Sunday, October 31, 2010

Weekly Rant: Missing Links

It’s not unusual for me to be irritated by reviews of Clint Eastwood films. I’ve said it several times now, though perhaps never within the main body of a post here at this blog, that I think Eastwood is the most coddled of directors. Even when his films mostly work, they have a habit of being repetitive, hokey and repulsively on-the-nose, and yet somehow critics rarely give Eastwood’s errors more than a perfunctory aside, usually on the way to another compliment. Even in the case of the sloppy and lackluster Hereafter, which despite some worshipful outliers has been significantly criticized, most of the disdain has been reserved for the screenwriter, Peter Morgan. Rightfully so, in this case, but the larger point still remains: Eastwood gets away with stuff that gets George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan drawn and quartered.

But this week’s rant isn’t about Eastwood or the kid gloves treatment he tends to receive from critics. It’s about another troublesome trend that I noticed when reading reviews of Hereafter: the tendency to (hyper)link that film to Paul Haggis’ Crash and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel. The comparison is by no means out of bounds. Not entirely. All three films feature characters who begin the film unlinked only to have their plot lines overlap by movie’s end, sometimes in (supposedly) profound ways. In an effort to describe that basic phenomenon, it’s a fitting comparison. Trouble is, those so called “hyperlink narratives” are more unalike than they are similar, and observing them as part of one niche genre threatens to obscure what these films are really about, what they’re trying to do.

Allow me to explain …

Haggis’ Crash is specifically about interconnectivity and the Domino effect of prejudice, fear and hate. As such, it’s a film that’s essentially meaningless if the characters are unlinked, because it’s only in tying these characters together that Haggis can explore (in his very heavy-handed manner) how people carry past experiences into future interactions. The film’s thesis is that we are connected in ways that we cannot avoid and that only by reaching out to one another – by linking – can we see people for who they really are. And it’s by making the film’s characters victims and perpetrators of prejudice that Haggis conveys the cyclical nature of fear and hate. In Crash, these links aren’t just narrative devices linking these stories, they are a core component the story's theme.

Inarritu’s Babel is different. It’s about universality, not interconnectivity – and those aren’t quite the same. Sure, like Crash, its characters are connected: a Japanese businessman sells a rifle to his hunting guide in Africa, who in turn sells it to a poor Moroccan goat herder, who gives the gun to his sons, who shoots at a tour bus and wounds an American tourist, who because of her wound doesn’t get back home to the United States in time to relieve her live-in maid and child caretaker, who thus takes the American children with her to Mexico to attend the wedding of her son. But, unlike Crash, the narrative chain linking these characters together is simply a decorative ribbon that neatly binds the film’s disparate chapters. Babel, unlike Crash, is not about a Domino effect. In truth, its stories don’t need to be linked by narrative because they are already linked by theme: the frustrating isolation that comes from our cultural or linguistic differences. To suggest that Babel is about that small and insubstantial narrative thread is to suggest that the film is exploring the trickle-down dangers of selling a weapon after a hunting expedition. Or, it's to suggest that Babel is about is about its segues, which would be akin to focusing more on the dissolves between scenes than on the scenes themselves. Babel and Crash are both hyperlink films, sure, but they have entirely different reasons for using that design.

And that brings us to Eastwood’s Hereafter, which falls somewhere between those two films. For most of its running time, Hereafter isn’t a movie about the interconnectivity of Matt Damon’s George (in America), Cecile De France’s Marie (in France) and Frankie McLaren’s Marcus (in England), and so in that sense there’s no meaning to be found in the way the characters ultimately influence one another. Then again, by the end of its awkward final act, Hereafter becomes a love story, which of course makes the joining of at least two of the characters greatly meaningful. That I can’t tell whether Hereafter intends to assign significance to these links (like Crash) or simply joins these characters in order to decorate its deeper thematic examinations (like Babel) says everything about the film’s frustrating indefiniteness.

But this isn’t a review of Hereafter, it’s a warning about the dangerousness of connecting films too casually. I understand why people spot general structural similarities among Crash, Babel and Hereafter, but those similarities are just that: general and structural. In theme and intent, these "hyperlink films" are quite different. In that sense, grouping these films is as misleading as it is instructive. One of the films is specifically about interconnectivity. One of them is about universality. And the other one is about, well, you tell me.


Fletch said...

I see what you're going for here, but I really can't say that it bothers me all that much. If I were to describe Hereafter to someone, I would probably bring up Babel, if only to describe that which you didn't bring up until the end of your post: the structure. There are enough people out there that get bothered enough by the structure that it warrants mentioning, and Babel is even more deserving of being brought up because so many people are fraidy cats when it comes to foreign languages, and each film is significantly non-English.

But no, their themes don't match up at all. The chracters in Hereafter might end up getting connected, but it's certainly not about inter-connectivity.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fletch: I tried to acknowledge from the outset that, indeed, there are ways in which these films are quite similar in general structure. No doubt about it. And yet ...

"...There are enough people out there that get bothered enough by the structure that it warrants mentioning ..."

I guess I fail to understand what's so bothersome about the structure of telling a movie in which characters are related by a broader theme instead of by their physical proximity to one another. I know you're speaking for others here, but I guess my point is this: Are people really bothered by the lack of geographic proximity in, say, Babel, or is it something else? If someone is bothered by the structure alone, then, sure, I guess Hereafter might not work for that person either. But it seems like such a strange thing to have a problem with, and it seems we're misleading people by suggesting these films are more alike than they are. For example, Raging Bull, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby are all about boxing, but are they remotely alike?

Anyway, thanks for the comment. I don't want to say I'm splitting hairs here, because what I'm trying to do is advocate against poor, skin-deep comparisons. But I do realize that I'm taking issue with something that, in the grand scheme of things, is a granular issue.