15 April 2009

60. L.A. Confidential

Spoiler warning: I will be discussing the use of twists in the following films: L.A. Confidential, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Traffic. If you haven't seen these films and don't want them spoiled, don't read below.

Let's talk about twists. The more I go along, the more I realize how important a twist is, because it makes the audience do what we, as filmmakers, want them to more than anything else: keep guessing what is going to happen next. And when I use the word 'twist', I'm not necessarily talking just about big, rug-from-under-you, end of the movie twists like "Luke, I'm your Father", Bruce Willis is a ghost, and Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. Those are all great and makes us reconsider almost everything we've seen (economically wonderful, considering it makes the viewer want to buy another ticket or pick up a DVD), but you can do smaller twists throughout the movie to give us a new perspective on a character or make us advance the plot in interesting ways.

I just finished Robert McKee's "Story", and he calls this phenomenon The Gap. It's essentially "the rift between expectation and result". To build a successful movie, give us a character we care about, and then put them in situations where the world, the other characters, or the circumstances of the story (the plot) react in different ways than they expect. That's The Gap, and every time it opens, we as audience are pleasantly surprised ("Oh yes!") or not pleasantly surprised ("Oh shit!"). This is the essence of entertainment. Thus, this happens in a big way in movies with twist endings, but in any quality, entertaining movie, it happens several times throughout the course of the narrative in little ways.

In George Saunders' essay "The Perfect Gerbil" from his book "The Braindead Megaphone", this aspect of storytelling is described as such:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One's little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track or, more often, fly out and hit one's sister in the face.

A story can be thought of as a series of these little has stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent upon this.

Off the top of my head, one recent movie that does this very well is "Traffic". Think about all the times in that film that characters act in ways that we totally don't expect: Del Toro busts drug-runners, only to have the federal police take over his investigation; Del Toro digs his own grave, ready to die, only to find it was just a test; Ferrer is given a breakfast, only to discover another breakfast has come and he has been poisoned; Collins Jr. is about to assassinate Ferrer, only to be assassinated himself; Douglas is set to give a big speech about the drug war, only to realize he can't do it because his own daughter is a drug addict and he'd be a hypocrite.

Throughout the movie we are constantly shown something that is set up to go a certain way, and it is then shown to go another way that is both surprising and yet logical and seemingly inevitable. And that's what you have to accomplish if you want to play with the big boys.

One of the big boys of the 90's was the movie of this post, "L.A. Confidential". This script does many stellar things, including: gives a great, old-fashioned tone and setting establishing prologue; follows three leads (!) with a distinct set of other supporting characters; gives us a sense of a period (and a glamorous one, at that), but a period in flux; shows us a world from low-to-high class, equally comfortable in each; gives us a twisty plot that we always, somehow, seem to understand. And, like I wrote before, it twists on us, always and always without fail.

The two big ones are great: Cromwell kills Spacey as he's drinking coffee, and Pearce accuses Lana Turner of being a whore. They work because they are set up properly -- Cromwell is never seen (and never plays) as a villain, and the scene is constructed like any regular expositional scene we've seen in movies before, where one character tells another a recap of the plot. Not this time. And the Lana Turner scene works because we've spent a good chunk of time learning about this wonderfully sordid idea of high-class, movie-star look-a-like hookers. And Pearce plays it offhandedly: of course she's a hooker, she's hanging out with Johnny Stampanano! Again, no.

So those are the big ones, but think about the other ones too: Cromwell killing DeVito, using his catch-word; Pearce letting Cromwell go before killing him; Crowe hitting Basinger, thus becoming what he hates the most; Crowe playing "bad cop" by throwing the DA out the window; Crowe saying "Senator" to a politician leaving the hookers house.

In every case, certain expectations are set up, and they are knocked down. If you're a filmmaker, this is what you have to do. "L.A. Confidential" does, and that, along with many other reasons, is why it is on this list.