The Spy Who Didn’t Have Enough Sense to Come In From the Cold

Burn After Reading and the Coen Brothers’ populism

One thing that almost all the Coen Brothers’ movies have in common is stupid people. I’m not exactly breaking new ground in cinema studies here: whether they’re stupid but good-hearted (Raising Arizona), stupid and vain (Intolerable Cruelty), stupid people gone cynical (No Country for Old Men), or just plain stupid (Blood Simple), not since the Bush/Cheney administration have two men accomplished so much by artfully manipulating the ignorant.

Burn After Reading doesn’t do anything to break that trend; like Blood Simple, its whole plot is driven by stupid people in way over their heads. Like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it shows a horrible string of events escalating from one stupid decision. Like The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Hudsucker Proxy, it’s a pitch-perfect parody of another genre of movie (in this case, the spy thriller). Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it gets near-genius performances out of every single person in the cast — in this one, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are the stand-outs, and that’s only because Frances McDormand is so great you never notice how great she is.

You can’t avoid comparing it to other Coen Brothers movies, because it’s like a Coen Brothers sampler. Great soundtrack, brilliant dialogue (they can make a guy saying nothing but “fuck” sound like poetry), familiar plot threads mixed up in surprising ways, and masterful editing; you’ve got to think it’s impossible for these guys to make a bad movie. They’ve even included their “Greek chorus” characters like in Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, and Big Lebowski, the guys who remind you it’s all just a movie and tell the audience what’s going on (although in this case, they admit they don’t know what’s going on).

And it’s hilarious, with just the right combination of lowbrow and highbrow so you’re never sure where the next joke is coming from. You want subtle? There’s a sequence following a guy walking through the corridors of C.I.A. headquarters, and each hallway has its own unique oppressive rushing-of-air ambient noise. Not-so-subtle? The reveal of the invention George Clooney’s character’s been building in the basement had the entire audience laughing out of shock.

Still, it’s a hard movie to love. I’ve read reviews that call it “slight,” or “a trifle.” One particularly misguided review of the movie comes from Ty Burr of the Boston Globe: he criticizes the movie for having no meaning or art, and just being a smug laugh at the audience’s expense. But my problem with the movie isn’t that it doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing wrong with the Coens’ deciding just to goof off for one movie, especially when they’re so good at doing it. The movie would work fine as a simple parody of spy thrillers, deflating their self importance: the global satellite cameras, discs with sensitive info, shady deals in foreign embassies, and pervasive paranoia.

My problem with it is what it does say. To make yet another comparison: it’s ultimately got the same sense of defeatist cynicism as No Country for Old Men. What makes Burr’s criticism so wrong — and he’s far from being the only person who’s made the same misinterpretation — is that the Coen Brothers’ movies are all about rejecting the smug, elitist mentality he accuses them of.

The Coens love showing us stupid people, but they almost always encourage us to root for them. (Except for Blood Simple, which is based on the characters’ being idiots you can’t feel any sympathy for, but that was more a movie about moviemaking than about characters.) Pretty much all of the movies are resoundingly populist and optimistic. That was the core message of Fargo: there’s plenty of hopelessness, and desperation, and sadness, and just plain evil in the world, but people are basically good. (Or at least they want to be). And most importantly, that there’s nothing naive or foolish about acknowledging that.

I think anybody who dismisses the Coens’ movies as being smug or elitist is doing more than a little bit of projection: the viewer might be looking down on these characters, but the movies aren’t. For the most part, they’re good people doing bad things. And part of the reason the morality of the Coens’ movies works so well is that they acknowledge that real evil exists (more often than not in the form of John Goodman), but they don’t dismiss everyone just for being flawed. When Frances McDormand’s character at the end of Fargo says “I just don’t understand,” she’s not being stupid, she’s being sincere: she doesn’t understand why someone would choose to throw away a world that has such simple beauty.

There’s a little bit of that in Burn After Reading — the only real villains of the movie are John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton’s characters. They’re not just flawed; they’re broken. And Malkovich’s character commits the worst possible crime in a Coen movie: it’s not murder, but being a pompous, self-important asshole. When he delivers his speech about the “league of morons” he’s been forced to deal with, that’s not the Coens talking; it’s the audience’s signal that he’s passed the point of being a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character, and he’s become irredeemable.

But ultimately, that ends up feeling like a holdover, a vestigial characterization tic left over from back when the Coens made positive movies. There’s a real sense of hopelessness and emptiness in Burn After Reading, and a sense that they’re even mocking the concept of optimism. When characters reach their breaking point, they yell at each other for being “negative,” and the naivete of it gets a laugh. Everyone is selfish and deceptive, and the whole descent into murder is caused by our protagonist’s being lonely and sad and looking in the wrong place for self-improvement. The capper is as well-written as anything the Coens have ever done, but it also just confirms that nobody really knows what happened, or how to keep it from happening again. For such a funny movie, it’s pretty bleak.

I’m hoping that the whole shift in tone is just detritus from the cynicism of No Country for Old Men. Even at their worst, the Coens are still geniuses at screenwriting and editing, and at the very least you’re going to see something visually interesting. But when they hit that sweet spot between cynical and naive, arch and sincere, clever and populist, it’s transcendent. I’m hoping they can get it all out of their system and just get back to their happy place. I don’t know. Maybe it’s Utah.

Why So Serious?, or, I Miss the Giant Penny

250px-Batman-Outsiders-1.pngAccording to the box office numbers, there’s a good chance that everyone reading this has already seen The Dark Knight. But just in case, I’ll include a spoiler warning: it’s pretty damn good.

The movie mentions several times how the Joker and Batman are both “freaks” and outsiders, and how lonely it is to be different from everyone else. Now this, I can relate to somewhat, based on my lukewarm-at-best reaction to Batman Begins, and being in packed rooms at conventions where everyone else is practically wetting himself at the notion of a sequel. I’d have to smile nervously and clap and give a half-hearted “whoo!” and then go home wondering if maybe the problem is with me, and then cry myself to sleep under my X-Men 2 poster. I just didn’t get the attraction.

But The Dark Knight is an excellent movie. When you consider the performances — not a bad one in the entire cast, and Heath Ledger really is as outstanding as people have been saying; the production values; the dialogue; the unabashedly and unapologetically mature tone; the music and phenomenal sound design, it’s probably the best comic book movie ever made. But it’s still not my favorite, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is that doesn’t work for me.

I can’t accuse it of being too dry, because there are loads of genuinely clever moments. Or of being self-important Oscar-bait, because there’s an action scene involving a truck, a motorcycle, and some cable that may be the first objectively bad-ass scene in action movie history. (Which is to say: it’s not a matter of opinion; it would be impossible for a human being to watch that scene and not say, “Now that was bad-ass.”)

I can’t really even fault the two-and-a-half-hour length, since it did a remarkable job of keeping up the pacing. Even late into the movie, when you hear that weird “Joker noise” come up on the soundtrack, you can’t help but get every bit as tense as you were during the first scenes. It was only in the last half hour when I started to get “adaptation fatigue,” when I thought, “Wait, you’re going to try and squeeze The Killing Joke in here too? Really?” It felt like they were afraid they weren’t going to be allowed to make another Batman movie, so they had to squeeze every “serious” Batman story they could into one movie.

What it comes down to is that these movies are for the people who’ve been wanting a real Batman movie ever since the 70s. Back when people were desperate to “take back” the character from the campy 60s version and get back to his sinister and tragic roots. When I first got into comics, I was already in college, so I felt like I had to make up for lost time by getting big stacks of them and reading through several issues of Batman at a time. And I always ended up with the same feeling as I did watching Batman Begins: sure the story is competently told, but it’s going to end up ridiculous if you put any amount of thought into it, so why bother? Comics continue to swing back and forth between “joyless” and “ridiculous,” and Batman is the poster child for that.

Several times during The Dark Knight, I was struck by how it’s so much better, by several orders of magnitude, than any interpretation of Batman done so far. The Tim Burton movies seem even more embarrassingly silly now than they did when they were released, and it’s unsettling to think that at the time, they were supposed to be a counter to the “silly” version of Batman. When you consider all the indignities the character’s been made to suffer over the past 50 years, it’s perfectly understandable that people would want to see a version that does the character justice.

Especially when the movie is as good as this one. But still…

The Dark Knight is a much better movie than Hellboy 2, but the latter had earth elementals and fairies and giant clockwork monsters and the Angel of Death and ectoplasm in a diving suit, all memorable images that stand out in my mind and make me want to see it again. The Dark Knight is more realistic and less corny than X-Men 2, but there wasn’t really any moment I was inclined to stand up and cheer as when Nightcrawler bamfs out of a plane to save Rogue.

As good as The Dark Knight is, it still feels like it’s targeted at the people who want to be able to pinpoint Gotham City on a map. The people who insist that comics can too tell meaningful stories. Personally, I don’t feel that defensive about the term “comic book movie,” and don’t think they have anything to prove. I’ll take a Miyazaki-inspired 40’s art deco nightmare over Chicago any day, and a dark cave with a giant penny over a big Matrix-y room with concrete floors and fluorescent lights.

The Right Hand of Doom

hellboypancakes.jpgI really wanted to love Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and for the first 15 or 20 minutes, it looked like that was exactly what was going to happen. There’s a really clever flashback to Hellboy’s time growing up on an army base (previously only seen in a two-page gag story called “Pancakes”), and a fantastic sequence where the movie’s back-story is delivered via CG puppets. It’s just beautifully done, imaginative, with a distinctive style that still felt very much influenced by Mike Mignola’s style.

It’s followed by a neat title sequence, a cool scene introducing us to the story’s villain, and a creepy sequence at an auction house. It’s all great stuff, and with the monsters, sigils, antiquities scattered about, and sense of impending doom, it nails the tone of a live action version of a Hellboy story.

But then everything kind of starts to unravel as soon as Hellboy shows up. It never really falls apart, but it just kind of deflates. There’s a ton of brilliant stuff throughout, most of it so impressive that I’d recommend the movie to anybody who’s a fan of effects-heavy action movies. And it was much better than the first Hellboy movie. But it still felt uncomfortably “off.”

There’s so much that the movie gets exactly right. The story has the feel of an ancient legend pushed into the modern day, an apocalyptic cataclysm that can only be averted by lots of punching and shooting. There are self-important kings and lords, and untrustworthy guides who work according to rules that we just barely understand. And the sinister versions of elves, fairies, and other creatures, that I think only the team Guillermo del Toro has put together can do justice to. (Ideas and character designs that were hinted at in Pan’s Labyrinth are splayed out all over the screen here).

But the tone was just wrong. After seeing The Devil’s Backbone, I wondered if del Toro’s work kept getting violated by Hollywood. But he has screenwriting credit on Hellboy 2, and I kept feeling like the screenwriting was the weak link. The script understands that Hellboy is ultimately a comedy series, but doesn’t seem to get that it’s supposed to be dry humor. Long stretches of mood and foreboding, followed by a punchline about as un-subtle as you can get. (“Is that… a monkey?” “HE’S GOT A GUN!!!”)

But pretty much every time the movie attempted comedy, it just felt stretched too thin, dragged on too long, or just fell flat. And it kept falling back on the “get a load of this guy!” stuff, reminding us how wacky it is to be watching a movie where a huge tough-talking demon is the good guy. But anybody going into a movie called “Hellboy” has already heard that joke and gotten it; the movie needs to top that. And all the lame story points from the first movie are still shoe-horned into this one: there’s still the unnecessary romance between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, and the Tim Burton-esque theme of freaks who just want to fit in. Plus, there’s way too much Jimmy Kimmel, which is to say, there’s some.

Then again, the tone of Hellboy adaptations varies so much that I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t “get” it. The novelizations and short stories seem to think he’s the demon form of Indiana Jones; the videogames seem to think he’s a Mortal Kombat character; and the movies seem to think he’s Lobo crossed with Edward Scissorhands. Maybe that’s the genius of the comics — there’s so little dialogue and so many silent side shots of watching statues or ravens murmuring portents of doom, you’re free to impose whatever character you want on Hellboy.

So as not to end on a down note, I want to point out a few of the things I like: The character of Johann Krauss — a German medium who was trapped in his ectoplasmic form during a seance and now has to live inside a containment suit — is kind of underused in the comics, a cool idea that kind of went nowhere. In the movie, he’s great, a cool suit that’s continually outgassing, and a memorable voice (by Seth McFarlane, surprisingly). The fight scenes were big, dumb, and hard to follow, exactly like they are in the comics. There’s a whole scene with Liz and a character I won’t name but he’s near the end and is like the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth — that whole scene is exactly like a Hellboy comic. And I really loved the brief image of Hellboy’s “true form.”

The Calls Are Coming From Within the Ice Level!

Previously on Spectre Collie, I made the claim that storytelling in “passive” media like books and movies isn’t as passive as people like to think. A well-told story demands that the audience stay actively engaged in the telling, processing what’s come so far and anticipating what happens next.

The interesting thing is: this is so integral a part of storytelling that even the not-so-well-told stories do it, sometimes without even realizing it. Last time, I compared the movie Adaptation to the game BioShock, because each uses the limitations of its format (a cliche-filled Hollywood action movie, or a linear first-person shooter game) to feed back into its story and deliver a more significant message (about the misguided passion for perfection, or the nature of free will).

The most common criticism of both of those is that they’re “meta” stories, based solely on a gimmick, with the director (or screenwriter) or designer dangling his message just out of the audience’s grasp, all the while thinking he’s so clever. But the idea of manipulating the audience’s expectations isn’t particularly new or post-modern; it’s a fundamental building block of storytelling.

Any story worth hearing (or reading, or watching, or playing) is going to have moments where the audience has to fill in the gaps and make predictions, forming its own parallel version of events that’ll get rewritten in collaboration with the storyteller. On its own, that’s not the type of activity that people mean when they talk about interactive entertainment. And that’s a problem, because it’s the most interesting type of activity. And understanding how it works will lead to better storytelling in games.

Myth 5: A story is a sequence of events leading to a conclusion.

Whenever anybody says that storytelling is “passive,” I have to wonder if they’ve ever seen a horror movie with a big crowd. The first time I saw Scream, it was in a theater packed with Marin County high school students taking advantage of Tightwad Tuesday. I’d have a hard time calling that audience “passive;” they were screaming, laughing, and yelling back at the screen.

Now, Scream came out during the crest of the Irony Wave of the mid-90s, so it’s definitely overloaded with gimmicky “meta” moments. But it didn’t really do anything to change the rules of horror movies; all it did was explicitly spell out the rules before it carried through on them. And the first rule of any horror movie, from the most highbrow suspense thriller to the cheesiest B-movie, is “don’t go into that room.”

birdsdoor.jpgScream‘s most memorable “don’t go into that room” moment kind of sucked (seriously, who thought death by automatic garage door was scary?), so look at the most famous one from The Birds: Melanie Daniels is sitting in a dark living room after everyone else has fallen asleep. She hears a noise. She picks up a flashlight and gets up to check it out. It’s not the lovebirds in the next room, so it must be upstairs. She looks at the stairs to the door for a moment, deciding whether to go in. She walks up the stairs. When she gets to the top, she reaches for the doorknob. She opens the door and goes inside. (Spoiler: there’s a bunch of birds in there).

Now, that scene goes on for like three or four minutes, and taken out of context, it’s every bit as tedious as I just described. Seriously, nothing happens. It’s even less inherently creepy than a little boy riding his Big Wheel through the halls of an empty hotel. You’d think that with as much praise as Hitchcock gets, he would’ve had the sense to cut that scene shorter, or out altogether.

Except we all know, on a gut level, why this scene is in the movie. The short answer is “pacing,” but that’s an over-simplification. It’s not just a case of shifting from loud to quiet, or action to rest, but shifting the audience’s role from passive observer to active participant. There’s still a story going on, but the storyteller is inviting the audience to compare their version of things to the one that’s playing out on screen. The story isn’t just a sequence of events, but also the decisions leading up to those events — it’s not just what’s happening, but how it’s happening and why it happens.

What do you, the audience, think?

We all know that something scary is behind that door. Considering what we’ve seen so far, including the title of the movie, we know that it probably somehow involves birds. But we don’t know what exactly it’s going to be. Much of the scene is shot from a first-person view; we’re not just watching stuff happen to the star, we’re making decisions about what she should do next, and what’s going to happen as a result.

Should she try harder to wake up the others? Should she get a weapon? Should she devise some way to find out what’s behind the door without opening it? Should she just forget about the door altogether, and leave it until morning? What’s going to be on the other side? Is she really at risk of dying when she sees it? Would the movie really kill her off without a resolution of the love story?

Once we get through the door, that’s when movies and videogames diverge: movies become completely passive, showing the audience whatever nasty monster or expensive CG effect the storyteller’s come up with. And games become completely active, inviting the audience to run around and mash buttons until everything’s dead. The pay-off’s not the key, the build-up is. It’s during the build-up that videogames and movies are the most similar.

Of course, the audience doesn’t have real control over what happens; we’re inexorably pulled up the stairs and through that door no matter what. But does that really matter? “Survival Horror” is the videogame world’s attempt at horror and suspense, but I don’t know of any game that lets you do the sensible thing, just forget about the zombies and just dial 911. And if such a game exists, I don’t think I’d want to play it. You’re going to go through the door, but that’s not the interesting part. It’s not about what happens, but about what could happen.

No one will be admitted during the chilling Boss Fight sequence!

But games still don’t get this. We’ve been conditioned to think that “interactivity” makes games an entirely new medium, and we’re adamant that we have nothing to learn from the movies that have already mastered a lot of this stuff. So we liberally borrow the most shallow aspects of movie storytelling and try to graft those on top of a videogame. We pretend that there’s a clean division between “gameplay” and “story,” putting all the cinematic stuff into the “story” section to make the “gameplay” section seem cooler, instead of learning what the cinematic stuff really does.

So our games end up playing like long sequences of pay-offs, with interminable, dull storytelling spots in the middle. We assume that we have no control over pacing. And we insist on a clean break between passive storytelling and active playing, which means “cut-scenes” and “interactive sections.” Basically, we throw pacing out the window, letting the player run around unsupervised for 90% of the game, until we grab control back from him to show him parts of a story he doesn’t really care about.

For example: every time BioShock tried to do straight-up horror, it failed for me. It came across more like the cheesy Castle movie remakes like House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. Messages scrawled in blood, gruesome medical facilities, bodies sprawled out all over the place, and loads of rusty hooks. But the best moment of the game, and I’d say of any game last year, was the “don’t go into that door!” moment leading up to your showdown with Andrew Ryan. Everything in the game has been building up to this point, and you know that something big is going to happen on the other side, even if you don’t know exactly what it is. You run through a couple of empty corridors, building up to an epic confrontation, speculating on which combination of weapons and superpowers you’re going to use, putting together the bits of story you’ve seen so far. Then, in a quiet anteroom, you see the biggest reveal of the entire game, written on a wall (in blood, of course). The following cutscene is basically just clean-up work; the climax just happened, in an “interactive” section. And it didn’t involve shooting anyone or leveling up, but piecing together the story without having it handed to you.

The best example of “don’t go into that door” that I’ve seen in games is in the Silent Hill series. I’ve never been impressed with the games overall, from what I’ve seen, but the radio mechanic is just genius. As you get closer to danger, the static on a handheld radio the protagonist carries gets stronger. It’s creepy, it serves a function in the game, and it serves several functions in the story, not the least of which is to remind the player that something supernatural is going on. Basically, the storytelling never stops, since you’re given constant feedback as to whether something spooky is happening.

In games, you’ll find a lot more examples of the “don’t go into that door” moment’s evil twin, the “oh, it’s just the cat!” moment. In a movie, a cat (or even a monster) suddenly jumping out of nowhere is the worst of cheap scares, because it breaks the contract between the audience and the director. We’ve watched this young, almost naked college girl walking down a dark hallway, we’ve invested thought into whatever horrible thing is going to happen to her at the end of the hallway, so don’t cheat us out of that by making it something we couldn’t have predicted.

But even in games without monster closets, we’ve got no problem just throwing a ton of monsters (where “monster” is shorthand for “any obstacle”) at the player, with no predictability or reason. The story gets shut down completely, reduced to an insultingly simple “You’re at point A and need to get to point B.” The level designer will usually make a token stab at pacing by the order he places enemies and power-ups, but for the most part, all storytelling conventions have been thrown out the window. So there’s a short gauntlet of having enemies thrown at you for a few minutes, until you get to the next cutscene; sometimes you’re asked to push a button or pull a lever.

How is that not passive?

The End… OR IS IT?!?

All of this stuff may seem specific to horror and suspense, but it’s not. All comedy is based on playing with the audience’s expectations, as well. Horror movies are just a good example because they prove that none of this is all that hard: if Friday the 13th can do it, why can’t we?

The basic lesson is this: game developers like to think of games as semi-controlled environments, where we have control during cut-scenes and chokepoints, and relinquish it for the interactive sections. This is bad; it leads to shallow games annoyingly interrupted by bad stories. What we need to realize is that we never have complete control over the audience. Not even “passive” media like movies and TV have that.

And to realize that, first we have to realize that the audience — even the droolingest fanboy in the comments section of a videogame blog somewhere — is always thinking. You can’t stop it; it’s the curse of being human. So don’t try to divide the game into “the time when I do the thinking,” and “the time when you do the thinking.” Instead, find a way to use it to your advantage; as movies prove, you can use the audience’s creativity to tell your story.

Open up the game, let the player figure out the story as he goes along. Don’t worry that everything has to be revealed in a cutscene before you relinquish control to the player, or he’ll be completely lost — it’s a joystick and some buttons; it’s not rocket science. And stay open to the idea that the player’s got his own version of events that’s constantly being updated and compared to the version that you’re trying to show. As it stands now, we’re putting all our energy into making what happens on the other side of the door. We need to put more effort into what happens in the long hallway leading up to the door.