Monday, May 31, 2010

100 years, 100 films 2: The Defect (1911)

This French film, directed by Louis Feuillade, is one massive step up from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - it is comprehensible, and has things like 'character arcs' and 'plot'. Rather than just putting the camera down randomly and telling thirty friends to just do pointless shit in front of it, the camera setups are often somewhat carefully chosen for clarity of image, and comprehension of story. There is even a camera movement! A shot that begins in one room, pans across to another, and continues there. Now that is innovative cinema.

The plot - a waitress working at a dancehall is unsatisfied with her lot in life. Her job is horrible, the clients are pigs, and her boyfriend (a medical student) just pumps her for her money. She complains of all this to a stranger who happens to wander into the bar. He turns out to be a sympathetic doctor, who runs a clinic to help the poor. On a whim, the doctor decides to hire the waitress as a sort of nurse/secretary type thing, and to everyone's pleasant surprise it turns out she is quite good at it. The doctor dies, and in his will states that the ex-waitress should be the new Director of the clinic. She is good at this job as well, and everyone is happy. That is until the medical student boyfriend (who she had dumped before becoming a nurse) shows up, demanding a job. She refuses, and out of spite, he decides to write a letter to the newspaper, revealing her origins as a waitress in a dancehall. The rich funders of the clinic find this scandalous, and sack the woman. She becomes jobless, friendless, and hopeless. So that is the plot of The Defect. If you asked me to explain the plot of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz I would be at a total loss (and that's despite the fact that I've seen the Judy Garland version, and read the book).

The problem, of course, is that a film being better than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does not make a film good. This film is alright, it isn't bad, but it isn't good. There are two main problems with the film - due to the paucity of interstitials, it isn't always completely clear what the characters are talking about, and there are some pretty big occurences of the Idiot Plot.

To the first (and most important) problem - there are some scenes in this film that, though there aren't any screen cards, it is perfectly clear what is being said. These are well crafted scenes, and are often quite satisfying dramatically (because there isn't the pause every thirty seconds to explain what is happening, halting the pace). But there are other scenes when it is actually difficult to tell what a character is supposed to be saying, or what, exactly, their body language means. An example - the scene in which the rich people find out that the Director of their medical clinic used to be a dancehall waitress. When they read this in the paper, they act shocked and angry, so I thought, "alright, they're angry that their Director came from circumstances. I can understand that." But then the Director walked in to the room, and they were acting all sympathetic and nice to her, so I thought, "oh, so they weren't angry about her past, but about the fact that the newspaper felt it had the right to print it. I can dig that, they're cool dudes, they've seen the world." But then the waitress says some things that she seemed ashamed about, and the rich people acted shocked again and fired her. I presume what happened was that the rich people thought the article was a pack of lies, the Director declared, "no, it's all true," and so the rich people's anger, which was originally directed at the newspaper for lying, became directed at the Director, for having been a waitress. Well, alright, that chain of events makes sense, but did I really need to go through those first couple of thoughts (that turned out to be totally incorrect) in order to get there? Couldn't they have had one interstitial that said, "what a filthy pack of lies!" then another that said, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but the newspaper has been sreading lies about you!" and a third that said, "no! It's all true!" I mean, was that really so hard? And this scene wasn't the worst example of a lack of interstitials - there are some scenes where I still don't quite know what was going on. That was just the one that was most explainable.

Okay, on to the second (and lesser) problem with the film. The boyfriend's actions, as presented, make no goddamn sense. So he goes to ask for a job, yeah, that makes sense, I'm with you so far. She refuses, and so he gets mad. Yep, that's all good. So he decides to blackmail her. Yep, sure, he's an asshole, I can buy that. So he writes a letter. Yep, important part of any blackmailing operation. So he sends the letter to the newspaper. Wait, what? If you're going to blackmail someone, shouldn't you, you know, tell them first? And yeah, the way it plays out, it could make sense one of two ways. Either he wasn't blackmailing her, and was just writing the letter out of spite, or he told her he was going to blackmail her when he asked for a job, and I just didn't pick up on it because of the total lack of interstitials in that scene. But either of these options are totally destroyed by an interstitial that the movie did feel the need to provide us, which went something like, "Oblivious to the blackmail, the Director continued performing her duties as normal." How the hell is it blackmail if the person you're trying to blackmail is oblivious to it? That's pretty much the shittiest job of blackmail possible.

Even if you were to put aside these two pretty big flaws, the film still wouldn't have been that good. It was self-important, preachy, and humourless. But on the other hand, it moved at quite a good pace, it wasn't overlong, the acting was for the most part good (if not particularly exceptional), and the camera work... well, it was a relief that I could understand as much of the film as I did, so that was a major plus. All in all, it was a pretty mediocre film. But I'll take mediocre over terrible any day.

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