Less is More

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

"The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter," Raymond Chandler once wrote. The corrolary of this rule in the movie world is "the cheaper the story, the gaudier the special effects."

The quiet drama in which a gun never appears, and the things at stake are small but extremely meaningful, should be declared an endangered species. Two examples I can think of from the past year are Gods and Monsters, where an aging gay man in Hollywood searches for a little attention and respect, and Dancer, Texas, which tracks four high school graduates in a small town during a day and night when they decide whether to leave town forever the next morning. These movies tend to get drowned out in the usual glare; the general degradation of Hollywood is continually advanced by the need to spend more money and attract more attention by putting more flash on the screen. The best way to do this is through violence, and more of it, on a grander scale. Last summer was the one where you could watch New York City being destroyed in three expensive movies; two of them portrayed the Chrysler building falling.

Of course, when you are spending so much money on a special effects extravaganza, the choice of plots able to carry the necessary load is very limited, dictating that we see the same movie over and over: terrorist threatens to blow up city; monster attacks city; asteroid strikes city. As a result, these films, which cost so much and required so much effort, merge into each other irretrievably. We watch bored as one more couple races against time to disarm one more bomb (in recent years, more often a nuclear weapon than a conventional one). As she says, "Cut the blue wire, not the red wire", we ask ourselves why terrorists always obligingly attach a readout which tells the protagonists how much time they have left. Why not create a device that blows up unexpectedly?

For some reason, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had an unspoken convention not to give Oscars to the kind of movies it mainly makes, the huge, expensive special effects films with no story. As a result, in recent years we have increasingly seen the phenomenon of Oscars awarded to small, often inexpensive, independent films. Of course, what happens next is that the directors of these small prizes get co-opted, direct big budget Hollywood films and disappear off the screens as effective artists.

Here are a few more random examples of "less is more": The Blair Witch Project, which belies the recent comment of a Hollywood horror screenwriter who said that every horror movie must involve "seven beheadings"; John Huston's Fat City, a quiet, stark little boxing movie which effectively serves as the counter-Rocky; his wonderful last movie, The Dead, which tracks the effect of memory and regret on an insecure college professor across a single evening ("the snow was general all over Ireland"); Joseph Losey's The Go-Between, about a message delivered fifty years too late.

While I started this essay by observing that a drama about a lost letter can be more effective than one in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, even movies that rely on action or violence are more effective when they use less of it. Certain horror movies and films noir illustrate this point.

Blair Witch proves that a horror movie with a maximum of suggestion and a minimum of violence can be very effective. Kubrick proved the same point years ago in The Shining. "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" could be the motto of these movies. Blair Witch shows us fear in a bundle of twigs; The Shining's most horrifying moment was when we discover that the manuscript Jack Nicholson is typing consists of the same sentence over and over: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." The Shining also contains a maximum of suggestion and little violence. Such movies make the audience participate; we must meet the story more than half way as opposed to being "entertained" by cataclysmic effects we will have forgotten an hour later.

Of course, many thought-provoking and effective human stories have been told involving a gun, and I am not opposed to these in principle. But as with any special effect, the more guns, and the more often they are used, the less story there is. An intensely dramatic movie could involve a single gun, in a brown paper bag, which is fired only at the end; a film in which the guns are huge automatic weapons strapped to the actor's body, and fired every minute, achieves a boring sameness and high noise level which lulls the audience into a kind of sleep.

Contrast two recent honorable attempts at film noir. Both are character-based movies; both work out the moral opposition of two men to its violent conclusion. In Heat, Al Pacino is a detective trying to catch Robert DeNiro, a thief. In its denouement, the two men are alone, running, frightened, in a huge empty space (in this case an airport): a classic noir ending. But along the way there is a huge, jangling shoot-out, with DeNiro and his men firing machine guns, glass splintering, cars blowing up, dozens of police and bystanders shot. The scene doesn't belong there and it distorts the moral development of the movie. It has invaded the film from one of the Lethal Weapon series, perhaps; it is cartoonish, inappropriate and makes DeNiro out a monster, which the movie otherwise carefully avoids. One imagines a Hollywood producer saying "This movie is too quiet to make money; we need a shoot-out."

In Copland, the wonderful second effort by the independent director James Mangold, the morally opposed characters are Sylvester Stallone, the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, a town inhabited mainly by New York City police, and Harvey Keitel, the corrupt cop who founded the town. In this film, there is minimal violence until the stark final shoot-out, performed in complete silence (Stallone has gone temporarily deaf); only five or six shots are fired. The ending has the simplicity of Westerns like High Noon or the much less well-known Firecreek; the characters are stalking each other on sidewalks and the stairways of houses, with weapons that cannot punch through walls or ignite cars.

Recently I saw The Thief of Baghdad for the first time. This movie won the special effects Oscar for 1940; the effects are laughably poor by modern standards. When Sabu turns into a dog, he does not morph; the director simply stopped the camera and substituted dog for boy. A huge flying genie is obviously a doll suspended from a wire. But the effect is that the movie is charming in a way its modern equivalent could never be; we get to enjoy the relationship between Prince Ahmed and Abu the thief, and we listen to the dialog, in a way we never could in a contemporary film, which would roar at us nonstop for two hours.

The last couple of nights we have been watching Lawrence of Arabia again, which illustrates that even in a spectacle, less is more. The director, David Lean, manages to use the large canvas of a wide screen as a cool medium, by showing us most scenes set in huge expanses of sand. Much of the action is viewed very distantly, and we often see just one or two small figures in the midst of emptiness. So, though the movie involves expensive effects-- trains being blown up, dawn raids with hundreds of men riding camels-- it calls on the audience to fill the emptiness (just as the characters themselves must be big men to live in the desert).

There is no practical reason why Hollywood could not make smaller movies. For the price of a dog like The Avengers Hollywood could finance hundred of Blair Witches; the success of just one would return the investment.