It's all fun and games until you get
shot trying to bury someone alive.

- Cleolinda

The Turn

Latter-day remarks appended at bottom.

15 November 2006

As I write this, The Prestige seems to be doing well in theatres, which is apparently surprising enough that at least a few critics have written about how surprising it is (usually pairing it with the similar modest success of The Illusionist).

What's startling to me is not that a movie with an actual plot, reasonable acting, and a decent script with interesting twists and turns has succeeded - although it startles me that Big Hollywood is always surprised when such films do succeed.

What's startling to me is that I had sort of thought the Plot Surprise Film was dead and buried, and that M. Nigh Unspellable (ok, fine, that's M. Night Shyamalan to you) had put the final nails in its coffin.

I'm not going to take this as a sign that people have learned to distinguish the good Plot Surprise Movies from the bad ones - I believe that would be overly optimistic of me, and would indicate a faith in the collective intelligence of the viewing public which I do not have - but it may mean that a few people still know the difference and are willing to talk up the good ones. Because The Prestige's attendance has got to be heavily driven by word of mouth, right? (Has there been any advertising for this movie at all?)

I am using the Plot Surprise Movie as something entirely distinct from the Plot Twist Movie. In the Plot Twist Movie you find out that the person you thought was a good guy is actually a bad guy, or that the bad guy is actually a good guy, or some such. (If you have one of each and they sleep with the same woman, it's called The Departed - except there the twists don't count as such because they are, as I understand it, not concealed from the audience.)

In a Plot Twist Movie the twist does not change the entire complexion of the movie - ok, the good guy is a bad guy, but the plot proceeds more or less with exactly what it was doing before, just at a slightly different angle and moved a few meters to the left. For this reason Plot Twist Movies generally reveal their twists as they go. In short, in a Plot Twist Movie, though they are fun, the twists don't usually make a hell of a lot of difference to the outcome.

In a Plot Surprise Movie the surprise usually changes the entire context of the film. The surprise generally happens fairly near the end of the film, at which point everything you thought you were seeing is revealed to have been something else entirely. The characters in the film, furthermore, may be aware of the surprise, as a mystery - they may be trying to figure out what's wrong with this picture as well.

The point of a Plot Twist is to jar the characters.

The point of a Plot Surprise is to jar the audience.

The characters must usually, by necessity, be jarred also, but that is ancillary.

Perhaps we should call them Twist Movies and Turn Movies respectively - The Turn, of course, being the stage in the magic trick where the wholly extraordinary happens (assuming you saw The Prestige).

The thing about Turn Movies is that, unlike a magic trick, they don't have to have a Prestige stage, where the world is put back to rights again. They can deliver their universe-shattering blow as a walkoff, roll credits, and unapologetically leave the audience staggering, sometimes without even paying lip service to explaining what they have just done.

But when a Turn Movie does this, it is almost always completely unsatisfying, and almost always a bad thing.

Here's the test of a good Turn Movie vs. a bad one, and it's very simple (and also very pertinent to the Shrunken Cinema, where the focus is repeat viewings at home): Would you see it again?

"When the secret's told, the trick is sold," says the old magic shop line. So, once the secret is told, do you want to see the trick performed again, or has it been spoiled for you? If you happen to hear or read the gimmick before you see the film, does it remove any desire to sit through the film that you may have had?

Dear old M. Nigh accidentally (sorry to be harsh, but it becomes clearer as his career progresses that it was accidental) made a good movie. It was called The Sixth Sense and it happened to be a Turn Movie. It's a pretty good Turn, one which still had plenty of mileage despite having been used several times before (notably in Jacob's Ladder, to which it bears a number of similarities) ... but here's the thing:

By comparing The Sixth Sense to Jacob's Ladder, I have allegedly "spoiled" either one movie or the other for you. (Of course, you could be one of those people who's seen both, but since about five people saw the latter film and I think they were all in the theatre with me, I'm betting that's a relatively small group.) If you know The Turn of one, you know it in the other.

But "spoiled" is in quotes there because I have not, in fact, spoiled either movie. Knowing the Turn does not in any way lessen either film - in fact, it may improve them - you can watch them knowing what the protagonist does not know and look for all the signs and portents. If you avoided seeing The Sixth Sense because you already knew the Turn, you missed a good film.

The next film M. Nigh made was not a Turn film. It is also a good film, called Unbreakable, and it has some interesting Twists, but no Turn. Unfortunately, nearly every critic in the United States did not understand what this film was, or lacked the sense of play needed to appreciate it, and the film sank like a stone, and M. Nigh took away the wrong lesson. He decided that from then on, the secret to success was to always have a Turn - sometimes at the expense of such niceties as believable characters or plots that made a lick of sense.

Signs is not an altogether bad film, especially when seen as a story about loss of faith and falling from grace, but that story is drowned by a plot about Very Bad Things Happening which completely swallows the subtler and better one. And having painted himself into a corner with the Very Bad Thing, M. Nigh has to come out of it with a Turn which ... well, let's just say there are credibility issues too big for even me to ignore. Does knowing the Turn in advance spoil the film? No ... but the film depends on the Turn to get people to come to it, and the film is not quite good enough to get asses into seats without it.

Then we have The Village. Now, I have not actually seen The Village, because it is the quintessential example of the Bad Turn Film. I am not going to tell you what the Turn is, but I will say that knowing what it is relieved me of any desire I had to see the film. What this means, in essence, is that the Turn turned out to be the only reason to want to see it. When it is removed, you do not merely have something shaky, as in Signs; you have nothing.

Although I believe it's possible to have a good Turn movie, one that you might actually want to see many times, I also find, going through my ledgers, that most movies considered Historically Great are not Turn movies. The ones which do have Turns tend to have very modest ones, ones which are about as inconsquential as can be. (Does knowing the identity of Rosebud really have any effect on one's viewing of Citizen Kane?)

I'm sitting here going through the contents page of The A List, the "100 essential films" book put together by the National Society of Grouches ... er, Film Critics ... and so far, apart from the nod to Kane, Chinatown is the only one on the list which comes close ... and I can't decide if it has a Turn or just a Twist, and anyway it's hardly what the film is about anyway - noirs are never about what they are about.

Blow-Up and Double Indemnity and Fargo and L.A. Confidential and Touch of Evil and Vertigo are extremely twisty, but they do not Turn (I concede that the last one, like Chinatown, has a borderline surprise lurking within). Rashomon is sort of a Turn movie, but it is actually about the subjective nature of memory and is not trying to hornswoggle the audience, so it's disqualified. Pulp Fiction is its own peculiar breed.

Perhaps we should try Ebert's list, as taken from The Great Movies. Hmm. No, it would more or less have the same names and the same reactions. Do I really need to wade through 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which does not have a table of contents per se? Perhaps just the genre lists. Ah, here's one under Action: Fight Club. (I dispute that Fight Club is an "action" film in the traditional sense, but I won't quibble.)

Fight Club is an interesting animal because there, knowing the big Turn does not weaken the story so much as make it an entirely different one. Mileage varies as to which story you like better. The problem is, the Turn happens early enough in the movie that if you dislike the story the movie then becomes, you're still stuck with it for quite a bit. Since there are a few pending matters you have an interest in seeing resolved by then, you are in the position of being trapped in a theatre watching the end of a movie that you suddenly dislike.

(Yes, I am one of those people - I dislike it when a film which has gone to great lengths to convince you it is grounded in reality, no matter how many weird things happen no wait there is a completely plausible explanation for that honest then suddenly throws its arms up in the air and says, "Nah, it's completely unbelievable, we've just been having you on all along." I wuz robbed. And yet I own a DVD of Fight Club and have rewatched it on several occasions. Go figure.)

That would be a digression, except that it covers the biggest hazard of the Turn movie: That the audience will feel cheated or betrayed. Oh, I'm sure it's fun for a filmmaker to pull the rug out from under the audience and watch them squirm, but it's not so much fun for the audience. That's why the good Turns, though they may change the plot, don't usually change what an audience has come to expect about a character.

For example, in The Prestige, knowing the secrets stings a little bit less because we have already had it demonstrated to us that both of the main characters are, in a word, assholes - almost completely unsympathetic figures. (Or is that just me?) So it doesn't matter.

But finding out that Edward Norton's character in Fight Club (and here we come the closest to an actual spoiler in this essay, be warned) is not the lone stable point in an unstable universe but is in fact the epicenter of the instability, and furthermore is unstable in a way which is totally, completely, absolutely unbelievable - well, that's just a crock.

One of the reasons I have been digging through "best of" lists is to find out to what extent people are skeptical of Turns in general - I'm wondering if the very presence of a Turn automatically cheapens a film, to some degree, in some viewers' minds.

I certainly think it is possible that the Society of Grouches sees a Turn and says, "Well, that's a gimmick film, we certainly can't have any of those on our list" - in fact I think it's probable, they're persnickety that way. I don't know how far that extends to real people ... you know, the kind who see films just to enjoy themselves and don't worry too much about whether they are an art form or who gets admitted to the club.

It's also true, in fairness, that these films are not thick on the ground. One thing about the Turn film is that it's fairly hard to write, even to write badly, and fairly hard to sell if it has limited repeat-viewing value (unless it's so freakin' convoluted that you expect people to have to watch it twenty times just to figure out what happened).

And on the third hand, given how hard Turn films apparently are to do well, perhaps we should be grateful that factors conspire to prevent there being more of them.

14 June 2014

In October 2010, the last time I had a look at this essay, I said "The only addendum I have is that more and more people agree with my assessment of M. Nigh Unspellable with each new film bearing his name. I love to be right. It happens so seldom."

But I think, putting aside the pleasant collapse of M. Nigh's career, I do have a little more to add now.

I'm not sure I stand firmly behind my distinction between Twists and Turns any more. It seems to me there's a lot more wiggle room between the two than I'd thought. Twist or Turn, the important question is the same: If you knew the secret in advance, would you still want to see the film? Or its variant: Once you know the secret, will you ever want to see the film again?

These days the question of spoilers is more important than ever, what with every film instantly being dissected on social media within moments of its hitting the theatres, and often well before then. In the world where everyone's a critic, the arguments about how careful one must be when discussing the plot of a film, and whether rigorous anti-spoiler measures inhibit that discussion, seem to be getting more frequent and more heated.

I don't have a horse in this race, but I'll note yet again that if the film is good enough, spoilers don't matter. It's true they may make the initial viewing less fun - no one should be spoiled for Sleuth if they can help it, but knowing the gaff has not kept me from watching it many times since then. And in some cases it really may not make a difference; may, in rare cases, actually improve the film. When I saw The Crying Game I guessed the Twist much earlier than the film wanted me to - but that made the film more entertaining for me. Sometimes it's fun to know what the characters don't. (On the other hand, I haven't seen the film again since I saw it in the theatres, but I'm not sure the reasons why have anything to do with the Twist.)

I also haven't seen The Prestige again. But the reasons have nothing to do with its Turns. It's a mean-hearted movie, with a lot of very bad things happening between two basically unpleasant people, and while I certainly don't regret having seen it once, I see no reason to subject myself to it again.

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