Why bother picking up the pieces?

The Gripe

September 30, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

An occasional feature in which Sun writers and critics sound off about the movies.

Why bother picking up the pieces? Why should we care about a story exploded into fragments - or told and retold several ways - if the characters and their conflicts don't grab us in the first place?

The recent indie thriller November lasted one week at the Charles, and no wonder. It was dispiriting enough to sit through one tense scene between a guilt-ridden, adulterous photographer-teacher and a bland over-worked lawyer. Seeing this couple enact endless variations on romantic dysfunction en route to the same convenience-store murder was the moviegoing equivalent of sitting on Death Row - except the theater manager didn't hand us a special meal to go with it.

The wildly overpraised new shoot-'em-up, A History of Violence, which opens today, replays a showdown between the hero and his enemies with escalating numbers, several times. It's all supposed to say something about the mysteries of identity. The movie is really about allowing viewers to experience extreme but shallow sensations three different ways.

The film that did the most to sell narrative intricacy as an end in itself was probably the 2001 hit thriller Memento, whose antihero is a brain-damaged man who cannot create new memories. As he tries to put together the narrative of his life the movie shows the same scenes in umpteen repetitions, each adding to the previous one only incrementally. It's the kind of film that gas-bag instructors use to illustrate the concept that one man's reality is another's fiction.

But it isn't in the league of John Boorman's Point Blank, Steven Soderbergh's The Limey or Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects - fractured crime films that chart existential odysseys en route to surprise wrap-ups.

When baroque constructions click, every segment is compelling, and the overall structure illuminates the drama. When they don't, whether in the love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or the twist-of-fate story 21 Grams (2003), they take viewers on a winding route to obscurity.

It's time for some of our most gifted filmmakers to rediscover the challenge and the pleasure of simplicity.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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