Thursday, June 21, 2012
Another reason I watched Final Destination 5 twice was to study it for continuity. I make this statement knowing it might seem pretentious, but one of my pet peeves with movies is how they so often fall down in terms of their consistency with respect to the small but noticeable things, like how much has been drunk from a cup or smoked from a cigarette from one scene to the next. When a movie, especially one I assume is an expensive and well-organized production, gets those things wrong it drives me nuts. I often wonder whether there’s even such thing as a “continuity editor,” or if maybe some other functionary has that job. I’ve been told that at least there used to be people like that. But sometimes I think the millions have all been spent on explosives and the salaries of the principal actors.
In the case of Final Destination 5 I was pleasantly surprised. The continuity I was inspecting in this movie was that of what you might call near-term historical accuracy, since at the end it was revealed that the movie, for reasons that are clear to someone who watched the first four in the series, had taken place in May of 2000. I don’t suppose there’s a whole lot of difference between now and then in terms of how we live our lives. Hair is about the same, suits styles are about the same, but a few things, like vehicles and cell phones, have changed. Sure enough, on my second look at the movie, I saw that the characters had been using “old fashioned” Y2K-era flip phones rather than modern smart iPhones, something that hadn’t even registered in my technologically antiquated mind the first time through. And the cars were from the right time, too. But I also saw a couple of inconsistencies I had missed before. One was the styles of eyeglasses of the characters who wore them; they were from now, not then, and I only realized that because I’d been to purchase a new pair of glasses the afternoon before. As it happened, glasses turned out to be an important aspect of the movie for one unfortunate young woman. Another lack of continuity was with beard growth. In one scene one of the characters had about two days’ more beard than he’d had a few minutes before. Those were pretty minor considering the comparatively low budget this movie must have had. I have this idea that such things are far less forgivable when hundreds of millions of dollars are involved. But in fact, it may be that low-budget movies are better in terms of consistency because the scenes are more likely to be shot in sequence and without lots of extra takes.
Lack of continuity of the type I’m referring to is nothing new. For as long as I can remember I’ve noticed the little inconsistencies in movies, and I’ll bet most of you have, too. Lauren Bacall lights a cigarette as she argues with Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn, say, and they cut to Kirk’s face, filled with that mixture of puzzlement and incipient instability that only Kirk could convey. When they cut back to Lauren two seconds later, eyes heavy-lidded and smoldering like her cigarette, the damn thing is already half smoked. Then they go to Kirk again, and when they come back to Lauren the cigarette has just been lit again. I always find myself thinking “Wasn’t anybody in charge of making sure this kind of thing didn’t happen? Do they really think so little of the audience that they assume we won’t notice?” How sloppy should we allow these gaffes to be? I’ve seen some big ones in some big movies. Watch the climactic scene from A Few Good Men, after Jack Nicholson has seethed his signature line, “You can’t handle the truth!” and is being arrested and carried off for having ordered the code red. He’s struggling with the military police. One second his tie is askew, and a second later it’s tight and trig against his throat, and a second later it’s loose and crooked again. Or maybe the other way around. A splicing of two different takes, obviously, but who was in charge? No one, evidently.
With old movies I palliate my irritation somewhat with the knowledge that they were churning them out in the studios at the rate of dozens per year, and maybe they just didn’t have time for the little niceties, and that after all, I’ve watched them all on TV for free. But then I think two things. One is that they’re still churning out dozens of movies a year—far too many. The other is that, really, aren’t the little niceties—the details of dress and how much is in the glass and how much of the cigarette has been smoked and whether the tie is tight against the neck or loosened—just as important to the movies as anything else? We make the guy wear the same suit, and the woman the same dress from one minute to the next, so why not polish up the rest of the details?
It’s in the cutting of the film—from one camera angle to another and back again—that the movies seem to lose their continuity. It’s as if there’s a war going on between those who string together the little snippets of a scene—the shots back and forth between two people who are talking, for instance—and those who are shooting the movie, using multiple takes to get a scene “just right.” Here I suspect that the idea of the director as auteur rears its ugly head. One more take. Just one more take. Okay, just one more, as if there were some perfection to be obtained. I’m oversimplifying the situation, no doubt. But here’s the basic truth—to this day, big money notwithstanding, movies fail in little matters of continuity at a regular rate, and it’s the rare one that doesn’t.
The beard growth thing, for example, is something that’s been irritating me for quite a while. At some point in the not-too-distant past it became fashionable for men to shave less often than they did for most of the mid-20th century. Fine, no problem. Several decades back, the choices were beard or no beard, pretty much. If you were unshaven for a few days or weeks then you were in the process of growing a beard. Then, I think in the 1980s, the pretty boys of the entertainment industry—people like Don Johnson in Miami Vice and the singer George Michael, for instance—started letting their beards go for a few days at a time, and that became a la mode. Later all actors who had a sufficient amount of facial hair began to do the same, and you’d see the darker ones, like, say, Russell Crowe and John Travolta, in various stages of beardedness throughout the movie. In the 30s and 40s, they didn’t worry about that because all men were pretty much clean shaven all the time, or expected to be. If the part called for a beard they’d glue something to the guy’s face. If a character was unshaven back then, it was because he’d been on a bender or was in battle, or perhaps had been washed up on a desert island. Or because he was Gabby Hayes.
A hundred years ago, before the invention of the safety razor, men didn’t shave every day unless they were bankers or lawyers. In days of yore, you went to the barber to be shaved, and few could afford to do that every day. Today, even though razor technology is at its all-time peak, people once again don’t shave every day. Lawyers go into court, detectives work on cases, doctors operate on patients, spies spy on people, all with a few days of hair on their face. First it was the movies that told us this was so, then it became reality.
The upshot of it is that someone like Russell Crowe has a week’s beard growth in one scene, then in the next, ostensibly later that day, it’s three days’ worth. And over the course of a month, in movie time, never once is he clean shaven, as if his beard had the ability to grow for a few days and stop. If you saw the guy struggling through several weeks of movie action you’d expect him to have shaved once in a while, wouldn’t you? Nobody has a permanent four-day beard. From that lack of verisimilitude further problems emanate. Russell is having a drink with someone, his manly barbitude at the length of, say, two millimeters. Then an hour later he shows up at the scene of the crime with a millimeter less beard. What has happened? The obvious and most reasonable solution to this problem would be to have all actors either have a full beard or shave every day unless there was a really good reason not to. What laws of reality would that violate? Something approaching continuity would be achieved, and film editors wouldn’t have a thing to worry about (not that they seem to worry anyway). The alternative would be for someone who gave a damn to be the continuity editor. I’d be happy do this for a fraction of what they probably pay the people who make the explosions happen. In fact, I’d do it as a volunteer. It sounds like fun.
The big problem, I’m sure, is money, and by that I don’t mean the comparative pittance they might be willing to pay a continuity editor. It’s the salaries of the leading actors. Imagine someone calling a guy who’s getting ten million plus a percentage of the gross and telling him, “Al, we need you to come in and reshoot scene 10 on Thursday morning. But don’t shave after Monday.” It could certainly be done, with much less technological precision than what is put into creating car crashes and exploding buildings and dangling people off of cliffs. But it doesn’t seem to be done, probably because Al’s contract would call for an extra ten thousand a day over and above for him to get off his ass and reshoot the scene. Still, I wonder why the marquee actors don’t insist more on the continuity themselves. After all, it’s their mugs the public is paying to look at.
It’s odd that such a thing as continuity of this type should matter, but it does. We willingly suspend our disbelief when it comes to science fiction, or fantasy, or ridiculous plot devices in murder mysteries, or silly serendipitous romantic meetings atop the
. Those departures from reality come easily. But we (at least some of us) can’t stand it
when the guy in the midst of all this absurdity isn’t wearing his shirt the
same way from one scene to another. For
someone to change his name, or for the locale to suddenly shift to another
city, would be both wrong and inexcusable, even in a silly and contrived story. Let whatever absurdity might be happening go
on, and that’s fine, as long as it happens in a way our minds can process and
get accustomed to without being bothered by beards and liquor glasses and half-smoked cigarettes. What’s going on here? The idea of Darth Vader we can accept; but
once he exists, his helmet has to have the same number of breathing holes
throughout the movie. Apparently, Long Ago
in a Galaxy Far Away the little details had to have been consistent, even if
the idea of the far-away galaxy is utterly silly. But there it is. Empire
We demand continuity in the midst of absurdity, what might be termed “consistent absurdity,” in the movies and in fiction in much the way we accept it in other areas of our lives. Politics, for example. Almost any idea, once it is hatched and developed, will catch on with the public, and from then on certain consistencies are expected. As dopey and unbelievable as they might be, a group of Republican candidates who face one another in a series of orderly debates aren’t nearly as odd-seeming as would be a single candidate who refused to take part in the process, or one who insisted on always telling the truth as he saw it and when he didn’t know the answer to a question simply said so. Imagine a candidate who didn’t promise to transform the country—to create uncreatable jobs, to protect unprotectable foreign governments, to right unrightable wrongs? Envision a candidate who shows up at a debate dressed as Bozo and declares, “Everyone here, including me, is a clown, but I’m the only one willing to admit it.” People would shake their heads. It would get one day’s coverage on the AOL home page. “Watch: Strange man disrupts debate before being hauled off by police.” But put a half dozen guys in identical dark blue pinstriped suits and red neckties behind podiums and ask them to promise, within the context of an intractably corrupt and greedy economic system, help for the sick, hope for the poor, and economic security for the majority, and no one blinks in amazement. Instead, they say “Yes!”
The central theme of the Final Destination pictures is that in death, as in politics, continuity and predictability are the most important things. If you mess with Death’s orderly plan, however arbitrary and cruel it might seem—if you attempt to thwart Death—it will come at you with a wrath that would put even the shrieking Fox News pundits to shame. The politician who proposes to tell the truth about things—in particular about the unfixability of the country within its present economic system—comes to a sad state, just like the kids in the movies who temporarily cheat death. Maybe he doesn’t get sliced and diced by flying pieces of metal from an exploding barbecue grill, but he most certainly enters into oblivion, the Final Destination.