Two newish rules of film making

Monk I don’t know that it makes sense to have spent the 4th of July watching television programs and movies, but that’s what I did. 

Monk (USA Network)
House (Fox)
Match Point (a film by Woodie Allen)

So there was a theme: how people with massive psychological problems can still make a contribution.  I always find this heartening news. 

There were other themes.  Two, actually:

1. the rule of partial disclosure

Being a viewer used to mean having things served up with perfect clarity.  All people, institutions, events on the screen came with full exposition.  Anything less, the filmmaker seemed to think, and the audience would panic and stampede from the theatre. 

But now TV and the movies are filled with partial disclosure.  People, institutions, events come and go.  They are not explained in and off themselves.  They are not explained as players in this drama.  The medical lingo in House is a good example.  We are prepared to take these things as read.  Several of Monk’s obsessions are perfectly, intuitively accessible, but some are sort of baffling.  (Rounding numbers, for instance, what’s up with that?)  We take these as read.

This is an exercise in synecdoche, where parts stand for wholes.  The parts may be quirky and unintuitive, but, often, we go, ok, that’s about the medical professional (House) or the medical condition (Monk), got it, let’s move on. 

2. the rule of exquisite choice

If you are going to evoke a whole with a part, the part can’t be lame or too general.

This is where Woody Allen got it badly wrong.  Match Point is a good movie.  Allen is particularly good at capturing the way people carrying on group conversations, everyone chattering to someone who is chattering to someone who is chattering…  Language rises up in a little cloud of indeterminacy, not so much referential as phatic, people locating (or placing) one another in emotional space. 

But, oof, but the howlers!  Allen offers us his male lead as a tennis instructor, only to have Jonathan Rhys Meyers demonstrate that he hasn’t a clue how to handle a racket.  I mean, we are prepared to have this biographical fact dropped into the plot without much exposition, but if and only if Jonathan Rhys Meyers can actually sell the thing with a decent forehand.  And he can’t. 

It’s not just disbelief that is no longer suspended, it is the rule of partial disclosure.  What, so he isn’t a tennis instructor?  He’s merely pretending to be   We are alert to the small details.  We can manage with the tiniest amounts of exposition.  And as long as this is the case, a director wants to watch what he puts before us.  What will not do is that Hitchcockian "oh, they’ll never notice."  Noticing is what we now do. 

This happens again when Allen wants us to understand that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is entering the world of business.  This is precisely the kind of thing that was boiler plate for Hollywood.  Because no one there knows anything about business outside of show business.  So business, when it is not demonized, is presented in a general, you-get-the-idea, way. 

But the law of exquisite choice says it can’t be general.  We are prepared to move from the part to the whole, from the specific to the general, but only if you offer the specific part if fully credible, ethnographically nuanced, terms. 

Anyhow, that’s what I did with the 4th of July.  Try to formulate new laws for popular culture.  Codification, it’s an anthropological thing. 

5 thoughts on “Two newish rules of film making

  1. jens

    grant, match point was much more shakespearean. you have to watch it like a theatre play. the lack of precision in some details also helps it to function like one.

  2. steve

    I also enjoyed Match Point, including all its classic moves–getting you to sympathize with the villain, seeing the train wreck coming, the twists and turns of luck and fate, etc. I’m so used to the movies getting business wrong that I’m more surprised when they make a workplace that seems right.

  3. Ed Batista

    Hi Grant,

    Your comments on partial disclosure remind me of Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You.” Withheld information and complicated plotlines reward repeat viewing. We’re don’t just tolerate these qualities–we desire them.

    And although I failed to notice Rhys-Meyers’ inadequacies as a tennis player, having never picked up a racket, the “lack of precision” in the portrayal of his steady rise through the corporate ranks added nothing to the movie’s moral and emotional dimensions and was nothing but a distraction.

    That said, commenter Tom is right–Scarlett was the point.


  4. Poustman

    I often notice the detail-dumbing in regards to actors playing instruments: the director chooses to show me hands that I can see are not playing what they are supposed to be playing. Smart directors simply keep the hands out of the shot, unless they’re dealing with an actor who in fact does play the instrument in question.

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