Last Friday I saw the opening of Cowboys & Aliens. Although engaging on an action and adventure scale, I found the film both hollow and lifeless. In other words, there was nothing in it that significantly reached me. But this blog entry is not merely a critical review of a newer film. I use it as a juxtaposition illustrating the systemic problem we have in cinema today: lack of story.
As an amateur auteur, I’m only in the beginning stages of developing my critical film analysis abilities. And so my initial thought upon leaving ‘Cowboys’ was… a blank slate. When asked what I thought of the film my reply was, “It was… okay? I guess I’d see it again. I was entertained.” Whether the struggle finding something meaningful in the story was exhausting or I was that disappointed, I went home and took a nap. I didn’t go into the film with any real cinematic expectations, but I still left feeling cheated. Come to think of it, that feeling seems to repeat far too often in viewing new films lately. I have to turn back the clock just to remember what it’s like to flow with the story rather than being dragged along like a chew toy.
Sunday I dusted off “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” a Truman Capote novel adapted by George Axelrod and directed by Blake Edwards. The story is very calculated in its arch and I find the characters accessible and relatable – in spite of Holly Golightly’s goal to be allusive and unobtainable. Even still, we find moments to peak inside her windows, finding a version of ourselves – the part of us that, too, is running from something. Tonight I watched Sydney Lumet’s “Running on Empty,” an original screenplay by Naomi Foner – a film I feel to be an intermediary between ‘Tiffany’s’ and ‘Cowboys,’ as they are developmentally distant through time. Sitting between Hollywood’s classic film structure and its “new age entertainment” pattern, “Running on Empty” gives us more time to identify with many of the characters personally. But in contrast to ‘Tiffany’s,’ ‘Empty’ smooths out the classic style’s quick two-step through longer pacing, giving the story more room to breathe.
In both films, ‘Tiffany’s’ and ‘Empty,’ the characters are running. Holly’s running is away from herself in an effort to escape the unpleasantness of reality. The ‘Manfields’ are running because of reality. Their running is a consequence of standing up for what they believe. But their running as a reality runs then head-on into a decisive confrontation: when is it a good idea to clip a bird’s wings and when is it better to let him fly? In both we join the characters on a journey – not just an external one, but one of intrinsic value. ‘Cowboys,’ and many films these days don’t take us on a journey. Rather we are walked like a dog around the block or simply across the street. I’m hard-pressed to find films that take me on a journey around a world revolving inside a human being. That’s what gives a story staying power and impact. Bring me don’t tell me.
So where have all the stories gone? Maybe they’ve been scooped up with the doggy-doo in an effort to ‘go green.’ Or maybe they’re buried in the backyard for safekeeping. If so, I think it’s time to dig them up and throw a dog a bone.