Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's only a movie

Go ahead, poot, go ahead and risk sentimentality. The movie opens with a tight shot of a young black boy traipsing through a landfill at midday, dragging a stringless toy guitar behind him. Flies surrounding his head, lips white as chalk, thick dry mucus collected in the corners of his bulging eyes. Okay, now for some aesthetic distance. Pull back to a long shot, focus on the gulls wheeling in the foreground, then to the bulldozers moving the mounds of garbage left to right in the frame like slow yellow roaches. That's right, you want to barely see the boy through the shimmery heat waves. Now you have a soundtrack choice to make -- the opening lines of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Burglar of Babylon" or the theme from Black Orpheus on solo violin? Go ahead and risk it, go for the goose-bumps and crocodile tears. The urban sophisticates will complain that it's cheesy but they're affectless anyway. They're used to vampire movies and computer-generated cartoons.

Once you've got the establishing shot out of the way, and set the emotional tone, then you can begin the narrative. Slums, poverty, crime. The exploitation of the poor by the rich, deforestation and driving indigenous peoples off the land, the displaced and discarded exiled in shack cities, left to feed off landfills like the gulls and rats and dogs. Disease, malnutrition, murder. A golgotha where only music holds sway, just as it did in the cotton fields of the American south a century and a half ago. Another story of people using people. Rape, abandonment, deformity. And no place to bury the bodies except to leave them there, in the combed-over refuse piles that spontaneously combust in the tropical heat. The camera, of course, wants to make a picture of it, wants to put a frame around it. It's up to you to decide what that frame will be, poot. You want it to be detached? Ironic, cool? You want to affect objectivity? Or should you go ahead and risk sentimentality, using your effin equipment to cast these suffering creatures in a golden light?

Remember, every shot is an aesthetic decision. The smoke coming off the trash. The pink tongues of the feral dogs. The puddles and the mud after a cloud-burst. The toothless smiles and flat chests of the emaciated women in their dirty smocks looking for drinkable water. Using a steadicam to circle the knife fight.

The story is a simple one. A story of desire in the midst of death and putrefaction. Desire as something more than biological necessity, something more than pure carnality. Desire as an act of human will, of bodily assertion. The agonized body thrusting, pushing against a world that crushes human beings like they were ants. Accompanied by music, of course. In this narrative, the infected boy dragging his plastic guitar will be split open by love. He will bleed. He will die. And you will be accused of sentimentality if you attempt to frame that death as meaningful.

The audience will titter, lose interest, and leave the theater thirsty. You see, they know too much already. They bring bundles of clich├ęd images and a nose for narrative trickery into the theater with them, and if you don't take that into account, you'll simply bore them. Or worse -- you'll offend them by asking them to feel something other than arousal, those little nerves jumping in the groin. They want the gruesome close-up of the boy's guts split open. That's cool. But they don't want the medium shot of his family weeping, and his lover being dragged away, crying out for mercy, as the activist priest caresses his head, reciting the "Nunc dimittis" under his breath. That's way too risky. Pure schmaltz like that has had its day.

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