(Warning: I am going to spoil several movies for you here. Specifically, I am going to ruin “Chronicle,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Dark Victory.” If you don’t want to know what happens in these movies, click away immediately.)
(Still with me? Read on.)
Partner and I saw “Chronicle” a few months. It’s one of those “found footage” movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” all grainy video, supposedly filmed by the participants / characters themselves. The problem with these movies is that you have to find a pretext for the filming. In “Blair Witch,” they’re doing a documentary project. In “Paranormal,” they’re trying to figure out what’s going on in their house. The pretext in “Chronicle” is that one of the characters is being bullied and abused by his father, and is filming everything in an attempt to set up a shield around himself. This device becomes a little difficult later in the movie – almost a hindrance. After he becomes a maniacal supervillain, he sucks all the video devices out of the hands of the people in the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle and floats them around himself, to film himself. Crazy!
Anyway, the movie’s about teenagers who (for some reason) develop telekinesis. They get better and better at it. Then one of them gets really sad and depressed, and –
Then there’s a big fight scene. It was blurry and murky, unfortunately; I had a hard time who was doing what to whom. There was lots of smashing and crashing, anyway. Supervillain loses. Superhero zooms away.
And then – horrors – there’s an epilogue.
“Andrew!” our hero yelps into the camera. “You were a good guy! I know you were! I’m gonna figure this thing out, and – “
Honey, Andrew nearly destroyed the city of Seattle. He was not a good guy.
Also, that epilogue scene was pretty much an embarrassment. Too much; too cute; too obvious; too clearly a signal that, if this movie does well, we will have “Chronicle II.”
I was describing this scene to one of my student assistants, and she was giggling. “I think that final scene did it for me,” I told her. “Maybe they just should have chopped the movie off after the death of the villain, with the hero zooming off cryptically into the sky.”
And then it occurred to me, epiphanically: editing is important.
Ever seen “Dark Victory”? Bette Davis plays a wealthy Virginia horse-owner with an incurable illness. All she knows is that she is going to drop dead very suddenly; she will, however, go blind about fifteen minutes before the end. In the movie’s final scene, Bette’s working in the garden with her best friend, and says innocently, “Did the sun go behind a cloud?”
They suddenly realize what’s happening, and –
The whole thing takes only a few minutes. The screen fades to black. THE END.
Terrific ending. But then I read the original screenplay. In it, her widower and her best friend are at the races together, watching one of Bette’s beloved horses win the race. They look at each other tearily. “Wouldn’t she have loved it?” one says to the other.
Blech. Thank god they cut that scene.
Movies are generally much too long. Have you noticed, even in action movies, they slow down to accommodate love scenes and character-development scenes? (As if we care about characters development in something like “Fast Five”!) One of the things I love about older movies is that they’re often under 90 minutes. Moviemakers in those days understood the attention-span of the average viewer, and our impatience with silly details.
And sometimes the story needs to end in the dark. A movie called “Dark Victory” needs to end by fading to black. “Chronicle” needed a darker ending; the villain, a persecuted boy who gains superpowers and uses them badly, is a tragic character. We don’t need Light and Happiness; we need a moment to gather ourselves and move on. (Yes, I know, it’s basically a comic-book movie. Aren’t they all?)
One last editing story: the great movie “Sunset Boulevard.” A great silent-movie actress (played by the real-life silent-movie legend Gloria Swanson) has driven herself nutso believing she’ll make a comeback. She “hires” the handsome young William Holden to help her with the script that will reestablish her as a star. She ends up insane; he ends up dead.
In the release version of the movie, we open on a scene of a man running out onto a patio. We hear shots. He falls into a swimming pool face first. “Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard,” we hear William Holden intone wearly.
He is the dead man. He narrates the entire movie; we don’t see him, but we know it’s him, and we know he’s dead.
In the initial “Sunset Boulevard” production, which was shown to preview audiences, the opening of the movie went like this: the camera pans through a morgue, with bodies on slabs. Suddenly a body sits up and begins to speak …
The preview audience shrieked with laughter.
The director and producer were smart enough to realize that this was not the effect they were looking for.
Editing is important. And also: shorter is almost always better.
(And now that I’ve written this much-too-long entry, I ponder upon how I should accept this lesson into my own life.)