March 20, 2014
On Focus and Selling the Audience Short
I have an idea for a movie. I don’t claim that it is an original idea, but it is the kind that Hollywood more often than not declines to make because it lacks the sleekness and the sexiness of so many other films. Here it is. The film begins with a shot of a young woman at work. A man approaches her nervously, and the woman lets out a curious sigh, one that suggests exhaustion at yet another attempt on his part, yet also reveals a hint of curiosity and the gradual erosion of her resistance. This time when the man asks her out, she says yes, and in the next scene, we see their awkward, yet sweet first date. She seems to know just what to say to get through the hard shell that he has built around him, and during one exchange, a rather revealing smile breaks out across his face. In that instant, we know he has fallen hard. As the evening comes to a close, he asks if he can call her again. Her reply: You’d better.
Through a series of vignettes, we then see their relationship grow. We see bits of conversations the woman has with friends, during which she reveals both the depths of her feelings for the man and the fact that she knows little about his professional life beyond vague descriptions that suggest a career in real estate or the stock market. Whatever it is, she confides, he’s pretty good at it. The two eventually marry and soon comes their first child. Then the second. They couldn’t be happier. For much of this part of the film, we see the normal actions of a working mother juggling her career with caring for her children. Her husband is gone a lot, but he helps out when he can, and she never begrudges him for his tardiness or absenteeism.
There are of course tough times for the couple. There are arguments about his working so late, and we see evidence of an inner rage that is discomforting. The man is also prone to withdraw inward, as if trying to prevent a more distressing side of his personality from becoming evident. During one emotional scene, the woman watches as her husband cannot keep his anxieties bottled up anymore. As household items are turned over and breakable items crash against the hard floor, he rages vaguely and incoherently about all he has had to do for the family, and in the end she must take him in her arms and reassure him that all is well between them.
There are other developments: Strangers could be watching them from the corner, cars could be following them, and near accidents look eerily suspicious. At a friend’s house, she wonders if these are mere coincidence or hints of something much more sinister. To make matters worse, each incident seems to be taking its toll on her husband’s emotional state. At one point in the film, she approaches her husband about his growing sense of paranoia. Is there something you haven’t told me? she asks him.
Some time later, he is arrested, and all of his secrets are soon revealed. In one of the film’s more emotional moments, the woman watches in horror as all of her husband’s deeds are revealed, and later during the film’s climactic final scene, she asks the question every member of the audience would likely be asking, Just who are you? It is a question that he can only answer in vague clichés that reveal nothing.
There are several reasons that this particular story and others like it rarely hit the silver screen. First, the focus of the film is a character not deemed sexy enough to attract viewers. Who, studio executives might ask, would pay to see a movie about a woman just going about her daily life, especially when they could be following a more exciting character, such as the enigmatic husband? Second, most studio execs underestimate their customers, and as a result, they often shun ambiguity as if it were a guarantee of box office failure. Therefore, a character who is an alien, a gangster, or a serial killer must be revealed as such early on in a film, and then the film must follow his exploits and criminal acts because such characters are said to be more interesting. The result is film after film about wall street criminals, serial killers, corrupt police officers, and figures who rise to positions of great power in the criminal world and relatively few about the people most likely to be deeply affected by the eventual downfall of such characters. This is a shame.
At this time in cinematic history, there is much debate over whether films like The Wolf of Wall Street, We’re the Millers, American Hustle, and Now You See Me are glorifying criminal behavior or just telling stories about interesting characters who just happen to be criminals. The debate seems rather inane. Films in the criminal genre will likely never appeal to everyone, and there will always be some that argue that movies should be more like Lincoln and Gravity, which glorify more heroic figures and end with the affirmation of more widely accepted values. However, films have rarely towed this line, and perhaps they shouldn’t strive to. A film can be about awful characters and still be a masterpiece, and a film can be about people in criminal professions and still be entertaining.
However, I refuse to believe that movies cannot be about less sexy characters and still remain both engaging and involving. By the end of the film described earlier, the audience would have many questions: Did the woman really not know what her husband was doing? Was she willfully ignorant? Would she have done anything different if she had known? These are all intriguing questions that audience members have no reason to ask after watching a film that focuses on a criminal. In fact, in far too many films, they simply have no reason to care. The wife, the girlfriend, the children – these are the kinds of characters that few films devote quality screen time to developing or creating an attachment to. Therefore, at the end of a film, when characters such as these sit shocked and sobbing as the person they thought they knew is revealed to have been a monster, the audience is more likely to shift its focus to the character in the defendant’s seat. The opposite should be true every once in a while.