When the Idea is Enough

Once, years ago, someone had the idea to make a movie about a man at a hotel who insists to a woman that he met her a year before at the same location.  A second man shows up and becomes a part of the process, playing the first man in a game that the second man is much better at than the first.   This repeats but not necessarily in the same order and not necessarily in the same time.  The movie is called Last Year at Marienbad and I’ve seen it once, over 25 years ago.   I honestly can’t really remember how I felt about it then and have no real desire to seek it out again.  But I’m okay with that.  I like the idea of Last Year at Marienbad.  I don’t think I need to see the movie again.  The idea’s enough.

Marienbad pic 01

Some movies operate less on plot and more on character.  Some more on plot.  Still others rely neither on plot or character but more on a tone, a feeling or an idea.  And, of course, some movies mix in elements of all three.  My Dinner with Andre has no real plot mechanics, outside of “I’m going to have dinner with Andre,” and relies heavily on its characters, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.  But it’s also an idea.  It’s the idea that asks, “Why can’t we just film a couple of guys talking for two hours?”  The world is full of great conversations so, yes, why not film one of them?  That’s an idea and not a bad one and like Last Year at Marienbad, I’ve seen My Dinner with Andre once.  Also like Last Year at Marienbad, I’ve no desire to see it again.  As before, the idea is enough.

Other movies are harder to discern.  2001: A Space Odyssey reads like a great sci-fi story on paper (that is, if you’ve read The Sentinel, which it’s based on and not the novelization by the same author, Arthur C. Clarke).  In The Sentinel, there’s a sense of foreboding that’s not there in the movie.  In The Sentinel there’s more a feeling of dread.  Modern man found a monolith on the moon which sent out a signal.  Whoever it’s going to is going to be here soon.  Who are they and what’s going to happen when they get here?

The movie, on the other hand, is all about the idea of intelligence and humanity, where it comes from, how it progresses.  That signal from the moon doesn’t really forebode in the movie as much as make us wonder.  Less dread, more hope.  But the idea of 2001: A Space Odyssey bores a lot of people.  I’m not one of them but I can understand why some people would be happy with the idea of it as long as they didn’t have to watch it.

But it’s not all esoteric mind games.  Sometimes, a movie idea is grounded in something so accessible that it becomes box office gold.   Forrest Gump was a movie based around the idea of a simple minded man winding his way through the major events of mid to late 20th century history.  I found both the idea and the execution lacking.  The idea doesn’t seem as interesting to me as exploring a relationship through memory or a conversation between two distinct personality types.  Not even as interesting as the very general idea of our place in the universe, something covered hundreds of times.  No, for me, Forrest Gump‘s idea was nothing more than “here’s history presented through a neutral guide” which, if that wasn’t the core idea, felt like it, and the execution of whatever idea was at play came off as nothing more than a winking travelogue of the Baby Boomer generation.  I’ll be blunt: I couldn’t stand Forrest Gump and I’m not wild about the idea either.

Gump 01

There have also been idea movies that worked outside of narrative fiction, masked as documentaries but maintaining the fiction.  A movie such as Orson Welles’ F for Fake purports to be a documentary but it’s all a ruse, a movie not about fakery as much as a movie that conceals fakery from the viewer, weaving in and out of lies and truth.   It being Orson Welles, I find it very interesting and still, I have only seen it once.  I liked it but, like the other idea movies on this list, 2001 excepted, I have no desire to see it again.  The idea of a documentary intent on faking you out is a good one.  I like it.  Once.

Perhaps it would be helpful to exclude some films to get a better understanding of what the idea movie is.  It is not surreal or abstract.  It’s not Bunuel or Kenneth Anger.  It’s not some trippy, “whoa, what did that mean” movie.  It can be along those lines, like Marienbad or 2001, but mainly it’s concept.  Yes, a concept movie.  For me, The Truman Show is an idea movie, or concept movie, while Godard’s Film Socialisme is an abstract movie.    An idea or concept movie has its central premise take precedence over everything else.   It’s not so much who’s in the movie or who directed it as much as what its concept is.  With The Truman Show, the premise asks, “What if someone’s entire life was scripted and they didn’t even know it?”  The tragic revelation, of course, is that everyone else has their own scripted life, including all those people addicted to watching Truman, but most of us like to believe we’re in control.

The idea or concept behind a film can also come perilously close to gimmick.  The idea “what if we told the story backwards” is one I find mildly interesting and yet both times I’ve seen it executed (Betrayal, Memento) I’ve been left fairly cold (and, yes, I’ve seen both once).  It’s an interesting idea to get at a story by understanding the ending first.  Knowing how it ends, the viewer can see mistakes more clearly and witness missed opportunities with a regret that wouldn’t be there if the story were told straight through in linear progression.  But in both cases, I didn’t get enough out of the idea to justify its execution.  Again, the idea is good but I don’t need to see the movie again (it should be noted that this is very different than prequels which, to my mind, do a much better job of letting us understand the beginning by knowing the ending than films told literally backwards scene by scene).

backwards story

Maybe there’s something about the idea movie that causes it to, not always but often, fall flat for me.  Something about taking the movie out of the hands of the characters and plot and putting it into the hands of a notion instead.  Maybe I feel as if, after one viewing, there’s nothing more for me to pull from the concept except that for which it is.  In a movie revolving around characters and story, on the other hand, I can peel away something more with each successive viewing.  Or maybe I’m just selling idea movies too short and would feel differently after giving them a second chance.  I’ve got an idea that may be true but I don’t need to test it.  The idea’s good enough for me.

28 Responses When the Idea is Enough
Posted By poorarchivist : June 5, 2013 10:52 am

I agree. “Idea” films often seem more about the idea itself rather than the story. I would even argue that it often feels like those kinds of films are more about the director (or screenwriter or whoever’s brainchild the film is) than the characters he/she created–which puts the film dangerously close to a vanity project.

Posted By poorarchivist : June 5, 2013 10:52 am

I agree. “Idea” films often seem more about the idea itself rather than the story. I would even argue that it often feels like those kinds of films are more about the director (or screenwriter or whoever’s brainchild the film is) than the characters he/she created–which puts the film dangerously close to a vanity project.

Posted By Gene : June 5, 2013 3:27 pm

Interesting. Marienbad is a movie I have seen a myriad of times and will again. It’s certainly an idea movie but also mystery. Is it saying “something” or is it pulling a joke on its viewer? Like the proceedings of the film I don’t think you can ever be certain. 2001 is a beautiful film with an idea but the idea just doesn’t grab me enough to see it again and again. The film though can be viewed and appreciated many times purely for its aesthetic. Forrest Gump was a film that repulsed me and I refused to see it for years. Finally I did and it wasn’t as bad as I had thought but I agree the idea for the film is pedestrian. Memento is a good film “on paper” but the result was tedious to me. I guess some ideas are better than others.

Posted By Gene : June 5, 2013 3:27 pm

Interesting. Marienbad is a movie I have seen a myriad of times and will again. It’s certainly an idea movie but also mystery. Is it saying “something” or is it pulling a joke on its viewer? Like the proceedings of the film I don’t think you can ever be certain. 2001 is a beautiful film with an idea but the idea just doesn’t grab me enough to see it again and again. The film though can be viewed and appreciated many times purely for its aesthetic. Forrest Gump was a film that repulsed me and I refused to see it for years. Finally I did and it wasn’t as bad as I had thought but I agree the idea for the film is pedestrian. Memento is a good film “on paper” but the result was tedious to me. I guess some ideas are better than others.

Posted By Doug : June 5, 2013 6:14 pm

One and done is enough for me on a number of films, including “The Truman Show” that was mentioned.
I have the extended LOTR set-after watching it through once I have never felt the need to revisit it.
Greg, you mentioned Nolan-one time through “The Prestige” was enough for me, though I might give “Inception” another run.
The Lugosi “Dracula”…I liked the idea of it, but the creaky stagebound film left me bored.
Greg, here’s an idea-for another post talk about the films that we love to re-visit over and over.

Posted By Doug : June 5, 2013 6:14 pm

One and done is enough for me on a number of films, including “The Truman Show” that was mentioned.
I have the extended LOTR set-after watching it through once I have never felt the need to revisit it.
Greg, you mentioned Nolan-one time through “The Prestige” was enough for me, though I might give “Inception” another run.
The Lugosi “Dracula”…I liked the idea of it, but the creaky stagebound film left me bored.
Greg, here’s an idea-for another post talk about the films that we love to re-visit over and over.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 5, 2013 6:58 pm

to me,Forrest Gump (aside from inspiring a chain restaurant) is no more than a more commercial version of Woody Allen’s Zelig…one and done for both…the same with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,a concept rather than an actual plot,i’ll take What’s Up Tiger Lily? over any of the latter…and i don’t even like egg salad,in my youth i thought ennui was a sign of “deep meaning” but my most vivid memory is of my father falling out of a theater seat laughing hysterically during the “bean scene” in Blazing Saddles,so i temper my view by that…the mannered eye VS the visceral

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 5, 2013 6:58 pm

to me,Forrest Gump (aside from inspiring a chain restaurant) is no more than a more commercial version of Woody Allen’s Zelig…one and done for both…the same with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,a concept rather than an actual plot,i’ll take What’s Up Tiger Lily? over any of the latter…and i don’t even like egg salad,in my youth i thought ennui was a sign of “deep meaning” but my most vivid memory is of my father falling out of a theater seat laughing hysterically during the “bean scene” in Blazing Saddles,so i temper my view by that…the mannered eye VS the visceral

Posted By tdraicer : June 6, 2013 12:00 am

To me, My Dinner With Andre is more of a character movie than an idea movie, and since I identify with the character played by, but not to be confused with, the actual Wallace Shawn, I have no trouble watching it repeatedly.

Posted By tdraicer : June 6, 2013 12:00 am

To me, My Dinner With Andre is more of a character movie than an idea movie, and since I identify with the character played by, but not to be confused with, the actual Wallace Shawn, I have no trouble watching it repeatedly.

Posted By Doug : June 6, 2013 12:56 am

Any segue in a storm-DevlinCarnate mentioned “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and just today I discovered another Carl Reiner film from my youth has made it to DVD-”The One And Only” starring Henry Winkler and Kim Darby.
I watched it tonight and it was better than I remembered.

Posted By Doug : June 6, 2013 12:56 am

Any segue in a storm-DevlinCarnate mentioned “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and just today I discovered another Carl Reiner film from my youth has made it to DVD-”The One And Only” starring Henry Winkler and Kim Darby.
I watched it tonight and it was better than I remembered.

Posted By Richard Brandt : June 6, 2013 2:29 am

Once I realized “Forrest Gump” was an adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide” I found a little more to hang on it than the dunce’s-tour-of-history angle, but that doesn’t mean I’d watch it again.

Speaking of journeys through history, what’s important in “Memento” isn’t the answers revealed as we journey into the protagonist’s past, but the big question it raises: How do we know who we are?

Posted By Richard Brandt : June 6, 2013 2:29 am

Once I realized “Forrest Gump” was an adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide” I found a little more to hang on it than the dunce’s-tour-of-history angle, but that doesn’t mean I’d watch it again.

Speaking of journeys through history, what’s important in “Memento” isn’t the answers revealed as we journey into the protagonist’s past, but the big question it raises: How do we know who we are?

Posted By Stephen White : June 6, 2013 5:21 am

Any movie that gets people talking about movies is probably a good thing. I found Memento a bit tedious once I had settled into the routine of its “bit”, although I thought it ended quite strongly with the stunning revelation of how Guy Pearce’s wife actually died. Christopher Nolan always seems to want to mess with his viewers’ minds in every movie he’s ever done except when forced into more mainstream conventionality in his Batman trilogy. So, Memento and The Presidio have stunning revelations, and then there’s the ultimate headache of Inception with its dreams within dreams within dreams and questions about when DiCaprio was awake and when he wasn’t, the final shot stubbornly refusing to reveal whether the ending is reality or not.

I sort of tend to want to be a literalist about everything. I prefer to think DiCaprio is at peace and happily reunited with his children in Inception. I’ve heard similar debates about Once Upon a Time in America – is the whole movie or a huge chunk of it just DeNiro’s opium dream? Again, I prefer not to interpret it that way but accept what’s presented on the screen as “really” happening. On television, the final episode of The Sopranos generated much discussion with its jump cut to black ending. Does that mean Tony just got killed? Or was that just David Chase’s way of saying Tony and his life and problems will go on until someday they won’t, and what’s the point of trying to tie up this man’s messy, complex life with a pretty bow?

Movies are probably usually at an advantage over TV in handling these brain teasers because of their shorter length. I didn’t watch Lost, but I had a number of friends who followed it passionately, obsessively for years. From what little I know about it, it sounds like so many questions were piled on top of other questions, there was no way any resolution could ever answer them all or be wholly satisfactory. And so, my friends generally felt let down by the ending. It could never be as spectacular as they dreamed in their heads. Maybe that’s why The Sopranos opted to essentially have no ending.

Posted By Stephen White : June 6, 2013 5:21 am

Any movie that gets people talking about movies is probably a good thing. I found Memento a bit tedious once I had settled into the routine of its “bit”, although I thought it ended quite strongly with the stunning revelation of how Guy Pearce’s wife actually died. Christopher Nolan always seems to want to mess with his viewers’ minds in every movie he’s ever done except when forced into more mainstream conventionality in his Batman trilogy. So, Memento and The Presidio have stunning revelations, and then there’s the ultimate headache of Inception with its dreams within dreams within dreams and questions about when DiCaprio was awake and when he wasn’t, the final shot stubbornly refusing to reveal whether the ending is reality or not.

I sort of tend to want to be a literalist about everything. I prefer to think DiCaprio is at peace and happily reunited with his children in Inception. I’ve heard similar debates about Once Upon a Time in America – is the whole movie or a huge chunk of it just DeNiro’s opium dream? Again, I prefer not to interpret it that way but accept what’s presented on the screen as “really” happening. On television, the final episode of The Sopranos generated much discussion with its jump cut to black ending. Does that mean Tony just got killed? Or was that just David Chase’s way of saying Tony and his life and problems will go on until someday they won’t, and what’s the point of trying to tie up this man’s messy, complex life with a pretty bow?

Movies are probably usually at an advantage over TV in handling these brain teasers because of their shorter length. I didn’t watch Lost, but I had a number of friends who followed it passionately, obsessively for years. From what little I know about it, it sounds like so many questions were piled on top of other questions, there was no way any resolution could ever answer them all or be wholly satisfactory. And so, my friends generally felt let down by the ending. It could never be as spectacular as they dreamed in their heads. Maybe that’s why The Sopranos opted to essentially have no ending.

Posted By swac44 : June 6, 2013 9:34 am

Reminds me of seeing Terrence Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, already prepped for a meditation on the transient nature of love and the elusive quality of faith, but instead finding it to be mostly about a cute French woman twirling through fields and Ben Affleck walking out of rooms.

Posted By swac44 : June 6, 2013 9:34 am

Reminds me of seeing Terrence Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, already prepped for a meditation on the transient nature of love and the elusive quality of faith, but instead finding it to be mostly about a cute French woman twirling through fields and Ben Affleck walking out of rooms.

Posted By Kingrat : June 6, 2013 4:06 pm

Add to the list of “The Idea Is Enough”: JEANNE DIELMANN,etc. Worth seeing once, especially if you can begin to fast forward once you grasp what is (not) going to happen, but more like a graduate seminar paper than an actual movie.

But then, I like FORREST GUMP, especially Tom Hanks’ performance. Hey, you knew somebody liked it.

Posted By Kingrat : June 6, 2013 4:06 pm

Add to the list of “The Idea Is Enough”: JEANNE DIELMANN,etc. Worth seeing once, especially if you can begin to fast forward once you grasp what is (not) going to happen, but more like a graduate seminar paper than an actual movie.

But then, I like FORREST GUMP, especially Tom Hanks’ performance. Hey, you knew somebody liked it.

Posted By Gene : June 6, 2013 8:52 pm

I was finishing high-school when I saw My Dinner With Andre. I thought it was profound. Today, especially after seeing Andre Gregory playing John the Baptist (the “idea” being that a 1st century Jew is like a 1960s LSD-guru?), I just think it’s pretentious. Save for Au Revoir Les Enfants, I’ve really struggled to appreciate Louis Malle’s work and ideas. Terence Malick is the king of idea movies and The Thin Red Line (amongst other, earlier pieces) works for me. After watching vengeful dinosaurs, Sean Penn having nothing really to do, and Brad Pitt probably getting paid far too much for far too little I feel Malick is running out of ideas (and I scored the film 4 out of 5 – still a cut above so much else).

Posted By Gene : June 6, 2013 8:52 pm

I was finishing high-school when I saw My Dinner With Andre. I thought it was profound. Today, especially after seeing Andre Gregory playing John the Baptist (the “idea” being that a 1st century Jew is like a 1960s LSD-guru?), I just think it’s pretentious. Save for Au Revoir Les Enfants, I’ve really struggled to appreciate Louis Malle’s work and ideas. Terence Malick is the king of idea movies and The Thin Red Line (amongst other, earlier pieces) works for me. After watching vengeful dinosaurs, Sean Penn having nothing really to do, and Brad Pitt probably getting paid far too much for far too little I feel Malick is running out of ideas (and I scored the film 4 out of 5 – still a cut above so much else).

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:07 am

While I find Forrest Gump rather mawkish, I do like it. I wouldn’t consider it the best picture of that year (The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood and Quiz Show were all better), I enjoyed it for what it was. Of course, I also liked The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has done some decent work when he has dialed down the ass-talking. And I frickin’ love Memento.

2001 on the other hand, I have attempted to watch three times and have fallen asleep every time, which prevented me from reaching the end each time. I have no problem with the ideas. It’s just so slow and boring to me. And cold, as Kubrick often was.

I agree with Gene. My Dinner with Andre is pretentious. It started out fine, but after an hour of listening to the self-important Andre drone on and on, it gets a little tedious. And the only Malick movie I can stand is The Tree of Life. While the dinosaurs and Sean Penn don’t work too well in the overall “story”, it is beautifully shot. It had the makings of a well-made character-driven drama, but the lack of a cohesive story prevented that. Some of the scenes are affecting however, and boy, was it pretty to look at.

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:07 am

While I find Forrest Gump rather mawkish, I do like it. I wouldn’t consider it the best picture of that year (The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood and Quiz Show were all better), I enjoyed it for what it was. Of course, I also liked The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has done some decent work when he has dialed down the ass-talking. And I frickin’ love Memento.

2001 on the other hand, I have attempted to watch three times and have fallen asleep every time, which prevented me from reaching the end each time. I have no problem with the ideas. It’s just so slow and boring to me. And cold, as Kubrick often was.

I agree with Gene. My Dinner with Andre is pretentious. It started out fine, but after an hour of listening to the self-important Andre drone on and on, it gets a little tedious. And the only Malick movie I can stand is The Tree of Life. While the dinosaurs and Sean Penn don’t work too well in the overall “story”, it is beautifully shot. It had the makings of a well-made character-driven drama, but the lack of a cohesive story prevented that. Some of the scenes are affecting however, and boy, was it pretty to look at.

Posted By swac44 : June 7, 2013 12:21 pm

I consider myself lucky in the fact that I’ve been able to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm a handful of times, including my very first, when I was 12, on a huge screen in Washington, DC, and I was mesmerized. When I try to watch it on a TV at home, it just isn’t the same, I get distracted, or I just don’t get drawn into the environment that Kubrick crafted so carefully. Same goes for Barry Lyndon. Got to see it for the first time in a movie theatre and loved it, tried to watch it again years later on a home monitor, and I did, but it happened in fits and starts.

Some films are just meant to be seen on film, I guess…

Posted By swac44 : June 7, 2013 12:21 pm

I consider myself lucky in the fact that I’ve been able to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm a handful of times, including my very first, when I was 12, on a huge screen in Washington, DC, and I was mesmerized. When I try to watch it on a TV at home, it just isn’t the same, I get distracted, or I just don’t get drawn into the environment that Kubrick crafted so carefully. Same goes for Barry Lyndon. Got to see it for the first time in a movie theatre and loved it, tried to watch it again years later on a home monitor, and I did, but it happened in fits and starts.

Some films are just meant to be seen on film, I guess…

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 9, 2013 5:53 pm

Man, I hate getting drawn away from the conversation. Sorry, I had a million things come up in the last four days that took me away from the computer for more than brief check-ins. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

Swac44, I saw 2001 at the Cleveland Uptown in 1989 and it was pretty amazing. I’ve seen it and Barry Lyndon many times on a small tv too and, at least for me, they were still quite great.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 9, 2013 5:53 pm

Man, I hate getting drawn away from the conversation. Sorry, I had a million things come up in the last four days that took me away from the computer for more than brief check-ins. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

Swac44, I saw 2001 at the Cleveland Uptown in 1989 and it was pretty amazing. I’ve seen it and Barry Lyndon many times on a small tv too and, at least for me, they were still quite great.

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