Saturday, June 05, 2004

Syntax, Setup and Revelation: The problem of syntax in movies

I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 grams on it's release last year. To say that it is not an interesting movie would be insane. The movie is an impeccably crafted piece of work but it doesn't quite work. Inarritu's previous feature, Amores Perros, had a similar plot (an accident that links three different people), a somewhat similar structure but it worked, in a way that 21 grams does not. Probably because even if conceived as an essay on chance, fate and love, it has a gritty realism and some brilliant acting (particularly Gael Garcia Bernal, whose feverishly intense face is the high-point of the movie). The acting in 21 grams is right up there; even Sean Penn manages not to overwhelm the movie. But it ultimately fails because its structure overwhelms its themes. The movie's avowed purpose may be the exploration of grief but its lurchy narrative anesthetizes it's audience.

The other problem is that the film seems to be building up to a kind of cosmic revelation (although one can see it coming a mile off) and the revelation cheapens the movie's themes. It was the same with Atom Egoyan's Exotica which has a similar structure but a little more polish.

There is a problem here. Movies like 21 grams use their plot/themes as a launching pad for their fancy syntax rather than the other way around. Would 21 grams, for instance, be the same film if it was narrated linearly instead of it's current random structure? It would and probably be all the better for it. But then it would then not build up to it's grand revelation. What about Exotica? Now, of course, things change. Exotica may be much more polished in it's non-linear narrative but once it reaches its climax, the movie is strangely empty. Exotica hooks its viewers because of its syntax and the surpise-elements, which makes 21 grams a slightly better movie.

Anthony Minghella's gorgeous The English Patient and Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter are, to my mind, the only two movies that manage to blend their syntax seamlessly with their set-up. Both however are based on novels that are classic non-linear narratives. Michael Ondaatje's novel slips from flashback to flashback while Russell Banks' The Sweet hereafter is a striking point-of-view narrative.

(To be cont'd)

No comments: