Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Movies With Radical Tone Shifts

WARNING: This post contains three spoilers for movies that were made in the 60's. 

Yesterday I talked about getting overly existential on the bus. But that wasn't the only thing we did on the bus. After we devoted a good hour to existential-window-gazing we entertained ourselves by watching the movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman on my laptop. This is an old film from the 1960's, which I would classify in a special category of Films Which Lure You into Thinking They Will Be Lighthearted Throughout, But Take an Unexpectedly Dark Turn. 

The whole film appears to be fun comedy about the trials of prison life as seen by Paul's character Cool Hand Luke, who is brazen, cavalier and "cool". The majority of the movie is humorous prison life episodes: Cool Hand Luke bets the camp that he can eat 50 eggs. Hilarious! Cool Hand Luke and the gang ogle a woman washing her car. So funny! (Actually, blatant sexism) But then the end of the movie is tragic. You are left feeling like, "How did we go from Paul Newman stuffing his face with eggs to Paul Newman getting shot in the neck in an abandoned church in the rain?!"

Another film in this category is The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. SPOILER ALERT: This movie starts out fun and lighthearted. The gang at the POW camp are resourceful and cunning as they plot the escape. Many fun times occur, involving Steve McQueen's character implacably bouncing a baseball in solitary confinement. Or one character surreptitiously emptying pocketfuls of tunnel dirt through his pants legs into the prison yard. But in the last ten minutes the mood of the film changes. One minute Steve McQueen is zipping across the European countryside on his stolen motorbike and the next minute almost every major character gets gunned down in a field.

Then of course there is West Side Story. This may not count, because it is a musical and may be better considered under that light. But here too we have a joyful, lighthearted first act in which Natalie Wood as Maria sings a song about "feeling pretty and witty and gay" in a shop full of fluffy dresses. Fast forward to a major shoot out in the grungy streets of New York City.

May I also complain about something that has always bothered me about this movie? Natalie Wood is super old! She is portraying a 15 year old, but she was 33 at the time the movie was made. I can never get over this when I watch the movie, which is otherwise great. I have the same problem with Olivia Newton-John in Grease. She was 30. I guess I should try to be happy for them, especially since Hollywood favors younger actors so much.

OK, getting back to the topic at hand:

I think that the genre of Films Which Lure You into Thinking They Will Be Lighthearted Throughout, But Take an Unexpectedly Dark Turn is becoming obsolete, because modern audiences can't handle the shift in tone. Take me as a representative of my generation. See how upset I was that I couldn't predict the whole tone of the film? We have become a viewing culture which expects our films to fall neatly into one of a few categories. If the movie is funny then it is a comedy. If it has spaceships in it then it is SciFi. But a movie that is funny and sad? Whaaaaat? That's not what the package indicated!

Our generation wants the package to tell us everything about the contents so that there are no surprises. Think about how movie trailers these days give away almost every good scene of the movie. They want to lure audiences into seeing the movies by showing the best cards in their hand. It is not surprising in a culture where we have access to any genre, any music and any movie we want. Because we have the power of infinite choice we must make sure everything falls cleanly into one category.

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