Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘In Time

Crossdressing, dystopias, and the power of the fait accompli

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Last week, my wife and I watched the classic comedy Some Like It Hot, after she confessed to me that she’d never seen it, or any other movie with Marilyn Monroe. We’d just reached the movie’s first big turning point, crowned by a classic smash cut: Tony Curtis, talking to the manager of an all-girl band on the phone, asks if they still needs a couple of musicians for Florida—and then, without preamble, we cut to our two protagonists in drag, rushing across the platform to catch the train. Turning to me, my wife pointed out that in a modern comedy, we’d inevitably be treated to a montage of the two men changing into women’s clothes, but here, the movie just gets on with it. Which is a good point. And I was even more struck by this when I remembered that the same approach occurs in that other great comedy of sexual panic, Tootsie, which cuts to Dustin Hoffman in drag only a few seconds after the idea first occurs to him. But why?

One obvious answer is that both movies know that we’re well aware of their underlying premise, so there’s no reason to put it off any longer than necessary. But I think something slightly more sophisticated is at play. The fact is, when a farce—or any kind of contrived storyline—depends on the audience accepting a ridiculous premise, it’s best to present it to them as something that has already happened. A scene of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon changing into skirts would only underline how absurd their entire scheme is, derailing the movie’s momentum just as it was getting started. Instead, the film wisely presents it to us as a fait accompli: here they are, already in heels. As a result, we have no choice to suspend our disbelief and come along for the ride. The same thing applies to many other comedies: they leave a convenient gap in the structure wherever tricky questions might be raised.

This is also true of a genre that seemingly has nothing to do with sexual farce, which is science fiction, especially the dystopian kind. It’s hard to imagine how a future like the one depicted in In Time, to take just one recent example, could have arisen through any kind of reasonable historical process, so a shrewd writer skips the intermediate steps and simply shows us the consequences. Part of this is just good storytelling, but in particular, if your future scenario is especially farfetched, as in Equilibrium, you’re better off giving us as little explanation as possible. This is also why most superhero “origin stories” are so unsatisfying: whatever psychological reality the story possesses is destroyed by showing the main character deciding to put on that costume for the first time. (A well-timed gap can also be used to skate past sticky plot points. My favorite example is that convenient caption from The X-Files: Fight The Future: “Wilkes Land, Antarctica: 48 Hours Later.”)

Presenting the audience with a fait accompli, then, is one of the most effective ways of avoiding problems of fridge logic. Once they’re caught up in the story, viewers or readers are much less likely to question what they didn’t see than what they did: given a blank space in the narrative, they’ll intuitively fill in the gap with an explanation of their own, when they might have objected to whatever you tried to show them, no matter how reasonably presented. I’ve learned this lesson repeatedly in my own fiction, in which I’ve addressed plot points that refused to work simply by pushing them into the background. (There’s actually a great example of this in The Icon Thief, which I’d discuss in greater detail if more than ten people in the world currently had copies.) In the end, if the story works, we don’t need explanations. If you want us to believe the impossible, just cut to it directly.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

In Time and the broken ticking clock

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Ah, the ticking clock. In many ways, it’s both the hoariest and most effective of all suspense tropes: the protagonist has something difficult and dangerous to accomplish, but a limited amount of time, and by the way, the countdown starts now. This convention was mined most brilliantly by the first five seasons of 24, but countless thrillers have made use of it in various ways, to the point where Dean Koontz lists it as one of the three central devices for generating suspense, along with the chase and the anticipation of a violent event. And for all its familiarity, it still works, despite being frequently parodied. (My favorite subversion comes courtesy of Fat Tony on The Simpsons: “You have twenty-four hours to give us our money. And to show you we’re serious…you have twelve hours.”)

You would think, then, that a movie like Andrew Niccol’s In Time would be deliciously suspenseful, with the ticking clock built into the fabric of the story itself. The film takes place in a world in which all humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging after they turn twenty-five, but after that, they only have one year left. Time thus becomes the only form of currency: you can earn, borrow, or steal more, with your remaining time constantly displayed in a glowing readout on your left arm, and once the clock runs out, you die. No exceptions. Clearly, this is a great tool for suspense, since at any given moment, we know that our hero, appealingly played by Justin Timberlake, has only a fixed amount of time to live—and it’s especially tense when the countdown can be measured in minutes or seconds, so it coincides with the real time of the movie itself.

It’s astonishing, then, how little suspense In Time manages to milk from its underlying premise, as if Niccol didn’t understand the promise of his own story. The film’s logic isn’t that hard to understand, but it still has trouble explaining the rules, especially the fact that one’s time is worth more or less in different zones of the city—an omission that makes nonsense of an early scene in which Olivia Wilde’s character, with only a few minutes left, races desperately home for reasons that aren’t made clear. Worse, the movie lets its hero’s remaining time fluctuate enormously: it goes up and down with gifts and gambling and double-crosses, until any sense of momentum is lost. Far better, from a storytelling perspective, to take everything away except an hour and a half, keep the countdown fixed, and let us sweat it out with him in real time. (In fact, there’s a scene where the movie does exactly this, only to drop the issue almost at once, giving up its most promising narrative device in the process.)

Of course, using a fixed countdown to drive the plot would result in a different movie altogether, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. In Time has a great concept and a lot of style, with some nifty art direction by Alex McDowell, but it never quite figures out how to exploit its own premise. Instead of getting caught up in the story, we spend half the movie noticing holes in the plot. And while many of these lapses can be explained away, the point is that it shouldn’t matter. A movie like Children of Men, or even the ludicrous Equilibrium, may or may not have a wholly consistent set of rules, but while we’re watching the movie, we’re too excited to care. Meanwhile, In Time, which has devoted a fair amount of attention to its world’s internal logic, has so little drive that we can’t believe in it at all. The result is superficially smart, but viscerally adrift. It has a ticking clock at its heart, but it’s broken.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2011 at 9:10 am

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