Closer, but no cigar

posted 17 February 2005

Ooopsie, failed to blog yesterday. So take a bonus extra-long blog today.

So, I went to see Closer with Ade yesterday. I can't say I thought much of it. If you've yet to see this movie, stop reading, because spoilers start now.



So, what was in this movie?

  • Three extremely pretty people
  • Some extremely good acting on the part of Natalie Portman
  • Excellently written dialogue

So why didn't I like it? I had a few minor gripes, like Julia Roberts being entirely unconvincing as a photographer, and Jude Law entirely too energetic and focussed to be a failed anything, far less an obituary writer. And overall, it was just blah. The plot rolled along in a 100% predictable fashion. I mean, it was a play before it was a movie, so lots of people would have known the plot already going in. But even the plot of the play was predictable. Nothing surprised me, no new ideas were presented, no emotion was provoked. It was just watching an excellently-portrayed slice of some other people's not particularly believable lives, and life is an endlessly tedious affair.

I often feel obscurely guilty about not liking "good" movies: the ones people say are great, like Apocalypse Now, often just don't do anything to me. I've always felt that this is because movies, like books, can do two things: they can tell a story, or they can introduce new ideas. If they are very good, they can do both at the same time, but usually they concentrate on one or the other. However, I only like the latter.

The thing about stories that bores me is that there's nothing new in them. They take a kaleidoscope of elements and give it a shake: sure, it's different every time, and it can even be pretty, but ultimately it's limited unless you but something else into the can. The new ideas are the new sparkles in the can, and a story with no new sparkles is just boring. Stories set in the real world, and the current day, are the absolute worst: they deliberately refuse to add any sparkles. The best that a story set in the present day can do is be 100% believable. But once this mark is reached -- although it's quite difficult -- there's nowhere to go, and in fact you've not gone very far. You've just rearranged bits of other people's lives into a new shape. Whereas when you start adding new ideas, there's no limit to how far you can take things.

Anyone who knows me has heard this argument time and again, as justification of my reading nearly exclusively science fiction, but actually that's not my genre: my genre is stories with new ideas, which are found predominantly in science fiction, but also in other genres -- the genre-busting work of Neal Stephenson, whose book Quicksilver I am currently reading, being a good example.

So that's what I didn't like about Closer: the lack of anything new. But then, Ade pointed out a few things, like the cigarettes being a metaphor for their relationships. And it made me think: maybe it's not that it was a crap movie. Maybe I just didn't get it. Maybe I'm a philistine. Maybe the reason I miss things (like the emotions of others) in real life is that, like movies, I think I understand everything I see but am really not even scratching the surface. Maybe there were new things to see in there, and I didn't see them.

I may be overreacting. But I often feel about songs, the way that people who love movies say they feel when explaining movies to me: that people miss huge chunks of hidden meaning and extra references and homages and double entendres and clever ideas and imaginative changes. Because people don't listen to music, they just hear the pretty noises. So am I a movie philistine? Do I just watch the pretty pictures instead of seeing the story? It's a horrible thought for someone who's as much of an intellectual snob as I am, I can tell you. And of course, there's the implication that I may be doing it in real life as well: seeing the obvious but missing the subtext. An even more regrettable loss.

So what to do about it? How can I be sure that I'm not missing the clever bits in movies? Suggestions on a postcard (or in the comment box at the top-right of this post) please...

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