Bad movies: doing just one thing at a time

I have had a long string of days with no specific time commitments earlier than late afternoon (because things are quite frankly pretty really difficult right now with the vertigo and the meds). As a result, I have the flexibility to try out movies that are in my Netflix queue on an “oh why not, let’s see how it goes” basis, because if they run over the amount of time I need for my workout, or if I have to stop one because it’s no good and move on to another, it won’t screw up the rest of the schedule. I have this theory that if I never run into bad movies (or TV or books or music or restaurants or or or or), I am not casting the net wide enough and am probably missing things I would like that don’t look like things I would definitely totally like.

Lordy there are a lot of bad movies out there. It is hard work to make a movie, and the sheer quantity of terrible ones out there–just the ones on Netflix–just the ones on Netflix that do not immediately trigger the “no, that one will be terrible, do not watch” buttons–is staggering.

One of the things that’s come up a lot about movies that have talented actors in them and come out terrible anyway is that a lot of them start out only trying to do one thing at once. They are doing setting. Not even setting plus gorgeous camerawork, which I could forgive. But look! Here is a solid seven minutes of setting! We are in this particular location! It has buildings! Sometimes a tree or two! (If there are lots of trees I am also more forgiving. Me and trees, you know. Also water. But no, mostly buildings.) Here are some people who are not shot in such a way that you could possibly get to know them, so: still setting! Yep! Setting! No theme here! No characters! Just setting! Seeeeeeettinnnnnng!

Don’t do this.

Or character: here is this guy doing stuff! Boy, is he doing stuff! He is folding his laundry! Hee, what a quirky guy, with the way he folds his laundry! It is what we call stage business, the laundry folding! And this can be great. This can be really good, the stage business, the introducing us to the character. But you can’t let it drag. Because if your actor is talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry, he’s talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry in a few minutes. And then more of it…is not actually giving us more backstory of who he is and who his Uncle Carlo is and what his Uncle Carlo did in the war and all that. Not just with the laundry. You have to give us another character, you have to give us more setting, you have to give us something more than just the one thing.

I’m not saying everything has to be fast-paced. I’m saying that even in leisurely pacing, even in a loving slow and gentle buildup like you often get with the hour and a half BBC mysteries, you’re generally doing more than one thing at once…and if you’re not, you lose audience attention, because you have to earn it, you don’t get to just call names when it slips away.

Competence porn, character expectations, and the Houses of Cards

Spoilers for the first season of House of Cards in UK and US versions. I don’t know how to do a cut-tag on my wordpress journal if in fact such a thing is possible. So seriously. Spoilers. If you care, back away from the post.

Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood have some key things in common, due to the one series being based on the other. The main thing is that they are both consummate backroom politicians–wheeler-dealers, hip-deep in machinations, people who use the secrets and foibles and relationships of others to achieve their own ends. This is sometimes horrible and generally fun to watch, in no small part because they are so good at it. It’s a form of competence porn: it’s very satisfying to watch people do difficult things they’re good at.

And then. And then partway through each version’s first season, the main character FU kills someone who is being inconvenient.

And gets away with it.

When I was talking about this with Timprov, the metaphor he came up with was that it was as though you had set up Sherlock Holmes and suddenly had him torture a confession out of a suspect. It’s not what makes Sherlock Holmes interesting–in fact, it’s the opposite of it. In some fundamental sense it’s not what Sherlock Holmes is for. It’s a crude solution from someone whose entire point is subtlety, and as such it’s terribly unsatisfying. If you want me to watch someone kill people, and wince and marvel, give me Omar, give me Brother Mouzone, but do not give me Sherlock Holmes with a baseball bat, and do not give me Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. The early episodes of each show us that FU is someone who exploits other people’s weaknesses, and the victims in question each have plenty of weaknesses. So having FU just decide to kill them is an annoying waste of the character’s skills, which are what I like to watch in the first place, in favor of a skillset neither FU has ever demonstrated in the first place.

I’ve started watching the second series (what we would call the second season) of the British version, and it has some lovely moments, but generally the killing thing is totally unsatisfactory to me, and the handling of it has not improved. Timprov pointed out that the show may not have been made as competence porn at all, it may have been made mostly as a poke at the Tories, and I can see that–it’s visible from space–but it’s a great deal less interesting to me, and I think would be even if it was poking at politicians in my own country and my own timeline. Schemers are fascinating. Unsubtle digs and implausible deaths less so.