Saturday, August 4, 2012

Notes on the Problem of Tone in Recent Movies

Note to readers: This post contains spoilers.

This Pixar animated fairy tale Brave has a lot of charm; it’s one of the few movies this summer that I’ve been able to send friends to. But it takes a wrong turn in the middle that’s almost disastrous. The heroine, a bright, tomboyish Scottish princess named Merida, has reached the age to be courted, but she has no interest in any of her suitors and she bests them easily at the archery competition that’s meant to determine which one is worthy of her hand. Merida hopes that she can win her mother’s sympathy but instead the queen is furious at her unladylike behavior. So – in the film’s most inventive sequence – the princess enlists the help of a witch who promises to deliver a potion that will alter the queen’s perspective. What it does is to transform Queen Elinor into a bear. The scenes that follow, in which Elinor continues to attempt to act in a queenly manner while her body keeps working against her (and while she’s unable to communicate except through gesture), are comical, and Merida’s efforts to keep her father, a celebrated bear hunter, from seeing Elinor while trying frantically to track down an antidote underscore the princess’s imagination and resourcefulness, certainly appropriate in a coming-of-age story. The problem is what we might call tonal follow-through.

It’s easy to think of fairy tales whose narrative structure depends on the child hero’s learning from his or her mistakes, usually after meeting their consequences; Pinocchio comes immediately to mind, and Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, which is framed as a fairy tale, contains such an episode (the girl, Ofelia, disregards explicit instructions not to touch any of the delectable food on the monster’s table). There’s no doubt that Merida’s selfishness and recklessness and short-sightedness cause her mother’s unfortunate transformation, but at the moment when it occurs the screenwriters (Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Irene Mecchi and Brenda Chapman, who also wrote the story) don’t acknowledge that she’s done anything terrible. Instead they mine the scenario for its humor and try to make Merida look admirable. The images of Elinor in a bear’s body tripping over her size made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t in the mood to laugh at the results of Merida’s bad behavior. Brave untangles its problems in the last act, where Merida finally owns up to her faults, but for this viewer at least it had to win back the confidence I’d lost in it.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom
Tone, which is the attitude of the filmmaker toward the material, is tricky, but this particular mistake seems so basic that it’s hard to believe professional screenwriters putting together a fairy tale could make it. We might guess that it’s a case of too many cooks (four writers cobbling together a story line at the same time) and that may be the case. But tone is often an issue in current movies, and audiences and often critics, too, take little notice, even praising movies in which the tone is messed up for their quirkiness. Take Moonrise Kingdom, or any other Wes Anderson picture (except for his cartoon, Fantastic Mr. Fox). Anderson’s movies have no tone at all; that is, he doesn’t provide a clue to how we’re supposed to feel about what the characters do in the story. That’s not the same as presenting the characters as complex, which is what our greatest film artists have always done – Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, to pick two famous examples. We can admire the Bunch for their loyalty and courage while admitting that they’re cold-blooded killers, i.e., we can make distinct judgments on their individual actions.We can even be of two minds about them: Bonnie’s jumping into a life of crime with Clyde is ill-advised and clearly doomed, but we understand how her dead-ended life as a Dallas waitress impelled her to make such a choice. The filmmakers tell us how to read those actions and those characters; that’s the job of a writer or a director. Anderson is both on his movies, but he doesn’t tell us how to read anything that happens in them, so the actors always seem like manikins plopped down inside the frame, waiting for someone – Anderson – to give their characters some meaning. That’s why Rushmore, the coming-of-age story that put him on the map, has always felt to me as if it had been made by the Jason Schwartzman character, Max Fischer, instead of about him. Imagine what The Catcher in the Rye would be like if Salinger didn’t reach past Holden Caulfield’s point of view to show us its limitations: we’d assume we were supposed to take at face value the character’s dismissal of almost everyone he’d ever met as a phony.

Some years ago Anderson once wrote a piece in the Sunday New York Times arts section about trying to get the late film critic Pauline Kael, one of his heroes, to watch Rushmore. The article read as comic-absurdist: Anderson reached her by phone but she behaved weirdly and even professed to have no idea who Bill Murray was when he tried to lure her into letting him send her a print by mentioning that Murray, one of her favorite actors, co-starred in it. It wasn’t until the very end of the piece that Anderson revealed that Kael, unbeknownst to him at the time, was enduring the ill effects of medicines administered to her for Parkinson’s disease, which she continued to do until her doctors got her cocktail right (a familiar story about Parkinson’s sufferers). The placement of this information late in the article, after Anderson had gotten laughs out of Kael’s condition, was extremely unsettling, and another critic, New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, wrote an objecting letter. In his reply to Edelstein, Anderson claimed that he had only admiration for Kael and certainly didn’t intend to make her look ridiculous. He sounded baffled by Edelstein’s anger, and I believe he was sincere; he simply had no idea how his anecdote came across in print. That’s because as a writer – and as a director – Anderson is tone-deaf.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The tone of the apocalyptic romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (a wretched title), written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, shifts clumsily in the middle, but because she abandons one popular choice (hip irony) for another (sentimentality), the problem is compounded by a serious lack of imagination as well as a naked effort to curry favor with her audience. In the early scenes, as we hear that in a few weeks an asteroid will collide with the earth and bring an end to human existence, and we see the hero, Dodge (Steve Carell), join forces with the heroine, Penny (Keira Knightley), the movie maintains an ironic distance from their situation, refusing to make an emotional commitment to it or to them and thus letting the audience off the hook. We don’t have to care about them so we don’t have to feel any of the cluster of intense emotions real human beings might experience in such a situation. But at some point in the movie the characters fall in love and begin to make sacrifices for each other, and they’re in each other’s arms when the apocalypse arrives. However, what we’re made to feel at this point is a series of programmed responses to a romantic comedy with a melodramatic twist at the end; the only difference between the end of Seeking a Friend and the end of, say, Love Story is that both the lovers die, not just the girl. So, despite the hard work of her two leading actors, Scafaria gets no closer to genuine emotion once she drops the irony. For a counter-example, take a look at Perfect Sense (written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by David Mackenzie), which slipped quickly in and out of theatres earlier this year and is now available on DVD. It’s also a movie about a romance (between Ewan McGregor and Eva Green) that blossoms as the human race is ebbing away, but its plaintive tone is sure and the filmmakers never fall into sentimental manipulation to get their effects.

Seeking a Friend tries to have it both ways, and neither way is authentic. Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, with a screenplay by Reid Carolin, does something similar. This movie about two male strippers in Florida, one (Channing Tatum) experienced, the other (Alex Pettyfer) a novice, is made with great skill; it’s beautiful to look at, the backstage scenes are fresh and funny, and the club numbers are cleverly choreographed and extremely well danced. But every time the film gets away from the club, the dialogue becomes leaden and even the good actors in the (decidedly mixed) cast get swallowed up by it. Carolin makes a familiar error here: he assumes that realism means having the characters talk the way real people speak, but most real people speak in clich├ęs and repeat themselves endlessly. Tolstoy was a realist, but the dialogue in Anna Karenina doesn’t read like a transcription of actual conversations. And God knows I’m no prude, but the fact that most of us pepper our everyday exchanges with casual obscenities doesn’t justify the 7,500 or so “fucks” in Carolin’s script. I’m sure we’re all relieved that we no longer live under the infantilizing restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code of the thirties, forties and fifties, but screenwriters are still under the obligation to be inventive. The dialogue scenes in Magic Mike, which sound as if they could have written by anyone in the audience, are so arid that you’re parched for a semi-literate line.

Channing Tatum in Magic Mike
In terms of tone, though, the movie takes the route that the Hollywood of the big-studio era would have applauded – at least until the end. Mike, the veteran, initiates Adam, his new buddy, into the flashy lifestyle of the male stripper, with its attendant hot, no-strings-attached sex and casual drug-taking. The movie allows us the vicarious pleasure of watching the two young men enjoy themselves, and the strip numbers are funny and sexy. Then it makes us pay for all that fun by turning into a cautionary fable about the dangers of the high life: Mike begins to find his life lonely and empty; Adam gets involved in dope peddling and almost gets himself killed when he tries to scam some gangsters out of their money. At this point the movie seems poised for a tragic ending. But downers don’t tend to do well at the box office, so at the last minute Mike rescues his friend, retires from stripping and winds up with the girl, Adam’s sister (Cody Horn) – though Carolin hasn’t bothered to build their relationship. (It doesn’t help that Horn isn’t remotely an actress.) Talk about hedging your bets: Carolin writes like TV series hacks who keep reshaping the plot based on the e-mail they’re receiving from fans, only he must be making the e-mail up in his own head. Meanwhile the tone goes crazy – it’s so inconsistent that it can’t possibly reflect anyone’s attitude toward the characters. You might call it willful tone deafness.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. Excellent evaluation. You expressed all of my thoughts into a eloquent essay.

  2. Couldn't have said it better about Horn. And it seems fair to point out that her dad is the head of the studio.

  3. I also dislike it when filmmakers don't tell me exactly how to feel about everything. Like, I enjoy paintings better too when the artist has written up something patiently explaining how I'm supposed to feel about the painting, and what he intended, and why. I don't like being confused, and it's hard enough to keep up with the plots of movies without knowing precisely what the filmmaker is intending. Sometimes life is too hard.