Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 5, 2013
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.
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.
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).
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.
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