Concerning the crispness and decisiveness of characters' lives in movies
February 19, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Question about the crispness and decisiveness of characters' lives in movies.

One thing that appeals to me about movies is the way life is more "crisp" than ordinary life. Characters act with a decisiveness that is often absent in real life. The world seems more organized and things are more ready-to-hand than in the real world. Characters often say things bluntly, as a matter of course, that people would not say in the real world. Decisions are made with seemingly less doubt and ambiguity than in real life.

I realize that much of this "crispness" is probably an effect of narrative necessity. Since much of "real life" for us is internal deliberation and doubt, and that is difficult to depict on screen, filmmakers have to make actions more overt and decisive -- showing because it is cumbersome to tell -- in order to move the story along.

But I wonder whether this crispness and decisiveness is, at least in part, a deliberate fantasy created by filmmakers, who know that we find a depiction of a vivid, clear-cut world to be an appealing retreat from our messy, ambiguous, troubled, slow-moving lives.

A couple of completely random examples from currently playing movies (no spoilers except with regard to settings/situations):

In the Descendants, the George Clooney character is a lawyer. He is depicted working in his home office a time or two. Everything in the office appears to be well-organized, the files he is working on appear to be bound packets that are fastidiously stacked, he scribbles in the files with ease and assurance, and it frankly seems like an appealing but unrealistic depiction of work.

In Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the little cottage where the main character resides during much of the movie is depicted as quite cold and barren at the beginning of the movie, but it "warms up" during the course of the action, to become a cozy little den in which he and Lisbeth Salander do much of their research. It becomes an appealing, cozy place where crisp and decisive action occurs.

Basically, my question for those in the know about film -- is this crispness and decisiveness an intentional thing, or is it just a necessary side-effect of telling a story well? Or both? I have looked online for discussions of this aspect of movies, with no luck. Are there any discussions of this phenomenon?
posted by jayder to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I took a film class in college, and one of the things we had to read was an essay by an academic who claimed that the setting for any given scene in a movie was a character as much as the people are characters.

Which is to say, if you buy this line of reasoning, of course, the setting of a scene has an intent and a message.
posted by dfriedman at 12:16 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's 100% intentional. You might be interested in reading about mise en scène.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:18 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's absolutely intentional, and so inescapable that you'll see it even in movies that are actively trying to subvert the convention, like Jeanne Dielman....
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's also worth noting that some people do create this type of world around them. To say it never exists is too sweeping a statement; it may not be common, but many people who succeed in their lives do so because they find a way to both control their actions and behaviors, and to influence their environment.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:37 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Quite simply, being too realistic often just doesn't make for gripping entertainment.

We tend to think about a movie in terms of what's in it, but what's not in it is just as important. Documentaries contain a lot of editing. If you ever spend time editing video, you start looking for the edits. It's child's play to edit someone into saying something incriminating by removing context.

In this way, you can think of movies as generally editing all the "passed time" out. Characters read books in movies all the time, but how often does that cut get more than 10 or 20 seconds of screen time?

The trend has been towards shorter cuts as time goes by. Movies want to keep you engrossed and entertained. As indecisive as I can be, I have friends who are much, much more indecisive and it's a frustrating experience. Why would I want to go to a movie just to be frustrated? I could read "literary fiction" for that experience.
posted by Strudel at 12:41 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a story to progress (not to mention, for it to remain interesting), there generally needs to be a minimal amount of time spent sifting through clutter looking for plot devices.

Also, props cost money. If a scene only calls for a pen, a pad, and a desk, it's cost effective to put them in a tidy room without a lot of crap in it.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2012

Movies are a story-telling art form. There is no attempt to be "realistic" in the way you're describing, nor should there be. It's a set of conventions to tell a story.

When you go to a play, you see the scenery is clearly made of cardboard and ends 9 feet up, yet you accept it as "real," right? And you don't question who Hamlet is talking to when he goes off on a soliloquy, right? Movies are confusing because the conventions are much *closer* to our day-to-day reality, but it's the same principle.

Even in movies that a tell true story it's acceptable and necessary to condense, as long as you tell the larger truth.

Example: Someone is making an important decision. He waffles, goes back and forth, meets with his friend six or seven times over a period of months and finally decides based on his friend's advice.

In the film, you would have them meet just once and show him deciding. While that's not *literally* the truth in terms of times and dates, it is the truth: he decided based on talking to his friend. It advances the story without wasting the audience's time and killing the momentum.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:57 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Very interesting answers and insights. Another thing I find appealing, which I believe is related to this phenomenon, is how, in movies and TV, there's often a much fuzzier line between private life and work life than there is in real life. Characters often don't think twice about getting up in the middle of the night to attend to something work-related. To me, this fuzzy line between work and private life is part of this "decisiveness" that I have noticed, and I think it's appealing because it shows characters actually being fulfilled by their work and having full agency--even when they are in a crisis situation.
posted by jayder at 2:24 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was trying to think of a counter example and all I could come up with was some of Charlie Kaufman's films. Both Adaptation and Synecdoche, NY show someone attempting to do that, show real life the way it is and both end up in a massive loop of self reference and contradiction. The way Kaufman seems to try to resolve not being able to be "realistic" is to show someone trying and utterly failing - because there is no way to show that element of life without using the conventions to create shortcuts for the audience to understand, which destroys the point in the first place.

There may well be some good examples of avantgarde films that defy those kinds of conventions but I can't think of any right now.
posted by pmcp at 2:25 PM on February 19, 2012

Also, sets and props are meant to convey something about the character. (My former roommate is a set dresser, and so she talked a lot about how a character's qualities, back story, etc. might go into decisions about the selection of everything from furniture to wall colors to the magnets holding the snapshots on the fridge.)

In The Descendants, for example, George Clooney's office (stacked neatly with lots of work-related items) and manner (confident writing) is meant to convey that he is diligent, focused on his work, etc. (and also, quite possibly, that they can afford a housekeeper who keeps his things tidy). These are character notes about the character that are echoed elsewhere in the movie, both in dialogue and in his voiceovers.

If the same character was shown in a messy, cramped office overflowing with things he couldn't find, or if he seemed hesitant or confused while doing his research, these would subtly convey different character notes that would be echoed elsewhere in the movie as well.
posted by scody at 2:32 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This might not be too related but I think that The Room might be a 'good' counter example.
posted by Green With You at 2:32 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Going further on the "decisiveness line," it's worth pointing out that protagonists are almost always extremely decisive creatures - if anything, they're defined by their decisiveness.

Decisions define the character, especially in film, where characters are almost entirely defined by their external behavior. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the titular woman displays her sadness, rage, self-sufficiency, loneliness, etc. through what she does, and not through simply sitting in a chair and passively ruminating. Even in movies where characters ruminate, they typically talk about what they're ruminating about, or their ruminations are done in such a way so as to show that they are either willfully refusing to act, or we are seeing that they are choosing to ruminate in one way, as opposed to another. For example, in Lost in Translation, the main character does quite a bit of wandering and silent musing, but she's the one who chooses where to wander, or how to react to the various stimuli around her, in addition to the choices she makes with regard to Bill Murray's character.

Decisions define the plot, as well. Almost all movies are about characters wanting something, but having to overcome obstacles in their path to getting this something that they want. Even seemingly slow, contemplative movies are actually about very deep, powerful desires and significant actions. For example, in the film No Man's Land, the set-up almost forbids any sort of action. Two opposing soldiers in the Bosnian War are stuck in the same place. One of the soldiers has fallen onto a mine that will detonate the moment he steps off of it. This means that the two are trapped in a stalemate. So, they talk. They talk and they talk and they talk. But they talk about quite a lot, about quite a lot of important things, and about why each man is involved in the conflict, and while the initial solder who fell on the mine certainly didn't choose to fall onto it, he is making an active choice to use the mine as leverage, to keep the stalemate still.

Even a famously indecisive character like Hamlet is still full of important decisions. For example, he consciously chooses to not kill Claudius when the man is in prayer. This is only technically an inaction on Hamlet's part. He consciously chooses to not kill Claudius, as to do so when he was in a state of grace would ensure his entrance into Heaven, which of course Hamlet cannot allow. Through the rest of the play, we see similar choices made by Hamlet, whether they are decisions to not act even though he secretly wants to, or whether they are strange half-measures which only drive the characters further into tragedy.

Consider this as well: actors trained in at the Atlantic School (which is David Mamet's school) are taught to do scenework in which they analyze why their character are saying "this" line, as opposed to some other line and why they are speaking at "this" moment, as opposed to any other moment. While Atlantic is just one style of acting, its techniques still illustrate how, without that direction and decisiveness, there is no scene, and there is no way to act. Other styles of acting merely find other ways for actors to make those choices, whether they are unconsciously wrought or consciously wrought from another form of "homework."

Also think about how few movies actually deal with a character passively absorbing an impersonal obstacle, such as nature or war; Gus van Sant's Gerry and some of Bela Tarr's work might fit into this mold, but even then sometimes not really, and either way, they're both explicitly experimental and reacting against the overwhelming mode of storytelling in which characters drive their own destiny.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:48 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

For me the quint essential example of this has always been the way people answer/hang up phones in movies. You'll almost never see someone say 'hello' or 'good-bye', they just start talking. Generally I just assume it's to serve the purpose of saving time while keeping the audience engrossed.

Charlie Kaufman is a good counter example, but I'd go with Gus Van Sant's movies. There's always long stretches of characters doing virtually nothing, or boring everyday tasks.
posted by mannequito at 5:10 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite counter-example to almost everything that usually happens in a movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nearly all the dialog in that film disguises the speaker's true intent. And, as mentioned above, there are long stretches of the characters doing virtually nothing, or boring everyday tasks... and sometimes using language to fill the space rather than convey meaning.
posted by Devoidoid at 5:39 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

To add to the good responses here, for counterexamples I'd suggest checking out more independent and foreign films in general. They (often intentionally) tend to operate somewhat outside of the cookie-cutter paradigm the bigger studio pictures gravitate toward.

Film Movement is a great place to start-- their movies tend to be less cut-and-dry and more narratively and emotionally dynamic. You might also check out any "quality cinema" showcases in your nearest larger city (university cinema clubs, screenings at art museums, etc.). A decently-stocked public library will also carry some good stuff.

And I guess this is a good excuse to recommend the films of John Cassavetes.
posted by Rykey at 7:56 PM on February 19, 2012

I always find in instructive to compare books with their film adaptation. In the book, there is room for that inner dialogue and decisiveness, whereas in film the action has to be streamlined for all the reasons listed above.

Compare say, Lolita or American Psycho with their books. In the former, there's a lot more complexity in the relationship between Lo and Humbert, and Humbert's inner dialogue makes him a much more dubious character. In the latter the smooth sophisticated shell over the tangled wreck of a monster is much more clear, while at the same time the decisiveness of Bateman from the film is can be seem as colder and more reactionary.

Doing that sort of contrast/comparison can also help illustrate the constraints of both art forms.
posted by Jilder at 8:13 PM on February 19, 2012

My gut is that this is almost entirely for narrative convenience. Everything appears neat and orderly for the same reason that we rarely see characters using the bathroom in film and television. Viewers don't want to watch George Clooney spend ten minutes looking for his keys.
posted by deathpanels at 10:10 PM on February 19, 2012

"It's also worth noting that some people do create this type of world around them. To say it never exists is too sweeping a statement; it may not be common, but many people who succeed in their lives do so because they find a way to both control their actions and behaviors, and to influence their environment."

And many of these people are movie directors. David Fincher is well-known for his meticulous, obsessively-detailed, and ruthless decision-making; much has been made of the percieved similarities between this attitude and the characters in his movies, i.e. Mark Zuckerberg.

There's an idea that watching a movie is like "hanging out" with a group of characters for two hours, which means there are certain base characteristics that should appeal to you. People calls this "likeability", but I think of it as respect. It's easy to respect a person with the kind of attitude you're talking about, even if it's someone who you wouldn't necessarily like in real life. Of if it's someone you think would be morally repugnant in real life -- an easy way to get audiences to sympathize with gangsters, corrupt cops, and advertising executives is to make them really damn good at their jobs. There's an aura around capable, confident people that draws you in.

Conversely, it's harder to be drawn to someone who's indecisive, or lacks a consistent worldview, or doesn't take responsibility for the events of their life. This is also what people mean when they talk about "strong" vs. "weak" characters.
posted by Smallpox at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2012

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