Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Two Tales of Two Cities

I watched Leaving Las Vegas a few weeks ago. This film was widely considered to be one of the best films of 1995, and was nominated for 4 Oscars, resulting in a Best Actor win for Nicholas Cage. Having heard a lot of good things, I was looking forward to watching it. Only thing was, after watching it, I wasn't that impressed. For the purposes of comparison, I'd like to bring one of my favorite films, Lost In Translation, into the discussion. One several levels the two films share a lot of similarities. They're both about two people who meet one another in an urban landscape and use the other person as a lifeline of sorts. Both films were independently financed and shot on location, without always having the appropriate permits in place. Both films were critically acclaimed. Leaving Las Vegas was written and directed by Mike Figgis. Lost In Translation was written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Despite these similarities, however, Figgis and Coppola made drastically different choices in how they told their respective stories. Allow me to explain things more clearly . . . which you'll have to if you intend to finish reading, since I'm the one writing this. So there.

First and foremost, while I do not consider myself to be a very technical person, I still notice when certain things seem out of whack. In the case of Leaving Las Vegas, I found myself annoyed at director Mike Figgis' constant use of camera gimmicks that didn't really do anything to help the picture. For example, when Ben (Cage) is driving to Las Vegas early in the film, Figgis resorts to speeding things up by showing the road in a sort of "fast forward." In addition, at several points in the film, Figgis suddenly slows things down in some kind of herky-jerky slow motion that comes across as very awkward. I'm still not completely sure what he was trying to achieve by that. As I said, I'm not very technical. I consider myself to be a writer and find myself much more interested by facets of plot and character than I do by camera angles and the like. However, while watching Leaving Las Vegas, I found myself consistently thinking "Oh, I wouldn't have done that." What's more, there are incidents that take place that are supposed to take place in Ben's mind, but I only found that out because I did some online research about the film after watching it. Now, I'm not completely against camera tricks and dream sequences. There have been many films in which I thought such techniques proved to be highly successful, like Jackson's use of slow motion at the end of the Moria sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, or Minghella's decision to make Almasy's scream of grief a silent one in The English Patient. What strikes me as strange about these choices on Figgis' part is the fact that they don't serve the story at all. Instead, they only call attention to themselves and, for my money, seem painfully self-conscious. On the other hand, in Lost In Translation, Coppola never resorts to any of these tricks to tell her story. If someone's going somewhere, her camera follows them there at 24 frames a second. Additionally, Leaving Las Vegas is an hour and 52 minutes long. With a lot of these gimmicky things removed, the running time would have been reduced, but I think the story would have been served a lot better. Think about it, without a lot of these gimmicks, the focus would have been squarely on the characters, without distractions.

However, I'm not entirely convinced that Ben and Sera's love story is completely viable. Now, pay attention here to one very important word. Completely. I don't want to suggest for a minute that their relationship feels totally false, because that would be a disservice to Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue's fine work. They manage to create two sympathetic characters, and have a few gripping moments. Despite this, I still had a problem accepting their relationship on the terms that were given. Now, there's a difference here between my understanding of what's supposed to be going on vs. my acceptance of what's actually taking place on screen. As the film progressed, I wasn't sure exactly why these two people needed one another. One thing that doesn't help are the moments in which the writing in Leaving Las Vegas becomes an example of what I call the "non sequiter screenplay." This is a phenomenon that occurs when how one character responds is inconsistent to what was just said by another character. For a good modern example, watch As Good As It Gets. That film has it in spades. This really tends to annoy me anytime it occurs in a film I'm watching. Now, in the case of Lost In Translation, there's significantly less dialogue than Leaving Las Vegas, but it's always consistent. Additionally, the love story seems much more believable in that, in Coppola's film, I understand exactly why Bob and Charlotte need to be together and, what's more, I buy that reasoning in the first place. This takes us back to the question of understanding vs. acceptance. In Lost In Translation, I understand and accept the relationship for what it is, but, in Leaving Las Vegas, I understand the relationship without fully accepting it.

In the end, it might not seem fair to compare two films as different as Lost In Translation and Leaving Las Vegas. It might even seem stupid, considering how different these two films are in terms of tone. Despite that, when I think of the two and the way that Coppola and Figgis told their respective stories, I have to give a massive edge to Coppola. Her restrained touch created a mood in her film that you just can't fake. On the other hand, Figgis' techniques seems much more forced and self-conscious. Maybe this says more about my own preferences than it does about them. Who knows? After watching Leaving Las Vegas, I went online and did some reading of what Roger Ebert had to say about the film when it was released and what he had to say when he added it to his Great Movies list. The film he talked about sounded really good. I would have liked to have seen it.


FilmNinja said...

It's been a while since I've seen Leaving Las Vegas. I remember not being totally into it either. But I think the camera choices you are referring to are meant to make us understand his perspective of the world, due to his extreme drinking. Hence the fast and slow motion effects. I agree that some directors will try to replace substance with forced style . . . but I'm not sure that was the case here.

I'm not really sure they are the best films to compare. It's an interesting approach. In the one, the characters relationship is one of support because their lives are so messed up when they are alone. But the other, is more that they are lonely, and being with one another is refreshing. Also - both girls are hard to resist.

Adam said...

I still think that the comparison has merit. I mean, it's not a perfect comparison, because they're very different films and use drastically different methods to achieve emotional impact. But, overall, there are an awful lot of similarities surrounding their creation that make for an interesting juxtaposition of the choices each writer-director made.

As for your thought that the fast and slow motion effects represent the way he sees things, I still think that it was a poor decision on the director's part. It really felt exaggerated to me. If Figgis was going for the character's perspective, he could have done a much better job. To use a recent example, think about the way that PTA let us in on the little boy's hearing loss in "There Will Be Blood." There aren't a bunch of them, but there a few shots where we hear exactly as much as he hears. Anderson doesn't dwell on it a ton, and, after that sequence, he never does it again, but it's very effective. Figgis' attempts at . . . whatever he was attempting, on the other hand, just feel false to me, for some reason.

I completely agree that it is hard to resist Shue or Scarlett J. Who would want to?

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping more filmakers sign a Dogme 95-esque treaty when it comes to camera work.

Seriously, the slow motion, hand held, and extreme zoom in's have to stop. Every action film and thriller thinks is CSI or Bourne nowadays.

Adam said...

Tell me about it. I am tired of seeing films and being unable to tell what's going on during action scenes. As a professional martial artist, I really enjoy fight scenes. I WANT to see what's going on. That was one of the biggest improvements that The Dark Knight made over Batman Begins. You really were able to see how hard Batman was hitting people, as opposed to the "ninja-cam" Nolan used in Batman Begins.

Say what you will for the quality of the film itself, but think about Spielberg's latest Indiana Jones film. The man KNOWS how to cut an action scene. Can you name an action scene where you didn't know exactly where everyone was spatially and what was happening around them?

That's my biggest beef with guys like Paul Greengrass. They forget that the viewer has and I'd argue needs a sense of spatial orientation in order for the scene to work. So, as the camera shakes to try to enhance the sense of "realism," I just get frustrated. I remember watching The Bourne Supremacy again a few months ago. During the big car chase scene, I actually got bored. I don't think that's what they were going for . . .

Anonymous said...

I remember this same convo we had back on facebook over the summer, haha! Dead right, the only reasoning I have for that is that maybe they make it like that since it puts you in the perspective and they think that makes their film more real and authentic which is just silly to me.

Very true, the truck chase scene in Raiders is still my favorite action sequence in cinema and today's directors could learn a lot from his camera work.

As did I, like I said above I think its more due to the trend of everything today having to "keep it real" but films have never been about reality to me, the first thing I learned in my documentary class is that once something is put to film, reality goes out the window. Yeah, if I was in a deadly fight like with a bunch of guys and got hit in the head I would be disorentied but I'm not so I actually want to see the moves in plain view and I don't care if that strikes some people as fake or put on.