Piecing Together Obscurity

A few days ago, Steven Den Beste posted an analysis of the Matrix films. He approached the films from an engineer’s standpoint and attempted to provide a logical explanation (free of pseudo-philosophical meta-babble) for why the people (or AI programs) in the film acted the way they did. It’s definitely an interesting read, and has gotten lots of attention lately.

In response, a screenwriter named John August posted a short rant on why the Matrix trilogy ultimately blows. At one point, he concisely describes something I’ve been thinking about with respect to a few other movies:

Lord knows, I’m not pining for simplicity or tidy answers. I’m happy with some ambiguity. But “incomprehensible” is not a synonym for “clever.”

My friend Rawson has a good phrase for it: “Playing obscurity for depth.” It’s the tendency of a screenplay — or an actor — to make weird choices that the audience won’t understand. The audience, fearing that they just didn’t “get it,” will label the writing or performance brilliant.

This is the perfect description for how I feel about Syriana. The film is many things, but simplistic is not one of them. In fact, the primary observation most reviews offer is that it is mindnumbingly dense. It’s got an overabundance of plot, and in order to tell the story it wants to tell it assumes the audience is familiar with a large number of concepts. To say the film is convoluted and ambiguous is an understatement. Director and writer Stephen Gaghan has said of his film that there are no easy answers, that there are no good guys and no bad guys. There aren’t traditional story arcs, and the cynical connections and stories don’t resolve themselves by the end of the film. It’s told on an incredibly broad canvas and it’s difficult to approach.

Indeed, when I came out of the theater, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of absolute despair. Syriana took a lot of heat for being a “message” film. A movie where the filmmakers do nothing but preach to you for 2 hours. And to some extent, there are some messages that do get through (i.e. an indigtment of the American blah blah blah). I’m not sure if despair is what they were shooting for, but I don’t think you can avoid it while watching this movie. However, after a few days of letting the film stew in my head, I realized why the despair was unwarranted.

In the Cinecast review of Syriana, the hosts mention that Gaghan is so busy telling the story that you really have trouble keeping up. They make an observation about several pieces of dialogue, especially early in the film, in which someone will say something really provocative… and then the scene ends and you’re immediately wisked away to some other part of the world. It leaves you feeling disoriented and it’s difficult to keep up. But the feeling fades. Regardless of what Gaghan wants you to think when you see this movie or how the world really does work (and I suppose cynicysm is warranted when it comes to such issues), that sort of filmmaking ultimately leaves me suspicious. It’s “Playing obscurity for depth.”

Sometimes this works. Stories can sometimes get away with tricks like this because they force you to piece the story together by yourself (and in itself, that is entertaining and fun), but in a politically charged movie like Syriana it falls flat (on the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone making a movie like this that wouldn’t fall flat on that level). There’s a lot to like about the movie, and it does an admirable job asking uncomfortable questions and raising provocative issues. Gaghan does a good job pacing the film and weaving the various storylines together, but I think he tries to do a bit too much on too broad of a canvas (by contrast, I think Traffic, also written by Gaghan, does a much better job). While I honestly don’t believe that Gaghan gets too preachy in forcing some sort of agenda on the audience, I’m not sure I agree with where this film goes either. I can see reasons for cynicism, but I don’t think that warrants the despair I see in the film.

This post got a bit out of hand, didn’t it? Anyway, speaking of Gaghan, there’s an excellent audio inteview up at Creative Screenwriting Magazine (warning: very large audio file) in which Gaghan describes his early career and his process for researching and writing Syriana. It’s a great interview and Gaghan is very forthright about where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to do. Highly recommended if you’re interested. Definitely an interesting fellow. (On an almost completely unrelated note, an inteview of Eli Roth, writer/director of Hostel, is also available on the Creative Screenwriting podcast)