When It Goes Wrong

by wjw on September 27, 2018

Dish Network decided to give me Showtime for a week, and I recorded some movies that I hadn’t seen in theaters.  Viewing them made me think about ways that creative projects can fail, and how the failure can be in the writing.  So I thought I’d share my thoughts, that being what these blog-things are supposedly for.

Valkyrie.  Tom Cruise vs. Hitler.  Hardly seems fair, right?

Valkyrie is a detailed, quite authentic movie version of Klaus Graf von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler and seize control of the German government in 1944.  Top-flight actors like Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Terence Stamp, and the usual gang of English character actors, superb (not to say glossy) production values, authentic World War II settings, good direction.  Yet the subject matter presents a number of problems to the film’s creators.

First, if you’re interested enough in the subject matter of Valkyrie to view the film in the first place, you know how it ends.  So how suspenseful can it be?  How can you ramp up suspense when you know from the beginning that the bad guy lives and the good guys die?

Another significant problem is the movie’s hero, Count von Stauffenberg.  Stauffenberg didn’t want to kill Hitler in the name of democracy and to halt the Holocaust: Stauffenberg was himself an anti-Semite, albeit one who though the Holocaust was far too extreme; and he intended to replace Hitler’s dictatorship with dictatorship by the military, then continue the war with renewed vigor.

The creators’ decision was to replace Stauffenberg’s complexity and murky motivation with energy, conviction, and raw heroism, making it a role that Cruise could play with his eyes— well, one eye anyway— shut.  But the decision makes Stauffenberg uninteresting, and it blinds the film to the tradition in which the Count and his associates— many of whom were also Counts— existed.  Possibly it would have been impossible in a historical thriller to make Stauffenberg the dreamy, idealistic, poetic Bavarian romantic, heir to a tradition of honor and chivalry, that he very possibly thought he actually was, but it would at least have made a more interesting film.

Ghost in the Shell.  This film became controversial because of the choice to use a Caucasian actress to play a cyborg equipped with the disembodied brain of a Japanese woman.  I propose not to revisit this controversy, but to examine why the film would have flopped even without the whitefacing.

I’ve seen the Ghost in the Shell anime and at least one of the sequels, but that was years ago, and my memories are hazy.  Nevertheless it seems to me that the movie does a competent job of revisiting the themes of the anime, and of focusing on one that is perhaps more crucial than the others, which is Who the hell is the Major, anyway?

So far, so good.  The film is absolutely stunning in almost every frame, post-cyberpunk eyeball kicks abound, Scarlett Johansson does very well with the material she’s given, the supporting cast inhabit the original anime characters well, and there’s even “Beat” Takeshi in a crucial role, which raises the coolness factor by several degrees.

But ultimately the film was more soulless than one of its cyborgs, and that was because the script left absolutely nothing to the imagination.  To be hooked a viewer needs a mystery, some unanswered questions— not a mystery in the sense of “who’s the killer?”, but in the sense of subtext that you can sense in the story, potentials that haven’t yet revealed themselves.  Ghost in the Shell answers every question even before it’s asked.  Every piece of dialogue is “on the nose,” as we say.  The movie says what it means and means what it says, and then it moves on to say something else that it means.  There’s nothing subtle, nothing surprising, nothing numinous.  In a film that’s supposed to be about philosophical questions, there aren’t even any questions.

It’s a beautiful shell, but there’s not a trace of a ghost in it. (You knew I was going to say that, right?)

Both these films fell short not because of the star or the production values or the intentions of the creators, but because of the writing.  Subtext and subtlety are the writer’s friend, because they can get the viewer engaging the narrative and asking questions. (Not all of which the writer is obliged in any way to answer.)

Here’s a thought experiment: at a crucial point in Valkyrie, a gramophone plays “Ride of the Valkyries.”  It’s an obvious choice, and it’s a “Ride of the Valkyries” kind of film.  What if the music had been a dreamy piano Gnossienne by Erik Satie?  How would that have changed the film?  How would it have changed Stauffenberg?

Maybe not for the better.  But it would have taken the movie to a more interesting place.

Etaoin Shrdlu September 27, 2018 at 5:29 am

I preferred seeing Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow”, because at least then we could watch him getting shot in the head every few minutes. Too bad about the whole “undo” thing though.

Philip Koop September 27, 2018 at 8:18 pm

A movie is one of those Anna Karenina things: there are a lot more ways to screw it up than to get it right. But a failure of writing is by far the most common because it gets the least attention. The opening credits of the original Deadpool had it right.

wjw September 28, 2018 at 12:05 am

Movies have a shit-ton of failure points, so many that it’s amazing that good movies get made at all. (Publishing is similar.)

Note that I blamed the writing, not the writer. Sometimes the writers just write what they’re told, or the director does a rewrite, or the actors decide to make up their own lines, or someone does an uncredited rewrite. Any or all of these could be the source of the failure.

At least with my stuff, I’m to blame for everything on the page (except maybe some copy-editing mistakes here and there).

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