5 features that make a movie or TV show great

In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.

Heart of Darkness: the horror, the horror

After meeting Colonel Kurtz in the powerful portrayal given by Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, when the movie first launched, I always wanted to get to know the original character he was based on: the mysterious Englishman lost in the jungles of Africa created by Joseph Conrad in his novella “Heart of Darkness”. If you, like me, are into dark themes and water (be it sea or river), this is the book for you.

For many years I hesitated to start the book. The  language on the first page looked obscure, and I was not sure I had the energy to go through it. I even downloaded  it in different versions (I believe they were free). The copies lay on my iPad for a couple of years now. Then I came across it in the beautiful voice of Kenneth Branagh, as an audiobook, but, for some reason, I kept losing my concentration whenever I reached Parque Villa Lobos – a nice recreational area in Sao Paulo – on my bike, and could not follow the story from then on. Well, the audiobook at least showed me that if I got past the first couple of pages, with their detailed description of ships coming and going on the Thames at dusk, things would get more interesting. So I resumed the book. And did not regret it.

Brando_Apocalypse Now

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Although the novella is written in prose, as you embark in the story within the story, which tells of seaman Marlow’s time as a captain of a French steamboat  working in the business of ivory trade somewhere in Central Africa, going up the Congo river, “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”,  it turns into a somber and gripping poem which becomes hard to put down. Although the book is short, the reader’s experience is very deep and lasting.

Marlow is in search of a tradesman named Kurtz, who seems to have lost contact with the ivory trading company they both work for. He was famous for having been an excellent employee, sending tons and tons of ivory down the river back to the headquarters. But for now, rumor has it something may have happened to him, as all communication seems to have ceased. Is he dead? Could he be ill? After all not many white men remained healthy, physically or mentally, after a couple of months in those desolate and warm latitudes.

Of course, as with all great works of art, the book lends itself to many interpretations and can be read on many levels. I believe that, at some point, Conrad was even accused of racism for the use of  the word nigger many times, and also for treating the natives as an indiscriminate living mass, not considering them as human individuals in the story. For today’s ears, it is certainly uncomfortable to read the word nigger inserted without any qualification or explanation within a passage, but let’s not forget the story is told from the point of view of Marlow, the seaman we don’t know much about. We know, however, that Marlow is aware that even London, “the biggest and greatest town in the world”, started off as a dark and uncivilized place, and that the Romans must have gone through something similar to what he is going through right now, floating on that snake of a river, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by looming trees and sighing vegetation, under a scorching sun.

The book explores this fascinating encounter of a civilized man with the primitive world, which seems to exert a powerful pull over him, making him reconsider the values White Europe stands for. Therefore, it’s a harsh criticism of the barbaric colonialism in Africa, which, under the guise of a civilizatory mission, invaded and exploited those virgin regions of the world for pure material profit, causing a lot of destruction and pain along the way. The book questions what really is civilization and what terrible energies get unleashed when Paris and London clash with the Congo in the figure of Kurtz: “the horror, the horror”.

Others say that the book is about the battle between good and evil (stay in the boat and be safe or go on land like Kurtz and lose your soul to corruption due to lack of restraint). Whatever interpretation you lend to the story, the fact is that Heart of Darkness is one of the most poetic books I have ever read. Its account of a boat trip along that methaforically muddy river in the primitive jungle that pulsates like an alien heart will stay with me for years. It also made me appreciate the boldness and creativity of director Francis Ford Coppola, who transported the story to a totally different context (the Vietnam war in the late sixties and early seventies),  managing to make the themes and topics of the book even more relevant in a new era of barbarism.

Have you read the book?  What did you think of it? Share your opinion with us.

Au revoir

Jorge Settte.