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bird vs. bay: character vs. characterization


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so i saw 2 movies this week: ratatouille and transformers.

one was filet mignon, served on fine china. the other was a turd rolled in staples, served on a hubcap.

and it occurred to me, watching transformers, which has absolutely no characters in it at all, that there are two major problems.

problem 1: michael bay doesn't understand the meaning of character. he thinks he does, but he doesn't.

bay confuses character with "assigning quirks." he believes that if you give each person an odd, memorable moment, you've succeeded in fleshing out their "character."

which makes me think of what mamet says about character. i'm paraphrasing: "when we say that our grandfather 'had character,' we are not referring to the way he held his pipe. we are referring to his tenacity of spirit."

character is revealed when we watch someone, faced with a problem, try to solve it. every single comic moment in ratatouille is engendered from the clash of all the character's honest pursuit of their goals. no one is given "quirks." some of them have quirks, but it's because the storyteller has deemed them crucial for us to know of in order to follow the story's path.

the list of quirks handed out to characters in transformers is endless and arbitrary. all are interchangeable. perhaps they were picked out of a hat.
  • one has a dog in a cast who eats pain pills
  • three have embarrassing moms
  • one likes to speak spanish for no reason
  • two are black and yell at women
  • one has an often mispronounced last name (the exact same gag attempted in godzilla)
  • several have a funny accents
  • one has boobs and is a mechanic (a skill which is stated, but never used)
  • it goes on and on..
of course, these traits exist in characters from good films, but the difference is that they happen to reveal these things through action, not not not, most absolutely not through straight exposition, for the sake of characterization.

i've heard the argument from defenders of transformers many times: it's just a popcorn movie! it's not supposed to be good! i don't understand why this film, which isn't any better than the broderick godzilla, has gotten a free pass. i am not expecting schindler's list, but what i am expecting is a movie that knows what it wants to accomplish, that has a clear, simple story, and is well told. i don't think it's unreasonable to have expected transformers to be as enjoyable as jurassic park, or hell, even jurrassic park 3.

problem 2: the action sequence. watch the 9 minute teaser from ratatouille. remy falls into the kitchen and must escape. what follows is an action sequence of his hugely elaborate attempt to get out, during which we never once lose track of what his plan is, how well he is doing, how close he is to success, and what his thought process is every step of the way.

in the many transformers action sequences, there is never any sense of win or loss that we can gain visually. we can only tell that something bad has happened because we've suddenly gone into slow motion, and the music got sad. we're not seeing anything affect anyone, we're having the beats spoonfed to us. on top of that, both the good robots and bad robots look nearly identical while fighting, and the character design also makes it impossible to tell what's an arm, a leg, a head - they are the turds rolled in staples.

i actually found myself having trouble staying awake during the climactic battle. i'd given up trying to follow it. it was all pitched at the same level, with no variation, and eventually, just became noise.

and my god, all it needed was a little clarity of vision, and clarity of story.

the disgruntled transformers crewperson who wrote this poem for the wrap party knew the damage they had wrought.

thank god for ratatouille, which is maybe the best pixar film, certainly the best film i've seen this year, and comes damn close to being a perfect film in its own right.

every time we see a movie, we vote with our dollars. we say "i want to see more of this." and the beauty of the movies is that the turd sandwich and the filet mignon cost exactly the same. and yeah, i get that you'll want to see transformers anyway, for the effects.. but that's what bittorrent is for. download that puppy, as protest.

fuck michael bay, and please, order more filet.


1 responses to “bird vs. bay: character vs. characterization”

  1. Blogger Ted 

    ok. gonna go see rat... on your recommendation. all the previews i've seen have intrigued me...we'll see what happens.

    can't believe our buddy neal has joined the blogging world. who knew he was a dork too? :)

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