Now, granted, I tried to watch this while half-dozing and not feeling well. But I still thought that, for an international espionage thriller, it was as boring as watching paint dry. I like Clive Owen, I like Naomi Watts. I like Naomi Watts a lot. Yet I found nothing in this to compel me towards the lead characters.
Clive walked and ran around looking intent, sweaty, and sort of dirty. Oh, and angry. Watts walked around looking intellectual and weirdly distant. Weird because she was supposed to be playing a passionate district attorney. The supporting cast of sinister bad guys all looked alike. I had trouble remembering which dark-haired white guy with an accent was supposed to be a bad guy, a good guy, or a traitor.
See, that’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of the Hollywood casting system. In a movie, we gets a few minutes to fix in our heads who each character is and what their relationship. Often the characters superficially look alike. We in the audience rely on clothing, hairstyles, voice qualities, body language, dialog, and a host of other things to tell us who a character is. We also rely, strongly, on character actors.
I love character actors. They are an amazing mental shorthand for filmmakers. I wish more people would use the power of the character actor. Character actors make it easier for an audience familiar with films to slot the characters into position, to remember who is who. More importantly, character actors cue the audience as to how we are supposed to feel about the character. Whether we’re supposed to trust them or not, whether they mean well or are sinister.
When I watch movies made outside the U.S., or with actors outside Hollywood, I find there’s a steeper curve of understanding for me. I lack the cues of clothing and hairstyle that tell me things about social class and education. None of the faces stand out very much, and I can’t keep track of which character is which. These hurdles can be overcome, of course, by paying close attention, or by re-watching a part to catch someone’s name again.
I wonder, though, how universal this experience is. Whether this is part of what keeps audiences away from foreign films and unfamiliar casting. It’s not that we wouldn’t like the story, it’s that the difficulty threshold is too high to be fun. Is this audience laziness? Is it laziness on my part?
Probing at this brings into question the entire purpose of filmed storytelling. On one level, it is the job of the filmmaker to make everything in the movie as transparently easy for the audience as possible — except the part of the movie the audience is supposed to pay attention to. In a mystery, everything should be easy for the audience except the question of who did it, and why. In a romantic drama everything should be easy except the question of how the lovers will be torn apart this time. In an action film everything should be easy except the question of whether the hero will overcome his past trauma to engage the crisis one more time. While I’m watching the lead hero and villain negotiate across the bomb, I should not be wondering whether the villain was the same guy who poisoned the reservoir or not.
But that still doesn’t answer the question — is the reliance on character actors and familiar faces to convey meaning a boon or a problem? Does my reliance on it make me a lazy viewer? Does a filmmaker’s refusal to use familiarity as a tool for easing the viewer’s entry into the story make them a bad filmmaker?
I can think of foreign films that leaped this hurdle with ease. Run Lola Run was a great film and incredibly easy to watch. Femme Fatale is a Brian De Palma film with a cast I largely did not recognize, yet I had no trouble following the cast and story. Luc Besson’s movies feature international casts with whom I am frequently unfamiliar, yet I love them. Is this because Besson uses some sort of “Hollywood sensibility,” — I’m not even sure what that means — to make his films accessible to me? Or is he just a good filmmaker, better than some others at establishing characters and scene?
Characters design is crucially essential, regardless of medium. In the submission I sent off to SLG this week, they ask for a sheet of character design. In an interview I recently heard with Paul Levitz, he described the differences between writing scripts for comics and animation, and the impossible-to-undervalue contribution of the voice actor to character design in animation. When I was fangirling people at Baltimore Comic-Con, one of the things I thanked them for was good character design. In the most recent Detective Comics, Cully Hamner drew a panel of a room full of unidentified Mexican women the audience has never seen before — and they all look different from each other. Kudos to you, Mr. Hamner. That one panel did a better job for character identification for me than the entire first hour of The International.
Filed under: Analysis, Comics, MoviesTV | Tagged: clive owen, cully hamner, detective comics, naomi watts, the internaational | 4 Comments »