Sunday, February 12, 2006

When plot holes attack

Shrode at The Thinklings offers up three excerpts of reviews from Roger Ebert and asks what the job of a reviewer is.

In the reviews, Ebert basically challenges the notion of critics and wanna-be critics who feel it is their job to shred every single plot hole "as if they have therefore demolished the movie."

I think what Ebert is really saying here is, "If I wanted to, I could ruin every single movie you'd ever want to see, because all movies come with plot holes."

I am an Ebert fan because he's a good writer who offers insight and never prejudges a movie. He's actually written and directed a film before, and his strong grasp of theater gives him a better clue about why some movies work and some don't. He doesn't want to tell people whether they should or should not go to movie. He does want to help people decide if its a movie that might entertain them.

I also think his point is salient. To some, the enjoyment of going to movies is all about discovering every inconsistency and boasting of their findings to the crowd with whom they attended the movie. I can think of few people who are more irritating.

If a movie has done its job, it's provided you just enough credibility to suspend your disbelief. Most stories get made into movies because they are about something out of the ordinary, set apart from what usually happens. The hero is going to defeat evil and get the girl most times because for many that represents a best hope not often found in reality. That's entertaining to the average person. We are provided catharsis in the unwilling hero who stumbles his way into becoming a universal champion of our best hopes and dreams.

In this format of movie, it is unimportant how the hero found the gun at the right moment, how the heroine was strong enough to escape three giant brutes, or what 10-year-old is smart enough to crack PGP encryption in 10 seconds. (Or any other human, for that matter). If you're an American, hopefully you've developed the skill of saying to yourself, "This is no ordinary 10-year-old," and move on in rhythm as the plot unfolds. Without that skill, it's unlikely you will ever be provided escape in cinema unless you've discovered the treacherously hopeless plots of French film.

The pyschology of of the person who blows up the credibility of every plot seems pretty obvious to me: They're afraid of looking foolish. The problem, however, is most people are exceedingly willing to be fools to step into another dimension where the rules of reality are bent and the things we've come to expect -- good people suffer, evil is prevalent and often triumphant, the innocent die -- exist only long enough to dissipate into a more satisfying result. Movies give us what we aren't getting from real life, at least for about 85 minutes. This majority can barely suffer the know-it-all who can't shut up about the unlikelihood a street cop would be able to disarm a nuclear warhead, even with help from someone who might know.

The obvious exception to this rule is a plot hole so big as to disallow suspension of disbelief. For me, that was the quantum leap of skills for Neo from the end of Matrix Reloaded into Revolutions. The shift from a genetic and technological explanation of his skills to a spiritual one that went beyond mere technology -- without even providing an ounce of explanation about the spiritual rules of that universe -- ripped me out of my suspense and back into the reality of the total implausibility of the trilogy. It was disheartening, because I had found a lot of merit in the movies up until that point. There was also a more philosophical point of the inherent weakness of the human flesh -- even in our heroes -- I felt was being violated, but I don't want to belabor my point.

One other belief buster for me is when a movie character sits down behind the drums. I can rationalize in my head that directors and actors don't know much about the instrument, but they pay advisors thousands of dollars to provide expertise. Why, then, drummers' strokes are rarely matched to the sounds, or how what is considered impressive in film is usually something that could be played by any teenager with a kit, is beyond me. These are moments that turn me into a raving lunatic and I have to either walk out of the theater or turn off the TV. I imagine it's a similar experience for computer programmers who see Hackers or astrophysicists who catch any modern science fiction.

So I guess the first rule of movie watching is this: Short of the limits of our own expertise, shut up and give the movie a chance to entertain you.

And Ebert sort of established the second rule: There's no such thing as the perfectly, airtight plot.

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