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Filmism.net Dispatch March 5, 2018

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I was a bit late to the party but I recently saw Get Out, the film from comic Jordan Peele that took off like a rocket all the way to the Oscars and won best original screenplay, and it got me thinking about the way an onscreen story unfolds.

In fact it reminded me of the Saw series (bear with me). A lot of people ended up not liking the Saw movies, fixating unfairly on the increasingly ridiculous gore, but as a writing nerd I loved it, and for one simple reason. It's a story. Is it the best story and does it make perfect sense? Not even close, but where most franchises simply remake what came before (The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Star Wars and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, plenty of films in the horror genre along with Saw), the subsequent writers of the Saw series consistently built out the story.

What started as a high concept and effective tale about two guys locked in a grimy bathroom ended up a Grand Guignol epic about a serial killer, his various victims and accomplices, the dedicated and sometimes obsessive cops on his tail and the twisted network of his schemes, always steps ahead of everyone else. Every instalment expanded and grew John Kramer/Jigsaw's world. Not always successfully, but they did it.

In fact it was such a wholly enclosed and self contained story that watching them out of sequence or too far apart will seriously throw you. You need to do what I did and watch Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter back to back when you have a few nights or a weekend free. In some cases one begins exactly where the previous one left off.

The element I love most about Saw is the same that made Get Out such an edge-of-the-seat thriller. While the characters have no idea what's going on, the dramatic happenstance has already occurred in the background or prior to the movie starting. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in Get Out or Adam (Leigh Whannell), Lawrence (Cary Elwes) or the cops in Saw are very much an audience member along with us, unravelling the mystery when the script or director wants us to.

Telling us what we need to know only when it has dramatic impact seems like such a simple device and you probably don't give it a second thought, but it's a very powerful way of making you a participant in the story, making you feel like you're working to figure out what's going on. Most stories are more passive, the characters moving through them experiencing the events as they happen right along with us in chronological order.

But I'm seriously in love with screen stories that subscribe to what's been called the iceberg effect. The timeline/circumstances we see in the story with the characters comprise 10 percent of what's really going on. The 90 percent we don't see is what's gone on prior to that, often ending with the inciting incident that opens the story. In the case of Saw it's two guys waking up chained up in a grimy industrial bathroom. In Get Out it's the first time Chris realises there's something a bit Stepford-like about the hired help at the country estate of his girlfriend's parents.

Here's a couple of other examples. A crop duster menacingly buzzes an advertising man on a highway alongside cornfields. An acrophobic former PI follows the beautiful wife of an old college friend. A wheelchair-bound man spies on his neighbours to pass the time.

In case you hadn't noticed, the one thing all those movies have in common (North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window) is that they're from the master at telling us what we need to know when we needed to know it. It was said Hitchcock didn't really like the act of directing a film because he'd sketched it out in his head so fully beforehand he considered that the true phase of authorship, the actual setting up of cameras and pointing them at actors merely academic Chris Nolan's producer, Emma Thomas, recently said the same thing about Nolan (not that he didn't like the act of filming, just that he knew what he wanted before he started rolling).

But maybe the same sensibility crept into Hitchcock's consciousness in the movies he made. When the story opens in each of the above and many more of his films, the mystery the hero must unfold is already recent history, he's (almost always a male, Hitchcock considered the sexual allure beautiful women exert upon men one of the greatest mysteries of all) just trying to unpack the puzzle pieces to see it before it's too late.

Such storytelling construction became a hallmark of noir cinema as well. In Chinatown, the corruption behind a crooked Los Angeles water supply deal is already in place and in action all around Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), he just has to find it. In De Palma's Body Double, the beautiful girl dancing in the window not far away in the Hollywood Hills, spied upon by Sam (Gregg Henry) isn't who she thinks he is, and the movie deals with him figuring out the twist.

Even in one of the best noir homages, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the profit-driven disassembly of LA's public transportation system is already underway, it's just up to PI Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to delve into it when the proto-typical femme fatale slinks into his office, the studio boss is murdered and the rabbit is framed.

A lot of thrillers describe themselves as being Hitchcockian, and just some of the accepted motifs are the climactic plot twist, the icy cool blonde, an innocent man accused, mistaken identity, tension and suspense, the skillful use of silence and the use of light and shadow to signal character intent. But another hallmark of Hitchcock's that isn't as commented upon is how masterful he was at building a world in which a mystery story happens, the hero only then bumbling onto it and setting about untangling it as the movie opens.

What it all means is that even more than Jake Gittes, Eddie Valiant or LB Jeffries, we're the hero of the tale, the mystery solver, the detective, the wrongfully accused. It gives us an even deeper emotional investment into solving the mystery, clearing our names, saving our life, etc, and it's an unappreciated skill in scriptwriting.

Other examples from more genres than you can shake a stick at are Gone Girl, Flightplan, Side Effects, What Lies Beneath, Crimson Peak, The Vanishing, Disturbia and Alexandra's Project, but there are many more that are worth your time. Including the Saw movies....

On screens recently, I was pleasantly surprised by Netflix's Bright, especially after the critical kicking it received. I caught up with another oldie, Frank Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and it might be the first American mainstream film that thumbed its nose at authority in an era when criticism of church, government and other institutions of power weren't nearly as accepted as they are today.

Finally I saw an alien invasion movie that looks, moves and feels like anything but, the ravishing and melancholy Earthling.

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