh and bold to viewers.

This is something The Debt does masterfully, while Colombiana decided to play everything more or less straight. The results speak for themselves.

This is Herr Wozzeck Muses. I'll see you guys next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment