There used to be a certainty about the Oscars, it wasn’t nice, that’s for sure, and it certainly wasn’t right, but it was reliable, dependable, solid. It used to be that, whatever innovative new cinema a year produced, the big prize would inevitable go to a solidly plotted, middle of the road film, usually directed by Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard, uninspiring, but decent enough in it’s own way. At the last Oscars, the Coen brothers, the celebrated masters of surreal and funny, went home with the best film award, surely I should be ecstatic? delirious with happiness? Cock a hoop?
Unfortunately not, and for reasons not restricted to No Country For Old Men, for the first time in a long while I’ve seen the majority of Oscar nominated films, all near unanimously critically acclaimed (No Country has often been called the Coens best, by people who I can only assume, don’t like or haven’t seen any of their other films) and yet they all share on clear flaw: a total disregard for structure.
Now it is unusual that so many films would be released in such a short period that mess with the time honoured template of beginning, middle and end. Stranger still that so few would make it work. (don’t mistake me for some establishment hack, I’m all for subverting the form, but it is not always necessary or right to do so, ‘first serve the story’ has always been my credo.) But strangest yet is the fact that critics have apparently decided, in concert, to overlook these flaws, structure it seems, is out of fashion in Hollywood this year.
But of course I don’t expect you to take what I say to be true in the abstract, so sit back while I take you on a ride though the last crop of Oscar nominations, so many of which I expected to like. With each I’ll detail how they cocked up their structure.
There Will Be Blood – Beginning, Muddle and End
Unlike many of the films here There Will Be Blood has a clear beginning and end, it was also directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films I’m a huge fan of, which only emphasises the disappointment I felt at the huge gulf of, well, anything in the middle. It’s a yawning chasm that lacks purpose, drive, point and regular characters save Daniel Day Lewis. Everyone else comes and goes as the middle section simply charts a series of things that happen to Lewis, with no rhyme or reason. The beginning is bleak and artistic, the end is a comical farce, yet the middle does not lead from one to another, it wanders between comedy and drama with gay abandon. The individual scenes are marvellous on their own, yet they add up to a total lack of narrative.
What should they have done – The true crime of this film is that the only way to describe vast portions of it is ‘stuff happens’, yet they have a ready made dynamic in the battle of wits and wills between Eli and Daniel. The cure for this films ills is to focus on this battle as much as possible.
No Country For Old Men – Beginning, Middle and…
95% of No Country is a wonderful film, it has a strong purpose, a driving force, the battle between Anton and Llewelyn over the money. It was lean and it was marvellous, Anton’s murderous drive carrying it off, so what if Tommy Lee Jones turned up once in a while and didn’t have much to do with anything, he’s probably going to be important at the end, and he certainly does, but not in the way one might suspect. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, the massively disappointing end of No Country goes thusly; the confrontation that we’ve been building up to all this time doesn’t happen, Tommy Lee Jones talks with people we’ve never seen before about being old, Anton kills a couple more people before getting in a car crash and stumbling off with a broken arm, Tommy Lee Jones muses about being old a bit more, the end. Again, I like that the Coens don’t conform to conventions, and I love them for it, but if you’re building up for a confrontation for so long and don’t have it, well that’s just going to disappoint people.
What they should have done – Have an ending! It’s all very simple to fix, give us the payoff. Or Alternatively if you’re determined that it be about growing old, then make Jones the central character, don’t spend so much time with the story you’re not going to resolve.
Charlie Wilson’s War – Middle, middle and middle
Now let’s get one thing down right off the bat, I love Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing is the finest TV series I’ve ever seen and when I heard he had a new film in the works I was literally jumping with joy (which proved problematic, as I’m a tall man and I was in a low ceilinged room at the time). So why is this here? Because it falls into the trap many films based on real events do, it lacks any kind of structure whatsoever. Real life, alas, doesn’t have a convenient three act structure, things simply happen, one after another with no driving point to them at all. In this respect Charlie Wilson’s War should be praised for it’s realism. But alas as I’ve said before, realism does not good entertainment always make, and in this case it results in an unsatisfying film that has no real point or drive.
What should they have done – Individual parts of Charlie Wilson’s War are still wonderful, like seeing a US Congressman shout ‘Allah Akbar!’ and the fantastic character that is Hoffman’s CIA agent. All it needs is a more conventional structure, surely that shouldn’t be too hard?
Micheal Clayton – Beginning, Moment and End
Seeing as this is the last film I’m covering I’ll go straight to the meat of the issue; Micheal Clayton has far too little plot for it’s own good. It’s a thriller without twists, it goes something like “This corporation is poisoning people!” –> “We must find evidence!” –> “Oh, here it is”, which I hope I don’t have to tell you, is very unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t an especially short film, so I’m really at a loss to say where all that time went, the only solution I can think of is that it got eaten up by the inordinate amount of time taken on Micheal’s character and life, his waster brother, his gambling addiction etc etc. The only problem is that none of this proves very relevant to the plot, resulting in both sides being stunted and half realised.
What they should have done – Pick a side, you can have a character study or a lean legal thriller, not both, personally I recommend the latter, because that way you get to keep the excellent Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson.
So there you have it, a concerted analysis of the plotting problems of four films, both praised by the critics and given Oscar nominations, despite their significant flaws. I can only assume some sort of mass hysteria was involved, similar to the brief but telling time when everyone in Hollywood managed to convince themselves Titanic was good, we can only pray it doesn’t continue.
NB: I haven’t seen most of the rest of the nominations, except Juno (which has no problems with structure but some of the most infuriatingly awful dialogue imaginable) but I feel these represent an adequate cross section.