Blogs by Bill Johnson
Notes on Changeling and Ghost Town
11/7/2008 4:31:45 PM
Bill Johnson offers some quick notes on the structure of two recent films, Changeling and Ghost Town.
Changeling is a beautifully composed film with a unclear introduction of the story's promise. Early in the film the issue of responsibility is highlighted in a way that suggests that will be the promise of the story. But the body of the film is about how a mother with a missing son is abused by the police when she protests that the boy they return to her is not her missing son. Then, toward the end of the film, the main character played by Angelina Joline speaks about what it's like to deal with the need to believe that her son is still alive (a belief that in real life she took to her grave). If that had been the promise of the story, that would have required a focus on the other parents of missing children and how they dealt with that, not on police corruption.
One problem this lack of a clear promise creates is that it gives Jolie as an actress a situation to react to but not a character to play. A film like Chinatown is a story about Jake trying to keep his hands clean in an amoral world (because taking action got a girl killed in Chinatown). Jake trying to keep his hands clean gets Mrs. Mulrey killed in Chinatown. In L.A. Confidential, the story is about illusion, reality, and identity. But you can't say what exactly the story of Changeling is about; it's about many things, how men in authority abuse women, how corrupt LA police were at the time, how the police were used for political objectives.
As heartbreaking as the situation is for the mother who's lost her son, it's hard to feel a deep sense of narrative tension. That would require giving the actress a stronger role to play.
Changeling provides a good example of the difference between theme and what I call promise. A theme of Changeling is that the LA police abuse women. The movie proves that theme. One can also use a movie to prove that love is good (or love is painful), death is painful, war is bad, friendship is good, taking time to smell the roses is good, etc. Telling a story is different than acting out a theme. A story's promise is a foundation of what a story is about; it's about the totality of a story, in the same sense that a collection of threads can create a beautiful tapestry while an individual thread can't.
Changeling has many wonderful threads and looks great, but it lacks a quality of being fulfilling of its promise.
A historical side note about Changeling, when the killer goes to see his sister, she has a strange, conflicted reaction. In real life, his sister was also his mother.
The set up here is an anti-social dentist dies for several minutes during a routine medical procedure and wakes up with an ability to see dead people. Dead people who want his help to deal with their unresolved problems and issues with the living. Ultimately deciding to help some of these souls finish their business on earth and pass on, he heals his own wound and is able to regain his humanity.
The film gains some emotional traction when he tries to ingratiate himself with a widow to help her nearly departed pest of a husband move on.
More Blogs by Bill Johnson
Notes on The Hunger Games Movie & Other Recent Movies - Monday, June 25, 2012
Quick Cuts - Capsule Reviews of Current Movies - Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Quick Cuts - Capsule Movie Reviews - Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Capsule Movie Reviews of The Skin I Live In, Submarine, Finding Joe - Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Notes on Splice, How to Train Your Dragon, Ironman 2 - Saturday, June 12, 2010
When Minor Characters Take Over a Story - Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Notes on Knowing, Star Trek, and Sunshine Cleaning - Monday, May 18, 2009
Notes on Watchmen, Twilight, Revolutionary Road - Friday, March 13, 2009
Notes on Changeling and Ghost Town - Friday, November 07, 2008
Notes on Cthulhu, Righteous Kill, Burn After Reading - Monday, October 06, 2008
Notes on Iron Man, Deception, The Ruins, Young at Heart - Sunday, May 04, 2008
Notes on The Band's Visit, Spiderwick Chronicles, The Eye, The Golden Compass - Thursday, March 15, 2007
Notes on The Guatemalan Handshake and The Bridge - Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Notes on Pan's Labyrinth and The Good Shepard - Saturday, January 20, 2007
Notes on Flags of Our Fathers, The Departed, Stranger Than Fiction - Sunday, December 24, 2006
Notes on The Black Dahlia, The Illusionist, Pulse, The Descent - Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Lady in the Water - Sunday, July 30, 2006
The Da Vinci Code - Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Notes on Underworld: Evolution, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Narnia, King Kong, Bee Season - Sunday, January 22, 2006
Notes on A History of Violence, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Flightplan, and Hustle and Flow - Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Notes on The Brothers Grimm, The Island, Four Brothers, Mr & Mrs Smith, and The Fantastic Four - Sunday, August 28, 2005
Notes on Willy Wonka, Dark Water, The Snow Walker - Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Notes on Land of the Dead and Oldboy - Friday, June 24, 2005
Notes on Batman Begins - Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Notes on Hitchhikers, Sin City - Saturday, April 30, 2005
Notes on The Ring 2 - Sunday, March 20, 2005
Notes on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - Monday, March 14, 2005
Hitch - Sunday, March 13, 2005
The Pacifier - Monday, March 07, 2005
Quick Cuts - Saturday, March 05, 2005