*The Lure Of Cliche*
From Thursday, August 04, 2005
I was just re-watching /Searching For Bobby Fischer/, a 1993 film
written and directed by Steve Zaillian, based on the book by Fred
Waitzkin about his son Josh, a chess prodigy. It reminded me of the lure
of cliches in Hollywood.
The movie was well-reviewed, and does have plenty to recommend it,
including fine cinematography by Conrad Hall and an excellent cast,
including Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Laurence Fishburne, Max Pomeranc (as
Josh) and especially Ben Kingsley. Furthermore, while it's not a
big-budget item, I'm sure it was tricky for Zaillian and his producers
to get any money to make a film about chess.
Still, to turn it into a story that works as a movie, Zaillian had to
take what was an exciting real life tale and, essentially, falsify it.
I'm not trying to single out Zaillian. There's a reason for cliches.
They work. The final battle has to be the toughest, or your climax will
fail. And it has to be won by the protagonist, not his helper, or we'll
wonder why we were wasting our time following the wrong character. But
it all becomes tiresome formula unless you can do it differently, rather
than repeating what we've seen countless times.
Here are a couple examples of Hollywood Screenwriting versus real life:
Hollywood: Josh combines the agressive "street" moves he learned from
Laurence Fishburne, with the stricter, conservatory style he learned
from his instructor Ben Kingsley, to become a better, more-rounded player.
Real Life: There's no replacement for serious study (especially with
someone like Bruce Pandolfini, Josh's real-life instructor, who is
nothing like Ben Kingsley), and shortcut tricks that may go over playing
speed chess in the park will ruin you in real competition.
Hollywood: In the climactic game, Josh sees a tricky combination and
realizes he will win. He gallantly offers a draw--a shared
championship--which is turned down. This demonstrates not only external
growth in Josh as a player, but internal growth as a human being.
Real Life: Josh screws up and barely holds on for a draw, which wins him
the championship. If he had seen a winning combination, he would have
grabbed at it.
This got me thinking of the low-budget /Hustle & Flow/, out now. The
basic story has problems (without even getting into the
misogyny)--beneath the grit, it's got one of the hoariest of all movie
plots, about trying to make it in show biz. And it seemed to me that
everyone surrounding the pimp (who wants to be a rapper)--the producer,
the musician, even his pregnant whore who sings on one of the
tracks--has more talent than he does.
But I'll give it points for one thing--maybe the toughest thing--the
ending. The story leads up to a showdown: will DJay the pimp meet Skinny
Black and sell him on his demo tape? To the film's credit, they resolve
it in a way that is neither obvious nor ridiculous.