My Favourite Genre of Movies (Or not)
Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 11, 2009
I see it clearly now: idea movie schmidea movie. Being John Malkovich is an idea movie exactly as much as The Dark Knight is an action movie. It’s just dressed up as one, and it’s only morons like me who think it actually is. Charlie Kaufman is using this format of comedy/inventiveness to make repeated statements about human nature, building up a fearsome oeuvre. This means that it’s not idea movies that inspire my excitement but something else(the classification, of course, still stands).
This is my original post, from yesterday 11/10/2009 (note especially how I rationalise my classification of Being John Malkovich):
My favourite type of movie is what I call an ‘idea movie’, a type of movie which takes an idea, a vision of an alternate reality, and looks at its consequences. Not science fiction, so much, but a movie that squeezes everything out of the idea, every little consequence, the income tax officer – to refer to an old joke about the squeezing out of the juice of a lemon – to the strongman that is science fiction. The best ones, of course, are the ones that do the looking unflinchingly, while also giving us a credible, if not great, human story. It is, honestly, a minute genre which only includes, as far as I know, the works of Charlie Kaufman and the movie The Man from Earth.
One thing which sets apart real idea movies is the fact that it is the writer rather than the director who is considered the auteur, as it is the writer who has to come up with all the exploration of the idea. The director can, at best, improve upon and emphasise this exploration while working up the human story which can keep you engaged (human stories, though they can be written well, have to be brought to life by the director). Also, they have a form, that of something completely new happening followed by something else at least as new which is simply a – not the – logical consequence of the last thing.
My favourite idea movies are Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, and The Man from Earth, written by Jerome Bixby and directed by Richard Schenkman. The first is, probably, a truly great movie, combining the idea movie part with true comedy and insight into human nature. It is about what happens if a portal was found into John Malkovich’s head and does not explore every offered avenue (luckily for it, not even the why), just the ones offered up naturally by this set of characters – and I also mean the word in its pejorative sense – which is fine considering the sheer number of different avenues that can open up. The truly great thing is that Kaufman doesn’t go into the philosophical aspect of the idea either, just letting the questions and complexities be stated and replied to by “Let’s make this a business.” Okay, this sounds wrong. Just wrong. How can it be great if it dodges answering the truly deep questions? Answer: because it never dodges asking them. Let it be asked, so that the viewer is thinking about it when he goes into the physical consequences (like Malkovich entering the portal, a scene which must necessarily disappoint because you are thinking of the infinite recursion that it isn’t possible to show in any form but which doesn’t as much as it could; it’s nice to see that Kaufman had the courage to at least try rather than simply show him come out and say he’s seen something which no man should or something of the sort).
The other movie is about a leaving college professor who tells his colleagues that he is actually a stone-age man who just happened to not die. The colleagues, of course, are spread out over every discipline so that the questioning that subsequently happens is sufficiently exhaustive. It is rather masterfully directed and – especially – scored, but has a massive problem in that it gives us closure (probably because of the background of the writer for whom this seems to have been the first venture into attempted greatness from fanboy-followed science fiction). It is anyway heavily enjoyable, especially when it descends into out-and-out post-modernism, like when one of the characters asks for closure.
So, why do I enjoy this genre of movies so much? Is it simply due to the fact that I am interested in philosophy and the like? No, some of the most potent philosophy-questioning movies are in no way idea movies (see, for example, this review of the Hindi movie Ardh Satya). No, it is because of their courage – to unflinchingly explore, even at the risk of putting up bullshit –, you might say. But this is neither completely true to me nor at all satisfactory to you, my reader. I, as of now, think that it is because of the thrill of something completely new followed by something else at least as new which is nothing but a logical follow-up of the last thing. However, facts are that I’m probably wrong and will realise only years from now, after I’ve enjoyed many more of these.
Endnote: About the John Malkovich entering his own head scene, Charlie Kaufman was doing it because he had to; he just ignored the iinfinite recursion in favour of what would help him make his statement.