Thursday, June 29, 2017
BAD HABITS: The Bait-And-Switch.
THE SCENE: An Egyptian ruin. Ancient pillars and statues are covered in thick dust. All is still. A woman descends on a rope. She is the TOMB RAIDER, Lara Croft, an adventurer from a video game, now for the first time on the big screen.
As she walks through the tomb her eyes light on a diamond of unusual size. Her gamble has paid off. The treasure is found. But wait! As she approaches, a light sweeps her face. It is no natural reflection. It as a ROBOT. It brings justice to those who would disturb the dead.
Miss Croft draws her pistols. The Robot spins up its saw arms.They battle across the tomb, smashing priceless artifacts, toppling the ancient pillars. The Robot seems to ignore her bullets, and it is frighteningly strong, even after she has dropped a plinth on it.
There is a lull. They face each other, and charge. The Robot is too strong. It pins her to the ground, its sawblades inches from her face. A final surge of strength, and she escapes, climbs to the Robot's back, rips at its cables, bashes it with the butt of her pistol, and it finally collapses, only to rise as she approaches the diamond and -
She puts her hand out and orders it to stop. The lights come on. Her servants enter the scene. The camera pans away to reveal that we were in her mansion all along. There was no peril. There was no treasure. This was a game.
THIS SORT OF THING IS A SIN.
What fools we were to become invested in the outcome of this fight! Why, if we were in the know we would have not gripped our seats but chuckled. THEY STOLE OUR CONCERN. They made us believe that Lara Croft was facing mortal danger for incredible riches - and then they told us they had been lying. They wasted our time on a fight that they immediately nullified.
If this had been a story that interrogated the nature of belief and peril, of the story-hearing experience, it may have fit; a more artistic film, perhaps, where nothing is as it seems. Perhaps it would have worked in a film that really tackled simulated violence, chastising us for becoming invested in a contest with no stakes, as we do when we play video games.
This film was neither. It was sincere, as video game movies ought to be (we can leave the deconstructions to other video games). It was campy. It was cheesy. It was about a bored, brutish aristocrat plundering tombs and learning the value of friendship. And it squandered its first six minutes.
THIS HAPPENS OFTEN.
It seems to be a trend in films by BAD SCREENWRITERS to come up with scenes like these. Why would they write them? Well, it introduces the protagonists, it shows them doing what they will do, it raises tension, and then it deflates the tension so it can be increased again by the real story, and takes pressure off the designated tense scenes so they don't have to compete with the introduction.
Pretty neat from a writer's perspective, huh? It all ties together. You get all the parts in your machine working and then a story comes out the other end, right?
THERE IS A MUCH DEEPER PROBLEM WITH THIS ATTITUDE.
The problem with the bait-and-switch isn't just that it earns the audience's trust only to throw it away, or that it earns the hero some heroism just to throw that away, it's that it's INSINCERE. It doesn't show respect for the characters or the audience. When they give the teller their time they expect a story, not games, not commentary, not the director stepping into the frame to smirk in tandem with the audience, no, even when successful films play games they're successful because the audience expects them.
When the storyteller clears his throat he expects his audience to settle down, to listen, to speak if they must in a whisper. It's outrageous for him to imagine they will, that they CAN, be absorbed in the story if even the storyteller can't sit still.
BE SINCERE. Be as sincere as you are expected to be. Start as you mean to go on. If it's a story about superheroes quipping at each other in the Danger Room, go right ahead. If you want the audience well and truly gripped, don't start out trying to trick them.