Meet the Reader: A New Hope?

In True Grit, the Coen Brothers have dispensed with the games and instead put their faith and energy into their story and their people. The result is a very entertaining and moving film... one of their best.

This year’s slate of Oscar nominees has given me some much-needed hope for the movies.

It’s the first time in a long time that I have felt that all of the nominees are genuinely worthy – that all those cited have done really good work in really good films–rather than feeling (as I frequently have in the past few years) that one or two of them are decent and that the rest are there just because the rules say that there have to be five nominees. Even the recently expanded ten-nominee Best Picture list, which was visibly padded last year, contains a very respectable slate of honorees this time around. And the reason that I feel this way? It’s simple: 2010’s movies were pretty darn good, which is very, very good news indeed.

I’ve been pessimistic about the state of movies for a long time now. I don’t think there’s any disputing that the last decade or so has been a rough one for the cinema. Except for the lovely gems generated by Pixar and one or two other exceptions, most studio fare has been pretty rancid – gimmicky, high-concept tripe filled with much too much CGI and not nearly enough soul. Independent films haven’t been much better, having become as dreary and formulaic as their studio brethren – I mean, if I have to sit through one more movie about a quirky, alienated loner or an eccentric dysfunctional family, I’m going to have to shave my soul patch and turn in my all-access SXSW pass.

Even foreign films, so often an exciting source of inspiration in the past, have been lacking recently – frequently resembling the obscure, pretentious borefests that they are sometimes parodied as being more than they do the daring, invigorating masterworks of the past. There have been more than a few points when I have begun to wonder if maybe this was it – maybe we had exhausted all of the cinema’s possibilities. Maybe we had worn out the art and the craft. Maybe movies were over.

The first three quarters of 2010 did not do much to alleviate this anxiety: with the exception of Toy Story 3 and Inception, the summer movies were just dreadful, and don’t get me started on Greenberg. But then, in the last quarter of the year, something wonderful happened. A whole slew of movies were released that were not just good, but very good and perhaps even great: The Social Network, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, The Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, and True Grit. I’m not saying that any of these movies are perfect. I can’t even say that I liked all of them. But there is no denying that every one of them was smart; had an interesting, well-written story; was very well made; and full of really good performances.

Even better, audiences have really responded to these films. One of the most heartening experiences that I have had at the movies in a long time was when I went to see The King’s Speech. I certainly enjoyed the film, which is wonderfully written and superbly acted, but what I enjoyed even more was the audience’s reaction to it. There was no hooting or hollering or overt carrying on, but just a few minutes in it was obvious that the audience had totally embraced the movie. They were so caught up in this very good and decent film about very good and decent people that they fully invested themselves in the narrative and the characters: they shared Bertie’s embarrassments, frustrations, and eventual triumph; they laughed and cried in all the right places and when the movie was over and the lights came up, it was obvious from everyone’s comments that they had been thoroughly entertained, as well as deeply moved. And the best part was that everyone had gone through this together. It was one of those happy “communal experience in the dark” moments that don’t happen much anymore, but remind us of what movie-going used to be—and can still be—all about.

Something else that’s been heartening about all of these movies is that they are all examples of classical narrative storytelling in the grand tradition. Regular readers of this column will know that I feel that too many recent movies and screenplays have been overloaded with storytelling gimmicks: non-linear narratives, a surfeit of flashbacks and flashasides, too much narration, and so on and so on. On occasion, these devices have been employed effectively in the service of a piece’s theme and story and so have worked like gangbusters, but most of the time they mostly seem like distractions designed to divert the audience’s attention from the fact that there’s not much meat at the heart of the piece or from the author’s inability to get his/her story to come together. But, for the most part, 2010’s best movies dispensed with all of the smoke and mirrors in favor of simply telling the hell out of their stories and letting the results speak for themselves.

For me, the best example of this is Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s new version of True Grit. I have to say that, in the past, I have probably appreciated the Coen’s work more than I have liked it. Their concepts are never less than intriguing, but their predilection for playing formal and narrative games – while amusing on an intellectual level – often serves to drain the feeling out of their material, which can make viewing their films a rather frustrating experience if you’re someone that likes to be emotionally engaged in the movies that you watch. In True Grit, however, they have dispensed with the games and instead put their faith and energy into their story and their people. The result is a very entertaining and moving film, as well as (in my opinion) their best.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about all of these films is that they’ve made money, which means that maybe the studios, seeing that there’s a profit in good movies, will make more of them. And if that happens, maybe our long celluloid drought will finally be over. Let’s hope so.

4 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: A New Hope?

  1. Leona Heraty

    Hi Ray,

    Thanks so much for your excellent article. I agree with you, this year has been an extraordinary year for many well written, directed, acted and produced Oscar-nominated films. Like you, I too have been very downhearted on the quality of movies out there the past couple of years, and these nominated films give me hope that the studios will realize that if they can touch peoples’ hearts and souls with a good, thought-provoking, well told story, they WILL make money because people will be so moved by these kinds of movies that they will want to see them over and over again to relive these wonderful experiences, and will tell their friends and family that they MUST see the movies too! We don’t need gimmicks and mindless violence in movies, we need movies that touch us to our very core and speak to our experience as human beings who struggle to overcome all odds and fall, and pick ourselves up again and again until we meet our goals.

    When I saw The King’s Speech last week at my local theater here in San Diego, I had a similar experience. The audience, like me, was moved to laughter and tears. I laughed and cried through the whole movie, and was so moved by the scene when Bertie reveals to Lionel that his nanny wouldn’t feed him for days at a time and also pinched him to punish him for some minor infraction, that I started crying again on my drive home just thinking about it. That scene still still brings me to tears when I think about it.

    When Bertie’s older brother teases him by mocking his stuttering, it made me think of every bully who ever teased me or my friends in school, and I wanted to yell out, \You bastard!\ I wanted to jump out of my seat and slap the hell out of him and say, \Leave Bertie alone you lousy, insensitive jerk. You are a COWARD and you will NEVER be a good King because you are a selfish, spoiled piece of crap, and you will NEVER have the courage or the heart or the class that Bertie has!\

    How amazing is this wonderful thought-provoking story! Bertie is a man who is the newly appointed head of Great Britain and the Commonwealth and head of the Church of England, and despite his wealth and power, has suffered so much in silence thoughout his life. This silent suffering, as David Seidler has revealed, has led to his stuttering, and we, the audience can all relate, no matter what our backgrounds are and our social class, since we have all been mistreated by bullies, insensitive teachers, parents, or others as children at some point in our childhoods, and we too have suffered in silence.

    The writing and acting were so well done that I felt totally connected to Bertie, Lionel, and the Queen Mum, despite the fact that they are royalty, and this story took place more than 70 years ago. This is a movie I could watch 100 times and never get tired of, because the story is so compelling and the dialog is so witty and interesting. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think the story works so well because it has universal themes of triumphing over adversity and trusting others and letting down our guard so that we can learn and grow as human beings. We, like Bertie and Lionel and the Queen Mum, can also use humor to poke fun at ourselves from time to time to lighten the heavy load of being human and facing obstacles that we must work hard to overcome throughout our whole lives. Bertie tries, stumbles and falls, gets knocked down, but keeps coming back for more (like Rocky) and never, never gives up. He is triumphant in the end, and his sheer willpower and determination have spurred me on to continue to write and never give up on my goals and dreams.

    Thank you Bertie and Lionel and the Queen Mum for your courage and humor against all odds, and thank you David Seidler for writing such a compelling, thoughtful and interesting screenplay! Good luck to you on Oscar night! I’m pulling for you and all of the cast who have been nominated as well. David, you give us strugging writers out here hope that good movies are not a thing of the past and that we too can write excellent screenplays that may one day be made into excellent movies. 🙂

  2. Larry Kostroff

    Hi Ray,

    Yes, your article gives one hope. Unfortunately, more of the same sensabilities have to go public before the profit driven attention span of the major studios is captured. What about the professional critics? They could make a difference if they could dissasociate from the politics of their reviews. And where is James Agee when we need him?

    Thanks, Ray, for your laser-like focus on the problem.

    Larry Kostroff

  3. RZapata87Ramon Zapata

    I agree with your assessment Ray. The nominees are more worthy of praise than ever, with a lot of tight, efficient scripts being nominated this year. Its good to see the real talent being rewarded. Thanks for the article!